Fiction As Art?

For about four years I have been hard at work on a novel, a project that has consumed my thought process for much longer than that. I have attended workshops about fiction writing and taken classes to learn the process of writing, an art form I believe encompasses all other art forms. That is why this morning as I was reading my November/December issue of Poets and Writers magazine, I was disturbed to read an article about the future of books entitled “The Medium Is The Message.” In this article Carrie Neill writes about the changing publishing landscape and interviews Debra Di Blasi about what her press, Jaded Ibis, is doing to publish worthy writers. I think her innovative approach of publishing experimental books, from books meant for reading as an app on an iPad is really cool and interesting, and I love that she is trying to expand the number of writers who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to be published in a traditional way. But her view of where our culture is headed is disturbing for me as a writer and as an English teacher and lover of the “traditional” written word and all things literary.

Debra Di Blasi sees our “culture moving away from words.” Wait a minute. Moving away from words? Yes, that is what she said. She further elaborates, “There will still be people who read, but I’m not sure that literary fiction—fiction that is art, that is not just craft, not just entertainment—will survive, once the gaming-based novels get better and better.” What she is talking about are books, novels specifically, that are written to imitate video games in their “form, content, or interactive properties.” I don’t know about you, but that depresses me, probably because I am of the generation who doesn’t play video games and because the books I read are literary, fiction that I see as art. I suppose I am something of a Luddite, as opposed to change in the literary world as Ned Ludd’s followers were to change in the weaving industry in the early 1800’s. That certainly was not the image I had of myself, but perhaps it fits.

Although I realize the market for books is changing and has changed over the years, especially with the advent of tablets and e-readers, I still want to publish my book as a traditionally published book in paper format, preferably in a lovely well-designed hardcover, but at least in trade paperback. Am I realistic in that desire? Only time will tell, I suppose. Friends and people I meet who talk about publishing have told me I should forget trying to publish with a major publishing house and self-publish. They say at least that will get my book out to the public, but that process doesn’t appeal to me. After all, my story is a historical one, and the irony of only having it only available on an e-reader or online as a print-on-demand title is not lost on me. Perhaps the number of presses who will be willing to print books for those of us who want that experience will grow.

The press, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, is one such place. They offer e-books to grow their number of readers, but they also publish hand-made books for those old-fashioned souls who value the tactile reading experience of fine paper sifted through the fingers and cloth covers to be admired as they tuck themselves beneath a throw blanket in an easy chair. Perhaps if I were in the publishing business rather than writing a novel, I would understand the need to figure out where the market is going and where to put my money, but any time I see an art form threatened, which is what I think technology is doing in some respects to books, I hope someone with more business sense than I have will figure out a way to save that art form. Perhaps I just don’t understand all that technology is capable of doing. I hear about the next big think in literature being novels written on Twitter or delivered with audio and visuals to enhance the reading experience. That sounds really cool in one respect but worries me when it comes to young readers.

For years I have heard students complain about not liking to read, and for years I have tried to coax, cajole, and sometimes, yes, even force them to give reading a try. I worry that young people are losing the ability to use their imaginations in a way that brings words to life on the page. After all, that is what I love about reading and is why I seldom like to see the movie of a book I have read. The characters rarely resemble the characters I have envisioned in my head. The setting is not nearly as idyllic, and the action is not nearly as heroic. Does that make me a romantic? I’m sure it does. My father called me a romantic for years, but I see the value of having the ability to visualize a world where life is just as real as the one I inhabit. It helps me to understand my own world a bit better.  Isn’t that one of the reasons we read literature, to learn to empathize with others in predicaments we too might one day face?

Perhaps I’m overreacting to the article by Carrie Neill, “The Medium is the Message.” I can certainly see the merits of books on a computer, the excitement of hearing and seeing an author read the story rather than stumbling over the words myself, but I’m afraid something will be lost in the translation. And that something, I’m afraid, will be the personal experience of reading and creating the fictional world we imagine in our minds, translating the words into images and sounds and feelings. How we interact with art—whether it is a painting, a piece of music, a performance of a play, or the words of a great author on the page—is a personal experience, one that no two people share. Will that interaction with words on the page remain singular—meaning extraordinary, unique, and exceptional but also personal—in the world of technology? I certainly hope it will. I hope always to be able to pick up a book and read fiction to enter the world of my imagination where the world I create comes from the words the writer intended as art.

