Thursday, January 24, 2013

Tolkien in Children's Literature Creative Writing Classes

(The following are thoughts I had after reading The Hobbit and researching a bit about the story's influence on creative writing students. These are, as always, just my opinions.)


"The analytic study of fairy stories is as bad a preparation for the enjoying or the writing of them as would be the historical study of the drama of all lands and times for the enjoyment or writing of stage plays. The study may indeed become depressing." - JRRT

"It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago. But that is not true . . . Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event." - JRRT

What's This Especially Long Blog Post About?

Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are still read, adored, and imitated by countless writers everywhere for being epic, deeply-rooted, and beautifully written. But probably just as many writers dislike the stories for being fantastical, slow, suffocatingly detailed, and, as Susan Cooper put so delicately, because of “all those poems . . . some of which are really awful." I can't know the statistics of how many writers in the world, in the States, even in my own town, are influenced by Tolkien's works. I don't know all the dear hearts writing epics at their own desks or all the diehard fans attempting to build languages from scratch whilst sipping Starbucks at the coffee shop. But I do have a small amount of experience in grad level writing courses, and those experiences along with the experiences of my friends and colleagues have given me a little bit of insight into the question I'll answer approximately 10% of here: How influential are Tolkien's works on creative writers in college classrooms?

I suppose I should start by saying everyone’s a writer, or can play at it. Most anyone can get published--if not in the traditional way, then through self-publishing, or, with even less effort and no money at all, there’s web publishing, as I'm doing here. And with Hollywood bringing fantasy to the masses and so many fantasy series becoming franchises, there's no sign of the genre slipping out of vogue anytime soon. Writers with a leaning toward fantasy are filling bookstore shelves with copycat books. A quick internet search will elicit countless fan-fiction sites full of stories not only influenced by Tolkien, but stories that often put Middle-earth and its characters in an entirely different type of fantasy than Tolkien had in mind. The number of Tolkienesque blogs, networking communities, forums, and massively multiplayer online role playing games would make you think the entire world is into fantasy. And a trip to Comic-Con International would prove that some fantasy stories are so beloved that otherwise grown working adults will dress as elves and dwarves and wizards out in public. The cult of fantasy entertainment is vast. I myself have a movie replica Arwen Halloween costume hanging in the closet (with headdress!) and a replica elven ring in an officially trademarked dark wood display box, both treasured possessions. The point: Writing is cool, and fantasy is in.

I say all of that to say this: I'm not going to talk about the massive pile of imitative stories of varying quality on the internet. Nor am I talking about those shy types, too nervous to post online, instead writing their fantasy stories on paper and hiding them away in locked drawers. Instead, I'm talking about an academic group--the classroom creative writers--the grad level writing students attending serious writing programs at colleges and universities in the United States (since my experience and this blog are mostly limited to the States). Yes, there are community classes, local and online critique groups, associations and societies, and writing retreats for the seriously writerly-minded, and these groups are in my mind as I make connections here, but for the most part, what I'll say concerns college and university classroom writers because facts about those are a bit easier to gather than statistics about people hiding their work away in locked drawers, and because that's what I have experience with. I'm not at all implying that the other writers mentioned are less worthy--in fact, they’re often more adamant about the art and its particulars than those paying tuition. In addition to those exclusions, I'm also not referring to classroom creative writers in general but to an even smaller niche group doing work that’s only recently gained acceptance as a serious academic discipline. They’ve got their own intense world of critical scholarship and theory to back up their seriousness, and trust me, they are serious: They are the fiercely dedicated children’s literature writers (and critics, which I'll come back to).

So though the internet novices are many, and though they hide just as much wonderful talent (and lack thereof) as the more academically committed, and though many a wonderful writer sits in a community critique group every week, reading her fantasies aloud just like J. R. R. did with his Inklings, I’ll be focusing specifically on Tolkien’s influence on classroom creative writers who write for children [I won't be talking about what 'writing for children' means, so I hope you've got some handle on that already].

The problem with such a goal is that it's pretty much impossible. Tracking influence is a vague business at best, especially when a reasonable portion of my findings are based on the experiences of myself and my colleagues, which is a relatively limited and narrow collection of facts in comparison to the scope of what writers are writing and what writing instructors are seeing in their students’ submissions the world over. And there’s not just Tolkien. There are all the other pre- and post-Tolkien fantasy influences that have come and gone in a writer’s life, whether in book form or in film. Contemporary writers have seemingly endless sources for inspiration, and therefore minds full of fantastical influences. I’d be surprised to find many writers who've done the work to split their influences into categories and chosen Tolkien exclusively! There are the fairy tales told and retold to many of us in childhood. There are crossovers and science fictions and homages and superheroes and supernaturals. The question becomes, what is purely Tolkien in the classroom writer’s work, and can all the loose strings (at least the ones that came after him) be included under the umbrella of Tolkien’s influence? Unfortunately that's not a question I'll answer here either. (Can you tell I'm not very good at this?)

Add the vagueness of influence to the fact that I’m attempting to discuss unpublished classroom works (rough drafts), and you've got a shaky essay indeed. In fact, I suggest you not continue reading this post at all. As stories in the process of being created, the ones I'm about to discuss are constantly changing and therefore nearly impossible to pin down! So (if you're still with me), keep in mind as you read, the fiction I'm discussing is fiction in progress, and my opinions about the vague-at-best influences in works-in-progress are not perfectly informed but should be, I hope, at least mildly interesting to consider.

