Archive for February, 2015

As I mentioned in a previous blog, family stories can be a treasure trove of inspiration for stories to write. It can also be a great source of characters, jokes, and memorable lines. Outside of writing, they can also be a source of personal inspiration or laughter, both of which are things that we all need. One of my biggest sources of inspiration and laughter is my son, Joe. He has such a unique way of looking at the world, can be so matter-of-fact, and is so unpredictable that you cannot know him without learning things from him. Here are a few brief glimpses at stories that can only come from a child.

Joe showed me an assignment that he had completed at school. It contained sentences that had to be completed by the students. One of the sentences caught my eye. The sentence was “Sometimes I feel ______.” Joe filled in the blank with the word “small.” As a parent, reading this bothered me.

“Joe, what do you mean that sometimes you feel small.”

Joe gave me ‘the look.’ He has this incredible ability to look at you as if he is asking why you don’t already know. “Daddy,” he replied in the accompanying know-everything voice, “it’s a big world.” At least he didn’t add the word “duh” to the end of his sentence. I stopped being bothered.

Joe also has a remarkable way of being able to entertain himself. When he was about three or four years old, he went to visit his grandparents in another state. I picked him and my wife up at the airport and started driving them home. Partway home, it occurred to me that my poor son had been stuck in his car seat for untold hours and was probably bored out of his mind. I thought I would strike up a conversation and maybe sing a song with him to brighten things up. I glanced in the mirror to begin that conversation, but realized I was too late. He had begun a conversation of his own. He held both of his hands up like puppets, and he had them talking to each other.

“You talk a lot,” stated Character 1.

“Yes I do,” replied Character 2.

“You talk a lot,” said Character 1 more strenuously.

“Yes I do,” replied Character 2 in the same calm voice.

You talk a lot!” Character 1 shouted.

“Yes I do,” Character 2 continued in the same calm voice once again.

This exact conversation continued for ten minutes down the interstate while my wife and I listened in amused confusion. Later that day, I walked up to Joe, made my hand into a puppet, and said, “Hey Joe! You talk a lot!” He looked at me like I had lost my mind. I just nodded and walked away.

This all just barely scratches the surface of the wonder of my child…or any child, to be honest. So what stories make you smile?

family portrait

Today I find myself with an unexpected snow day off from work. Since my brain is a little slushy working on my new story, I thought I might as well go ahead and share another influence on my writing and even a little bit on my personality. It is a movie beloved by several of my co-workers and almost every student that I have taught: The Princess Bride!

If you have never read the book, I suggest that you give it a try. It is quite good. If you have never seen the movie, what is wrong with you! Run out and buy a copy immediately! I watched this movie dozens of times as a child, but the VCR tape that we had it on (no age jokes, please!) was damaged, so I never saw the ending until I was in college. The Princess Bride is not especially hilarious, it isn’t especially action-packed, and it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes. Sure, it has a few memorable lines (Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…), but there are other movies whose lines have become more of a part of our culture. Nevertheless, this is one of the most beloved movies that you’ll ever watch. Inconceivable? Not really (see what I did there?). If you watch this movie, you will get done with it and then go on with your day wondering why I thought it was such a big deal. Then the next time you see it on television, you will watch it. It doesn’t matter what else is on, you will decide to watch The Princess Bride. You won’t be able to explain why, but you will do it every time. And you will thank me for it.

So what influence did I receive from this movie? Chemistry. I learned about chemistry between all parts of the story. The Princess Bride may not have one characteristic that sets it apart from other movies, but all of its individual characteristics combine to gel into one story that is so memorable and so instinctive to appreciate that you will watch it over and over. So your story doesn’t have to have one unbelievable character or event, it just needs to coalesce into one unbelievably good tale. The individual parts might be junk, but put them together and you have a story, and it will keep flying in people’s minds if you have an audience even half awake. If you recognize that paraphrased last line, then you might guess my next influence. Want me to tell you later? As you wish!

The Princess Bride (Yes, the featured images are getting spookier. I’ll try to work on that!)

