Category Archives: Reading

We Shall See: Write Your Story, “Right” Your Life

Recently I was honored to be asked to deliver the keynote address at the Learn More Center commencement in Wabash, Indiana. Having taught there in the past, I was delighted to speak. These students are some of the hardest working I have ever seen.

In case you weren’t able to attend, below are my remarks.

One day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field with his old sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and desired to lift its burden. So he left his horse loose to go to the mountains and live out the rest of its life.
Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame. Now your only horse is gone. How unfortunate you are! You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?” The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see.”
I am so honored to be here this afternoon and to share this precious life event with you. Because I was once an instructor here, I feel like I already know your life stories and the struggles that brought you here. I know how hard you’ve worked to accomplish what you have.
I’m not sure if the Learn More Center intake process is the same as what it was when I was here. When I taught here, new students had to write down their goal and the possible obstacles to achieving them.
Then they had to list what they would do if those obstacles came up.
What if your car breaks down?
What if transit is two hours late?
What if your child is too sick to go to school? How will you make it to class?
You literally took pen and paper and wrote ways to make your life right by creating a plan. Now that’s some power!
You already told yourselves you could do it or you wouldn’t be here today. You already decided that there is nothing that has happened to you, good or bad, that you can’t overcome.
Doubters might look at your past situation and judge you based on what you did or didn’t do then: “Oh, you didn’t finish school. You must not have cared about your education.” Just like in the story of the wise man and his son, others decided they could interpret what your life would be based on what they thought they knew of your circumstances.
You knew better. You said, “We shall see.” You came here. You worked hard. You sacrificed your time and energy. You gave up time with family. TV time. You stayed up all night after work studying. Some of you spent gas money you didn’t have and went hungry to get here.
That doesn’t sound to me like someone who doesn’t care about an education. And it doesn’t to you, either, or you wouldn’t be here. You knew the truth of the matter. You didn’t let others decide your story.
Two days later the old horse came back now rejuvenated after meandering in the mountainsides while eating the wild grasses. He came back with twelve new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral.
Word got out in the village of the old farmer’s good fortune and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. “How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. “You must be very happy!” Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”
But aren’t you too old to be at LMC?, those voices of doubt might say, it’s too late for a high school education, and vocational training, isn’t that for younger people? Why try?
Whether it was others’ voices or your own, you ignored your fears. You said, “We shall see.” And you found your way here. You proved that you’re never too old, never too ‘behind,’ never too whatever they said to discourage you.
You are a visionary. You have authored a new story. And you’re on the way to making things that went wrong, right.
“We shall see.” Now in the story, the wise man means that as we don’t know. We can’t always know what it means when something happens. But I have a feeling you all meant that “We shall see” with a little more attitude, a little more swagger: “We shall see,” in your terms might be, “I’ll show them.” And today, you have.
At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer’s only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune. “Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won’t be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You’ll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad,” they said. Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, “Who knows? We shall see.”
Think of every blessed class you sat through, every TABE test, every Pick Your Poison worksheet (do you still do those?), every essay you had to write – and you persevered.
You said, “we shall see what I can do.”
Some of you have been studying for years, not giving up even when no one would have faulted you for it. Your home life might have been chaotic. Your relationships challenging. You’ve gotten discouraged at times and wanted to quit. You didn’t.
Every time you got up when the alarm went off even though you had been up late with a sick family member and came to school anyway, every time you packed lunches for your kids but didn’t have food to pack for yourself but were determined to go to class anyway, every time you wanted to cry because you just could not figure out why you needed to understand math word problems because who would ever need to cut a cracker into 7/8ths, you said, “I’ll show them.”
Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army. As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. “What very good fortune you have!!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.” “Who knows? We shall see,” replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

