Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Books are Theme Parks

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with theme parks. Not with going to the parks themselves, but finding out how they were put together. Most kids get excited about going to Disney World and doing all the rides. Forget the rides, my dream was taking that special tour of the underground tunnels and seeing how things worked behind the scenes. In graduate school, I got to take a backstage tour of the Mall of America as part of a design research conference. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

I recognize that there is an element of insanity to this obsession. Yes, I am that person who goes to Vegas not for the casinos or the shows, but so I can take photos of doorknobs and floor tiles. The thing that is so fascinating to me about these themed environments is that even though they are blatantly manicured and fake, there is a perverse beauty to it. It's the epitome of control and manipulation, wherein the designers construct an environment that will evoke a certain emotional response or a particular behavior from the audience. This has always made me wonder: how do they do that?

Some of it has to do with physical design of the place. Like, did you know that the bricks on Cinderella's castle are slightly smaller as you go higher up the towers? This creates an illusion of a vanishing point, which your brain interprets by thinking that the towers are taller than they actually are. Or the way casinos are built without clocks or natural light so that people are more likely to lose track of the time. Or how different theme parks handle crowd control--the most successful rides are always the ones where standing in line becomes part of the themed experience.

What does this have to do with books and writing, you may ask? Today, as I was reviewing Louis Sachar's Holes it suddenly hit me: books are theme parks. In the case of Holes, the structure of the story is literally all about holes. As we read, we have to dig/fill holes in the narrative with snippets of other stories--mostly flashbacks. It makes the reader become like one of the kids in the story. Holes is not a book; it's an experience.

But books aren't just about the words on the page. Though the words do have a lot to do with eliciting specific responses from the readers, the actual book as an object is also part of the experience. My copy of the Fagles translation of the Odyssey is all about the experience. It's a soft-cover book, but the paper is a cream color and it has a deckle edge. I pick up this book and it feels epic to me, before I've even opened it. These are minor design-related choices, but some books go even further to create the reading experience. Take Casts Off by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (AKA the Yarn Harlot). In this book, the actual graphic design of the pages helps transport readers to the land of knitting.

Of course, I realize that if I ever publish something, most of these design decisions will be out of my control. Even so, it is satisfying to think about all these possibilities. More importantly, I think it's important to focus on the aspects we can control and how we, as writers, can make reading more than just an activity. We can make it an adventure.

Monday, September 28, 2009


What makes a writing sanctuary? A place where you can feel safe to be creative? This was a question that nagged me for some time. For years, my workspace was a source of drama for me because I didn't have a desk or surface where I could perch my computer. It came down to a question of space and a difficult choice. I could either give up my drawing table and replace it with a desk, or do without the desk altogether. In the end, I decided to reclaim my drawing table and turn it into a writing sanctuary.

It started with a totem: a three inch statue of a pink alien, picking its nose with its tongue and made for me by a friend from design school. Then I added a beanie baby gorilla, a hand-knit cactus I found in a London flee market, and a rubber ducky. Soon after, there followed mardi gras beads which I hung from the lamp, a penguin mug to hold my pens, an rough-cut amethyst stone from a recent trip to Brazil, and a fabric flower lei I got at a tikki-themed bar. And this was only the beginning.

Over the past few years, I have continued to add mascots to my sanctuary and while some people might find the space too cluttered for work, for me it's just right. I've even taken to carrying around a few portable totems in my writing notebook (a slide frame with no picture, a postcard of a Tiffany stained glass window and paint chips). This way, no matter where I am, I can always have part of my sanctuary with me.

What about you? Do you have a special workplace sanctuary?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On the Nightstand

People who know me well know I have a very small attention span. They also know that my reading tastes tend to fluctuate according to my moods. At any given time, I am usually in the middle of at least six or seven books, with several more in the queue. For this reason, it can sometimes take me several years to finish one book, while other books might take me only a few hours. It also means my nightstand is continually buried beneath a mountain of books.

Here's what's on the list right now:

Enslaved by Ducks
by Bob Tarte
I've read the part about the belligerent bunny and the amorous parrot. While I haven't gotten to the ducks yet, this book is great for people like me, who are polygamous in their reading preferences. The beauty of this book is that since each chapter is fairly self-contained, I can pick it up after several months and still have a good idea of what's happened.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
I have been working my way through this book through sheer force of will. Don't get me wrong, I was a loyal fan of the wizarding universe for years. Then the books got so long and complicated that my poor pea-sized attention span was no longer able to manage it. I purchased this book the day it came out and I'm still only halfway through. Last time I picked it up, I could hardly remember what had happened in the first couple hundred pages (not to mention the previous six books) and I can't keep track of the trillion or so characters so I'm continually confused. But I refuse to be deterred and I will finish reading this book, if only so that I can have that sense of completeness of having read the entire series. If you talk to me about the Harry Potter books, don't worry about giving away spoilers... I've already skimmed through and read the ending. (This has been my habit since book 4... you know, when the books started getting seriously long. I am not a patient reader.)

Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird
My freshman year in college, Prof. Burger gave the keynote address during orientation and he talked about 4th dimension and how to intersect a ring with a sphere. Right in the middle of his talk, 500 beach balls cascaded from the rafters of Chapin hall so he could illustrate his point. This was the first clue that math--real math, not that ridiculous arithmetic junk they teach in high school--is seriously cool. In the end, math became my way to decompress and unravel my brain from the labyrinth of literary reading. To this day, I read math books for fun, but I don't read them cover to cover. Instead, I pick a book up and read a section or chapter now and again. (My other favorite math/logic books are Raymond Smullyan's The Lady and The Tiger or What is the Name of this Book?)

Thirteen Detectives
by G. K. Chesterton
A collection of detective stories, by the creator of the famous Father Brown. What I love about these stories is the language. It has a similar feel to the Sherlock Holmes stories, where characters say things like "elementary" or call each other "old chap."

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose
Another book that I dip into every so often. I rarely read more than one chapter at a time and I often choose the chapter depending on what area of my writing I think needs the most work on a particular day.

Take Joy by Jane Yolen
This is my bedtime reading. I like to read a small section of this book before going to sleep so that I always remember that writing is a joy, not a chore.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blockbusting for Writers Post 2: Taking Critique

On Tuesday, I submitted my most recent piece to workshop. I have since been stricken by a series of migraines which I can only assume are the result of this trauma. Before I lose all perspective, I must remind myself of a few truths:

• I am not the work. Nor is the work my child. The critique isn't personal.

• By allowing other people to read and comment on my work, I am freeing myself from the burden of having to do it myself. In other words, by letting someone else do the critiquing, I'm putting my inner critic out of a job. The task of judging my work becomes someone else's problem, not mine.

• This is not the first piece I have written, nor is it the last I will ever write. There's more where that came from. When I worked in product design, people would ask me: "aren't you worry that someone might steal your ideas?" And to that I would reply: "um, they're just ideas... there's always going to be more of them."

• I need to redefine my goals. If I go into a critique with the idea that I'm going to hand in something perfect, then I'm bound to be disappointed. But if my goal is to learn something from the process, then no matter what, I win.

In the end, it all comes down to this. Would you rather receive a pat on the head or meet a worthy adversary?

I am all about the worth adversary.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's a Brain Thing

When I start to think about creativity and the arts, sooner or later it always seems to come down to the "left brain" vs. "right brain" question. You know the stereotypes. "Left brain people" are logical, good with numbers, and solve problems in a linear, scientific fashion. "Right brain people" are artistic, creative and approach problem by looking at the "big picture." There are even tests on the web that tell you which one you are. The dancer test is my favorite.

But where do writer's stand in all of this? On one hand, we're clearly "right brain people" because writing is a creative endeavor. Duh. Then why did the evolutionary powers-that-be decide to put the language centers of the brain in the left hemisphere?

Two words: Corpus Callosum.

This is that little trench of white matter between the brain hemispheres that connect them and let them talk to each other. Back in the days when lobotomies were considered perfectly reasonable methods of brain surgery, doctors used to sever the corpus callosum of patients who experienced seizures. Sure, it might have helped with the seizures, but it led to a host of other problems. So what's the point?

The point is this. Writing is not a "right brain" or "left brain" thing. It's a whole-brain activity. Unfortunately, most people are more comfortable living in either one hemisphere or the other and they end up missing out on all the things the other half of their brain has to offer.

For me, this means allowing myself to take a few risks. I'm terrified of the chaotic free-association of my right brain so when I write, I end up falling back on outlines and copious notes. This is all well and good, except I often spend more time organizing my project (and outlines and notes) than actually writing it. So with this new project, I've decided to embrace the chaos. No outlines allowed. I'm writing each scene as it comes to me, regardless of where it falls in the story arc, and I'll worry about putting it all together later on. To those of you who have to critique my work, I hope you don't mind the mess.