Middle school must have been a good source of literary influence for me, because my next influence comes from a book I read in middle school as well. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was a book that I read a few times before I could say that I truly appreciated it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it at first. I did. However, I didn’t appreciate some of the dynamics of the characters before I had read it a few times. When I was assigned to read Huckleberry Finn, there was some controversy around the nation from people trying to get the book banned. I agree that there is racist language in the book. It was truly uncomfortable to read at times. However, I have to remind myself the importance of its historic setting. Besides, there is a moment in the book where Huck Finn has to decide if he would be willing to commit what he had been taught was a sin in order to save Jim. If Huck still saw Jim as property, a slave, then he wouldn’t have taken the chance. But Jim had changed him. Huck didn’t see Jim as property anymore. He had grown to see Jim as a person. A friend, in fact. He was a friend worth saving, even if others would condemn him for it.

What I took from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a lesson about people in real life, as well as characters in a story. Change can be a necessary and amazing thing. People can grow and see things in an entirely new light. Sure, Huck was still an immature, troublesome boy, but he had grown to see some people for who they really were. I learned that it is important to have your characters grow and change just like people should.

I promise my next influence is more entertaining. In fact, it’s inconceivable!

less restraint

I wanted to share a positive outlook that only a teacher can have. One of my coworkers recently said “I had one student that had so much difficulty on a test that I stopped marking things wrong and started circling the things that they got right. That way when I gave it back to them I could say, ‘Here’s what all you got correct.'”

I had someone recently mention to me that I should try writing about my influences. I also read recently that blog entries should be kept short. Well, I’m usually convinced that no one wants to know what makes me tick (I’m kind of scared to know myself!) and I am in the habit of being long-winded, so this is going to be a new challenge for me. Here it goes!

shutting up(no duct tape handy)

I always read as a child, but the first novel that I remember reading and truly appreciating was in seventh grade. We were assigned to read the novel The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I’m sure that most of you are very familiar with this book, and if you aren’t then you should certainly go and get a copy. I still have the same copy that I read originally in seventh grade (yes, the printing press had been invented by then). I think that the thing that stuck with me about this book is the fact that it was so real. S.E. Hinton said that she was annoyed with all of the books written for young people showing some idyllic life that most of the people that she knew had no chance of ever achieving. She wanted there to be a book about how things really were. I would say that she achieved her goal. Students in my eighth grade class have to read that book each year, and I have never known of a student to complete it and say that they hated it. All these years later, it still resonates with the young and with those that remember being young.

So what did I take from The Outsiders? I took reality. Whenever I write, I don’t look at what the invincible movie protagonist might do. I try to imagine how true, everyday, regular people might react and, more importantly, how they might feel. It surprises me how often that is missing from our stories.

A few years before she passed away, my grandmother came up to me and, in a very serious voice, asked, “Chris, are you telling your students stories about me?”

I wasn’t about to lie to my grandmother, so I admitted, “Yes, Memaw, I am.”

Bouncing a little bit like an excited child, she replied, “Good! As long as someone’s talking about me!”

My family, like everyone else’s, is a treasure trove of amusing stories. Telling these stories not only brings laughter and smiles, but help keep the memories alive of those not with us anymore, and even those that still are. I always tell these stories out of respect, because my family has a sense of humor, especially about themselves. I’m going to share my favorite example with you:

Many years ago, my parents, grandparents, sister, and I went camping at a nearby state park. It was getting late into the afternoon when my grandmother (we called her Memaw) approached me and my sister. “Hey, kids, do you want to go into town and get supper with me?”

My sister and I knew exactly where she was going: Wendy’s. She was obsessed with Wendy’s. I like the place, but I mean that Memaw was truly obsessed. She wrote a “Thank You” letter to Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, for creating the 99 cent value menu! Of course, our other option was to let my father cook supper. He wasn’t bad, but when he tried to use the table-top grill to cook lunch that day, he nearly caught the woods on fire. In the interest of public safety, we agreed and hopped in the car to go to Wendy’s with Memaw.

There was a routine to going out to eat with Memaw. When you went through the drive-thru, you were allowed to order anything you wanted as long as it was on the value menu. I ordered a junior bacon cheeseburger, biggie fries, and biggie drink (this was a long time ago when those were still on the value menu!). My sister ordered the same thing. My grandmother ordered the same thing plus an order of chili, chips, and cheese. We pulled around to the window to receive our order and thanked Memaw for the food.