Disclaimers aside, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are forever a part of the timeline of fantasy, and therefore have been and will continue to be incredibly influential on fantasy and fiction writing for children, inside and outside the classroom, for as long as fantasy exists, probably forever and ever, amen. This was the case long before movies with pretty faces and beautiful soundtracks gave the stories a boost and will almost certainly be the case long after such interpretations look dated and silly. That said, I won’t be dealing with the movies here at all. Even though they’ve certainly increased the popularity of the basic storyline, a movie is not a novel--it’s a script played out on a stage you can see with the benefit of editing and multiple takes and computer animation, which doesn't even touch on the fact that by the time it reaches your eye, it's been interpreted for you. Therefore if a writer is influenced by a dramatic interpretation of Tolkien, or even the script of a dramatic interpretation, that’s not the same as being influenced by Tolkien’s original works. If people are using the world and characters and style of the movie in their fiction, they’re emulating something this post doesn’t attempt to explain. “Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art” - Tolkien.

Why I Think Tolkien’s Influence is Hard to See

In the Classroom

To begin with, the college-level children's writers my colleagues and I know aren't submitting Tolkienesque stories very often at all. Tolkien/fantasy specific writing classes exist, and writers in those classes are probably submitting bits of high fantasy. But most creative writing classes are open to multiple genres, and high fantasy simply isn't coming across the table very often. Fantastical elements are common, which undoubtedly means there are traces of Tolkien and of the influential fantasy authors who preceded and followed him, but few student writers seem to be attempting anything to match the scale of Middle-earth or the style in which it was presented. There are several reasons I can see on the surface that might lead to this situation, but to talk about the influence of Tolkien in the classroom is to first explain what the classroom is like, especially since the academic atmosphere has a great bearing on the work being produced. As someone with more than a degree’s worth of creative writing courses, 90% of which were in children’s literature, and having been a member of numerous critique groups and conferences and associations and writing intensives (attended by big time editorial staff looking for talent--more on the effects of the hope for fame and fortune below), and as a former student with shelves full of books about craft, and as someone who has finally reached the dream of teaching creative writing in the university setting, I can tell you honestly (but without regret), that I learned very little about writing from any of those things.

Okay, maybe that’s not fair. Maybe they’ve all added up, little by little. But ask anyone--the hard learning, when it comes to writing, is done alone. It’s me with my laptop, writing and reading and editing, letting a piece sit for a while, coming back later, hating everything I wrote, and figuring out how the hell it can be fixed, if it can be fixed at all. Though creative writing classes have lots of strengths, this is probably the biggest weakness: it’s unnatural. There’s little time for the personal process of discovery and voice, and there’s a strong pull to show your talent quickly. In most classes I've been involved with, students write something (a chapter, a scene, etc.) within about a week's time, distribute the piece to their peers, and silently accept the group’s critique during an in-class round-table discussion. The result is lots of pressure to write polished pieces in a short amount of time, often based on an assigned writing. For example: Write a 4-5 page humorous chapter for an early-reader. The writing then is affected by being seen at such an early stage, by being guided with an assignment, and sometimes by a negative or misguided response at the birth stage of an idea, one of the quickest ways to kill a new story. But the point of it isn't necessarily to produce your masterpiece; it's to try out new genres, to get outside of your comfort zone of writing, to get your writing seen by more than those unidentified hardshell bugs in the dresser drawer.

If there’s little time for the natural process, there’s even less for elaborate world-building, language construction, or meandering descriptions. If a student were to bring in five pages of details about the big scary mountain with the dragon inside, and a map to go along, the class might have a hard time giving useful feedback because, in my experience, students have usually (not always) been trained (if informally and subtly over time, and if partly due to their past reading experiences) to critique character development and plot/conflict, not place and voice and the process of building a world. The critique group is likely to be somewhat unhelpful in that case and ask for more plot/character development. The next week, the writer will bring in more plot, but, as expected, the readers are left utterly confused because they’ve been dropped into the middle of a battle between elaborately named people/creatures of unrecognizable origins fighting over complicated conflicts that are a result of political/social issues spanning centuries or more in the history of a world no one around the critique table knows anything about. Inevitably, the critics ask the writer to explain the situation before they can be of any use to him, so he’s back where he started--not allowed to write long descriptive world-building sections, but not allowed to jump right into the action either. He’s stuck trying to balance his description of place with his storytelling--a very Tolkien thing to try, but a lofty goal for a first or second draft of a brand new idea, and perhaps best done in a different critiquing environment. Creating a world with a history takes the writer time, and working through a story connected to such a history takes the reader time. Unfortunately, time isn't something the typical creative writing class is made of.

As mentioned above, there’s also the issue of the classroom audience. Here’s a common critiquing setup: Students submit a piece to their peers (any number of people, but those I've been a part of have had from five to fifteen participants), who then give the author a critique in class. Critics are either casual readers, trained professionals, or somewhere in-between. The person being critiqued is usually banned from giving input or explanation, and is encouraged to listen to the critique and take it or leave it. The benefit of this setup is the availability of a captive audience for creative work, something not readily available in the real world. The group is almost always made up of decent people, all in the same situation and hoping for kindness when their turn comes, and it's usually led by a generous and knowledgeable moderator or instructor. They become family, and they wish you every success. The drawback is that there may be a lack of knowledge about the genre being discussed. Or worse, the group has been trained (see above) to want something to happen in the story, and they want it to happen now, even in the few experimental pages submitted. With the pressure to write continuous, with the threat of the round-table immediate, and with a student's GPA at stake, you've got a highly stressful situation. It's a draft!--the writer wants to say in defense. I'm not the only one who cried tears of relief when a term ended.

