Could an Apprentice System Create More Writers? (And Better Ones?)

Apprenticeship

“Atta boy, Josiah. That’s a lovely little gerund you’ve made there.”

So I was thinking recently (I try to sneak in a think every couple of weeks) about how writers become writers. I’m not talking about the early, formative years, which I suspect are the same for everyone. Avid readers begin to tell their own tales, clumsily at first, then with improved style. Introversion kills any inconvenient social life, allowing the budding author to sit at home on Friday nights and write stories about orcs.

For example, of course.

But I have been thinking about how one goes from “aspiring writer” to “writer.” The path out there is thorny and not clearly marked. Take almost any other occupation, and the trail is clear. Doctor: go to med school. Lawyer: Law school. Hell, if you want to be a circus performer, my alma mater offers classes in that, too. But the only advice anyone gets about how to become a writer is…well, just to write.

And there’s a lot of value in that advice, as the world is overpopulated with people who would like to write someday and underpopulated with actual writers. You must write, get down in that experimental mucky muck of playing with words, and do it a lot.

But let’s face it– if a writer wants guidance, there’s not a lot of structured help out there. Plenty of tips, quips, and advice columns, but no pathway that can be found in other professions.

There’s certainly no lack of educational opportunities. From local creative writing classes at your JCC to Ph.D.’s and M.F.A.’s in Creative Writing, academia offers a plethora of chances to study creative writing with a teacher. (And chances for learning words like “plethora.”) This is the route I took.

But that didn’t make me a writer.

One of the most insightful creative writing teachers I ever had, novelist Jim Fusilli, urged the class to think of Writing as a craft, not as an art. Or rather, art can only be achieved through craft. So learn the craft.

And how are most crafts and trades learned?

With apprenticeships.

And so my idea is this: why not have writers learn as apprentices rather than as students? There are plenty of writer’s organizations and groups out there. Why not set up promising young writers in apprenticeships with experienced veterans? Bricklayers, carpenters, and plumbers do it, why not writers? This way, there would be structured guidance by someone who knows BOTH the craft of telling stories well AND the business end of finding agents, self-pubbing, negotiating contracts, and all that.

Apparently, the UK already does this. Let’s steal…er, get inspired from them!

This apprentice system could be valuable for all types of writing, not just fiction. In fact, it would probably be most useful outside of fiction. There is no clear path to learning technical writing, writing ad copy, or other types of informational and persuasive text creation. Job postings for these professions insist upon 3 or 5 or 150 years of prior experience, and all I can wonder is how one gets in on the ground level. Then I look up how one starts on the ground level,  and all the advice sites say “start small.” Which means nothing.

Right now, there are countless writers without jobs or outlets for their work, and countless employers despairing over the lack of literate workers to create text for them. What’s missing is a reliable, systematic method for creating articulate writers and funneling them into these jobs.  Apprenticeships could produce a steady stream of quality writers for our workforce.

So what do you think?

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Movember!

November is Movember!

I wanted to do something unusual this month. NaNoWriMo was a good choice, but yet again, I’m not at a good place to try it out yet, so…next year, maybe.

I learned about Movember from a coworker. At first, I politely declined. I’m not good at a lot of things, and growing facial hair is one of the things I’m least good at. My five o’clock shadow takes three weeks to come in. When it does, everyone wishes it hadn’t.

But Movember is for a good cause– men’s health awareness. In particular, testicular and prostate cancer. While these two cancers are some of the most easily detected and treated, there is a significant barrier to curing them– men. Guys just don’t want to talk about or deal with…that guy stuff. I remember in high school, all the boys had to watch a video on giving themselves the testicular exam. Almost every guy in the gym squirmed and complained about watching the guy in the video demonstrate the exam. I was moaning right along with them, though I don’t remember if I was more uncomfortable with the video or with having my peers see me NOT be uncomfortable. (“Hey Knight, I bet you like watching that guy squeeze his balls!”)

So my goal (since I’m fundraising the way I did in May for the GWB Challenge) is just to spread some awareness and open some dialogue.

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Not a true “before” picture. More of a “here how this starts out” picture…

How does that work, you ask. Watch this.