Sure, you could have read your circumstances to mean just what those others did: that you’re not smart enough, young enough, thin enough, rich enough, whatever enough to succeed. You could have given up. But you didn’t.
You could have assumed that how things look was the only way they could be interpreted, but instead you wrote yourself a new story, started a new chapter. You decided that what things seemed to be didn’t have to be what they were. That facts are only data, not foregone conclusions or the inevitable way things have to turn out.
From here, after today, the possibilities are endless. You’ve written your own story by making the necessary changes in your life to get here. You’ve proven you’ve got what it takes. Now all you need to do is sit down sometime after you’ve taken the time to pause and appreciate your efforts. Celebrate today because you’ve earned it.
Those of you who are being inducted into Honor Society, we salute you. Pay attention to these who are graduating and what they’ve done to succeed too. Model their behavior. When you want to give up, remember that they didn’t.
Graduates, I applaud you. As I said, I know some of your stories well. I actually worked with some of you, and I’ll never forget your courage and tenacity. You taught me how to teach you, and I thank you for that.

As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you.” But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”

The teacher still in me won’t let you go without saying this, graduates and students: after you’ve had cake until it comes out of your ears, after you’ve hugged everyone you love and have enjoyed this day you might have thought would never come, consider sitting down with either the Learn More Center staff (and we know they’ll be asking you to do this if they haven’t already) or by yourself. Literally get out pen and paper, or a laptop, and write out where you want to be in five years, in one year, even. Work backwards and ask yourself what’s the first step you need to take to get there, and then the next and the next. Plot your future.
I doubt I have to tell you that, because it’s likely your vision doesn’t stop here with this already remarkable achievement. Today is the path to that career you have in mind, or a job you’ve been promised if only you get your HSE. You might have promised a relative you’d do this, but now that you have, you’re ready to do something just for you.

With all your gumption, though, and I know you have plenty of it, sometimes you need help. If you don’t know how to find the resources to achieve your dreams, ask. Someone somewhere is doing what you want to be doing. Someone knows how to achieve the success you want.
As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able-bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy,” to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!”

Today is a milestone. Tomorrow is another. What will the future hold for you? You’re the teachers. You’re the ones showing us what is possible through seemingly impossible odds.
Show us, graduates, and as you intended us to, we shall see.

Thank you.

Note: the version of Farmers Son is borrowed from the http://rainbowbody.com/newarticles/farmerson.htm.

Announcing: Writing All the Things!

After nearly a year of plotting, planning, and tweaking, Barry and I are happy to announce the launch of our website, Writing All the Things!

You can explore our (evolving) website at writingallthethings.com. There you’ll find a slowly unfurling study on writing and reading literary fiction, a bit about us and the writing services we provide, and more content to come.

Writing All the Things b and white and blue

 

Our aim is to make reading and writing literary fiction less mysterious and reveal how enjoyable it can be. We want literary fiction to be more accessible to those who are intimidated by it, and more fun for those who already love it. While there’s certainly a writing focus to our study and analysis, there’s definitely a reading component as well.

We have other fun side projects for the website planned, too.

Please follow our blog and us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook (see our website for links). And share with your friends and writing pals!

Let us know (over there, or here) what topics you’d like us to take on, what aspects of literary fiction you’d most like us to delve into.

Let’s start Writing All the Things! (www.writingallthethings.com)

Something Borrowed…

books

There’s something special about reading a borrowed book. I don’t mean a library book, although that can be special too. I mean reading a book pressed into your hands by someone who can’t wait for you to read it, because they know you’ll love it. Someone you trust to know your tastes enough that you know you’ll enjoy the read and who wants to discuss it with you when you’re finished reading it.

Borrowed books feel better. Someone else has broken in the pages, unstiffened the spine. They have made the book friendlier than a brand new book.

When the friend has made notes in the book, ah, that’s bliss! Then you can have a conversation with them about the book even when they’re not there. “But how can you SAY that?” you ask when you don’t agree with their scribbles, or “Oh, I didn’t see that,” when you are suddenly enlightened by their notes. I’m a visual learner, so seeing things written down is so much better for me than hearing them, and being able to read someone’s notes is a gift.

It’s been awhile since someone’s told me I “must” read a book and handed it to me fresh from reading it.