As students learn about genres and the writing process and literary history and critical scholarship, as their knowledge and experiences grow, and as they learn to control their writing voices, critique groups get more and more helpful, and writers become stronger. At this point, the critique group is at its best. Even so, a major part of the long, natural writing process needed to create high fantasy simply isn't conducive to the classroom setup or workable for the weekly roundtable critique in the classroom.

Another difficulty is that classes can lack practical instruction. In these cases, the instructor depends on the critique group experience to teach students the basic elements (and beyond) of writing. The assumption is that class members know how to write a bit already and how to critique someone else’s writing. The truth is, lots of students don’t know anything about either! I certainly didn't at first (or even at second). Sure, I had the beginnings of a weak writing voice and had a decent ear for what worked on the page, but I didn’t know how to put words together economically or how to fix stuff that was broken or how to see potential, and I certainly knew nothing of the elements of the genres or how to accomplish them. It took a long time to learn how to productively express such things to my classmates in reference to their writings, and I still struggle with it. Classroom writers are in various stages of learning the art, and depending on the stage, classroom critiques can be helpful or harmful, often with opinions fueled by genre/style preferences rather than a balanced judgment of skill within known parameters of a genre. The bulk of the work of teaching basic and advanced writing skills, then, needs to fall on the instructors, who, for various reasons, sometimes act as moderators instead.

However, a live audience, even with a so-so moderator and other obstacles of the classroom environment, can be helpful. If the readers aren’t writing/genre experts, they can still say whether or not they like a story. That’s all a person needs sometimes when it comes to the round-table. And the fact is, even if a writer has the perfect situation, the wisest critique group, the most helpful professor, and the nicest dorm room on campus, there are external issues affecting how much the literature they read and love, (The Hobbit in particular here, but really anything in particular) influences their work.

[Note: There is a classroom influence I've not mentioned but probably should. It's the critical side of children's literature. In the program I attended, our education was a blend of both creative writing and critical study, which is, in my opinion, a great approach for a creative program. While learning to write, you're learning what others wrote and when and why and what it all means and, most importantly, how to ask and answer questions about literature. Though I don't have the time or wisdom to discuss the psychology of how that affects writing, I do know it does have some effect. The best I can do is refer to the first Tolkien quote at the beginning of this speech and wonder if he was only half right. I am allowed to question Tolkien, aren't I? Best tread lightly here...]

Outside the Classroom

Let it first be said that pop-fiction is often shunned in academic children’s literature classrooms unless the writing is very good. In the classroom, outright copying of style is considered to be a bit cheap or at least out of place. It’s not uncommon at all for feathers to be ruffled if a piece is said to ‘resemble’ a piece of pop-fiction. However, if a piece is said to resemble a much-loved classic work in some way, that’s perfectly fine. There’s no doubting popular series have bolstered attendance in courses offering children’s literature research and writing, and they've increased interest in children’s literature in general. The number of lookalike stories and series proves people are seeking and buying similar tales. But the classroom is generally more about writing well than writing what sells. It's about learning the craft and sharpening skills and finding your voice. That said, the influence of the market itself is still highly influential on what writers are writing and on what they think they should be writing. Good lord, we do want to be read, you know? So we keep one ear to the industry and one to our hearts.

Over the past several years, in every children’s literature marketing conference I’ve attended, the visiting editors have been asked the question: “What are you looking for in submissions?” Think about what that means: Writers are asking sellers what they should write and in what style. Sure, the marketing folks always answer first with, “We want to see anything well-written.” But they know, and the audience knows, that most of the writers in attendance want to be traditionally published and at least moderately (who am I kidding--wildly) successful. The attendees have spent lots of money to attend the conference and they want answers. There’s a palpable desperation in the atmosphere. These writers have agreed to at least consider doing as the market says. They're at a conference with hundreds, even thousands of other writers, knowing well that it’s only one conference of so many others full of people with the same small hope of being discovered.

They will tell you at these conferences not to submit another vampire novel. They’ll tell you (always on the back of, “Write well, and we’ll love it!”) that unless you can write quickly, you shouldn’t try to follow trends because they’ll likely be gone by the time you’re published. They’ll tell you to write something that will grab them right away, that will make them want to keep reading. (Oh, for the days of living at the top of a hill in a drafty old house in the Cotswolds where there was nothing to do but write to keep your hands from going numb.) Sure they want quality. Of course they do. But they want salability and marketability just as much or more. They’ve got to make money. However good the story is, however brilliant, however potentially world-changing, and however sincere and in love with literature the editor is, if your story won’t sell, they can’t use it. Undoubtedly, the would-be fantasy writers with an ear to the industry are affected by the changing tides of publishing as they sit down to their laptops to write another chapter. Such trends and desperation must deter many from attempting to write like Tolkien. The fact is, The Hobbit is slow. And slow, for the moment, is called literary fiction, which you’re told at the conferences only sells to a few boutique houses, and only then if they can afford to take the risk on you. For all the rest, the game is left to hoping luck follows us like it followed Bilbo as we try, and as we wait for the trend winds to blow our way.

Beyond the classroom atmosphere and the market, there’s another obstacle for the student writer when it comes to emulating Tolkien, and it's an issue of need. I am not, thankfully, living in a country that’s being bombed. I’m not even living in a place that's been greatly ravaged by war any time recently. The culture, the situation, and the time are highly influential on my needs, real or perceived, physical or spiritual. Tolkien’s situation, though obviously filled with universalities, was very different from mine. For the first readers, Middle-earth’s “firm delineation of good against evil had a more personal appeal . . . we had all spent a noisy childhood under the bombings of World War II, and our imaginative growth had been rooted in the reality of Allies versus Nazis, Us versus Them, Light versus Dark” - Susan Cooper. Sure, his audience and our audience long for escape or some other place that’s in a nice bound package--holdable, understandable, controlled, and ultimately good. But the place we want to escape to isn’t necessarily the same place Tolkien's original readers would have wanted or needed.