I should have known that things were going to be weird when Memaw started checking her rearview mirror. When she confirmed that there was no one behind her, she shut off her engine and proceeded to get out her food…still sitting in front of the drive-thru window. My sister and I looked at each other in horror. Surely, she didn’t intend to eat here at the window? It got worse, because the first thing that she pulled out of the bag to eat was the chili, chips, and cheese. Chili, chips, and cheese was exactly what it sounded like, but the drive-thru orders came in a plastic box. Because of this, there was always melted cheese stuck to the clear plastic container, and my grandmother wasn’t about to let this go to waste. As we stared on in disbelief, Memaw began licking the cheese off of the plastic container. The man at the window, who looked like he was about to say something, had to turn away laughing.

My sister was never one to be scared of speaking up. “Memaw, let’s go,” she pleaded.

Memaw double-checked her rearview mirror. “There’s nobody behind me.” She punctuated this with slurp, slurp of more cheese off of the container.

I looked into the window and saw employees in the kitchen beginning to look out the window and laugh hysterically. “Seriously, Memaw, you need to pull up,” my sister said more insistently.

“I’m not hurting anybody!” Slurp, slurp. I was starting to shrink down lower into the back seat.

At this point I looked into the window and was horrified by what I saw. The people in line to order food inside the restaurant could see the drive-thru window. The were literally falling down laughing and people were crowding the counter to see what was going on. Memaw, oblivious to the idea of embarrassment, continued to slurp the cheese off of the plastic container lid. I could almost hear the voiceover from some wildlife documentary describing the eating habits of Memaws in the wild. “Pull up or I am getting out!” my sister finally shouted.

“Fine!” Memaw replied, frustrated. She started the car, put it in gear, pulled up about ten yards, then stopped the car again and returned to eating. I looked out of the back of the car and saw the Wendy’s worker lean out of the drive-thru window to see if we’d left. When he saw our car not ten yards away he started laughing again and closed the window.

I never went back to that Wendy’s, just in case they would recognize me.

Smile, Memaw. I’m still talking about you, and I still admire your ability to not let things embarrass you. I think I inherited some of the trait when I walked through the Wendy’s drive-thru in college with my girlfriend. Hey, I didn’t want to lose my parking space!

family portrait

Featured image courtesy of Joe Slater

I’m a boring man. I came to accept that fact a long time ago. I also don’t always find the point in some of the current trends of technology and social media. Sure, I have a lot of the devices and so on, but most of the social media sites confuse me as to their purpose. If I have anything to say that is limited to a certain number of characters, it probably isn’t anything that anyone needs or wants to hear. Normally, my solution would be to simply not take part in any of those activities. However, since I need to be working on publicity, and I don’t want to turn into a clueless old man (too late!), I need to learn how to deal with these sites. Yikes!

I think that my biggest problem is figuring out what in the world to put on there. When I don’t have a limit on characters (and if I’m not necessarily promoting anything) there is quite a bit I have figured out how to say or do. However, if I have to limit my words, I start to wonder what to say. No one cares what I had for lunch. No one needs a weather update from me (open a window!). Then there is picture sharing. I don’t take very many pictures. How many times can I take a picture of my family, pets, house, or classroom? And even if I do take all of those pictures, who wants to see them? You can see how photogenic I am. It’s just wrong on so many levels! How about sharing links? Isn’t that what Google is for?

I know, I am being negative. There is a good reason for that. Not only do I have some difficulty finding the purpose for some of these things, I have a heck of a lot of trouble finding the time. Maybe I am just lazy, but by the time I am done teaching 120 students, helping my son with his homework and making sure he completes his chores, cooking dinner, eating with my wife and son, and getting my son to bed, I don’t have the energy remaining to find a bunch of links to share or take a bunch of pictures or condense my day to a limited number of characters. Where are all of you people finding the time and energy for this?

