“Bacon” (Adam & Zeke)

bacon

“Dude,” said Zeke. “That’s not bacon, is it?”

Adam tipped his head so he could see inside his sandwich. The ends of two pieces of bacon poked out an inch or so beyond the bread. Thick, crimped, the reddish brown of old brick – Adam sniffed at it.

“You know what?” he said, sitting back up. His face was all soft and innocent, like he’d just had some big epiphany.

Zeke knew a stupid comment was coming his way, so he took a bite of his bagel. If he had to deal with stupidity, he might as well do it with something in his stomach.

That must be what the B stands for,” Adam said. “B-L-T. Bacon, lettuce, tomato.” He shook his head, as if in awe. “Thank you, Zeke. So much.”

Zeke quickly swallowed his mouthful of cream cheese and bread. “It’s cancerous,” he said. “It causes cancer.”

Adam picked up his sandwich. “Bacon?” he said.

“Yep,” Zeke told him. “They said so yesterday.”

Adam nodded, and eyed his sandwich for a second. Then he brought it to his mouth and took a big bite, making sure he got plenty of bacon along with the lettuce, tomato, and mayo.

“Who’s they?” he said after a few chews.

“Scientists,” Zeke said. “Dude – the government.”

Adam set his sandwich down. “Wait, wait, wait.” He had his hands up, his palms facing Zeke. “Scientists? Or the government?”

Zeke aimed a sigh up at the cafeteria ceiling. “Scientists from the government,” he said. “Government scientists.”

Adam thought this over. Then he grabbed his sandwich and took another bacon-heavy bite.

“Bacon,” he said, squeezing the words out around the lump of food in his mouth. “Makes everything better.”

“Cancer?” Zeke said. “Bacon makes cancer better?”

Adam chewed. Swallowed. “Everything,” he said, and went in for another bite.

This time, when he pulled the sandwich away from his mouth, there was a fat, shiny blob of mayo on his chin. He left it there, and stared right at Zeke, and grinned.

“You’re a savage,” Zeke informed him.

“Got a nahkin?” Adam said, his mouth too full for ps.

Zeke looked in his lunch bag, but there was no napkin. He shook his head.

Adam set his sandwich down and, cupping a hand under his chin, got up from the table.

“Get me one,” Zeke said.

Adam gave a nod, then made his way across the cafeteria.

Zeke watched him, frustrated by how big an idiot his best friend could be. He turned away, planning to go back to his non-lethal lunch. But his eyes caught on Adam’s sandwich. On the bacon, in particular. It was reddish brown, with a marbly strip of fat running down the center. It was crimped. It was crispy.

It was cancerous.

Zeke checked on Adam. He was over at the lunch counter, saying something to the guy behind it. After a second, the guy stepped away, but Adam stayed. The guy must’ve been going to get some napkins.

Two seconds. Zeke knew that was all the time he had. And so, with his eyes bouncing back and forth between his best friend and his best friend’s sandwich, he reached out and snapped off a small piece of bacon. He put it in his mouth, fast.

It was salty. It was crunchy. It was delicious. It didn’t do away with Zeke’s frustration, but it did make things seem just a little bit better.

Passage of the Week

space station

Kid logic. You know it when you hear it. It’s strange yet beautifully straightforward, and every time you hear it – no matter how frustrating the situation you just then find yourself in – your heart shoots off a few sparks of joyful recognition. Because once upon a time, our brains worked like that, too. Things were simple. Clear-cut. So obvious that it made your head hurt when an adult couldn’t see it.

I recently came across an exquisite bit of kid logic. It was at my wedding. There were over a dozen kids in attendance, and so my wife and I made sure we had plenty of things to keep them occupied. We bought a tiered wedding cake, but left it blank, and set it up on a low table with baskets full of decorations. The kids spent the cocktail hour turning the thing gorgeous. (Don’t worry – we also ordered a few hundred donuts for dessert.)

We also had plenty of toys and games, including a heap of rubbery dinosaurs. These were a hit, of course – because, well, dinosaurs – and the next day, when my nephew couldn’t find the stegosaurus he’d left behind the night before, he was understandably distraught. A search party was drummed up and sent out. But alas, the stegosaurus could not be found.

