Read to Me

kid booksI loved reading my kids bedtime stories.   We snuggled up in Jacob’s bed in his small teddy bear infested room or Sean’s blue nautical bed with Buzz Lightyear peeking over the edge of the toy box and read a story of either boy’s choosing every night.  Sometimes they picked one of my favorites and sometimes they picked a book with awkward sentences and repetitive dialog but I read whatever they chose.  Leaning back against the headboard, smelling their freshly shampoo’d little heads, I opened a book cover and Jake pointed at pictures on the page.  It’s one of those things that happen every night of their lives until it doesn’t.

I read Cyndy Szeckeres’s board book Puppy Too Small to Sean and Jacob more times than I can remember.  Each time they asked to hear my own story of how Sean was born too early and how small he was and how my college friend Sharyn had given us that book when Sean was born.  And, then they would ask me to read it again.

We read Tumble Bumble and Frog and Toad and then the books got bigger.  We read Because of Winn Dixie, and I cried.  We read all the Series of Unfortunate Events and somewhere along the way we started the Harry Potter Series.  Sean was a few years younger than Harry when we first began our Hogwarts adventure.  I mispronounced the character’s names and stumbled over the spells but all three of us loved the story.  By the time Harry was entering his fifth year at Hogwarts, Sean was reading it on his own but still joined us for out-loud reading at bedtime, though he sat at the foot of the bed now.  When the final book in the series was released, Jacob was ready to read on his own, too, so I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in my own bed, without moving my lips at all.  The bedtime story ritual was over before we had time to notice and today, I miss it terribly.

Last night, Jacob, who is now almost 18, asked me to run lines with him for a play he’ll be appearing in soon.  We sat on the couch and went through the script page after highlighted page making sure that he had his cues and was reciting the words as scripted.  The play is a musical and we reached the place where Jacob is required to sing a solo.  He started just talking through it then stopped and shook his head.

“No, I’ve got to sing it,” he said.

And so he did, and I cried.

“I’m never going to make it through this play,” I laughed with tears in my eyes.

We read through a scene he’d been struggling with, a heated dialog with another character with lots of interrupting and overlapping lines.  We read it over and over with Jacob’s voice taking on the timber of an agitated adult man.  I choked up.  I couldn’t read the lines.  I was so moved by the energy and passion he was putting into the practice.  I was moved that he was openly allowing me to be a part and a witness.  He laughed at me and asked, “Why are you crying?”

“I’m just so proud of you,” I said.

Tonight before going to bed, I knocked on Jacob’s bedroom door.

“Thanks for letting me read lines with you tonight, Buddy,” I said.  “It reminded me of our old bedtime stories and I miss that.”

“Me too,” he said.  “You were doing the voices and you didn’t even know it, just like you used to.”

“I used to do voices?” I asked.

“You did.  And you used to cry at the sad parts too.”

Read to your kids, people.  Read to them every day until you don’t.  And then read to them some more.

Bibliography Schmigliography

School lets out for summer in about a month and I still recall my golden days of freedom after the last bell.  Remember that senior thesis paper we all had to write?  Back in 1986, my English teacher, Mrs. Marsland, assigned our class a paper entitled, The Meaning of Success.  We read 3 biographies of our own choosing about successful people and then wrote our papers as the final assignment for the class.  I was an A student so I figured I had this one in the bag and that may have led me to be a little brash.

Leading up to that paper, I remember a lot of lessons about footnotes and bibliographies.  Hours of class time was spent on the technical aspects of writing.  What I don’t remember was any discussions on brain storming or how to form a coherent idea.  I don’t remember how we were supposed to transform 3 disconnected biographies about people we deemed successful into that thesis.  But, I know what I did.

As a 17-year-old girl in rural Mid-America where some boys went to college and girls aspired to marry rich farm boys, I was a little bit of a rebel.  At 17, I was determined to go to college for the sole purpose of getting the hell out-of-town.  Luckily, one of the founding families of my small town set up a scholarship fund for kids like me and I was allowed to go.  But, before that, I had to write that last high school paper.

My dad and I share a love of reading and he introduced me to the public library when I was a pre-teen.  Our town library was a sparkling new, one story, pre-fabricated box of a building about the size of the modern great room in a 3,000 square foot custom home without the vaulted ceiling.  Well, I didn’t want to write my thesis paper based on one of the dusty biographies in our school library.  I was sure Mrs. Marsland had read them all cover-to-cover and had read every conceivable research paper based on each of them.  So I headed to our tiny public library for some fresh material and hoped to find some bios with a little shock value.