In order to recreate a similar magic, a writer must imitate essence. I mean she must be aware of the nuances and needs in her own culture and situation and be able to interpret them well enough to create a fictional world to make up for what's lacking in her own generation. Then, if she really wants to be like Tolkien, she'll have to write the story to a certain standard [i.e. excruciating attention to detail, etc.]. “Knowledge of this world is necessary to invent one. Fantasy is, because of its relationship to reality, very knowing: alternative worlds must necessarily be related to, and comment on, the real world” - Peter Hunt. Such creation takes diligence, skill, and a sacrifice of time, just like it did for Tolkien. The result may look nothing like Middle-earth, however it may have a similar effect. What copycats should do if they want what I think they want (the depth and success and effects of the thing they’re copying), is to go to the same lengths as he did (copiable) but from where they're standing (not copiable). Otherwise, the whole thing's insincere and flat, though not necessarily unentertaining. Plenty of people have copied Tolkien's genre elements or adapted them, and many quite beautifully. They’ve given the genre a freshness or a new turn on its path. But something like Tolkien in practice and spirit may never at first appear to the critiquing circle (though perhaps it would to an attentive instructor) to be like Tolkien at all, and therefore the influence might go undetected.

In addition, the big ideas, the themes about good and evil and the importance of ancestry and a fated quest don't necessarily look the same, especially in liberal, relativistic academic settings, and especially with the voice of the publishing industry in the minds of the writers. So fantasy writing in the classroom often has a different focus and pacing and scope. They're more a mix of magical and fantastical elements than straight up copycats of old styles.

You're probably thinking, wait--aren't needs universal? Of course. But they look different in different times. What are the modern needs that are affecting writers, then? (Note: by needs, I don’t mean market demands. Demands are led by trends. Needs are common societal issues that can sometimes be seen within the changing trends.) The needs are many more than I can list here, but there are two I’ll briefly mention since they’re related to the writing produced in the classroom. The first is a need for immediate gratification. This need often makes highly descriptive stories with sparse action off-putting unless presented in a popcorn-worthy way, hence the popularity of the movies amongst many who will still never read the books.

The second need, which lies, in my opinion, in direct opposition to the first, is one held by the massive, relatively reserved group of misfits, intellectuals, literaries, computer geeks, disenfranchised, and a mix of all sorts of people in-between. These long for the simplicity of fate, good vs. evil, race distinction, trustworthy absolutes, a nature with a soul, a world with roots, and/or just-plain-intelligent writing. They often want somewhere worthy to escape to that isn’t just convenient magic layered onto the known world. They’re the lovers of high fantasy (and often science fiction and superheroes as well). They are, unfortunately, rarely (though I've known a few) the attendees of creative writing classes as they’re often technically minded and often have an aversion to social situations. They commonly have less interest in creating new worlds than in enjoying worlds created by others, whether in book format, in the virtual gaming world, or in their own minds. They are a huge market, and many are likely responsible for the internet fan-fiction phenomenon. They are, for the most part, a faceless group (in the classroom, at least) of consumers and lovers of intelligent literature. Since they aren't generally classroom writers, they won’t (very unfortunately) be discussed more here, but their need is real and relevant (and gives hope for the human race, to be honest). They are part of the reason a few classroom writers I’ve known have attempted high fantasy to begin with, in addition to being a major part of the reason there's a huge market still for intelligently written fantasy.

Right. So. The classroom, the market, and the issue of particular cultural need can affect what students are producing, but there is one issue, the biggest issue of all, I haven't mentioned yet. Simply put: Tolkien was sort of a genius. He created something immense (<-- massive understatement). He is the standard. He is to be respected, whether or not he's liked, for his literary accomplishments. After reading only a few pages of The Hobbit, I, like so many who’ve had the smallest inkling to be a writer, wanted to immediately stop reading and start writing . . . until I realized how much time it must have taken and lost heart. The epic proportions, the detail, the timespan, the rather uncomplicated conflict, the fact that I’m half asking myself if maybe, possibly Middle-earth is real--these all add to the book holding its place, for many, at the top of the pile of whatever came next, and to the story becoming a crowning achievement of everything that came before. It’s storytelling, fairy tale, poetry, and quest. While the pacing can feel antiquated to contemporary readers, the tale is still surprising and complex, and remarkably like real-life for all the fantasy within. The tone, the perspective: Amazing. Tolkien is a marker for excellence. That's not something you just throw across the table into the hungry mouths of a critique group, and it sure as hell isn't something you produce in a week or even a three year long graduate program.

What Students Are Writing

Stylistic Deviations

However many good stories there are, every generation has its favorites. Growing up, I read Louis Sachar and Madeleine L'Engle and Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll. And while those are still on the shelves, new characters are starting to take up space. Alice must make room for Harry, and so on. The stories that influence writers are generational, even when it comes to which 'classics' a generation picks up. So it makes sense when my writing-instructor friends say the few students who do show obvious Middle-earth influences are the older students, not the young ones. The younger ones are just peppering in fantastical elements: “Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve . . . Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely ‘fanciful’” - Tolkien. The older, smaller group is writing what's basically classic high fantasy, the closest thing to being obviously influenced by Tolkien's work. The stories are often quest-driven epic adventures set in a Middle-earth type place with Middle-earth type races, heroes, and conflicts. In the draft stage, these look and feel like Tolkien and/or the fantasy authors who could be said to have closely followed him.