What about you? Are you a right-brain or left-brain writer?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Blockbusting for Writers Post 1: Not Writing a Novel

I have recently gone back to a book I read in grad school called Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams. This book, which discusses all sorts of mental blocks that get in the way of our creativity, was the required textbook for a creativity seminar I took my first year. At the time, I was far more interested in how creativity related to design and product development, but now that I am rereading the book, I find that the principles apply to writing as well.

Today, the topic that's on my mind is a perceptual block: the tendency to limit the scope of a problem. Adams uses the 9-dot problem as an example in his book.

9-Dot Problem
Using four straight lines, connect all nine dots.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Simple: it's our tendency to limit the problem too much that makes us unable to see the solution. In terms of writing, that might mean defining what the end-result will be before you've put anything down on paper. Like when you set out to write a memoir but really what comes out is a short story about a dragon and a princess. The Intern has a great post on this very topic: books that aren't really books.

As for me, I'm doing whatever I can to avoid limiting my current problem... er, project. At the moment I know this:
  1. There is a character.
  2. There are pieces of scenes involving this character written on index cards.
  3. There is a secret.
The trick, of course, is figuring out how to make these pieces hang together enough so that I can hand in something for my writing workshop tonight.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Not on Speaking Terms with the Dictionary Right Now

We had to read Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie for literature seminar this week and this line made me laugh out loud:

"After a time, he (Peter) fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy."

I puzzled over this line for a while. Wasn't this supposed to be a children's book? If so, the whole drunken-oversexed-fairies thing didn't quite seem to fit. Part of me hoped that Barrie was doing an ahead-of-his-time Pixar-style reference. (You know, the way in Pixar movies, there are those jokes that are really there for the benefit of the parents rather than for the kids.) Even so, I didn't know quite what to make of this.

After a while, I felt compelled to look up "orgy" in the OED to see if it really meant what I thought it meant or if I was simply insane. N.B.: this whole impulse to consult the OED dates back to my high school days, when my 11th grade English teacher used to make us look up every word (except "and" and "the") in the OED when reading Shakespeare sonnets.

(Incidentally, I'm really glad I managed to find a few definitions online... can you imagine going into the NYPL and asking the librarian "Hi, I need help looking up 'orgy' in the Oxford English Dictionary. May I use your computer?" Um, embarrassing.)

Here's what I found: The word "orgy" comes from the Greek orgia which means "secret rites and revelry" (Compact OED) or "secret rites or ceremonies connected with the worship of certain deities... esp. Dionysus" (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Blah. How boring. Yes, the passage from Peter Pan now seems to make more sense for a children's book, but I'm still disappointed. I was rather amused about the prospect of drunken, oversexed fairies. That's why I'm not on speaking terms with the dictionary right now.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pen and Notebook Twin

The other day, I discovered that I have a pen-and-notebook twin. I was out to brunch with my sister and her best friend from elementary school and we were talking about books and literature. At one point, I suggested a book to my sis' friend so she dug through her purse and pulled out a notebook and pen. But it wasn't just any notebook and pen; it was a moleskine unlined notebook (the hardcover kind, size=medium) and a blue Pilot varsity fountain pen.


I nearly fainted. I mean, I've known this girl since she was six and I was ten and never did I realize we were pen-and-notebook twins! This was unbelievably exciting!

Instantly, we bonded over our twin-ness. Never before had I met someone who understood the intricacies of my notebook and pen situation. Like how you can't take fountain pens on an airplane because they explode, so you always have that dilemma: do you not write for a whole plan ride or do you take a ballpoint pen and have it not match the rest of the writing in your notebook? Or how when moleskine came out with their soft-cover blank books, I almost had a panic attack because I thought they might discontinue the hardcover kind, so I raced to the bookstore and stocked up... just in case. If I admitted any of this to most people, they would think I was crazy, but now I have a pen-and-notebook twin who understands! Woot!

Which brings me to my question of the day: what's your writing medium of choice and why?

Mine is a moleskine unlined notebook (hardcover, medium) and a blue Pilot varsity fountain pen (duh). Because when that fountain pen squishes across those creamy notebook pages, it makes me feel so 19th century.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Coffee List

Coffee List = (n.) a list of authors, living or not, whom I would like to take out for coffee just so I could have an excuse to listen to them talk.

(in no particular order)

• Lewis Carroll--he wrote two novels about math. Math rules. 'Nuff said.

• Norton Juster--he also wrote a novel involving math, so right away, he's racking up the coolness points. He also wins the prize for writing the most original inscription of any signed book I own.

• E. Lockhart--she is so goshdarn funny, and when she reads her work in public, she does the voices.