You: “God, Adam, that moustache is ugly.”

Me. “You know what’s uglier? Testicular cancer.”

You: “Your beard is so patchy, it looks like a lawn that’s been peed on by every neighborhood dog.”

Me: “Speaking of peeing freely….”

So I know it’s not much, but if I can get even one man over 50 to finally go and get an exam, or convince one guy in his 20’s to get over his high school squeamishness and perform a self-exam, I consider it a win. Now grow that ‘stache!

Update: January 2014: So on November 30, my wife didn’t want to leave me, and I didn’t want to chop my face off, so I decided to keep the ‘stache and goatee. The great thing about facial hair is that even if it’s bad, it does a great job of hiding a decidedly average face. So it stays– until I hate it.

MovemberAfter

I doubt I could start a ZZ Top cover band with this beard, but it’s a start.

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What Does a Craiglist Scammer Have in Common with an Intestinal Parasite?

Give up?

The answer is pretty much everything.

Craigslist is a great idea. It’s like a classifieds section for the Internet, free to use. Great way to help people sell the junk in their homes or buy other people’s junk to put in their own homes. Great way to advertise for jobs or meet people with obscure interests. (The free section is the best. )

I’ve used CL many times, and as a purchaser, I’ve always had positive experiences. I got tickets to a sold-out show that way, free cardboard boxes for moving, and I bought all the parts of my home gym at severely discounted prices.

dog-pooping

Rex suffered from constipation, but now the Craigslist scammers are passing easily.

As a seller, though, it’s a sketchy world. This is thanks to the rectal worms of e-commerce, also known as scammers.

Scammers reply to sellers, offering to buy whatever is being sold. But under a variety of guises, it’s really just an attempt to sucker you into sending them money. They hook you in through a series of correspondences that make you trust them.

Thankfully, I’ve never forked any money over to them, though I have been lured along fairly far into the process. The first time I was trying to sell our sofa. The buyer explained that she was out of the country but was going to send her brother to pick it up. I said that was fine, I could understand. Then she said she would pay via PayPal. I said that was fine, because, you know, PayPal is safe and secure. Then she explained that she was going to send me a large amount of money (far more than the asking price of the couch) to cover the transportation and accomodations for her brother and that I was to send her the balance.

At that point I was a little suspicious. So I looked up common Craigslist scams. The three telltale signs of a scam:

1) Buyer is out of the country or won’t meet face to face.

2) Buyer won’t pay cash.

3) Buyer wants YOU to send money.

This last one is a giveaway. Under no business circumstances does it make sense for the seller to pay the buyer. So I cut off communications with the scammer.

Saying Craiglist is the source of the scamming problem is like saying playgrounds are the source of the pedophile problem.

Well, recently I’ve been looking for a little extra work to feed the endless pit that is my baby. Tutoring, editing, etc. I posted my services on CL and actually got three legitimate gigs as an editor (YAY!). I also had a reply from a woman working for the U.N. and wants her son tutored to keep him busy. I said sure. She asked for my rates. I told her. She said she wanted her son to have two hours of tutoring twice a week for a month. Hot damn! That would be a pretty sweet pile of cash for just a one-month committment.

Then she explained that she would send a large amount of money with the babysitter to cover her son’s accomodations, etc. I was to send her the balance via cashier’s check.

Shit.

Part of what I feel is embarrassment that I went along with it that long before realizing what was happening. Sure, I didn’t lose any money, but that exchange did take a lot of my time and emotional investment. I thought I was savvy to scammers after the sofa ordeal, but I guess not.

The scammers are everywhere. This blogger is pretty thorough in documenting that.

What to do if you think you’ve been CL-scammed.

But mostly what I feel is anger. Who the hell are these people? I work so hard each week, teaching students, grading papers, writing lesson plans, then writing and revising my own work, on top of spending family time as a husband and dad. I imagine these scammers are cheezy puff- eating, greasy- haired, whiny- voiced, mommy’s basement- dwelling losers who figure they can have a go at swiping the money of suckers. I know that’s probably not the truth. The truth is probably a lot more interesting than the stereotype. But seriously, how low do you have to be to do that?