In the fanciful submissions, most have common areas of deviation in style from Tolkien. One is in pacing. In The Hobbit, pacing is slow and works around place and fate--in other words, the bigger story. The prose is heavily descriptive, long in summarization, and short in the moments of action it so laboriously builds up to. Add to that the many long sections about normal life (like what to eat and how enjoyable eating that thing would be) plus random details (like a passing fact about a dwarf otherwise known only by name and never mentioned again) and you've got a story that meanders and a plot that's unpredictable, very much like the pace of real life. In contrast, classwork that's fanciful is usually more fast paced, is plot and/or character driven, and has less description, especially of landscape and historical details.

The second deviation is in Tolkien’s authorial control and storytelling voice. His control in The Hobbit is absolute. He doesn’t let the reader feel the tension of a climactic scene before ensuring everything will work out. Most of the tension that could exist within the story is deflated before it has a chance to rise. The reader doesn't need to think; he just needs to listen. I can hear all the critique circles I've ever been a part of advising J. R. R. to "Show-don't-tell! Get us hooked and make us want more!" But his narrator steps outside the story with a nonchalant attitude and a shrugging nature, putting a distance between the reader and the text, lessening anything that would have been personal (we love personal!) or particularly riveting. That authorial control of meaning and narrative distance aren’t common in the writing classrooms I’ve been in unless the writers are creating picture books. The result is that no real connection is made. The classroom writers I know tend to be personal, subtle, and nearly always let tension rise and fall on a natural arch.

The last deviation, somewhat related to narration and control, is found in the details. My peers and I grew up on reader response. We learned to interpret as we go, to look for meaning in the details and psychological symbolism in the images, to make ongoing connections with a certain kind of logic. We don't want to be able to guess every next step, but we do want to look back on where we've been and see the connections. Why? Because we ultimately want meaning--even if the meaning is that there's no such thing as meaning. We don't just want a story, an adventure--we want to understand. Have you read a fairy tale lately? There's a reason Disney's interpretations are more popular than the original tales. For better or worse, Disney's fit a certain sensibility about how stories should look, where a plot should go, how it should all end. Add the fairy tale influence to Tolkien's heavy focus on world building for the sake of world building, and you've got yourself lots of details that aren't necessary to understanding the quest and don't necessarily point to a message. His details make sense in a fate-driven epic piece, but for a reader more in tune with character driven, economically written stories (think Hemingway, for heaven's sake), there's a disconnect. The reading is bumpy as I try to interpret and make connections where often no connection is needed. We've grown to expect each word, each scene, to be necessary; we've learned to write that way too.

None of this yet mentions the most obvious stylistic differences--poems, illustrations, original languages, all threaded with bits of our own history, subtly attached to our memories, to our folklore, to the world we know. . . but all of that's for another speech on another blog.

One Last Thing Worth Mentioning


Tolkien’s series is read by all ages. Though many writers would love to somehow strike that balance and be allowed to sell a book to any and all, those of us who went to school to learn to write for children know there's a strong pull to define reading audience by age group. Within the broader category of children's literature, there are many smaller categories depending on age, reading level, genre, and even gender. There are picture books, early readers, chapter books, middle grade readers, and young adult novels in all genres. There's debate amongst the powers-that-be about when illustrations should stop being included, what type of language is appropriate for certain age groups, and how complicated a plot should be. The children's book world loves The Hobbit's characters, humor, danger and adventure, repetition of simple ideas, images and types of details given, and especially the uncomplicated relationships. But many parents would take issue with the violence, drug use, theft, magic, and gender representation. For children themselves, there’s the sheer length of the story and the time it demands. Then again there are the riddles and the cartoon-like scenes of song and play. So you see, the market makes this complicated. While there are a few sane people in the children's literature world who insist reading audience mustn't be so delineated, one look at the organization of the children’s books section in a major chain bookstore shows that in order to sell a work, the writer and the marketing department are forced to figure out exactly who a story was written for. The unfortunate downfall of such an approach can be the “dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children’s minds and needs" - Tolkien. But that's the approach so often being taken nonetheless.

Concluding Thoughts

There are lots of other points to make here, but I've nearly exhausted my interest in the subject. Whatever else could be said, the original question was: Do students in college level children's literature writing programs seem to show signs of Tolkien in their classroom submissions? The answer: No, not really. So does that mean his influence is waning overall? Nope. In the end, my conclusions speak more about writing in the classroom than about Tolkien or any other particular influence. A college level children's literature creative writing student could easily be the next person to take high fantasy a step further and make it unique. She just doesn’t seem to be doing much of it at school. As for me, I'd like to believe that perhaps Tolkien’s stories have been so influential for so long, we just can't separate them from the rest anymore.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Selfish G

One of the more promising submissions of the last year or so was a retold fairy tale I'd written for school a couple years before. It's one of the few pieces of mine that I like. If you've never read any of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, do. This is a modern retelling of his story, The Selfish Giant. Though you don't have to know that story to understand this one, familiarity with the original (especially the original's themes) gives this one a lot more weight. So here goes. I hope you enjoy the piece that got me the second nicest rejection letter I've received to date.