My friend Laura’s mom was the librarian so I put on my polite face as I answered all the standard questions about school and family life and then asked for directions to the biographies.  Mrs. Montague stood over my shoulder for a while as I perused the chest-high faux wood shelf for something controversial.  She made suggestions based on the choices her older daughters had made and proudly told me that Laura was half way through her second biography.  A subtle hint that I’d better get started, I think.  She eventually wandered off to do librarian stuff and I sat down on the floor to get a better view. 

I left the library with three biographies that day and Mrs. Montague with a look of concern on her face.  I checked out the life stories of John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus of Nazareth and my failure to conform was rewarded with a C+.  Fortunately, I had already been accepted to Playboy Magazine’s #16-rated party school in the nation at that time, good old Southern Illinois University.

The point I tried to make with my less than effective thesis was that success in life, as it is in writing,  is a subjective matter.  One person’s definition can have little meaning to someone else.  I choose three people whose common bond was untimely death.  They were three people who under separate definitions could be deemed successful.  Webster’s defines success as the following:

 suc·cess -\sək-ˈses\,  noun,  Latin successus, from succedere, 1537

1 obsolete : outcome, result
2 a : degree or measure of succeeding b : favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence
3 : one that succeeds

All three were famous, two amassed some wealth along the way, and that last guy was the catalyst for a world-wide religion so I think favor and eminence apply.  Now it’s true John and Marilyn’s successes came to an abrupt halt in their failure to go on living but it’s hard to dispute the success of a guy whose death was just the middle of the story.  So, my C-plus paper was not a success, but it makes me wonder.  How can we do a better job of teaching the process of writing?  The technical stuff is important but what about creative thinking. 

 It would be nice if, like Harry Potter, we could just tap a wand on our temple, recite an incantation, and swirl our thoughts into a bowl of water to share but we muggles have to practice.  We need to develop our craft and learn from one another.  The writing community has it figured out and the evidence appears in the multitude of blogs and web sites on writing. But, who is teaching the teachers how to write or at least, how to teach writing?  Who decides which is better:  a well-structured mechanical piece that follows a predetermined theme or a meandering but creative fresh-perspective?   Well, in my case, Mrs. Marsland did. 

So, at 42, I am thrilled to find myself still learning about the craft that I have always loved and I hope that the kids sitting in their classrooms for a few more weeks are encouraged to take a little creative license now and then.

Old Friends Revisited

Old Friends

My husband doesn’t ever want to see a movie a second time.  If I pop in an old classic, he will walk in the room and declare, “Seen it!” and then go upstairs to play Halo.  Actually, I’m pretty sure he’s not a movie fan at all.  He commonly tells our friends after a night out at the local AMC theatre, “Well, I just paid nine bucks for a nap.”  I give him points for going with the flow to make me happy.

 I love movies and I like to watch the same ones again and again.  The first time is purely for entertainment.  The second time, I’m looking for elements I originally missed, and the third time I actually start to appreciate the work of the people behind the scenes. 

I read books the same way.  It’s actually become a problem around the house because I can’t seem to let go of any of my books and we’re running out of space.  I don’t enjoy checking books out of the library because I never want to give them back.  After the first reading, the characters become my friends.  I put the book on a shelf and walk away but then I start to miss my friends.  I start reading a new book and become distracted by my new friends for a while and even start to forget about the old ones on the shelf.  Eventually, I have to dust that shelf and before you know it, the old book is back in my hand and then back on my night stand for another read.

For a writer, there are benefits to re-reading a good book, especially a book that has inspired you in a profound way.  The second reading can be done with a critical eye to see how the writer achieved making a connection with you, the reader, allowing your own writing to grow.  I’ve noticed since I’ve made writing a priority in my life, I look at things from a writer’s perspective.  Certain subtleties that I once might have overlooked now catch my eye.  While watching a sitcom on TV, I now take note of clever or stale dialogue.  When reading a book, heavy on location description, I find myself skimming over an entire paragraph and nod my head.  That paragraph could have been left out.

Taking note of these strengths and weaknesses in the works of others may seem arrogant, but only if I don’t apply what I’ve learned to my own writing.  I invite you to take some time to revisit an old friend.  Even if you’re not a writer, you may find that the life you’ve experienced since your last read brings a fresh perspective and you’ll enjoy the book even more.

Daily Writing

In an attempt to hold myself accountable to writing every day, I recently purchased a book called, The Daily Writer, 366 meditations to cultivate a productive and meaningful writing life by Fred White.  In the spirit of the recent movie Julie and Julia and upon encouragement from my friend Amy, I intend to post the results of exercises inspired by this book.  Future references to Fred on this blog will be to the afore mentioned author.  If you find the results interesting, please buy Fred’s book.