Thursday, February 3, 2011

Writing to Make a Difference (in Four Parts)

Soren is, Occasionally, a Happy Cat

Several years ago, when I found a  book-length story idea, it came to me in a rush.  Within minutes I knew the main character, the external conflict and the internal conflicts how they played into a full character arc.  Just as importantly, I saw that the story had a serious social message that while not hit-me-over-the-head in-my-face, was central to the core of the story.

I mapped out the story in my head, wrote extensive notes about the major characters and spent lots of time working out the all-important first scene/chapter.  The story built and built in my head, gaining in importance as I continued to stall on the actual writing.

By the time I managed to commit the story to actual keystrokes, I had put myself under so much pressure that anything short of pure and energized poetry would be perceived, by me, as failure.

No big surprise then that when I re-read what I had written the following day, I hated every word of it.  I shoved the printed pages somewhere and became so convinced of my utter inability to write anything well, much less meaningful, that I didn't write for a year.


A decade or so ago, almost on a lark, I tried my hand at writing a kids book.  It was a medieval-ish era fantasy about an apprentice wizard and a kidnapped princess.  I had the opening scene mapped out and an idea where the story was headed, so I wrote out the first two chapters.  They were okay for a rough draft, but I wasn't sure how to work the two kids out of the jam I had gotten them in to by the end of the second chapter.  After thinking about it for a while, my wife asked if she could read them.

After she finished them she said, "This isn't funny."

"I know," I said.  "It's a fantasy.  A serious fantasy."

"You're funny," she replied, handing me back the pages.  "You should write funny."

And, yeah, she was right.


When I found the idea for my current WIP I was still gun shy from my failure to write perfect prose the first time for a story that had come to be so important to me.  I vowed to keep myself from taking this new story too seriously, to the point where I have only recently stopped referring to it as my "goofy kids book."

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake
in Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (1941)
It's funny.  (At least beta readers and my CP have laughed in the right places)  It has light-hearted fantasy elements, at least one wildly eccentric character and an internal logic that, while partially grounded in the science of the day, doesn't take itself too seriously.

However, as I wrote yesterday, I still want my writing to have some meaning.  I'd really like to have my stories make some difference in the world.

So, what difference can a goofy kids book make?

That's where Preston Sturges' 1941 film "Sullivan's Travels" comes in.  In the film, Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a filmmaker with a successful string of mindless comedies.  What he really wants to do, however, is to make a film about the real problems facing the common person, the Average Joe out there in America.  To discover what those problems are, he leaves his posh Hollywood mansion and sets out to travel the country as a hobo.

Comedy, and meeting up with Veronica Lake, ensues.

After getting arrested for murdering himself (see preceding paragraph), Sullivan ends up in a chain gang-style prison where he lives in some of the worst conditions a man can find himself in.  His fellow prisoners are overworked, forgotten and have little hope of ever seeing their lives improve.

Then, one night, the warden shows the inmates a film--one of Sullivan's insipid comedies--and Sullivan realizes that  making people laugh is something of an incredible gift.  If you can create something that takes someone out of the horrible situation they're in, even if it's only for a short amount of time, you've made an important difference in their lives.


Back in my days as an elementary school librarian I worked in two academically gifted schools.  The trade-off with such schools is that while they receive more money from the county to establish unique educational programs, the schools themselves are in economically disadvantaged areas.  One of the schools I worked was in an area considered to be so dangerous that when the principal called for a mandatory nighttime meeting, several teachers insisted a guard be hired to see them safely to their cars in the parking lot.

This school was four blocks away from a crime-ridden housing project.  It was so bad that the week after the local police opened a substation in the development, someone dumped a body nearby the substation doorway.

In that school had a class of first graders who came in at the same time every week.  It was my first year of teaching and I was still feeling my way around the whole teaching thing.  I was settling into a slightly bizarre, if hopefully entertaining persona, and felt it important that I be able to reach each kid who came into the library.

Week after week, though, a class of first graders would silently walk into the library and sit down at the short, round tables in the picture book section.  Week after week, one small African-American boy would, within minutes, be sound asleep.

Because I was young and stupid, I took this personally.  I cannot be that boring, can I?  What is this kid's problem?  Doesn't he know quality entertainment when he sees it?  I may not be singing and dancing, but I do read a pretty good picture book if I say so myself.

One day, when the teacher returned for her class, I mentioned the sleeping kid to her.

"Oh, I'm not surprised at all," she said.  "He lives a few blocks over and must hear gunshots every night. This is probably the only quiet, safe place he has all week long."

Getting stung by an "It's Not All About You, Stupid," I resolved to let that kid sleep through his time in the library any time he wanted to.  If that's what I could provide for him, at that point in his life, it was way more important that listening to some fool who was trying way to hard read a book out loud.

_________________________ . . . _________________________

I try to do what I can to make the world a better place.  I'm hoping that my WIP will make kids laugh and give them the kind of adventure in reading that I had as a kid when I was reading stacks of books.

And if my book is so boring it puts them to sleep, well, that's okay, too.