Archive for February, 2016

The Thing about History

February 15, 2016

About ten years ago I had the opportunity to visit Athens (Greece, not Georgia).  That’s a story in itself, but for now I want to focus on just one impression: Athens is one vast archaeological site.  Even the subways are museums—hurrying from one stop to another you pass glass cases full of artefacts found while digging out the Metro system.  The friend I was staying with told me that digging is a major issue; even scraping up soil for a parking lot is bound to turn up loads of pottery shards and ancient tools and blackened silver.  If they’re in a hurry they don’t even take time to label it all—just plow it in deeper and pave over it.

History is like that: wherever you poke your spade, you’re bound to turn up something interesting.

It was always my favorite subject in school and my favorite fiction genre, and the reason for that was probably—at least partly—my sister Melissa.  While we were growing up, she was always going through some favorite history phase, and since she’s four years older than me (and didn’t consider me a pest or a pinhead) her influence was powerful.  It’s one reason why four of my six published novels are historical.

One of her retirement jobs (are you old enough to know what that means?) is program director at a relatively new historical site in central Texas.  Channel 5 New in Fort Worth did a TV spot on it, and I tried to embed the video, but the embed code wasn’t working for me.  So I’ll have to provide the link instead.

melissa

 

See what I mean about archaeology sites?  There are some good stories in that Robertson County soil, and I may even dig one out some day.

My writer/illustrator friend Cheryl Harness is one of the best history practitioners around: she showers her Facebook friends with famous-people birthdays, tasty tidbits, and fascinating relics every day.  One of Cheryl’s “likes” on my news feed led me to the story of the coat—a 19th-centry frock coat hanging in the display case at a Maine High School.  It was moldering away until a couple of sixth-grade students and their mother did some research and made a plan.

The coat belonged to Albert Bacheler, who served as a Union Soldier in the 12th New Hampshire Bacheler coatRegiment.  During the last year of the Civil War he was captured and sent to the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond.  He was lucky enough to escape with only the clothes on his back, which happened to be a blue uniform. But several slaves helped him find his way to safety, including one family who gave him a civilian coat to cover his sitting-duck outfit.

After the war Bacheler moved to Gloucester, Maine, where he taught at, and eventually became principal of, the high school.  The man is long gone but the school remains—and the coat that may have saved his bacon back in 1864, moldering quietly like John Brown’s Body.  But the King boys and their mom are crowd-funding a project to restore the coat and provide a better home for it.  The boys think it’s cool.

It is cool, to put your spade in the past and see what you dig up.  Most of it—the vast bulk of it—is gone forever.  We’ll never think, feel, or experience like our ancestors did decades, centuries, or millennia ago.  But perhaps we can be a little more considerate about judging them. And we can run our hands lovingly over some of the artefacts.  And we might not be so hasty to slab over their burial ground with the concrete of our premixed assumptions.

My Library Valentine

February 12, 2016

When Lois Lowry spoke at our local library event last Spring, she told one little story that didn’t end up in my reportage (and one little story that did—you really MUST read it! It’s amazing!  I’ll wait here until you get back).

The speech was a kickoff to the library’s One Book One Read event, and the One Read, of course, was The Giver.  I first read The Giver when I checked it out from the local library—the same way I “first read” almost all the books I read.  And always have.  When I was a kid I visited the local branch library every Saturday, unless that was one of the Saturdays I took the bus downtown, and in that case I visited the BIG multi-story central operation.  I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like without the public library, and no telling what my adulthood would be like without it either.

So here’s Ms. Lowry’s little story: not long ago, some young friends visited from Europe—France, I think.  A country we would consider “developed” and not blighted by years of Soviet servitude.  While entertaining these girls she took them to the local library, where they browsed the stacks and chose some books to check out on her card.  Back in the car and on their way to somewhere else, one of the girls asked, “What do you have to pay to belong to the library?”

Ms. Lowry was a bit startled by the question, and so I am.  Why, nothing.  That’s what we pay.

