The Scorpio Races and Want

Writers and writing teachers often speak of characters’ desires or needs. What do your characters desire most?

But recently I’ve been thinking about want. A want is a need or lack. ‘She was left wanting,’ we say when we mean she has too little of something necessary.

Want is the ache at the center of Maggie Stiefvater’s folkloric fantasy The Scorpio Races. The story’s setting is an island plagued or blessed, depending on your perspective, by savage and beautiful water horses. The tale’s characters don’t seem to have desire, at the novel’s beginning. Desire implies something actively sought. Instead, Puck and Sean miss what they’ve lost or what they think they can never have. They don’t know enough about themselves to fully understand what they desire.

Puck misses her parents and their absence is omnipresent, even when she doesn’t recognize it. At her home, the shelves are bare, because she and her brothers don’t earn enough money to keep themselves fed. However, the family never had enough money; Puck’s mother simply was better than she is at making a meal out of little. Puck and her brothers aren’t capable of being parents. They help each other in the best ways they can, but they don’t provide each other security. Puck’s oldest brother, Gabe, was the one trying to be a parent, and he has essentially failed, so he decides to move off the island. Gabe’s failure leaves Puck in a dire state of want.

Like Puck, Sean’s want is clear from the novel’s outset. The death of his father left him alone in the world, and by nineteen, he’s made his way by training and riding water horses, but without the kind of love and intimacy Puck shares with her brothers. He loves horses, and particularly the water horse he’s ridden for years, Corr. The room Sean lives in is like a tiny monk’s cell, and while many respect him, no one treats him as a friend. He doesn’t have anyone to help him realize he might try to free himself and Corr from the stable to which they’re bound. His most profound want is his lack of plans.

Want leads these two characters to each other. Puck must race in the Scorpio Races to save her household, while Sean must race, initially, because the only freedom he feels is racing Corr. They meet, and as they help each other, they fall in love. Both have been in such profound states of deprivation, they’re confused by the desire they start to feel for each other, and the desires their love incites for futures they’d never before imagined.

In many ways, The Scorpio Races shows how falling in love, as a teen, helps you re-imagine yourself and the world around you. So frequently adults speak of teen love in tones of fear or scorn. They’ve forgotten what an awakening first love can be – an awakening to someone else, to a wider world, and, ultimately, to one’s emerging adult self.

For writers: What are all your characters’ underlying wants? What wants do they recognize? What wants do they fail to see?

For readers: Discuss the similarities and differences between this novel and a classic fairy story like “Beauty and the Beast” or “East of the Sun, West of the Moon“. In addition, you might read “Cupid and Psyche” in The Golden Ass by Apuleius or Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

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See Mum Fill Out FAFSA, See Mum Teach, See Mum Write

For some writers, the school bus pulling up to collect their children is a welcome sight, as they’ve had to piece together camps or daycare situations all summer. My girls are older, with jobs to work and arts camps to attend. Also, I’m one of those callous mothers who abandon them to their boredom. They don’t tend to complain, because if they do, they know I’ll say, “Well, the dishes need to be done.” Or: “There’s wood you could stack.” The threat of household chores, I find, inspires the creation of some great comics, paintings, short stories, and songs.

School means long days for my kids, but it also means many activities that require I complete paperwork or drive or wait around. This year, there also will be FAFSA and CSS to deal with. Because, apparently, if you aren’t well off enough to save $40,000/year of tuition, or even $25,000/year of tuition, you obviously must have enough time in your life to fill out 30-40 pages worth of financial forms. Also, you obviously must have the money for the fees to send the forms to the schools, in addition to the fees you have to pay to send your kid’s applications to colleges and the fees you have to pay to send your kid’s SAT and/or ACT scores. Some of these fees can be waived – this takes, of course, more paperwork, because not all schools provide waivers in a standardized way. And it takes time, because was I born knowing how to do all of the above? No, apparently I don’t have that college-application-finances helix coil of DNA.

All right, so this year Mum will juggle FAFSA and CSS, along with the usual household management tasks.