And you know? If they reply to five hundred postings and only one sucker falls for it, they still made a good day’s money. I don’t even care about people who get paid a lot of money for easy jobs. These scammers are vermin.

To be clear: Craiglist is not the problem. I like CL and I think it’s a brilliant concept and a very well run site, especially for free. The problem is the losers who take advantage of people there. Saying Craiglist is the source of the scamming problem is like saying playgrounds are the source of the pedophile problem.

roundandtapes

Craigslist scammers should be in this photo, too, but they’re too yucky.

So I wish I could throw up my hands and say “I’m done with Craigslist” But with my writing career in its infant stage, I can’t be too choosy right now. I don’t yet have a website or network or big reputation to pull in clients. CL is like a barely-regulated bazaar where vendors are always shouting and jostling elbows and checking to see if their pockets have been picked. Scumbags– they’re the hidden cost for free services.

So, blog world- any experiences with scammers you feel like sharing?

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #5: Shut Doors and Someday

Friends of Writing #5: Shut Doors

A shut door might be a writer’s best friend. The gerbils aren’t just in our head. They are outside, too trying to get in the office or calling us out to wander the house in search of rooms to clean and coffee to make.

These doors can be literal or figurative. My office has no door. It’s at an intersection of rooms with a cozy corner. I’m in that corner now, writing. When I go back to write, I announce to my wife, “I’m going to write,” and that signals the figurative door being closed– don’t interrupt me unless the house is on fire, the baby is choking, or the baby is on fire.

When I write during my commute, I have even less privacy. The door is something in my mind. I don’t stare out the window (it’s usually before dawn anyway). I don’t people-watch (and public transit is THE place to people-watch). I focus 95% on writing and 5% on not missing my stop. That hour is my writing time.

Why do shut doors matter? For the mind’s eye to open to imagination, all that outside stuff needs to stay at bay. The world will not stop for you to write. One must carve out creative space, both in the home and in the mind.

Enemy of Writing #5: Someday

Let’s make a painful, ugly, and necessary assumption about life:

You will never have more free time than you do now. Things only get busier from here on out.

When I was in college, I told myself I’d have more time to write when I didn’t have to contend with classes. Then in grad school, doubly so. When I landed my teaching position, I felt like all my time to write was gone. Then I bought a house, and even more free time was gone. And now I have a baby who steals everything. I should know better by now. Until I’m looking at retirement, my future will be more, not less, busy. It is up to me to make that time exist—during weekends, on trains, early in the morning, Summers, or whenever I can steal a few moments.

“The road to hell is paved with works in progress.” –Philip Roth

Similarly, holding back from writing the great book you’ve always wanted to write is a bad idea. Granted, I haven’t even written one published book, great or otherwise, so maybe it’s presumptuous of me to advise anyone to reach for the stars. But if you want to “be on the map,” don’t start with a lukewarm effort that you don’t feel is the best thing you could do. Write each book as if your entire legacy will depend up its quality and reputation. Then, after it is released, write another one that’s even better.

There are many other friends and enemies of writing. In your comments, feel free to offer up some other suggestions. What should writers embrace and reject to be the best artists they can be?

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F.E.W. (The Friends and Enemies of Writing) #4:

Friend of Writing #4: Stillness

Right now there are gerbils running inside of your head. Don’t freak out because they’re in mine, too. These gerbils run messages for us, which is cool. Most of these messages are a waste of time, which is not. And we have become slaves to the brain-gerbils, which is death to productivity.

For instance, right now a gerbil is running a message to me, informing me of how urgent it is to check my WordPress stats and see if my last post viewership has reached the double digits. I already obeyed the last gerbil, who told me I’d be a more effective writer if I got up and made myself a ninth cup of coffee. Before that was the “look out the window again and scan for the neighborhood stray cat and her kitten” gerbil. He visits a lot.

Gerbils

Come on dudes. Let’s f*** some s*** up!

With all this scurrying, it’s hard to concentrate. You may want to KILL ALL THE GERBILS! Except you can’t do that, because these gerbils are Hydra Gerbils, and if you take one out, two or three more take its place. You cannot exterminate the gerbils.