Of course it’s not technically true; you just don’t see the library line-item on your county tax statement.  But still, the public library you see in almost every community in America is one of America’s better ideas.  And a surprising number of Americans still think so.

Here’s the good news, from the ALA’s Quotable Facts brochure, printed in 2013:

  • 58% of American adults possess a library card.
  • Americans to libraries (public, school, and academic) over three times more often than they go to the movies.
  • Reference librarians answer nearly 6.6 million questions every week.
  • There are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s restaurants.  (You just have to look harder for them—maybe libraries should have the equivalent of golden arches on a fifty-foot pole.)
  • Americans check out an average of eight books/year.  (Since about 24% of adults have not even read a book in the past year, somebody is doing a whole lot of checking.)
  • The highest achieving schools have well-staffed and well-funded libraries–but you already know that!

America even designates Library Week in April.  This isn’t April, but it is close to Valentine’s Day, so this is my whacked-out, bedraggled-lace, hastily-constructed Valentine to America’s libraries.  We’ve been together through good times and bad, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.

library-valentine

Dangerous Fiction

February 8, 2016

Whenever a controversial YA novel comes under scrutiny, youth advocates always call the book community to arms.  Novels, they explain over and over again, are good for young people—period.  The right kind of fiction may even be the salvation of a struggling teen soul.  No matter how depressing or graphic the content, novels can 1) help teens find themselves by offering characters they can identify with, 2) comfort them in a desperate situation by letting them know they are not alone, or 3) offer a “safe space” to explore other ways of looking at things.  Fiction is too powerful to keep from the young, they say.  But the defenders seem blind to the possibility that that very power can be negative as well as positive.

dangerous

In the online journal Aeon, Tara Isabella Burton makes the case that reading fiction is not necessarily an unalloyed good.  Nor should it be.  Might the power of fiction be used for evil?  Or as she puts it, “in treating novels as the ultimate nutrition for the brain, do we risk neutralizing their potency?”

A story “works” by taking the elements of human life and character and emotion, cutting them to pattern, and shaping them to fit not only a compelling plotline but also a moral vision.  Every novelist works from a sense of what’s good and bad, even if he’s convinced that nothing is ultimately good or bad.  Every novelist spins an imaginary world within the text, whether realistic or fantastic, then sits back and invites the reader into that fictional parlor.  The pleasure of reading a novel depends to some degree on surrender–a true reader wants to be swept away.  Call it suspension of disbelief or unput-down-ableness, the novels you love are the ones that capture you.  “Captivating” signals charming, enchanting, magical—but those very words, in themselves, imply that someone has been overcome by something outside.  It’s what book reviewers mean when they say they were “shattered” or “shaken to the core,” and it’s not always a good thing.

Burton quotes warnings from a past that saw reading novels as a “kind of possession: an encroachment of the ‘other’ upon the self.”  She cites 19th century minister Jonathan Townley Crane who worried about consumers of fiction (mostly women) reading themselves into “clumsy little romances” and identifying themselves with the heroine to such an extent they lost track of themselves.  That was a theme as late as the 1980s, when a boom in steamy romance novels made pastors wonder if too many housewives were comparing their potbellied husbands with Fabio.

It wasn’t just a religious concern.  Burton takes a fictional character as an example of unhealthy reading, namely Dorian Gray, Portrait of (the novella by Oscar Wilde).  The title character is poisoned” by a little volume identified only as “The Yellow Book.”  Literary historians say this was an actual experimental novel, Against Nature, which affected Wilde himself in a negative way.  It could be that in the act of reading this particular book both the author and the character surrendered too much: in vampire terms, the poison book sucked Oscar/Dorian’s life force into itself and left him defenseless.

Active readers are co-creators, in a continual dialogue with the story (Why did he do that? Yess!  Don’t go there! I don’t get it—).  When a reader closes the book, it’s hers—her version, that is.  What she remembers is the book she read, and a book has as many versions as it has readers.  But some stories latch on to the reader, working so powerfully that she suspends the inner dialogue for pages or chapters at a time.  She’s becoming the story, rather than the other way around.