My brother-in-law finally called off the hunt, and did his best to soothe his son. And when his sadness persisted, my brother-in-law tried to reason with him. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You have the same dinosaur at home. That exact stegosaurus. It’s sitting in your bedroom. Right now. Why do you need another one?” The answer was simple, obvious, as straightforward as it comes: “Because then they could fight.”

Kid logic. Airtight. Unarguable. Hearing it at work can bring you back to the time in your life when the world was governed by it. Which is a reason why, if an author has access to such patterns of thought, he ought to take advantage and use it. The person, besides myself, that I probably talk about most on this blog, Jerry Spinelli, is gifted when it comes to employing kid logic. I don’t think the guy has ever properly grown up – and I mean that in the best possible way.

Below, Spinelli is dealing with the logic of kids slightly older than my nephew. Our narrator, Jason, and his friend, Richie, are in seventh grade. But the kid logic is still strong in them. Elsewhere in the book, Jason even gets upset about his dinosaur toys being missing – his little brother keeps taking them to play with. Jason’s not angry, though, because he wants to be playing with the dinosaurs himself. No way. He’s done playing with dinosaurs. He’s too old for that. He’s a collector, that’s all. He’s got a collection, and he just wants to keep his toys – err, his belongings – nice.

May we all be lucky enough to keep a little kid logic in us. And if not, to at least be around it enough to help keep us young.

From Space Station Seventh Grade, by Jerry Spinelli (p. 152)

“I’m only going for the food,” I kept telling them, but they wouldn’t believe me. Mom kept trying not to grin, and Ham kept saying, “Of course. The food. Why else?”

Well, it was true. I was going to the Valentine’s dance because of the free food. Mainly, anyway. Richie came up with the proof. He said: “I can prove we’re goin’ just mainly for the food.”

“How?” I asked him.

“Because even if they were having a class in the gym that night, if they were serving free food, we would still go.”

There’s your proof.

So, with that out of the way, I could start concentrating on other stuff. Like Debbie Breen, and what to do about her and Valentine’s Day.

Why You Should Read the Sports Page

sports_page

If you’re a writer, sportswriting – good sportswriting, I guess I should say – is some of the best stuff you can read. It doesn’t even matter if you’re interested in sports. It doesn’t even matter if you find them boring or brutish. As long as you have a general familiarity with a sport – as long as you know, say, that the overarching goal in basketball is to put the ball in the basket more than your opponent, or that in football there are such things as quarterbacks and end zones – you’re going to glean an astonishing amount of writing instruction from reading about it.

Here’s why: sports are inherently difficult to write about, and the people who do it well are masters of their craft. And by “craft” I mean writing, not just sportswriting. Go and read the best, and you’ll see what I mean. And if that doesn’t convince you, go and read some of the bests’ stuff not about sports, their novels and poetry and memoirs and histories. Because it doesn’t matter what they’re writing – they can write.

Much of this has to do with the sportswriter’s main subject – that is, sports. Or, to break it down to essentials: movement. Writing about movement is notoriously difficult. Visit any writing workshop or crack any creative writing manual and you’re sure to find a few exercises aimed at teaching aspiring storytellers how to accurately capture the unexpectedly complex process of, say, getting into and starting a car. Do you mention that the driver fished the keys from their pocket? Do you explain that, when they cranked the key in the ignition, the engine came to life? And what about once they get going? Do you describe the traffic? The way the driver’s foot pivots on the floor as it moves between the two pedals?

The best way to answer these questions is to not answer them at all – to avoid the car and driving altogether, throw in a chapter break, and start the next scene once your character has made their way to wherever it is they’re going. But sportswriters can’t skip over the movement. They need to describe the point guard’s game-winning drive. They need to detail the spin on the pitches that consistently struck out the side. It’s their subject (not to mention their job).

