Archive for September 2013
The last time I checked in about running was late in the spring when my appetite for running distances greater than 3.1 miles was starting to grow. My goal was to work steadily on mastering 6.2 miles throughout the summer, knock off a number of races, and start to consider myself a 10Ker rather than a 5Ker. It has been a lot easier to write that than it was to live it. Never one on whom life lessons are easily lost, here’s what I’ve learned:
1. It’s ridiculous to think in most any aspect of life that you can suddenly double your output with little extra effort and no consequence.
I was lucky to have knocked out a full 10K on my third attempt at practicing it. It wasn’t so easy the rest of the summer. Once school let out, I tried to continue running in the mornings (when I run my best), but there never was much motivation to get to bed early the night before–not with Netflix, a laptop computer, a Nook, a cat yammering for my attention, a refrigerator, MLBTV, a Nintendo emulator on my laptop, Words With Friends, The Cider House Rules, The New Yorker, and who knows what else. When I did run in the mornings, I was still tired from staying up too late the night before. When I waited until evening, I was tired from daily routines. Regardless, I’d feel like quitting after the 4th mile. So I did a lot of times. Or at least I’d walk for a bit and then run again. The sudden jump in distance should have been accompanied by a change in routine, which didn’t happen.
2. I’m 43 years old now, and it feels like it when I run a 10K, .
I pride myself on almost never feeling my actual age. In fact, I usually feel much younger–5-10 years so. I credit this to somewhat healthy living, working out a lot, keeping a positive mindset, and being a high school teacher (it’s true–the kids keep you young). Running has no doubt figured prominently into this equation, especially since I’ve spent the better part of the last four summers running faster than I did when I was 16. My quest to master 6.2 miles, though, put a serious dent in the facade of my internal fountain of youth. Each time I tried to run a full 10K, I was afraid that if I sat down afterwards, it would be quite difficult to get back up. All too often, I splayed out on the carpet in front of the television trying to drink Gatorade without spilling it down my face and neck. My cat was cool with that, though, because she loves herself some sweat and smelly dry-weave shirts.
3. Self-doubt is a great motivator to adjust your thinking.
I hate walking during a run. Always have. It makes me feel like a quitter. In fact, I’ll go further to say that it makes me feel like I’m letting my high school cross country coaches and my team down (we had a rule: Never Walk). It makes me feel weak. It makes me think I’ve overestimated myself. Spend a whole summer crapping out on long runs, though, and you might start to think differently. You might start to think that you’re 43 now, and maybe it’s okay to walk sometimes. Especially when you’re trying to adjust to doing twice what you’re used to doing.
4. I’m willing to redraft my writing 13.2 times–what’s wrong with redrafting my running that much until I can get it right?
I have a piece of short fiction coming to publication in the next few weeks. In order to make it publishable, I worked through 13.2 drafts of it. I’m sure willing to do whatever I have to do to make a story publishable, so what’s wrong with doing whatever I have to do to work up to running 6.2 miles? Nothing. That’s why it doesn’t bother me so much now to stop and walk when I need to. It took me all summer to get to that point in my thinking.
5. Stubbornness is good.
This came to me on August 10th, when I ran my first official 10K race in 25 years. I made the turn-around at the 5K mark and felt a huge surge of adrenaline tingling from the back of my head down to the middle of my back. I felt it twice more before the finish line, and realized that I had made the right decision in seeing whether or not I could run greater distances. I’d be hard pressed to think of a time recently when runner’s high was so palpable. Despite my struggles and doubts, when I felt the buzz I knew I had it in me to finish. I’ve knocked out two more 10K races since then (including one yesterday to finish the summer), and mostly feel great about them.
6. Stubbornness is bad.
Greater exertion means a greater toll on the body. I’m finally at the point where I don’t feel like collapsing when I’m done running (though a post-race nap is always in order), but I’m also feeling a familiar discomfort in my Achilles tendon. Ironic, I know. There could be a lot of explanations for this, including worn-out orthotics, tight calves, worn-down running shoes, and just a plain old 43-year old, 200-lb body thinking it’s immortal. I’m sure I’ll find out over the next few weeks what is really going on. I might end up back in physical therapy, and then repeating this quest all over again. Insisting on finding my limits, though, definitely figures into all of this. If not for that stubbornness, if only I had stuck to 5K and been happy with what I had, I might not be worrying about this right now. But why not find those limits? Why sit complacently and wonder “What if…?” until the end of days?