The Selfish G: A Retelling

Old Gray’s yard was infinitely better than all the others.  There were the trees--perfect for climbing or for spying on Candice, and green all year round.  There were pathways too, because rocks shot up out of the ground between most of the tree trunks, so the only space left to walk was where there wasn’t a rock or a tree.  The paths twisted so that if you gave the guy in front of you enough time to get a little ahead, you could think you were all alone.  When our neighborhood got built, all the other yards were cleared for concrete patios or pools.  But not Old Gray’s.

And there was the cave.  Well, we called it a cave.  It was basically just a space between two huge rocks.  The hole only went back far enough to get you out of the light and that’s only if you crawled.  But still, it was cave enough for at least two of us to hide in if Old G came home early.  Or for that one time when I stole two of Dad’s cigarettes.  James puked after one puff.

Those of us who went to G’s were mostly in eighth, except for James’s little brother who was in fifth. The rest of us were me, Shawn, Dan, and Andy. Shawn hardly ever talked, but he was really good at basketball. Dan was the funny one. Andy was the good looking one but could hardly add two and two. And I was just me.

We went over almost every day except for Friday ‘cause Old G stayed home that day. It’s not like he was that scary or anything. He’d just call our parents and get us in trouble if he found out. But I don’t see why anybody who didn’t want kids in his yard would leave the bottom of his chain-linked fence bowed up like an entrance tunnel.

I guess we’d been sneaking in there for a few months before anything bad happened. We were all doing our own thing. Andy had seen something shiny sticking out of the ground and had gotten Dan to help him dig it up. Me and James were trying to get sticks into a big tree to make a kind of floor up where the branches crossed. Shawn had a ballgame, so he wasn’t there. We'd all forgotten about James’s little brother until we heard him crying.

We went running and found him standing by the cave holding his leg. Andy’s the one who saw the snake slide back into the dark hole between the rocks just as the sound of Old G pulling in carried around the house. Normally we’d have gotten under the fence in time, but Dan said something about sucking the venom out, and James’s brother puked. I didn’t know what else to do, so I ran around to where Old G was getting out of his car. I told him real quick what had happened. With the worst face you can imagine, he said, “Get outta my yard,” and walked straight into his house and slammed the door behind him.

That’s how mean he was. James’s little brother could have died. Except for it turns out it was just a garter snake, and it hadn’t even bitten him. It’d just slid past his leg and scared him.

All of our parents had a talk with us that night about private property. We weren’t supposed to go anywhere near Old G’s after that.

We tried anyway, but G had a brand new wooden fence installed that was so high you could just see the tops of his trees. He put a nasty sign on the fence above where we’d worn out the grass that said, “Private Property - Do Not Enter”. We thought about trying to paint it so it said “Private Property - Donut Eater,” but no one had the guts. I heard Dad say a person has a right to his own yard, but Mom said G was just a sad old man.

After that, there was nowhere to go. James’s yard was okay, but it was just grass with a grill on the patio. Shawn was at practice all the time, so we couldn’t use his yard. Dan’s mom was an artist, so their whole yard was full of weird shaped bushes we weren’t allowed to touch.  Andy’s yard had an above ground pool, but his parents hardly cleaned it, so there were leaves from last fall floating on top and croaking sounds coming from it at night. Mine was probably the best because I had the trampoline, but you can only play trampoline-dodge-ball so many times before you get sick of it.

It was so much better in Old G’s yard.

Life was pretty normal till everything turned pretty for fall. We were expecting G’s yard (or what we could see of it) to turn pretty colors like always. But guess what happened? His leaves immediately started going brown. We even saw some branches fall during a really windy day. Me and Dan got up the nerve to search the fence for a hole so we could peek inside. We didn’t end up needing a hole though. A huge branch had fallen on the fence. It looked awful in there, like a tornado had touched down in his backyard and nowhere else. The big tree was still standing, but some small ones were leaning or had dropped branches. We got the other guys to come look, and James is the one who mentioned a curse. He said Old G had cursed himself by being mean to kids. He was betting God had sent a storm to punish him.

I didn’t believe about the storm, but I did kinda believe about a curse maybe. It was just too weird to be normal. Everybody else’s yard was fine. But you know how it is, we had pizza for Andy’s birthday that night and pretty much forgot about it all.

It got cold soon. Christmas came and went. It snowed a few times. Then all the sudden it was spring, and it started getting warm again. We all kinda thought Old G’s yard would pick back up in the spring, but I swear if it didn’t look worse than winter. Dad said he probably had some kind of bug infestation killing his trees, but we all knew the real reason.

With nothing to do but wait for it to get warm, we started going over to Dan’s (Dan lived right across from G) and spying to see if G showed signs of the curse. I didn’t really expect to see anything strange, but I did. The first day, everything seemed normal. The next day, we saw G carrying a bunch of boxes in. Two days later, James’s little brother called us to the window (it was his shift--the rest of us were playing video games) saying someone was going in with G. No one ever went in with G. We all went running to the window, and sure enough, G had some other old guy with him who was even more crouched and had a bunch of tubes and stuff attached to him. I swear if it wasn’t an exact copy of G, but older looking.

I asked Mom that night, and she said, “If you must know, Mr. Gray has a brother. He’s been living in a home, but Mr. Gray is going to take care of him now, like a home hospice situation.”  

“What’s a hospice?” I asked.

Mom got all weird like she does and bit her lip and started folding a towel she’d already folded.

“A hospice is a place where people go to die peacefully,” she said, handing me a huge stack of towels to put away.