You can, however, quiet them. I use meditation.

Meditation is simple. Not easy, but simple. Sit for five, ten, twenty minutes before you begin to write. Breathe. Focus all your attention on breathe in, breathe out. When your mind wanders, simply redirect it to the breath.

What does this do? It stills the mind. The gerbils get bored, take a nap. And then your brain is clear and ready to produce quality thoughts.

Meditation isn’t weird or mystical. It hasn’t carried me to some astral plane, at least not yet. But it brings clarity and focus, which are critical.

Enemy of Writing #4: WiFi

Shutting out distraction might be the great challenge for creative people in the modern day. So much technology and information is available today. It’s unprecedented. But that ease of access can be just as much a threat as an asset. There are so many things blinking and squeaking at us for attention, keeping one-pointed, dedicated focus on something is a lot harder than it was two hundred years ago. Tolstoy didn’t have to contend with Facebook or Twitter pulling at his attention. Today, we must make the choice to turn away.

I was going to make this Enemy be T.V. The “electronic teat” can take away valuable writing time and fill the mind with junk-food writing. But plenty of writers have piled on the “kill T.V.” message before. For decades. So I won’t bother.

Abbey TV

Writer and Naturalist Edward Abbey was no fan of T.V.

Plus, I don’t think T.V. is as bad as everyone makes it out. In many ways, we’re in a creative peak of T.V. writing, with the number of high-quality shows greater than ever.

But anyway, WiFi. It’s like we leave the house, and are instantly dehydrated, in constant search for the next artesian spring. Must…get…bars… And once you do, you gaze into your phone, awash in a sea of electronica.

I suffer terribly from this. It’s soooo tempting, soooo easy, to re-check email, WordPress, Facebook, Yahoo, anything online. It seems harmless. It’s easy to justify. But if you allow those gerbils to take control, you’ll never have control of your own mind.

The Internet is a tremendous tool for writers. But when it’s not being used for active research, it’s a terrible distraction. There are all sorts of tricks—cut you network connection as soon as you sign on, stick to pen and paper, write in the forest where there is no WiFi… But I came up with an easier solution. I keep a notepad or piece of scrap paper by my desk as I write. Every time I get the “itch” to look something up online, I write it on the pad:

“Facebook.”

“Fantasy team.”

“Interesting War of 1812 lit.”

“Facebook.”

I’ve trained myself so that in place of actually visiting the site, I make a note to visit it later. I promise myself that on my lunch break, I’ll look all that stuff up. It will still be there. Of course, by that time, most of those curiosities are stale, and I don’t even bother, but I was able to keep hold of my focus during that time. Try it.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #3: Bed and Breakfasts and Phones

Are you a writer trying to improve your writing practices? Want to produce more writing and fewer excuses? Here is the third in a series of five posts about choosing the right Friends and ditching the Enemies.

Friend of Writing #3: Bed and Breakfasts

If you were going to travel to a new place, you would probably sleep in a hotel (or a bus station, depending on your writing career). Hotels are nice because they’re all the same. Every check-in, every bed, every pool, every smell, every continental breakfast. The sameness of hotels makes them feel safe and predictable.

And boring! Kristin and I always seek out bed and breakfasts. We like the variety and unpredictability. There are opulent ones and simple ones. There are city ones (our first B&B was in Boston) and rural ones. There are lavish rooms and cramped ones. I can’t remember most of the hotels I’ve stayed in, but I remember each B&B.

And the people. Owners love to talk about their house, and always have new people in and out, sharing stories. Writers should gobble that up. I’ve met some characters over breakfast. In Boston, we met a young Irish couple, recently pregnant, who wanted to finally visit the U.S. before the baby. In upstate New York we met an uptight couple, but when I learned the old gentleman was an English professor, we both opened up. I can’t remember anyone interesting I’ve met at a hotel.

Hostels follow the same rule. When we traveled in Europe in 2011, we avoided hotels (mainly for cost reasons) and stayed in youth hostels. Sure, at 28 we were older than most of the other guests. But we met some incredible people and made some of our best memories with them. We’re still in touch today with a few.