I need to find a way. I will find a way. I need to do it to keep up with the times. I need to do it to promote my book. I need to do it simply because I’m having difficulty doing it. I will do it, too. I’m a stubborn old man from a long line of stubborn old men. Seriously, my grandfather was run over by a parked car and told he wouldn’t walk again, but his stubbornness had him moving about within a couple of months. If he couldn’t be beaten by a two-ton automobile I will not be beaten by a few websites! Of course, any hints are welcome. He at least had a physical therapist to help!

confused

I just received something from my publisher that I have been looking forward to: the cover art! Keep an eye out, folks! In June I hope you will all be looking for this book:

book cover

With all due respect to all of my fellow players, airsoft has to be one of the craziest hobbies ever created by humankind. For the uninitiated, airsoft is where a bunch of people (usually guys, although my wife enjoys it) get together with fake guns that they paid way too much for, wear uncomfortable gear including goggles that are impossible to prevent from fogging up, and shoot plastic pellets at 400 feet per second at each other. Oh, yeah, and we usually pay for the privilege of getting the whelps and injuries resulting from this past time. I played my first airsoft game a couple of years ago along with my wife, introduced my friend to it, and recently introduced my son to it. By all indications, I must be crazy, right?

Of course, when you look at almost anything that someone does for a hobby, it never really makes sense. One of the most common types of hobby is to collect something. The types of things that people collect can be staggering. Yes, you have your more traditional collectibles like stamps, coins, baseball cards, and porcelain dolls. However, people end up collecting anything and everything. Remember beanie babies? I’ve known people who collect cast iron cookware, patches, shoes, toys, and pressed pennies. I even used to collect camouflage jackets from around the world. The unusual thing about all of this is that, with the exception of my jackets, most people collect things that they never have any intention of using. Sure, they may try to tell you that they are collecting it because it may be worth something some day, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to sell it. The impracticality of it all is enormous.

I found myself asking recently why we have so many hobbies that make no sense. I bristled at the very question I was asking at first because one of my other hobbies is writing, and I like to think that it makes perfect sense. Then I realized that, as a hobby, it might not. I don’t plan on making a living writing. Honestly, I don’t know if I will make any real money writing. I am fortunate that I am getting the opportunity to try, but I had written a lot of short stories before then, and they were only seen by a small number of people. Why put so much time and effort into something that yields very little that is practical? I looked back at some of the things that I had written and found my answer. Much of what I wrote consisted of things that I either wished that I could do or that was completely opposite of anything I would or could ever do. I was living out another life in my mind and putting it onto paper. A little bit crazy, right? And that is why it works.

Every hobby that humans take part in tend to be impractical, somewhat pointless, and a little wacky. That is exactly why we do them. Everyday life is one heck of a challenge. We are constantly bombarded with new difficulties and problems and good news and bad news and so on. Hobbies give us an opportunity to step away from reality for a brief time. We give ourselves what educators refer to as a brain break. We need it. Honestly, we deserve it. So whatever your hobby, don’t worry if no one else understands it. It is your excuse to get a little bit crazy on a regular basis.

Now I have to work on putting together a new set of gear to go with some new airsoft equipment I purchased. It’ll look cool. Don’t judge me!

Airsoft gear

This is going to sound odd. Okay, it may sound more than odd. However, when you think about it for a while it will make a crazy sort of sense. I was speaking with my students today about story flow, characters, and sprinkling in a little storytelling when I realized after one of my stories that I had a wonderful challenge for them to undertake. This challenge would test whatever writing skills they have absorbed and push them to their limits. I told them that they had to write a story that covers the content of a single, normal day. It would be written in first person. The only problem was, it had to be written from the point of view of a cat.

Think about it for a moment. If you ever want to challenge your ability to create a character, you have to delve outside of your comfort zone. Sure, its easy to create a main character that has a lot of yourself in it, but it can be so much more satisfying to write a story with a character that you have very little in common with and nail it. I think that cats are the ultimate “other” character to try to create. I love dogs. I’ve had a dog of one sort or another since I was young. However, their thought processes are usually pretty easy to figure out. Writing a story from a dog’s perspective would center entirely around getting fed and being scratched behind the ear. Cats are a mystery. Humans have been trying to understand cats for thousands of years. We are no closer to it now than we were when we first took them as pets. They always know where you want to sit and take that spot. They randomly chase things that either do or do not exist. They have an unspoken way of ordering their humans around. If you ever wanted a challenge to creating a character that is sure to stretch your abilities, there it is. I’m not saying that it is necessarily a publishable story, but it could certainly be an entertaining exercise!

cat