What choice do I have when I’m hard-wired like this?
I’ve said before herein that teaching a high school-level creative writing class is quite beneficial to me. Not only does it keep me motivated to become a better writer (and hence a better teacher), but it keeps me in constant contact with the fundamentals of writing because about 95% of my students are only ready for the fundamentals. So it really grates on me when more advanced writers ignore the fundamentals or in some way indicate that they are disregarding them–and it’s twice as bad when they are allowed to get away with that. I had cause recently to revisit this anger, and soon thereafter got to thinking about fundamentals in regard to plot.
First, though: Plot ain’t easy. It takes a lot to weave a sophisticated plot that is a perfect fit for any particular story. Some of it may be god-given talent, but a lot of it is plain heavy lifting. Heck, even a basic, straight-forward plot can be ripe with trouble as you try to get things to make sense. But this is exactly why there are fundamentals–so you can master them and move on to creating advanced plots.
Here are some pointers:
1. The Turd in the Punch Bowl
Imagine you’re at a party having a nice time and you make it over to the refreshments table. You get some chips and dip, a few carrots, a piece of cake. When you go to ladle some punch into your cup, though, you notice a turd floating around in the fruity concoction and bumping into the partially submerged ice ring. But nobody reacts to it. It’s just there like it’s normal and expected. Would something like this really happen? Hell no. It follows, then, that characters in your story should be reacting to unusual circumstances in their environment. Otherwise, what purpose are those unusual circumstances serving?
So, for instance, if your character Jasmine is popping pills and guzzling vodka at every turn, and she spaces out in public and is having vivid flashbacks and is mumbling to herself or physically acting out, shouldn’t somebody say something? Shouldn’t her friends / family mention it? Wouldn’t strangers call the police if this happened in public? Of course they would. To ignore it or act otherwise wouldn’t make sense. That’s not how the world as we know it works, so why would we believe it works that way in a story that isn’t asking us to step out of the world as we know it?
2. No “All of a sudden…”
This is a huge rule because it covers so much. Whether a writer uses the actual phrase, “All of a sudden…” or it’s knock-offs “out of nowhere…” and “unexpectedly…”, or even if events unfold as if things are happening all of a sudden, it’s a cheap trick that many times exposes a faulty or ill-conceived plot.
For example, if Jasmine’s sister Ginger goes to a party with Jasmine and ends up dancing with Al and then sleeps with him shortly after, thus cheating on her boyfriend Chili, it would help immensely if we knew that Ginger was unhappy in her relationship in the first place, or that she’s impulsive, or that she has a history of infidelity. Any of those is better than BAM! All of a sudden she’s walking on a beach with Al and they’re talking about how they just had sex. That destroys her character!
And while we’re at it: Don’t pull another “All of a sudden…” when Chili finds out Ginger’s been cheating. Please don’t have Chili confront Ginger and tell her he has a bartender friend who who saw Ginger with Al at the party she went to with Jasmine. That’s cheap George Lucas crap. How hard is it to have a scene in which the bartender sees or recognizes Ginger? That’s enough to tip off the audience that trouble’s a-brewin’. Otherwise, it’s a cheap trick of convenience and tips the audience off that you’re being lazy. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Don’t be lazy. The important events should be portrayed in dynamic scenes, not referenced as empowering events.
So after a blowout argument, the next time we see Ginger and Chili, they have reconciled. They’re all lovey and kissy and happy like the infidelity and turmoil were so insignificant to them that it took almost no emotional effort to overcome them. If it wasn’t a big deal to them, why should it be a big deal to the audience? Better yet–why is it even in the story if it ain’t no thang? Instead, how about we see Ginger racked with pain over what she did and then making the decision to bite down hard, return to Chili, and then try to salvage the relationship. Wouldn’t that be a lot more interesting than them pretty much saying, “Uh, yeah. We made up…”? Again, it’s a cheap trick to skip the big stuff and jump to the happy ending.
And speaking of cheap tricks…
4. Dialogue is action.
Pay attention to that word: Dialogue. It’s a two-way interaction between characters. In fact, it’s been said that dialogue is the only true action in a story. Thus, dialogue is pretty damn important. Maybe, then, Ginger should be having a dialogue with Al when she finds out he’s actually married. When she discovers this devastating news, she probably doesn’t need to be having a one-sided phone conversation in which the audience is inferring what is being said by the party on the other end of the line because that’s a cheap trick that undermines the drama inherent in the scene.