And she will teach. Some say that those who don’t do, teach. If you really want that kind of teacher for yourself or your child, you’re welcome to her. Personally, I prefer to learn from, work with, and be one of those who teaches writing because she writes. Also, I care. I find caring is actually the most difficult part of teaching. If I didn’t care about what my students wanted to know and learn, about their fears, disappointments, and triumphs, teaching would be a piece-of-cake gig. My students could fill out worksheets on some computer program, worksheets that the computer program could then grade, and I could eat bonbons while I supervise. Or, actually, I could squeeze in more writing time each day. Of course, I’d also have to hide my face every time I encountered colleagues I respect and the teachers who once cared about me when I was a student.

Amongst all these commitments, Mum has to find time to write. I’ve been lazy this summer, rising at 6:30am and sometimes, on weekends, 8:00. I have to set that alarm for 5am, and when it rings, or in my case whistles, I have to get out of bed and into my office. I have stories to complete, and ideas to begin.

It’s fall. For me, like for many of you, it’s time to climb on the balance beam, to toss everything into the air, and to juggle as I walk the narrow surface all the way to next summer.

Wonderstruck and Blind Spots

A few years ago, while reading a story as part of my daughters’ dance performance, I saw the words I spoke interpreted into ASL. I was so transfixed that I kept losing track of what I was supposed to say: I simply wanted to watch the other woman sign. Her hands flew, graceful and expressive.

I was reminded of this while reading Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck because at a certain point in the story, I realized I couldn’t remember the last book I had read, children’s or otherwise, with deaf characters.

I have blind spots. We all do. But I like to think I’m enough aware of mine that I sometimes look into the space I know I usually don’t see. This blind spot, however, caught me off guard. Now I’ll remember to look – so I don’t keep missing the singular beauty of hands shaping language in the air.

Clerc Center’s Shared Reading Project, which provides information on reading to children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Deaf Characters in Adolescent Literature – a blog by Sharon Pajka, an Associate Professor of English at Gallaudet University.

Gallaudet University Library reviews, some written and some signed.

“The History of Deaf Culture and Sign Language” – by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries.

Mother Didn’t Stay

I have a career, as does my husband. And recently, I’ve noticed this isn’t what most institutions my children have to attend expect from a family. Schools, doctors, dentists, camps, colleges – they all schedule essential appointments during the conventional workday. The underlying, and I think under-examined, assumption, is that a good family looks like this: a parent, often a father, who works enough to support a family of at least three; a parent, often a mother, who works part-time or flex-time or whose primary job is managing the household; one to three children who don’t work. I might add that the household must earn enough not just for basic necessities, but also for all the many camps, activities, and college prep that has somehow shifted from “extra” to “necessity”. It’s tough to afford “good” family status.

“Good” families provide all kinds of “necessities”. Homemade cookies or cakes at school, brought from home, used to be a treat: now classrooms frequently arrange for parents to bring such treats every week. As children grow into teens, this level of parental involvement remains the ideal. Instead of teens increasingly taking over their own lives, adolescence is currently a co-creation of parents and teens: parents choose their teens’ activities; they drive to and from multiple outside-of-school lessons and trainings each day; they attend all sports games and performances, no matter how far away these activities occur. To participate to the full extent that a “good” parent must, an adult must dedicate him or herself to a complicated schedule for at least 18 years, if not more. And if a ”good” family is required to have such a parent, one parent must put aside many other professional desires.

I’m thinking of these underlying assumptions, because I’m the parent, primarily, who takes my kids to various performances, rehearsals, and appointments. A year ago, when we went to one appointment-that-will-remain-nameless, I had to drop the girls off and work with a student. I told the administrative assistant the kids were there for their appointments, and then I told the girls to meet me at the library across town. I feel I should mention here that my oldest was about to earn her driver’s license. She was less than two years away from being able to vote, to marry without permission, and to sign contracts. (But not to drink a beer.) The youngest is only 2 years younger than her sister. The appointment was routine. Yet the administrative assistant shot me a sharp look.