• M.T. Anderson--when I heard him speak on an author's panel, he used words like "ethos" and "postulate" to talk about teen literature. Coooool.

• Louis Sachar--anyone who can weave that many plot threads together and pull off what he did in Holes while still making it look easy... that takes serious talent... and guts.

• Gaius Valerius Catullus--he could make a poem about a cute little bird sound raunchy. Can any other poet do that without coming across like a perv? Think about it.

• Jane Austen--because even in a time when women weren't allowed to inherit land, she wrote strong-minded female protagonists and made them seem believable.

That's my list for now, though I will be adding to it as I think of more authors.

What's yours?


Duh, and how could I forget?

• Samuel Johnson--king of snark and literary bad@$ness, a man not intimidated by even the most insane of literary projects (he wrote a dictionary for crying out loud!). If you doubt me, look up the word "patron" in a copy of Johnson's dictionary. But I have one caveat: he'd better not bring Boswell.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Like in that Insurance Commercial

You know that feeling when you read a book, and you're about three chapters into it and all you can think is "where is the author going with this?"

But then you have this sneaking suspicion that this author knows what she's doing--maybe because you've read previous books, or maybe because you want to give her the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't really matter why you keep reading. All that matters is that you're willing to trust the author and go along for the ride.

And you know that feeling you get when you reach the final chapters of that same book and the author managed to pull off what you thought was impossible and the ending totally delivers?

That was exactly how I felt when I read Carolyn Mackler's Tangled. Having read all of her previous books (in fact, I wrote a term paper on her books last fall) I was excited... but also slightly terrified... to read this book. This is a new approach for her, juggling four different point of view characters (two of them are boys!), and telling a story in short spurts rather than one long narrative that spans the entire novel.

I was worried about a lot of things. Like what if it wasn't really one story? What if it turned out to be four loosely-connected novellas? Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with novellas, but if I'm sitting down to read a novel, I have certain expectations. Like, I need an overarching narrative, however loose that narrative may be. And I want to see the characters grow and change throughout the book. How on earth was Mackler going to pull this off if she was jumping from one character to another and if each character's story takes place in a different time/place than the other stories?

When I read Jena's story, my apprehensions grew exponentially. Jena's character is an archetype we've seen in Mackler's work before (in particular, the protagonists in her first 3 books all have certain similarities to Jena). But the thing that always made Mackler's depiction of this archetype satisfying in her other books is that, in the end, the smart-but-not-very-popular girl who's insecure about her looks always seems to learn to accept herself as she is. It's a message of empowerment that I always looked forward to in Mackler's work. Needless to say, by the end of Jena's section of Tangled I was devastated. It felt like the message was: life sucks, and it keeps on sucking.

With each subsequent section of the book, I grew more relieved. At first, I was worried that we would be getting a "grass is always greener" moral and that the point of the book was just to show that even so-called popular kids have problems. But I should have known that Mackler wouldn't settle for an answer that easy. In the end, this book isn't just about seeing the other side of a situation or understanding how the other person feels. Really, this book is about reaching out to that other person. The structure of the book perplexed me at first. We see a lot of "before" and "after" moments with these characters, but we rarely see the actual change. Most of the time, the moment of transformation happens "offstage" between sections and are mentioned only in passing. Then it occurred to me that this book really isn't about change at all. The fact that these characters will change is a given, but what truly matters is how these characters help to transform one another.

This is an interesting departure for Mackler. While her previous books have mostly focused on one protagonist's path to self-discovery and acceptence, this book emphasizes the importance of connection with others. In the end, I had nothing to worry about, but in doing so, I became all the more invested in wanting to see how Mackler was going to pull this off. Suffice to say, she did so beautifully.

I should have known all along that I was in good hands.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Genius isn't Easy...

Finally, a book that speaks to me!

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
by Josh Lieb is officially the funniest book I read this summer.

Of course, this humor is not for everyone. The more pragmatic among you might be thrown off by certain unrealistic details, like the poison blow-darts that make the victim succumb to incessant farting. Some of you might also not fully appreciate the narrator's voice. But then again, it's hard to appreciate genius in its own time. And those of you out there who like to sympathize with the parent/teacher/mentor figures are likely to be disappointed since in this book, all the adults are morons. Except maybe for the Motivator; he's not too bright, but he's a bad@$$ so that makes him cool.

If you read this book and you're not laughing out loud, it's probably just because you're not smart enough to see the beauty in the humor. Thankfully, most kids are smart enough to get this humor, so in the end, it doesn't really matter what you think.