Damn it, if he's Tweeting about this sweet B&B during our honeymoon, I'll chop him to pieces in the bathtub. Good thing Stephen King is staying here, too...

Damn it, if he’s Tweeting about this sweet B&B during our honeymoon, I’ll chop him to pieces in the bathtub. Good thing Stephen King is staying here, too…

Really, “Bed and Breakfast” is synecdoche for “rich experiences.” Read books. Take the bus. Go talk to the weird guy standing alone in the corner (but keep the pepper spray handy). Look for the things that everyone else is doing, and avoid them. It’s the life experience version of avoiding clichés.

Enemy of Writing #3: Phones

Oh, Alex G. Bell. If you could only see what your telephones can do now. Now, nearly every person has in their pocket a device that is a library, video database, camera, phonograph, arcade, and notepad all in one. Calling other people is an afterthought at this point. Cool, huh?

But if you want to be a productive writer, you need to cultivate the skill of shutting out distraction. Phones prop the door open and invite distractions in for a house party. It’s hard to be creative when the little phone is keeping your mind distracted from deep concentration. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote a lengthy but enlightening piece about this.

What’s the solution? Change your routine. Start little. If you check your phone as soon as you wake up, wait until after breakfast. You may survive.

Louis C.K., comic and philosopher, says deep shit about why cell phones make us not be people any more.

Keep the phone off when you write. If you need it in case of an emergency, fine, leave it on, but put it in another room.

Don’t be afraid to let it roll over to voicemail. That’s why you have that feature, anyway.

Or turn your enemy into your friend. Get the Kindle app and always have an e-book. As I mentioned in my first post, try to squeeze reading into every wasted moment, if you can. This way, when you have your phone on you at all times, you also have a book on you at all times.

The point is to make the phones just a little less convenient. You’ll find the craving for constant updating will soon disappear.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #2: Family and Cleaning

Writers aren’t alone. They have a lot of Friends (many of them not people). They also have to contend with a number of Enemies (some of them people).

In my last post, I talked about one Friend of Writing, Reading. I also discussed one Enemy, and that is Waiting.

Today, we look at two more.

Friend of Writing #2: Family

My family takes more time and energy from my writing than anything else, save school. My wife loves hosting people at our house and going on trips. My son is on an unending cycle of change-feed-spitup-play-sleep. My neurotic dog and my cat have their demands. My parents and in-laws live all over the mid-Atlantic. So how is family a writer’s friend?

Most writers face insecurity. For some, it’s crippling. For others, it’s nagging. But going at this alone, with no support, is lonely. It’s great to have family cheering and anticipating your work. Kristin is super– she respects my writing time and urges me to work beyond my comfort zone. My parents and in-laws eagerly await news of a new publication. And my son, at fivemonths old, is a great motivation. I want him to grow up seeing his dad work hard, pursuing his Calling.

Stick family

Woah! Someone needs a hobby. Writing, perhaps?

I was going to amend this to “Supportive Family.” Many writers have families that doubt, scorn, and mock them for writing. I’ve been blessed that no one has told me to “get a real job” or “give up the ghost.” Many writers are not so lucky.

That being said, you can’t change your family. You can, however, change how you respond to them. For every writer who has been discouraged into silence by a tough family, there’s another writer who uses that negativity to fuel productivity. Prove naysayers wrong. Adversity is an ally.

A lot of fellow writer/bloggers discuss the balance of family and writing a lot. I’ve seen Chuck Wendig do it. Shane Halbach writes about his family all the time, with great affection and honesty.  Catherine Green, too. I think there’s an archetypal (or stereotypical) image of the writer as Loner Hermit, shut off from Real Life and Domestic Matters. That ain’t real life, though.

Enemy of Writing #2: Cleaning

I wouldn’t describe myself as a neat freak, but I like a tidy house. Though I can live with some mess, my mind is calmer in a clean area.

But my God, whenever I sit down to write, suddenly the plate and coffee cup on the counter MUST BE WASHED, ASAP! I scoop cat litter once a day, but when I write, it demands instant attention. Every housework task, no matter how trivial, looks critical when I sit to write.