But maybe you’re a big Bob Newhart fan and you’re one-sided phone conversation is an homage to him? Suck it–that doesn’t work for this kind of scene. Save it for the funny stuff, the same as Newhart would.
There’s so much to say about the basics of plot that this is barely a start. It’s a rich area in most any type of creative writing, which isn’t too surprising given how difficult it can be. There are plenty of books out there that could teach you the same basic points. You could plunk down your money for them, or you could spend $8.50 at the local theater and watch Blue Jasmine, the latest Woody Allen film. It’s a fine example of ignoring the fundamentals of plot and getting away with it. And given all the gushing reviews it’s received, which probably happened because Woody Allen’s name is on it, the film is an even better example of the aforementioned turd in a punch bowl.
Our motivational speaker didn’t disappoint. In fact, just the opposite–he killed. Some veteran colleagues whose opinions I deeply respect commented that he was the best speaker we have ever had at the school (for some, that goes back almost 30 years). I have my own beliefs about why he registered so well, at least with me. More on that later.
When I knocked off last time, I said that I knew the speaker would be talking about the importance of building meaningful relationships with students. That got me to thinking about the difficulties inherent therein, and once the speaker started in and I started taking notes, I fleshed out that very thought. One of my colleagues commented that meaningful relationships–especially with at-risk students–can’t be established by trivial means. Thus, saying “nice shirt” or asking how the game went last weekend might be nice conversation starters or ice breakers, but they aren’t going to go very far–and it’s meaningful relationships with at-risk students that are most important. At-risk students are not like plenty of other students who will succeed with or without a meaningful relationship with their teacher, wherein a “nice shirt” or a question about last weekend’s game will establish pleasantries and ostensibly be enough to maintain them throughout a year or semester. The idea of a meaningful relationship with the teacher doesn’t register prominently on their radar; many of them are intrinsically motivated, can gain a firm grasp of content and develop solid skills without undue difficulty, and can move through their education somewhat smoothly.
That’s not the case with most poor students, which my school has in spades. Half of our population is on free or reduced lunches, which is a huge indicator of where the overall economics in the community lie. That half is the half that we know of. There are more of an indeterminate amount because some families won’t file for free or reduced lunch because of ignorance of the system or the social stigma attached to the classification. All told, that makes for a lot of at-risk students, and if we know nothing else about at-risk students, they are hard to reach. So the building of relationships is all the more important. But the relationships doesn’t start at “neutral,” as I was reminded. When my freshmen show up the first day, the majority of them have eight years of negative school experiences behind them. Behind those eight years is usually two or three generations of family who hate the school, and even sizable chunks of neighborhoods that don’t find the school to be a positive and enriching environment, or even a worthwhile one. It is enough for them to survive on the margins through various welfare systems or manual labor.
So say I’m not cutting it in the relationship department with most of my students (and believe me, it feels that way with most of my at-risk students any given day). They can find other ways to make school meaningful by playing football or running track or wrestling, right? Not as frequently as you might think. Some are stuck on babysitting duty first thing after school since the parent is working. Later on in high school, a lot of them are working long hours after school and on the weekends to support themselves or their families. Those who aren’t stuck in difficult family circumstances might not even be able to play a sport because they can’t meet eligibility requirements. They’ve never had need to take school seriously and hence are lacking in many basic skills. When they show up to high school there are all these new expectations they can’t meet because they’ve been socially promoted k-8, they flounder, can’t play their beloved football or basketball, and chalk it all up as another negative experience with the school. And you can forget about involvement with other social and academic extra-curricular programs. These students have rarely had any positive experiences with the social or academic aspect of schooling–why would they voluntarily get involved with one after school?
Our speaker Monday was no doubt aware of all this and much more, which was a major reason why he was able to speak so effectively to us. For once we weren’t stupefied with inane war stories or chanted into a coma, and we didn’t have Maslow’s Hierarchy shoved down our throats like it’s scripture instead of theory. For once we weren’t singled out as teachers and told “You should be doing ‘x’ to get result ‘y’.” For once, the speaker took the entire building to task and talked about ways that we as an institution can and should be working to connect to students.
“Acknowledge, Honor, and Connect” was the theme of the day. What I didn’t hear, though, and what was perhaps the only missing piece in all this, was what logically must come next. Acknowledging, honoring, and connecting are the means, and not the end of what we must be doing. It can help get us where we are mandated to go, but it is not where we are mandated to go. We start there.
Then we climb the steepest part of the mountain.