Friday, October 26, 2007

Searching for Sparks

Last night I had the opportunity to be a judge for the annual "Reflections" contest at a local elementary school. There were probably one hundred entries in the literature category, and I was asked to select five who would receive an award plaque and move on to a larger state-wide contest. The theme was, "I can make a difference by..."

It was fun. Elementary school kids write silly things like, 'I can make a difference by picking up trash in my neighbor's yard and not kicking my little sister." Some children had long lists of chores and duties they could do to make a difference. Many entries--at least fifty--were about picking up litter and recycling. Some even talked about saving the planet and eliminating pollution, but couldn't offer any specific ways to accomplish those lofty goals. (Do any of us really know how to save the planet and eliminate pollution?) As the other judge and I carefully read each entry, most were easily placed in a "no" pile. And then, suddenly, we'd find a spark--an entry with something unique, heartfelt, and special.

One child wrote about laying on her trampoline with her father, watching the stars. She compared finding litter on nature walks to "eating at a fancy restaurant and finding gum under the table." Wonderful images. A spark. Another wrote a piece of fiction about a boy who decides to help his neighbor with cancer by planning a neighborhood talent show. Unique. Different. And yet another child wrote a story of a woman who looks out her window each morning across the lake after waking from a recurring dream, determined to help her town. This was a fifth grader, with the ancient heart of a writer. While reading her entry, I had a strange flash of recognition where I remembered myself from the past, writing stories and articles and dreaming of the future. My soul connected with that little anonymous author.

In so many cases, I believe writers are born, not made.

Judging "reflections" is something I hope I'll be asked to do again.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Why the Beatles Belong to Me

It started with a radio program in 1980 when I was thirteen years old. (Now you must realize that this is before Itunes, before MP3s, and before Gwen Stefani. The stone age.)

I tuned my radio to the station getting the best reception. "OOooh, I like this song," I said. The song that came next was also familiar. "I like this one, too." And the next. I didn't know a whole lot about music or which artists played what tunes. I figured this was just a great station. How had I missed it? I remember laying on the floor of my bedroom, listening intently. And then the announcer said, "We're doing a Beatles A to Z weekend."

I was fascinated. These were all Beatles songs. The same band performed them all. Each piece initially sounded so different, especially when played out of chronological order. Yet every one had the same powerful, connective energy. On that day, I took down my John Travolta poster and declared myself a Beatles fan.

I became a student of the Beatles and their music. I wanted to read more about the history of the band, the instrumentation used for each song, and what inspired the lyrics. I listened to George Harrison's Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps countless times. And I adored Across the Universe, before it became the title of the recent musical and the average listener would have considered the song obscure. I bought books. I read articles. There was plenty of trivia to immerse myself in.

Here I was, a teenager, born a decade late and a Beatle short. Only months earlier I had witnessed the televised throngs of fans sobbing in the streets of New York after John Lennon was shot. I thought it was "utterly ridiculous." Now it all made sense. I played their music incessantly on my cassette tape player, eventually learning to differentiate their British voices. "That's Paul. That's John--no, that's George." I sang harmony to every song, and when there wasn't an obvious harmony I invented my own. The experience of falling in love with Beatles music felt so uniquely my own that I secretly believed I owned the Beatles, and somewhere in the psychedelic vibrations that float across the universe, the Beatles owned a part of me. Yet I never dove into the nuttiness of a hysterical fan. I had missed the phenomenon of Beatlemania, and could now only be a student of its history.

Sure, I tried playing Revolution 9 and Rain backwards. I knew all the "Paul is dead" clues even though they were preposterous. One of my favorite Saturday Night Live episodes has the now-late Chris Farley talking to Paul McCartney and asking him if the "Paul is Dead" clues were really a hoax.

"Yeah, I wasn't really dead," said Sir Paul.


So fast-forward two-plus decades to last weekend, when on a long drive home my four sons and I sang Beatle songs in the dark in three-part harmony. It was spontaneous, groovy, and ridiculous. These are boys living in the era of Reliant K, Maroon 5, Weezer, and Five for Fighting. And Beatles music is still cool. You see, I had decided to share it with my kids, since without this knowledge they would surely be musically-illiterate. And isn't it my parental responsibility to educate my children? So (sigh) yes, I share the Beatles, but I will not give them up. They belong to me as they do millions of other souls who like to believe, as I do, that the music was written for them alone, as a personal gift.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Long Live My Bonsai

Do other writers...

  • cool their overheating laptops on a bag of frozen peas

  • have the strange habit of using a unique word, then absent-mindedly using it again, so those identical words are too close together in the manuscript and one must be excised,

  • worry that their last sale will be their last sale,

  • feel as though they’re constantly floating in a strange state of manuscript submission limbo,

  • decide several times a day that they’d rather have their tombstone say “author” than “her house was always immaculate,” and

  • spend time reviving a dying Bonsai tree for inspiration

like I do?