But it’s not just the physicality of sports that’s so difficult to write about. It’s the spirit of the events, too. Take, for example, the post-game interview, an utterly inane spectacle that you’re nevertheless sure to see after any and every sporting event. How did you feel, the reporter asks, after you made that goal, when you sank to your knees and roared up at the sky, when you embraced your teammates and began sobbing? The athletes, perhaps unsurprisingly, are usually good sports about it, and attempt to formulate an earnest answer. However, it rarely ever comes out well. But this is not the exhausted men and women’s fault. They’re athletes, not sportswriters, and the reporters have usually given them no more than five or six seconds of post-game reflection before shoving a microphone in their face. Not even the greatest sportswriter could come up with something articulate and meaningful that quick. Besides, the athletes have already expressed themselves as they best know how – they’ve sunk to their knees, roared up at the sky, embraced their teammates, and sobbed openly in front of thousands of spectators and probably as many cameras.

The sportswriters, though? They can do it. They sit there hunched over their notebooks or in front of their computers, and they find the language to capture all that ineffableness. And the good ones – they do it with flair. Some of the English language’s best prose stylists found their calling in sportswriting, and many of its greatest novelists spent a good deal of their time and pages focusing on sports.

So here’s a link to Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Sports Books Of All Time. Read some. Here’s a link to ESPN’s Grantland, where you can find loads of great contemporary sportswriting. And here’s a link to Only a Game, NPR’s best – and, host Bill Littlefield is always quick to add, only – sports show. If you’ve got any sense in you, you’ll wake up early Saturday morning, or sit at home (or in your car) Saturday night, and listen to Bill and his stellar guests (including Charlie Pierce, a guy who can write about sports and politics and culture and probably anything else with brilliance and wit) discuss sports, life, and plenty of other wonderful things. And check out your local paper. For all you know, you’ve got a great sportswriter – a great writer, I guess I should say – in your very own hometown.

Passage of the Week

lulu cover

A good book appeals to all kinds of readers. It’s layered, multifaceted, capable of being looked at from countless angles, many that an author never could’ve imagined herself. But in children’s books, a skillful author can achieve a particularly difficult kind of layering, one that ensures readers of any and every age will find interest and delight in their pages.

I often think of this as the “Pixar effect,” because that studio’s writers are so smart and good about making sure that the parents who are no doubt going to be accompanying their kids to the theaters will find their films enjoyable, too. Certain jokes and asides fly right over the younger viewers’ heads, but the adults find them delightful, and thus feel cared for – and because of this will probably be more inclined to bring their kids to the next movie that comes out.

The “Pixar effect” has been at work in books since long before the animation studio was founded, but lately it’s been cropping up more and more. Every month, it seems, another picture book with postmodern tendencies is topping the bestseller lists. And despite the op-eds bemoaning the dumbing down of America’s readers, there are countless “kids’ books,” both classic and contemporary, that offer adults plenty more than an escape from reality or a quick dose of nostalgia.

As I’ve said a dozen other times on this blog, a good book is a good book is a good book, no matter what shelf it lives on at the library or bookstore. And the best books are the ones that offer you something new every time you go back to them. A writer’s only job is to tell their story as best as they possibly can, but if they do it well, layers of possible meaning will accumulate, no matter how complicated the subject matter is or the structure of their sentences are. This is why The Cat in the Hat is still being read by kids today, and why the parents of those kids are willing, if not eager, to introduce them to it.

Judith Viorst, probably best known for her Alexander books (including the classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), has been producing fantastic books for decades, and nearly all of them provide examples of the “Pixar effect” at work. She even has a pair of poetry collections that say it right in their titles: Poems for Children and Their Parents.

Viorst’s newer Lulu series adds to this stellar track record. In these books, from beginning to end, she’s able to enthrall and entertain both kids and adults. There are layers to the story that younger readers will miss, but ten, twenty, or thirty years on, if those former kids are wise enough to go back to the books they loved as children, they’ll find those layers and tucked-away meanings, and will appreciate Viorst, and what she did for them, all the more.

So go and get your hands on Lulu’s adventures before you grow up too much. And see below for a little taste of what Viorst can do.