I read Raintree County in my early twenties, and it inhabited me for weeks afterward with its fervid romanticism.  Today I find it mainly pretentious and overwritten–but I make that judgment from the self that was, at one time, permanently altered by that same book.  We’re designed to be shaped by our culture even as we shape our culture.  So the issue isn’t whether you’re every going to be influenced by a “shattering” book, but what that influence might be.  That’s where the disclaimer for good or ill comes in.

Toward the end of the essay Burton tips her hand.  To her, it seems, the “dangerous” books are those that shaped the backward values of an earlier day.  “A rich tradition of political response—literature from the post-colonial and feminist traditions, has emerged in recent decades, in which literary classics are challenged or rewritten in rebellion against their purported textual authority.”  In other words: we know better now.  A case in point is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a “postcolonial” response to Jane Eyre showing how Rochester’s mad wife was driven insane by patriarchal and colonial oppression.

So that’s where she’s coming from.  Okay, fair enough—everybody is coming from somewhere, but to my mind Ms. Burton undercuts the whole premise of her essay in the last paragraph: “Too acknowledge that textual narratives have as much capacity to be truly dangerous as they have to be truly illuminating is to acknowledge that books, like people, are not inherently moral or immoral.”  Wait a minute—not inherently moral?  But didn’t she write the entire article from a moral perspective?  How can we even determine that some books may be “dangerous” unless that’s a bad thing (especially as opposed to “illuminating,” which is a good thing)?  .

I think she’s right in essence: some fiction can be damaging to the reader, depending on a host of factors: the content, mood, or tone of the former matched to the disposition, situation, or vulnerability of the other. Young people are especially vulnerable because they are in formation and don’t yet have the perspective to evaluate dark themes–even while many of them are attracted to dark themes.  That attraction in itself isn’t abnormal, and one depressing book won’t tip the balance of a reasonably well-adjusted teen.  But a deluge of them could create a current of despair, rage, or cynicism.  If your diet of fiction (or your kids’) seems tilted toward violence, oppression, suicide, or tragedy, it wouldn’t be amiss to wonder if it’s too much.

Riding Herd on Time

February 1, 2016

tyranny-of-timeBack in the mythical age of young-adulthood, time was everywhere—on my hands, waiting to be killed, never flying unless I had a paper due.  Baby #1 slowed the clock even more: who knew a day could be so long?  That changed with my decision to start homeschooling.  All of a sudden there was never enough time, because it burned at both ends.  “Time is my enemy,” I remember saying savagely. But of course it isn’t the enemy; it just acts that way when you treat it that way.

It’s the great healer, and the ultimate killer.  It brings all things to pass, waits for no man, runs through the roughest day, and bears all its sons away. It’s essentially mysterious: “I know what it is, provided no one asks me” (says Augustine), but weighs heavily on a guilty soul.  “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” muses Richard II, the most introspective of Shakespeare’s kings.

And the impatient reader says, “Yeah, okay, lots of profound people have said profound things about time.  So get to the point: how do I find more of it?  Time is money.”

So, has this ever happened to you?  New Year’s Day, or the first day of school, you make a schedule and promise yourself you’ll stick to it.  Maybe it lasts as long as a week, but more often, by day three or four you chuck it.  Things take longer than you thought, or you just don’t feel like doing what the schedule says you must do, or it’s too hard or interruptions get in the way or it’s boring.

This has happened to me over and over, so this year I approached the issue from another angle.  Instead of trying to wrestle time to the grid, I sneaked up on it from behind. What do I accomplish, and what do I want to accomplish better?  Thinking through everything I do, I found these activities fall into four basic categories.  I gave them names: Janie/mom/grandma, Janie Cheaney, Janie B. Cheaney, and J.B. Cheaney.  I drew four columns on a piece of notebook paper, and headed each column with one of those names.