Mid-life Bucket List

This morning I was reading a wonderful blog called Press Pause written by my old friend and first college roommate Deana Graham. Here’s the link: As I was reading her post about possibilities—sorry, Deana, I am one of those former English teachers—I realized that Bruce and I are reaching the age of possibilities again. For many years now our lives have moved to the rhythms of children growing up and learning to be independent and all the responsibilities that entails, but soon the only ties we will have to this house, this community, this state will be ones we choose and that only involve the two of us. It is almost like being newly married again. We can go anywhere and do anything we want on our own schedule. If we wanted to drive cross-country or fly to Tanzania we could.

I’ve been contemplating this change in our lifestyle for some time. Luckily for us parents children usually don’t grow up and leave the nest all at once, and since both our sons are grown—in college and soon to be in the Navy—our house seems really big. We built it to have room for relatives to visit and for grandchildren if that blessing is one God grants us, but we also realize we can be grandparents anywhere. Perhaps what I’m feeling is the restlessness of aging.

My mother-in-law has been traveling a lot lately and seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself, but in her I sense anxiousness, a need to see and do all she wants to do before she can’t anymore. She is now seventy eight years young, thirty years further along than I am, but I still feel the same need to move, to do, to see. Maybe it’s because Bruce and I never settled anywhere until we moved here. Before this we lived the gypsy lifestyle being in the military demands, moving every three years or so. PCS orders the military calls them, permanent change of station. About four years after we came to Wisconsin, we were sitting in our old living room, both of us restless until the realization dawned on us: it had been four years since we had moved. That explained our longing for new places and experiences, the variety that, for us, is the spice of life.

Bruce left the military for a variety of reasons, one of which was living in a place where our children could grow up in the same school in a small town near at least one of our families. We have satisfied that requirement. Perhaps it is completing the mission, perhaps it’s dealing with being unemployed, perhaps it is mid-life crisis, but whatever the reason, we are both chafing at something—fiscal austerity, not having a vacation in nearly five years, unemployment or employment that makes us miserable. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a change in our lives and in our attitudes.

One of the things we are doing as a couple this weekend is making a bucket list for our lives together so we can prioritize our vacations and leisure time. I just read The Next Thing on My List by Jill Smolinski with my book club. We have yet to discuss the book—that happens this Thursday—but reading that book inspired me to make a bucket list of my own to make sure I step up in my own life to create my own destiny rather than waiting for life to happen to me. I think the book also inspired a bit of restlessness in me. Even though the main character is completing another person’s list, she ends up stepping out of her comfort zone and truly living. I like that idea. When I created my own list, I surprised myself with some of my items, which prompted me to talk to Bruce about compiling his own list. I’m hoping we have some of the same items, but I think our lists will diverge. Creating a list together will be fun, but it will also challenge us to see each other’s priorities from a loving perspective. I think it will be fun to see the possibilities we have to share in our future.

I used to think of growing older as limiting. When I was young, I believed most older people were not adventurous. I didn’t see the weight of responsibility they carried. I didn’t understand priorities of family and putting someone else’s needs and welfare above my own. I think few children and young adults do, but now I realize I’ve underestimated what the second act of adulthood can entail, the possibilities of love rediscovered, of travel, of learning new cultures, new places, and experiencing new things. I’m looking forward to finding out what the second half of my life holds in store for me. Thank you, Deana, for reminding me of the “gifts of possibilities.” I too have wondered about the many possibilities I’ve passed by or have failed to notice. From now on I plan to keep my eyes wide open and my bag packed for adventure to enjoy what life throws my way. Here’s my bucket list. I would love to hear what’s on yours!