I have no idea why this is. Maybe it’s a desire to keep my environment tidy and calm. Maybe it’s some whining guilt about writing instead of doing something “useful.” But I feel it pulling at me, even now as I write this post.

A couple of years ago, Jill Barville wrote a terrific post about the daily life of a non-housecleaning writer.

There will always, always, always be housework to do. Between pets and baby, I can sweep the house from front to back, and when I’m done, the front is dusty again. Even a five-minute “tidy up” will break focus, shatter that creative state that writing requires, and pull the buttocks away from the writing chair.

What’s the solution?

cleaning

What a coincidence! Those are my cabinet-scrubbing shorts, too!

Prioritize. During writing time, writing comes first, always. Ask yourself if in an hour, you’d be prouder of a finished page or a clean load of underwear. If you answer the underwear, you’re not a writer.

Caught in a dry spell? Thinking the cure to writer’s block is Murphy’s Oil Soap? Forget it. Just write more.

Still itching to dust the bookshelves? Hire a cleaning service then. Will it cost you something? Yeah, sure. But not writing is costlier. Value your time. An hour writing is worth a lot more than an hour folding socks.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing). #1: Reading and Waiting

Sorry for the delay between posts. I’m involved in a big new writing project, which took a lot of my attention in August. And the new school year is beginning, which takes everything else I have left. Suddenly, the expansive summer hours of creative thought are gobbled up by teenagers and lesson planning, forcing me to scramble for every writing moment I can get. And this led me to think about life habits– the ones that help or hurt writing.

So for my next five blog posts, I’ll be discussing the F.E.W. That is, the Friends and Enemies of Writing. Each post will look at one of each.

Friend #1: Reading

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Comes in many flavors: Hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

Duh. Reading is tops on each “Every Writer Should…” list. So I won’t belabor the critical importance of reading, and reading a lot.

So, read. Okay. But read what? Should a writer read extensively within his/her genre, or read a wide breadth of texts? The answer is yes. A writer needs to know the depth of his/her genre, and all the work that has been done before and is being done now. But a writer also needs to explore beyond the comfort zone. Way beyond it. And not just in terms of genre, but in terms of quality, format (traditionally and self-published), and in terms of the author’s gender, race, age, and epoch.

No time for reading? If reading isn’t your primary recreation (surpassing T.V., exercise, Web surfing, napping, cooking, playing music, anything), then you might be in the wrong field. Have other interests, sure. I do. But reading is the Primary Fun.

Enemy #1: Waiting

If you have a life that permits you numerous free hours to write and read at leisure, good for you. If you’re constantly busy and bemoaning the lack of time to read and write, read on.

Stephen King says in On Writing “I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” I read on the train, in the grocery store, or while washing dishes (thanks Audible!). I typically spend an hour at the dentist, 45 minutes of which are spent in a book.

Shit. I left “Gravity’s Rainbow” at home. Guess it’s National Enquirer today.

When I tell people I commute an hour-plus each way, each day, the response is often pity. “That’s terrible,” they say. “Wouldn’t you rather drive?”

I would not. See, there’s nothing to do during a commute. It becomes my built-in reading/writing time, a guaranteed two hours of productivity per day. And since I don’t have endless idle hours, but a strict, limited work time, I work hard and strategically during the ride. Rather than being a burden, the commute has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

commuters

If these jokers are playing Angry Birds instead of reading on a Kindle app, I’m gonna go all sorts of book-ninja crazy on them.

A Cool Idea in London, Four Years Ago

So how can you beat that enemy, Waiting? Fill the tedious moments of the day with writing and reading. Ask yourself always: Could I be reading or writing while I do this?

If the answer is yes, get to it.

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Beyond The Giver: A Four- Book Review

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, did a lot of great stuff with our class. He made everything creative. We had to research endangered animals and lay out plans for a zoo exhibit for them. We wrote short stories based on Chris van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. For math, we had to create word problems, and I made a running series about a farmer named Bob Joe Billy Bob who was constantly calculating the square footage of his eggplant patch.