 

The first category is who I am as a person and family member.  About how much time in a week do I timespend just being a human?  Starting on the far right column, I wrote everything I could think of, plus time spent doing: number of hours sleeping, shopping, preparing food and eating it (and cleaning up afterwards), keeping the house from looking like a pigsty, even talking to my kids on the phone (since they don’t live anywhere close, the little scamps).  I wrote all this and more, added up the total and put that sum directly under the list, as well as on the far left side of the page.

Next, who I am in my community and church.  How many hours a week do I spend actually in church, and how much preparing Sunday school lessons or Bible studies?  How much in volunteer work and lunch with friends?  All of it went in the second column from the right, with the total number of hours underneath and also added to the running total on the left side.

My professional life splits in two, roughly divided between Christian writing and fiction writing (at this point, they’re not the same).  Janie B. Cheaney writes for World Magazine and blogs at RedeemedReader.com; J. B. Cheaney writes fiction for kids and tries to market the same.  There’s a bit of overlap in these, indicated by the little arrows you may see between the two columns.  Both involve some marketing, blogging, Facebooking, and maybe (one of these days if I can ever figure it out) Twittering.  I also count reading time because Janie B. reviews books—nice work if you can get it, but it puts me to sleep sometimes.  Adding up my professional hours showed me two things: 1) I’m going to have to create an additional blog and Facebook page to accommodate them, and 2) I work an average of 45 hours a week.  After all these years, I can prove I’m a FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL WRITER.  So don’t mess with me.

After adding up all these hours and subtracting them from 168 (the number of hours in a week), I came up with 29 hours and 45 minutes unaccounted for!  That’s more than a whole day!  I’m breathing easier already.

beattheclockThe purpose of all this is not—like scheduling—to see how much activity I can cram into a twenty-four span.  The purpose is to show Time what it’s dealing with (I’m serious, pal).  It also shows me what I can realistically expect from a day.  “Realistically” is key—if you have young children at home or if you let your Doberman make out your schedule, you’ll have to set aside at least six hours daily for Mr. Unexpected to drop by.  Otherwise, given something you might call a “normal day,” you can start assigning your various obligations to blocks of time.

“Blocks,” not linear increments.  Our days don’t flow minute-by-minute, but rather bump-by-bump: periods of single-tasking followed by periods of multi-tasking; times of relative calm interspersed with times of hectic activity. Figure out when you are most productive and/or when you are least likely to be interrupted.  If those hours are not the same, synchronize them if you can, and tackle your most challenging tasks for that block of the day.  Squirrel your less-demanding tasks into those blocks when you’re more available, and arrange the things you can do simultaneously (like listening to an audio book while mopping the floor, or practicing French while driving—though that sounds like it should be illegal).

Of course you will not find yourself automatically doing what your planner says.  Your planner doesn’t understand human nature, much less your individual slacker mentality.  That’s where discipline comes in.  It’s also where standard advice that you’ve heard a million times comes in: whatever requires the most concentration needs to occur when you are best able to focus (for me this is 6-8 a.m.).  Do not check your phone.  Do not check your email.  Do not peek at Facebook, even for one teeny-weeny second.  If you can only set aside one hour a day to work on your novel, whip your attitude into line and tell it you won’t tolerate any backtalk for this one hour.  Do your best to scale back interruptions and streamline routines.  Lay out your clothes and mix the ingredients for your breakfast smoothie in the blender the night before.  When you take a break, keep it to ten minutes or less.  Ride herd on those productive hours, and you can loosen up the reins for the rest.

Case in point: I can do all my serious writing between 6 and 11 a.m. with a half-hour break for breakfast and a quick check of the news–4 ½ hours.  Afternoons are for uploading, Facebooking, research, business and personal emails . . . and everything else.  I don’t have to fill each week with everything on my hour log—self-employed people get vacations too.  And I’m not always going to be as productive as I planned because stuff happens.  (Look on the bright side when it does, maybe you can write about it!)

There’s also this: My times are in his hands (Ps 31:15).  Anyone who’s ever tried to command the hours learns that she’s not the boss.  But at least I know the Boss, and I don’t have to feel destroyed every time the plan goes off the rails.  There’s a bigger plan at work.