Bucket List 2012:

  1. Become a successful published novelist
  2. Write a family cookbook with pictures for Erik and Travis
  3. Hike the Appalachian Trail
  4. Vacation in Tahiti and Hawaii
  5. Learn French again
  6. Travel to France: Paris, Provence, and the Dordogne
  7. Go back to London and travel around the British Isles
  8. Drive the great roads of America: Route 66, Blue Ridge Pkwy, PCH, Lincoln Hwy, Yellowstone Trail, Bankhead Hwy, Hwy 41
  9. Vacation in California’s wine country
  10. Take drawing and painting lessons
  11. Learn photography
  12. Learn to cook macarons, croissants, and other French pastries
  13. Move back to the South (at least half the year)
  14. Get to a weight I’m comfortable with.
  15. Visit the country’s national parks and stay in the great lodges.
  16. Learn to knit and knit myself a sweater I’ll actually wear.  :}

I know my list might change, especially when Bruce and I compile our individual lists, but I think I have a lot to look forward to.

The Bravest Girl in the World

For a number of years in this country a debate about education has raged and still rages. The government periodically steps in to change the way teachers teach or change the standards students must meet or invent new tests to measure student learning. But it seems that nothing changes for long. People pass the buck about who is responsible for the perceived problems our country faces in education.

Some people blame teachers for not being good enough at what they do. Teachers blame parents for raising kids who lack respect for authority and disrupt classes so that others can’t learn. Some people blame the government for putting too much responsibility on the teachers to raise children in schools, feeding them, counseling them, and at times, clothing them because the students’ own parents are too irresponsible or impoverished to raise their own sons and daughters. They have ceded that responsibility to the schools and to government.

All of these arguments have validity, for no one entity is to blame for the education problems we have in 2012. Perhaps as a country we have lost sight of what is important. Perhaps parents, teachers, and students focus on the process of education rather than the goal of education: learning. I don’t profess to have an answer to what is wrong with the schools in America, but I do know if students were interested in learning, in stoking their own curiosity to understand their world, which is inherent in all people, we wouldn’t have many education problems in the United States.

In some countries students want to go to school but can’t. Either they don’t have the money (because it costs money to go to school), or they aren’t allowed to go because they are female or not of the right social class or some other reason. Many of America’s young people don’t realize how lucky they are to go to school. Perhaps if they understood this, they would embrace this privilege and work hard in school to get a good education. Some students truly want to learn and find a way to attend school no matter if their lives are threatened or they are targeted by those in control of the countries they live in. Some speak out against others who try to keep them from getting an education. Does that sort of thing happen today? Perhaps not in America, but it happened to a young girl last week in Pakistan.

According to, Malala Yousufzai, a fourteen year old Pakistani girl was targeted by the Taliban and shot when she was on a bus waiting to go home from school. Why was she a target? Because she dared to defy the Taliban, because she dared to go to school, and because she dared to write about what life was like for a girl in Pakistan who lived under the Taliban’s control. She used her voice, her writing, to spread the word across the world that girls should be allowed to go to school and learn. The Taliban calls what she says an “obscenity.” They were determined to keep her and other girls from attending school and learning. They have vowed to kill her if she survives this attack. As I write this, she is hospitalized . She was shot twice, once in the neck and once in the head. It’s a miracle she was not killed, but she has a long fight to regain her health.

Malala used her voice, the only weapon she had, the only weapon many of us have, to fight against oppression. We must remember this lesson she is teaching us. We must be brave like her to fight against anyone who might try to limit us or keep us in our places or limit our voices and, therefore, our influence. To do otherwise is the true obscenity.

Why did this young girl make such an impact on my thinking? It is partly because I am a teacher and partly because I am a writer, but I have long identified with others who know the value of an education. My teachers told me and my rural classmates that the only way we would make something of ourselves was to become educated. I believed what my teachers said, and I still believe it. That is one of the reasons I became a teacher. The other reason I was so touched by this girl’s fight is that I see our own public schools struggling. I see students who would rather smoke pot or work or play video games than to learn what teachers are trying to teach. I see parents who think it is the responsibility of the teacher alone to educate their children. I see principals who believe in the next “great” idea whether it is technology, new standards, Response to Intervention, or whatever other new educational “fad” happens to be popular at the expense of requiring personal integrity and responsibility from students, parents, and teachers.