He also read us Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This novel introduced me to dystopian fiction, and to the concept of subversion. Imaginatively and emotionally, it gripped me. Lowry is already one of America’s most revered writers of young adult fiction (her World War II-era novel Number the Stars also won the Newberry), and deservedly so. Her writing hits that rare mark: aimed at young teens, but equally engaging for adults to read. Since I remember the book so fondly, and since I spend 10 or 12 months per year teaching teens, and because I have to teach the book next school year, I reread it this summer.

[Here’s Lois Lowry talking about The Giver.]

A young man named Jonas lives in The Community, where there is no color, no sensation, no inequality, no death. Children are assigned families at birth, maximum two per family. Sexual feeling is suppressed with a pill. When they turn twelve, they undergo The Ceremony of Twelve, marking passage into adulthood. They are assigned jobs based upon their skills and personalities. If a spouse is selected for them, they wed. When citizens grow too old, they are Released. There is no notion of life outside The Community.

books_giver[1]

Dystopias make Santa Claus sad

But when Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, a position that has been held by the same man for decades. Through his interactions with his mentor, he discovers color, feeling, and love, but also pain, suffering, and death. The novel encourages hope in a bleak, bleak world. What I didn’t know after reading The Giver was that it was only the first in a series of four books! (I didn’t know because the second book, Gathering Blue, came out in 2000, by which time I was in 11th grade).  Gathering Blue doesn’t take place in The Community, and Jonas is nowhere to be seen. Kira is an orphan with a crippled leg. She is to be killed, but she convinces the elders of her village to let her prove her worth. They give her the task of mending the robes for the singer of the Ruin Song, the village’s most sacred rite. In this task, she makes several friends and allies, including Thomas, a carver, Jo, the future singer, and Matt, a thief and scavenger. Matt really is the most memorable character in the book, outshining the strong-silent-type Kira.

[A The Giver film? Dude, this is good news!]

Pick flowers, not your nose

While the story is not as immediately grabbing as The Giver, in some ways it is a richer and more vibrant tale. The book has a flavor of Ursula K. LeGuin. The connection with The Giver is thematic. In both books, the questions about our how our livelihoods, our desires, our character, and our society all clash and connect.

In the next book, Messenger, Jonas’ and Kira’s worlds unite.

 Messenger follows Matt as a young teen (now Matty). His life in the Village had been idyllic, now that he’s straightened up and abandoned his grubby, thieving ways. But things in The Village ain’t so great any more. Refugees are bringing poverty and discontent and irritating technology with them. So what does the Village vote to do? Close the borders! Matty takes it upon himself to spread word about the closing and to find Kira to return with him (spoiler alert: she isn’t killed at the end of Gathering Blue). He ends up learning a lot about himself in the process.

Remember AOL Instant Messenger? Does anyone even HAVE a Buddy List anymore?

My reaction to Messenger was mixed. A bit of ax-grinding got in the way of a good story. For example, the Village has been introduced to Gaming Machines, a fancy new tech that is takes up everyone’s time and creativity. Lowry seems to be taking out some frustration (however well deserved) Playstation and XBox. And the scorn for isolationism (again, however well deserved) rings too obviously as a comment on American politics. I found these thematic intrusions a little irritating. And yet, in some ways Messenger is a more finely crafted and poignant novel than the first two. The connections between Jonas’s Community and Kira’s Village are also made clearer.

The fourth novel, Son, is the longest at almost 400 pages. But it has a lot to tie up. Without spoiling too much, the events of The Giver are told through the eyes of Claire, a Birthmother. It’s a fairly lightweight career: make three babies, then retire (essentially), but it isn’t held in much respect, either. When Claire gives birth, she is vaguely informed that something went wrong, she would bear no more children, and she was being reassigned. As per Community rules, she isn’t allowed to see her Product, but through a little snooping and some coincidence, she finds her son. This is the first half of the novel. When he is taken from The Community, however, she embarks on a voyage to recover him.