From Lulu Walks the Dogs, by Judith Viorst (p. 5-7)

Lulu thought about throwing one of her famous screeching, heel-kicking, arm-waving tantrums, except that – since her last birthday – she wasn’t doing that baby stuff anymore. So, instead, she tried some other ways – politer, quieter, sneakier, grown-upper ways – of changing their minds.

First try: “Why are you being so cruel to me, to your only child, to your dearest, darlingest Lulu?”

“We’re not being cruel,” her mom explained in an I’m-so-sorry voice. “You’re still our dearest and darlingest. But we don’t have the money to spend on things like that.”

Second try: “I’ll eat only one meal a day and also never go to the dentist, and then you can use all that money you saved to buy it for me.”

“Dentists and food are much more important,” Lulu’s dad explained, “than this thing that you want. Which means” – and here he sighed heavily – “that if you really still want it, you’re going to have to pay for it yourself.”

Really still want it? Of course she really still wanted it! She was ALWAYS and FOREVER going to want it. But paying for it herself – that might be utterly and totally, plus absolutely and no-way-Jose, impossible. So she kept on trying to change their minds, making her saddest and maddest and baddest faces and giving her mom and her dad some unbeatable arguments. Like, “I’ll move down into the basement, and you’ll get the money by renting out my bedroom.” Or, “You could get money by selling our car and taking the bus instead, which would also be much better for the environment.” But, great as her arguments were, her mom and her dad kept saying no and sighing and sorrying. And after her sixteenth or seventeenth try, Lulu was starting to feel a little discouraged.

Be the Beatles

I’ve written here before about where ideas come from, and what you might do in order to make them more likely to show up. But sometimes, we’re lucky. Sometimes we wake up in the morning with so many ideas bouncing around our brains it feels like one lifetime won’t be nearly long enough to get them all down on paper and explore them fully.

In such moments of wonderful abundance, it’s natural to want to put your many ideas to use immediately and all at once, not necessarily because you’re worried about them slipping away from you – though yeah, there’s that – but just because they’re so darn good. However, in my experience, this is never a wise decision. The thing to do is take it slow. Tackle your ideas one at a time. Or, as I often tell myself, to be the Beatles.

the-beatles

Let me explain.

Years ago, I briefly toyed with the idea of being a professional songwriter. During this time, I studied successful bands obsessively. I’d choose one, and work my way through their entire discography, picking apart each song to see how and why it worked, or how and why it didn’t.

Many a music critic might disagree with me, but after a close study of the Beatles, I believed myself to have found one of the secrets of the band’s early success – and no, it wasn’t their good looks or groovy haircuts. It was their patience. Their willingness to keep things simple. Their ability to refrain from dumping all of their ideas (and it’s obvious they had plenty) into a single song, but rather to carefully, almost stingily distribute them among many.

I found that the Beatles’ early tunes often conformed to fairly basic, tried-and-true pop song formulas, BUT – and this “but” is big for a reason – for a single clever, and at times brilliant, tweak. Maybe it was an odd or even awkward chord change, a curiously placed bridge, an unexpected snippet of melody. But there was always one thing, and it’s these little deviations from the normal that still get new listeners’ pulses to quicken and cause the songs to stick – and then go right on sticking – in their heads.

In later years, the Beatles grew beards and mustaches, started wearing snazzier clothes, and abandoned their songwriting frugality. Their albums and the songs that made them up took such big leaps that it became harder to see the threads that in fact connected them to the music that had come before. Casual listeners especially considered this music brand-new, never before done – a sonic experience so innovative, it could only have been carved out of a vacuum, a blank and silent nothingness. John, Paul, George, and Ringo packed songs with enough ideas to sustain multiple generations, certain albums still serving as inspiration to bands forming and recording today.

And yes, there are novels like that. There are the tomes that have achieved a sort of immortality. There’s Ulysses, Moby Dick, Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace. But not every book can, or should, be that. And often, novels so chockfull of ideas can be a serious struggle. Also, particularly if you’re just starting out, attempting to write such a novel is a foolish errand. You’ll only waste your time and energy – and, quite possibly, give yourself a nervous breakdown.