A dying brother? G? I went straight to Dan’s. We all gathered the next day and tried to decide what to do. We kept watching in shifts, but he almost never came out, at least not after school. It wasn’t until late spring when something finally happened. It was one Saturday morning after a huge thunderstorm. Everyone’s power had been knocked out, but none of us knew till the next morning when our clocks were blinking. I was kind of excited to go out and talk to the guys about the storm, but Mom and Dad were whispering and acting weird. Mom had just called me over to say something when the phone rang. It was for me.

“Hey.” It was Dan. “You’re never gonna believe it.”

“What?” I asked.

“Old G. There was an ambulance at his house this morning. They rolled the guy out with a sheet over his face.”

“G?” I asked too loudly.

Mom turned her head toward me, so I walked into the other room.

“No, doofus, his brother. G was standing at the door watching.”

It bothered me that Dan sounded excited.

“Oh, man,” I said.

“Wanna come over? I can swipe Dad’s binoculars.”

“Nah, Mom and Dad are being weird,” I said, glad to have an excuse.

“Alright, man. Well, bye,” Dan said.

I clicked the phone off. Mom came and put her arm around me.

“I’m sorry if this is upsetting,” she said. “He’s in a better--.”

“I’m fine,” I said, and I was.

I was just irritated at Dan. I didn’t really care about G and his brother and stuff. I mean it was sad, but I didn’t know the guy.

For a long time after that, everything was normal. It got hot like always. We started using James’s backyard for baseball after school. School was gonna be out in no time, which meant freshman year was starting for all of us except James’s brother who’d be starting middle school, which was bad enough I guess. Then one day, all of a sudden, there was a sign in Old G’s yard that said, “For Sale.”

We’d all just gotten off the bus in front of Dan’s and were staring at the sign. Shawn and Andy both said, “Huh?” at the same time, but Dan had more to say.

“Who’s gonna buy that dump?” he asked, sneering. “I’m glad though, maybe they’ll clean it up. It makes our house look awful.”

I’d heard his dad say that before. He sounded kinda like his dad, when his voice didn’t crack.

“It just needs tending to,” I said, sounding like my dad.

“Maybe we should help him,” someone said, sounding like no one in particular.

We all turned around to see James’s little brother with his hands on his hips staring at Old G’s place. Dan huffed and snorted. Shawn and Andy said, “Huh?” again. James shook his head and groaned in embarrassment.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, we could pick up sticks in the backyard. We could paint the fence. Maybe get somebody’s dad to bring a chainsaw.”

“You’re serious?” Dan asked.

“Leave him alone, Dan,” I said.

“Have you all gone crazy? This is Old G we’re talking about.”

He had a right to be weird I guess, but he didn’t have to be such a butthole. None of us said anything. We’d been wanting an excuse to get back in. Dan stomped to his house and slammed the door behind him. G’s car wasn’t in his driveway, so the rest of us walked straight over and around to the backyard. The tree limb was still laying on the fence, so it was really easy to get in. Me and Andy opened the shed and found a couple of rakes. James and his brother started making a pile of sticks.

We must have worked for hours because we had that place looking good. There were even some flowers growing near the path since we hadn’t been there to stomp on them. Besides a couple big limbs, most of the mess had only been twigs and leaves, and some light green leaves were growing here and there.

We’d worked so hard we decided to take turns jumping into our huge leaf pile and said we’d clean it up when we were done. When it came James’s brother’s turn, he jumped just short of the pile and rolled into a sharp rock. He started crying, and James ran over to help. Right then, someone stepped out of the shadows at the side of the house.

It was Old G.

I’m ashamed to say it, but me and Andy took off. We hid beside the house and watched. I couldn’t believe what happened next. Old G walked right up to James’s brother and held his hand out. The kid grabbed it, and Old G helped him up. G turned and saw us hiding and motioned for us.

“I’m sorry about before,” he said when we were all gathered.

We just stood there.

“It’s been a hard year. But I’m feeling better now, and I appreciate you cleaning my yard. You’re welcome back any time.”

I was too stunned to talk, but leave it to the little guy to speak up.

“Don’t sell your house,” James’s brother said. “You’ve got the best yard in the whole neighborhood.”

Old G smiled and his wrinkles moved around till he was almost squinting. He never said anything, but the sign in the front yard was gone the next day.

Normal changed after that. We spent our whole summer in Old Gray’s yard. He didn’t care at all. He’d bring us sandwiches at lunch (I even started liking bologna) and lemonade and barbecue chips. We finally got around to making a sturdy spot in the big tree so we could spy on Candice. The only bad thing was that James and his brother ended up moving away right at the beginning of summer break, which was a total surprise. Their parents hadn’t told them so they’d have a good school year. They were moving to town to be in a different school district. I don’t know how many times Old Gray said he wished he could see them. He only said “them” to be nice, though. We all knew he mostly meant James’s brother.

Right before school started back, James and his brother came for a visit. We all went over to Old Gray’s to show them the big tree was finished, but old Old Gray wasn’t home. When we heard him pull up, we couldn’t wait for him to see who was there. James’s brother decided he’d surprise Gray even more by climbing up the cave rocks. He’d gotten so tall, and this would make him seem even taller. You would have thought it was Christmas by the look on Old Gray’s face. But then the kid’s foot slipped. He lost his balance. My stomach still flips over when I think of the thud it made when he hit the ground.

Old Gray moved faster than he ever had. He dropped down on his knees beside James’s brother and cried like a baby. He had his head in his hands and was bawling so loud I almost started crying, too. I was the first one to come to my senses and started to run in to call for help. That’s about the time James’s brother started to stir and slowly sat up. His hands and legs were all bloodied, but he seemed okay. He touched Old Gray’s shoulder. That startled him so bad he let out a laugh and grabbed the kid up in his arms like they were best friends.