I have been a high school English teacher for the past 10 years, so I am familiar with public education and public schools. I’ve taught at three schools in Wisconsin in my career and had practicum experience in Florida, Georgia, and Wisconsin. What I don’t often see in students is a hunger for knowledge, a relentless pursuit of learning, a desire to outperform the next person because they want the highest grade in the class. In fact, often those students who outperform others are not admired; they are maligned. This I have never understood. Many students equate being smart with being unpopular and “nerdy.” They sabotage their own futures for fleeting approval from people they often won’t see after high school. In our culture we idealize vapid celebrities and vilify hardworking, successful, smart students and adults alike. Why would students aspire to be smart and successful in a climate like that?

It’s time America, and by extension, America’s schools underwent a sea change to embrace the discipline required to learn what is not easy, to work hard for what we want and not to expect that just because we are breathing and show up in class or to our jobs that we should get an A or a pay increase. It’s time we recognize how privileged we are to live in a country that provides education to all its children. It’s time students took responsibility for their own learning and work hard to understand their school work and the world around them. If we don’t have this change, I believe we will do all the children of the world who can’t go to school but who hunger for knowledge a huge disservice.

Education should be valued. Malala Yousufzai knows this. She knows that education is the pathway to her dream of becoming a doctor. She risked her life for her education. Would we do the same?

He Seemed Immortal

Often my mother calls me with news that someone I knew when I was growing up has died. The same thing happened about a month ago and filled me with an ineffable sadness. She told me a man who had worked for years for our family and for the family business, Holmes Canning Company, had passed away. His name was Bud Jordan. Tall and broad-shouldered with a smile a mile wide, he was the sort of person who affected everyone he came into contact with in a positive way and inspired confidence and trust in all who knew him. He seemed immortal as though he would always be here. I didn’t think the world could do without him.

I’ve known Mr. Bud since I was a child. In fact, my earliest memory of him was when he used to help make cane syrup at the cannery next to my grandparents’ house. Those memories are vague, images faded over time, but the overall impression is one of love and happiness. He made me feel valued and special, something a chubby, youngest child especially needed. He used to give me a bit of the thick syrup after it had cooled enough to taste. It was like candy. Back then I couldn’t decide whether I liked the syrup with its smoky warm flavor, but I loved Mr. Bud. He was gentle and sweet, always smiling.

Mr. Bud’s wife, Ms. Cora Mae, also worked for my grandmother after my grandfather’s death. Mr. Bud did a lot of the yard work, looking after the trees and clearing brush around the pond and the cabin behind Grandmother’s house. Ms. Cora Mae looked after my grandmother, cooking and cleaning and putting up with her and her feisty sister, Aunt Marion. Sometimes she even had to tolerate the shouting matches between my nearly deaf Aunt Marion and Uncle Barney over whether a word was really a word when they played Scrabble. However, I never once saw her complain about her work or about my relatives, and I’m certain there was often cause to complain.

Bud and Cora Mae Jordan were not that kind of people, however. They are salt-of-the-earth, dependable, kind, loyal friends. They have been for all these years. Our family owes them a debt of gratitude for their friendship and care of my grandparents and our family. Of course, they would never see it that way, but I do. It is a debt we can never repay, especially now that Mr. Bud is gone. I’ve written a note to Ms. Cora Mae, but words can never express what I would like to say about Mr. Bud. How do I express the respect, admiration, and love for a person who passes away when I haven’t seen him in over twenty years?

What I feel for these two people, Bud and Cora Mae Jordan, will forever be tied to the little girl I once was, the little girl who took for granted that those who loved her would always be a part of her life. They seemed immortal to me, but the longing I feel for the moments Mr. Bud made me feel special, when Ms. Cora Mae hugged me or gave me a yeast roll from the copper tin on the stove are etched in my memory and helped build the strong woman I have become. For the love and kindness they showed me, I will be forever grateful.