It’s far better to emulate the early, beardless Beatles.

To keep it simple.

To take it one idea at a time.

I recently came across this quote of Donald Barthelme’s:

The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.

It may sound strange, but it’s absolutely true. The writer doesn’t know what to do until after they’ve written a first draft, or maybe four first drafts. Only then does the task reveal itself. At which point the writer starts over yet again, and this time – he or she can hope, at least – does it right. So if you find yourself sitting down before a blank page with a head crammed full of ideas, every one of them just begging to be taken for a spin, remember: just be the Beatles.

Easy enough, right?

Passage of the Week

hokey pokey

A bike is stolen. It’s a big deal. We’re not exactly sure why. But we’re made to feel the big-deal-ness of it. The author – in this case, Jerry Spinelli – makes sure we do. He accomplishes this by carving a hole into the onward rush of his story, and by pumping that space full of tense, frozen air.

That space – in this case, a short chapter – doesn’t quite add up. Us readers are missing a couple key pieces of information that we’ll need to make complete sense of it. We read on, though, delighted nevertheless, because the sentences drag us forward, they charm us on, each one adding a small moment of breath-stopping drama to the overall mystery, to the vague, titillating confusion that looms above the chapter like a big fat question mark.

Spinelli is a master. Pick up one of his novels, and within a few sentences he’s got you in his hands. His control over the language, his use and purposeful misuse of syntax and punctuation, his weaving of thought and narration, his crafting of idiom- and slang-packed poetry – it’s downright awe-inspiring. And there’s boatloads to learn from reading him.

In the passage below, note how he controls the movement, how the volume and the energy whip back and forth like he’s pumping the gas pedal with the car in the Park. He’s got a hand on the gearshift, and he’s ready to throw the thing into Drive and take us tearing down the street. But not yet. He’s going to make us wait just a little longer. And if you’re anything like me, you’re going to enjoy every second of it.

From Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli (p. 52-53)

She happens upon girls playing football. As soon as they spot her, they abandon the game and come running.

“Jubilee! Wow!”

“Hey! Is that what I think it is?”

“It is! It’s Jack’s!”

“Scramjet!”

“Omygod, Ace! How’d you get it?”

“Omygod omygod – look at her face! She stole it!”

“You da chick!”

She lets the fuss wash over her. When it subsides and they’re all fish-eyed waiting for her to speak, she gives her patented little sniff and grin and says primly, “It’s Hazel now.”

Pandemonium. If somebody had a chisel and stone, they’d make a statue of her right here and now.

The girls circle, bend to huddle, cheer:

            A—B—C—D—E—F—G!

            Get these boy germs off of me! 

As the huddle breaks and the din peters out, a voice calls: “C’mon, Ace, park it. We need a quarterback.” A ball comes flying. She catches it and, as always, feels the loving seduction of the pigskin. Her fingers inchworm over the pebbled surface to the Chiclet-y laces. “Go!” she barks, and a dozen girls take off, looking back over their shoulders, calling her name, pleading. She picks one out, throws, leads her by a good twenty yards because she’s arcing it high and is already peeling out before it comes down. It’s not these girls she most has to see. It’s someone else.

Brain Break

Sea-Turtles-HabitatA walk is best. A fifteen or thirty minute dose of fresh air and greenery. But sometimes the weather’s crummy. Sometimes you can’t leave your desk, you’re shackled to your screen. Even so, there are ways to get away. To take a little brain break and come back to your work feeling refreshed.

I like to watch sea turtles. Sure, I’d rather go and see them at the aquarium — or better yet, head to Hawaii and do some snorkeling right there with a few. But as a substitute, YouTube’s not bad. Just a minute or two watching these big slow guys float through the deep blue, and my head’s about as clear as it can get.

Here’s a three hour video of some sea turtles doing their thing, complete with a soundtrack straight out of a spa. Check it out, though maybe not all three hours of it — I’m pretty sure that qualifies as procrastination. But give your brain a little break. It’ll thank you.