“What if something’s unusual?” she asked.

“You can speak with them about it. If you really need to speak with me, you have my number.”

She frowned.

Remembering this, when I made the next appointment at the same office, I scheduled it so I could attend it, which meant I scheduled it during my writing hours. An entire morning lost, at a time during the year when I lose a lot of writing hours to various teaching commitments. I sat in on the appointments, which were long and boring. My presence was completely unnecessary, and as my oldest is now one year away from living on her own and my youngest will soon be driving a car, I felt silly for allowing the administrative assistant to guilt me into treating my girls as if they were elementary school students rather than students on the verge of graduating high school.

As the appointment was about to end, I caught sight of one of my daughter’s charts. After last year’s date, in big black letters, it read: Mother Didn’t Stay.

Mother Didn’t Stay.

You’re right, I didn’t. I wrote instead, and I’ll likely choose to write next time, if my girls don’t need me to stand beside them. They’re about to become women, women who write or paint or manage investments or whatever they choose to do, and I want them to know that a good mother not only knows when to stay, she knows when to take the space for her own work and when to allow her kids the space to become adults.

Women With Antlers

 

I’m not someone who’s obsessed with fashion. When I see models walking down the runway, my two thoughts tend to be: “Why doesn’t someone feed that girl?” and “When would you ever wear such an absurd outfit?” Along with: “Those shoes look like Inquisition-era torture devices.”

However, my sister gave my daughters Savage Beauty, a book published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in conjunction with its exhibition entitled, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” McQueen’s designs are ludicrous and fascinating: a dress with vulture skulls framing the shoulders, a headdress of antlers draped in lace.

I suppose I should blame Tim Burton and Edward Sissorhands for my love of these strange clothes – but regardless, I simply want to write characters who wear them.

Noise

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness has much to say about the constant noise we hear all around us. In this first book of a series, ‘the Noise’ is thoughts, and in many ways feelings, of characters. Men have Noise, as do animals, but the germ that caused Noise killed the women in the protagonist’s, Todd’s, town. One might assume that thoughts broadcast to all allow for more honesty, but Noise is what men and boys want or hope or perceive – it isn’t entirely the truth. Men, too, learn to hide their secrets from each other. They are always aware that others are listening, and they bury their truths in chaos.

By the first few pages, readers may find the Noise familiar, as it’s constant and often fragmented: “Oh my Lilly YOU EVEN UP THERE? CUTS AND BRUISES AND CUTS AND BRUISES. You, boy, over there. Apples.” The difference between Noise and Facebook or Twitter posts is that we can choose to type what we think or feel, as well as choose to opt out. Todd and the men he lives with can’t stop broadcasting. And yet, this story of a people always surrounded by endless chatter will resonate with readers who’ve spent any time reading Facebook or Twitter news feeds. Ness renders the Noise on the page in various fonts, spilling outside the conventional lines of printed prose. It’s repetitive. It’s less eloquent than his protagonist’s internal monologues. It’s also fascinating; it appeals to the voyeur most of us secretly are. Like much of the noise we view or hear online.

Ness’s choice to make the Noise less than truthful, perceptions rather than objective truths, strengthens its relationship to online chatter. Noise is what people want others to see: mundane thoughts; assertions meant to frighten; convenient lies that soothe unsettled feelings. However, his characters can’t stop themselves from revealing their preoccupations, their griefs and proclivities. They slip up and offer thoughts they’d actually rather keep to themselves, like those FaceBook posts we read and immediately think: he shouldn’t have written that. Most of us can’t keep our most passionate feelings from etching themselves onto communal white space.

There’s another fascinating aspect of Noise: when Todd meets a foreign girl, we learn that women don’t have Noise. In this way, Ness creates a contrast that allows his characters to discover more about both Noise and silence. How can one know a person who chooses to keep her thoughts private? How can one trust a person who is intentionally able to lie, because her every thought isn’t broadcast to those around her. How can someone who does broadcast all his thoughts stop from hurting those around him? “Quit reading me,” Todd says more than once. Which begs the question, whose responsibility is the creation of boundaries between people – that of the reader or of the one putting out the words/images/sounds? Or are boundaries a co-creation of both speaker and listener?