When my mother calls and tells me someone else from my past is gone, a little piece of who I am dies along with them, especially this time. The part of me Mr. Bud  knew and loved will not be known by anyone else in the world. I am forever changed because the people who remember my history are dying. When I go home to Georgia, I see the places where the people of my past once lived and laughed and loved, and I am bereft. I will remember them and the places they inhabited. These people will remain in my heart long after they are gone. Mr. Bud, I hope you rest in peace. I miss you. I will always remember you, and I loved you very much. I wish I had told you that while you were here.

He Walks with Lions and Elephants

My friend Barb Laedtke is such an interesting and generous friend. I’ve known her for 13 or 14 years now, but the longer I know her the more interesting I think she is. I am struck by her hospitality and her ability to have a conversation with anyone making whomever she is talking to feel genuinely heard and valued. She is a genuinely good listener and a wonderful hostess, so it is fitting that she has hosted several foreign exchange students in her home. I think she has always been interested in other places and awakened that interest in her children, sending her youngest son to Turkey and Hungary for an exchange. I could go on about Barb, and perhaps I will another day, but this past Saturday she introduced me to someone special.

When I stopped by Barb’s house on a walk with Stella, I met me a lovely young man whom she is mentoring from Kenya. His name is Elijah Mutah, and he is here to study natural resources at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton where Barb teaches English. When she introduced me, I wasn’t quite sure what to say to him. I am at times shy for no good reason, but it didn’t take long for me to begin asking him questions when I found out he works with lions and elephants in Kenya. His government sent him here to learn more about conservation and protecting natural resources.

As we were talking, Elijah told me a story about elephants he has seen. I mentioned I had heard elephants have strong family bonds. He said they do. In fact, he said one day he was with some other people out in the wild and came upon a mother and baby elephant. The baby had somehow gotten into a ravine and couldn’t get out. The mother elephant was trying to pull the baby out with her trunk while she braced one leg against the side of the ravine. Elijah said they were prepared to help had the mother not been able to get the baby out, but she succeeded. He said they were amazed that the mother would know how to solve that problem. As he spoke, I could picture the whole scene in my mind.

I asked him what he thought about the United States since all I really know of Kenya is what I’ve seen in National Geographic magazine and gathered from the movie Born Free, which I watched repeatedly as a child. (By the way, Elijah has been to the site where George and Joy Adamson raised Elsa the Lioness.) His answer surprised me. He was amazed traffic flowed smoothly, and people actually obey the traffic signals. He says the traffic in Kenya is terrible. There people need to leave their homes two to three hours ahead of time to arrive at their offices on time and leave two to three hours ahead to arrive home at a reasonable hour as well. Although he doesn’t live in a city, he lives near the fourth largest city in Kenya, Nakuru. There is a large wildlife refuge near there on Lake Nakuru.

He also couldn’t believe how beautiful and unusual (for him) our fall colors are. Kenya is on the equator, so they don’t have the change in seasons we do. He told me he had never before seen a yellow tree. I hadn’t thought of that before. I think sometimes when we live day-to-day with beauty, we sometimes don’t see it. I had been walking that afternoon and noticed the reds and golds, but they hadn’t inspired in me the kind of awe he experienced that day. On the walk home, however, his  awe for the spectacle that is autumn here in Wisconsin allowed me to see my world anew.

Elijah, by yellow and red trees

Barb is a great friend, and since I’ve known her, she has introduced me to unique and varied people. She has expanded my world as she has the worlds of the exchange students she and her family have hosted and mentored. Barb introduced me to this wonderful young man, Elijah Mutah who opened my eyes to the wonders of my world and told me about the wonders of his. I hope to see him again while he is here in America and perhaps one day go to Kenya so he can show me his lions and elephants. Perhaps I can inspire in him the same newness of experience he shared with me. Thank you, Barb and Elijah.