Fortunate or otherwise

I always held The Giver in extremely high regard, but Son tops it. Jonas is special, a Chosen One archetype. But Claire is average, maybe below average. Life in The Giver is bleak but the story content doesn’t get really grim until the end. In Son, Lowry tackles prickly topics early on. In the first two chapters, a teenage girl is forcibly impregnated by artificial insemination, and then her child is taken from her. Tough stuff. Son expands on the creative world of The Giver, too. The plot of The Giver is actually pretty static, but Son has an active plot with a determined protagonist. And perhaps what makes Son most gripping is the conflict. The conflict of The Giver is intellectual, the desire to bring sensation and memory to the community. The conflict of Son is visceral, though: a young mother is on a quest to recover her child. Perhaps my status as a “new dad” makes this element more poignant for me. But having finished Son, I now feel like Lowry’s cycle introduced me to a world, expanded it, complicated it, then brought it back together with ten times the force. So if you enjoyed The Giver, (and I’ve never met someone who read it that hasn’t), then I highly encourage you to seek out the other novels.

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Are You Not Entertained?

Okay, this isn’t a post about fantasy or myth. It’s about society, and it’s a rant. Except it’s not a rant. Because this will be a rant about not ranting.

Last week I accidentally watched Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” It was on after watching some Star Trek: TNG and I was busy doing some drywall work in my living room…who cares. Anyway, I’ve never seen Ramsay’s show, and only knew it by reputation. In the show, Ramsay visits struggling restaurants and finds ways to improve their service, ambience, and cuisine. This particular restaurant was an Indian place in New York that was inefficiently run, had a dwindling customer base, and served uninspired food. When Ramsay addresses these issues, he screams at and berates the owners, managers, chefs, cooks, servers, and busboys.

I understand this is just part of Ramsay’s schtick. I realize how many viewers he’d lose if he gave advice as gentle suggestion rather than with hammer blows. But I see his “schtick” as part of the cultural phenomenon of the screaming critic, who takes it upon him/herself to verbally devastate a target. This is what we call entertainment.

Here’s Ramsay, shredding a victim:

Here is Simon Cowell, who made the “mean critic” thing so popular in American Idol:

Here’s a piece about “The Weakest Link” and the appeal of Anne Robinson, the “Queen of Mean.”

“Reality” shows, audition shows, and game shows like these are more than harmless entertainment. They set an example for everyday viewers of what “criticism” means. They imply that the only way to get an idea across is through using language and volume to utterly dominate the person you are ostensibly trying to help. That’s what bothered me about “Kitchen Nightmares.” These restauranteurs were simply hoping to revive an ailing business. (And yes, I’m sure they knew what they were getting into when they signed on to be a part of Ramsay’s show. They also knew they would get publicity from the show. That doesn’t invalidate my point).

There were some issues– health code violations, subpar food, etc– that were urgent. In those cases, yes, sometimes people need to be aggressively confronted. Get in the cook’s face about using rotting tomatoes. But when Ramsay screams in the face of the cook that his salmon was worthless and wretched and little more than garbage, it reinforces the idea that “criticism” must be ruthless and loud.

I’ve always struggled with niceness. It’s my go-to personality trait, I think. There have been a number of times in my life when I could have–should have– gotten in someone’s face, yelled, or even thrown something to make a point. Being nice about everything is a flaw. But if words will be used to injure, let them be used in moments of crisis. Scream at the careless child who is about to ride his bike into traffic, but not at the careless child who left his bike on the driveway.

All of these personalities are demonstrating irresponsible use of knowledge, authority, and power. In the case of “Kitchen Nightmares,” Ramsay is the Knower, the Expert. The restauranteur is the Seeker of Knowledge, the Student. Rather than use his wisdom to guide the fledgling businessman to success, he uses it as a weapon to reinforce his position as the Authority and Expert. I understand that different teachers have different methods. There is a mythic archetype of the wise old teacher who shows no kindness to students but leads them to greater knowledge through harsh training. The teaching is compassionate, though the methods are stern. Ramsay and Co. are not those mythic figures, however. They are shadow figures of the sage, ego-driven authoritarians who use their greater knowledge to shame the student. And with the format of such T.V. programming, the “teacher” is the hero of the story. Viewers watch week after week not to see the growth and learning of a struggling businessman/woman, but to see how viciously their hero will smack down the fools who dared to think they knew how to run a restaurant.

Well. I guess this turned into a myth post anyway. Then again, in the end, isn’t everything about myth?

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Adam Knight

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