Why should we care about Noise, Todd’s or our own? Because it’s inescapable, because it both hides and reveals who we are, because it sometimes overshadows this other essential, remarkable piece of us – quiet. We might come to understand our quiet better, if we don’t forget it while we relentlessly and obsessively study our Noise.

For writers: Try taking an abstract concept, like people’s anxieties about social media, and create a symbol for it, as Ness has done with Noise. How might you make the symbol concrete, with texture, sound, smell, behavior, etc.? What role might it play in a story?

For readers: Try pairing The Knife of Never Letting Go with M.T. Anderson’s Feed to provoke a discussion on anxieties about the Internet. For an alternative pairing, read it with Lord of the Flies to inspire a discussion on new societies created in the wilderness.

Not to be trusted

“We went to the moon to have fun, but it turned out to completely suck.” – Feed by M.T. Anderson.

What’s so great about this first line? It’s familiar, as I’ve certainly heard and said similar things: ‘We went to the movie, but it sucked.’ It’s strange; I don’t know anyone who has gone to the moon. Is the narrator speaking of the real moon or something he only calls the moon?

It also, if the narrator is speaking of the real moon, makes me mistrust him. How can a person completely dismiss a place that’s so large? There’s nothing to like about an entire moon? I know many people read to identify with the narrator, and I often do too; but other times I simply need to be intrigued by the narrator, which I certainly am when I suspect I have to doubt most of what he says. Unreliable characters might not be trustworthy companions, but they keep me turning the pages.

If you also like not-entirely-to-be-trusted narrators in your YA speculative fiction, try:

M.T. Anderson’s Feed.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in a Castle. (not strictly speculative fiction, but incredibly creepy)

Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, as well as others of his stories.

Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimeaus Sequence.

Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief.

Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.

Hornet Nest

Vermont Hornet Nest

 

This is a hornet nest that appeared in a slender tree above some of our blackberry bushes. Now when we pick the blackberries, we have to be careful as we reach, so we don’t end up with a handful of hornets. One might consider this a metaphor for the writing process – the reach into brambles, at risk of a bad sting, on a quest for sweet, purple-black berries – but then again, maybe not. Sometimes a hornet nest is just a hornet nest.

Or is it a poem? Or is it a story? I certainly have some hornet nest tale drifting around in the back of my brain, but if you come up with something before I do, let me know.

Why Blog? And Summer Reading

Why Blog? I’m not sure, to be honest. I suppose because I’ve recently been inspired by a few blogs: In the LabyrinthWelcome to Randomness, and Nerdy Book Club. They seem less about Building A Platform, as most writers are encouraged to do, and more about participating in a large conversation about reading, writing, teaching, creating art, and making one’s way through life. I decided to jump into the conversation and see how it goes.

To that end – It is already August, and while many a teen probably thinks her teachers are rubbing their hands together and saying – “I can’t wait to get back to the classroom!” – most teachers I know are trying to pretend it’s still late June. The school doors just opened: we have weeks in front of us to lie in the grass and read exactly what we want to read.

I love my classes and students, but though September is fast approaching, I find myself putting aside The Tempest, which I’ll teach this fall, for Cherie Priest’s The Boneshaker, which I’m reading simply because I want to. What is so wonderful about reading stories that aren’t assigned? They are exactly to your taste. You can read them at your own pace. You can think of them what you will: you can ignore the themes or symbols that might help you write an essay worthy of a perfect score on the SAT, and instead you can ponder how a zombie might sound as it breaks under your boot or how a man, while caught in a scientific quest, might truly ruin the world.

With summer reading, there are no right answers, and there are no tests. You can even decide to abandon a story that doesn’t interest you. Or, once you finish the last page, you can turn to the first and begin again.