“I thought you were dead,” Gray said.

I’d thought so too.

Old Gray and my dad drove a stake into the top of cave rock that night. They attached a rope to it and tied knots all the way down so we could climb without getting hurt. We wore out that rope till school started back.

Freshman year was a lot different than eighth. I hardly even noticed when the leaves started to change.

When summer left, Old Gray left with it--died suddenly of a heart attack. We saw the ambulance while we were waiting for the bus one morning. I kept thinking about Gray being rolled out with his face covered by a sheet, but I guess that happened after we left. Dan made a smart-ass comment about it on the bus. It felt good to make his nose bleed.

I acted fine in front of Mom. “He’s in a better place,” she said. But I cried in my room.

After the funeral, we never really saw James and his brother. Shawn was the only freshman to make the varsity basketball team. Dan started wrestling and won some awards. Andy started going out with Candice.

And I was just me.

Friday, January 11, 2013

I'm okay with 2012

My 2012 resolutions list is hanging on the wall behind me:

Lofty, eh? How'd I do, you probably aren't asking. About 80%, though in lots of cases because of life doing its thing, not my trying.

The year started with us getting back to work. Jonathan was Jonathan: steady. I was glad to face new teaching adventures but was otherwise the unhappiest I've been since that bout of deep existential adolescent depression in early high school. You know in movies when someone's standing still, looking sad while the world rushes around them? Till autumn, I was that standing-still person. All the while, life happened.

The year had barely started when I got the call. After a long life, my sweet granny had died. While the family was still coping, her son David passed as well. The day I heard about my uncle, I gave both him and Granny the most heartfelt send-off I could think of--my rendition of Wayfaring Stranger in the shower with my tears going down the drain. By the end of spring, Jonathan had lost an uncle as well. Amongst the hard moments, good moments lived too. My sister found out she was finally cancer free after a yearlong battle. By October, we had a new niece and nephew on Jonathan's side. Lives were lost, and lives began or got second chances. Though I had no power over any of it, I hung on as we spun and tried to make sure those I loved were hanging on too.

On the springtime horizon was a trip to Italy and England, publishing opportunities included. Adventure was guaranteed. I was nervous and winter had been difficult, but my hopes were high. The year, in spite of its sad beginning, was full of career hopes, with three possible writing projects in the wings and no foreseeable reason why they should fail. But the tilt of the planet must have been slightly off in 2012 because by the time I reached the streets of Venice, fever had hit. In two days, I was the sickest I've been in my adult life, all to the sound of an accordion outside my window and a man singing along. By the end of the trip, I was exhausted and too skinny, and by the end of the year, all of the open doors were closed again (I can still hear a slight echo). Every publishing submission I made was rejected. Agent submissions disappeared into slush piles. I was left wondering if the creative writing world held a place for me and feeling the critical world didn't.

Meanwhile, shut doors forced me down other paths. Relationships that had been one way began to be another. New friendships formed unexpectedly. Jonathan and I spent the late spring and summer discovering our city, exploring the sites, slowly getting to know people, and getting more experienced at our jobs. But even with those happinesses, the months before and a darkness of spirit made me more and more numb every day. Loss, disappointment, and frustration were my companions. I was just plain depressed and pissed off about it.

But, as sometimes happens, one day in the heat of midsummer, the tiniest fracture in the thick shell around me began to let in some light. Why then? I don't know. But it led to what would eventually be a quiet rebirth. I admitted to those I loved (and those I didn't), as candidly as I knew how (in a blog for all the world to see), that I was miserable. A few held me up as I healed, which I eventually did, and which made everything that followed more bearable. By early fall, I wasn't nearly as miserable anymore.

Happiness does seem to be, as some have said, a mindset, not a set of circumstances. If you want to know the magic formula for making it happen, ask someone else. The best I can tell you is that in a similar situation: face your issues, chip away at them, and stop beating yourself up. One friend said something simple that echoed in my mind almost daily as I mended: "You're fine."

Getting better meant that when I found out in late fall that the school I'd for years been hoping to attend in Salisbury couldn't accept me because of political technicalities, I was okay. I was really okay. And when I found myself on the porch crying to a friend about hidden pains from my childhood that I'd never realized played such a huge role in shaping me, I was okay. I had to work through it. I still do. But I was and am okay. Through all that's happened, I've survived. Better than survived.

In the midst of it all--the healing, the good times, the bad--I picked up the guitar again, found the joy of riding a bike again, went on a writing retreat, finished a novel, and felt proud of myself over and over for accomplishments at work. We grilled our way through the year alongside trips to Tennessee and holidays and visits from friends and house hunting and car hunting and all the quieter life moments that fit in between--naps on the couch with the kitties, walks with the dog downtown in the evening, nights spent watching old Doctor Who episodes. And to wrap the whole thing up, we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary with a trip to England for the new year. Of the trips I've taken in the last five years, it was definitely the best.

What I'm trying to get at is that I'm okay with 2012. It had its hard moments, but that's life, and we've all gotta live it. Besides, it could have been a lot harder. I'm thankful to have come out with my head screwed on a bit straighter and with lots to be proud of and happy about. I've got a good life, a sweet husband, several furry children, more dear friends than I deserve, my health, my art, my heart, my soft blue bathrobe, and my cabinet full of chocolate. I don't know what 2013 holds, and I don't want to know. I'm not making any resolutions, not on a board for the world to see anyway. I just wanna be better at being who I am, at being good to people, and at making something of each day.