When I was a child, a dear pastor friend accidently left his Bible behind while visiting our family. As I knew it was his favorite, I stayed up all evening copying down his notes out of it before giving it back to him the next day. Somehow I thought this would teach me everything he knew.

I’ve found interesting things in borrowed books. Candy wrappers. Photos. Postcards. Receipts. A hair once. I think that was the most startling, the hair, because it was so unexpectedly intimate.

Have you ever loved a book someone lent you so much that you just didn’t want to return it? Have you ever treasured the obvious love and affection someone has lavished upon a copy of a book so much that you don’t want to part with it, valuing it maybe even more than they do?

Maybe this explains why I often buy second-hand copies of books. For one thing, they’re not as intimidating. And they don’t come with those annoying slipcovers that I just take off anyway.

Borrowed books seem to be the ones whose stories stick with me the longest, and are the ones of which I have the fondest memories. Thick Dickens and other Victorian tomes. Worlds handed to me when my own was a bit bleak, a place to hide out until the storms passed, as they did.

What about you? What are your favorite books that were lent to you? Do you, too (shhh…), have a few you have just never returned and don’t think you could bear to? Leave your “confession” here.

A Backrub Book Review: Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement

Valley of Amazement

I adore Amy Tan. There. I said it. Call me biased, but there isn’t a word she has written that I don’t just love. And in case you doubted her coolness ratio, she’s also in a rock band!

Her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement was a Christmas gift from my husband, Barry. We were lounging in bed when I finished reading it, so I rubbed his back and talked about the book. I giggled and said I had just given a “backrub book review.” Alas, Dear Reader, I have no backrubs to offer just now, but I will gladly tell you what I told him.

As always, Tan wraps her readers immediately in a nimbly crafted world. She is a story teller bar none. Her prose is dainty and well conceived, but also rather invisible, as it should be. Her threads are silken, fine. While a large part of Tan’s appeal is the exotic nature of her tales, happily she addresses the universal.

Set partially in Shanghai in the early 1900’s, the book was particularly charming to read because I will be visiting Shanghai (accompanying my business-traveling husband) this year.

The main character, Violet Minturn, is brought up in her mother’s high class courtesan house, until circumstances cause Violet to be separated from her mother and forced to become a courtesan herself. (I can’t say too much more about how they become separated.) Violet, half Chinese, learns to embrace that newly discovered side of herself in order to survive the horrors of her life.

In this story of tragedy, misplaced trust, and, finally, quiet hope, Tan gives Violet a substitute mother, Magic Gourd, a woman Violet’s mother kicked out. Violet ends up at the house where Magic Gourd has gone, and the woman takes her under her wing, making her a well-sought after courtesan.

The story is nicely paced, beginning with a first person section in which we hear from a young Violet. This shifts to a clever second-person POV chapter titled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir.” It gives us all of the background information we would like about courtesans and their ilk without info dumping or trying to artificially fit it into dialog.

I must admit there was one spot where I stopped and shook my head a few times and asked Barry if he thought it was fair of Tan to reintroduce Violet’s mother after page 400 and tell us her backstory. For a few pages I fought it, but soon I was immersed in her story, and was rather sad to leave it to return to Violet.

I was also concerned that with only about two hundred pages left, Tan wouldn’t be able to satisfy her reader if she wandered away from Violet, but she did. I should never have doubted her.

Although he appears to be a shadow of a character in this book, I am more than a little interested in the artist Lu Shing. So forgive me if I shift now from a traditional review that you could get anywhere into a meditation on Lu Shing.

Violet’s father (a man Violet knows virtually nothing of), Lu Shing, is a second-rate artist who basically copies the work of masters and adds a detail or two, often at his customer’s request. Violet, having come into possession of two of his paintings, doesn’t like his work, but Magic Gourd keeps rescuing the paintings.

He figures into the story when Violet’s mother, Lucia, at the age of 16, falls in love with him in the United States, seduces him, and follows him back to China, while he protests continually that though he loves her, he will never be able to marry her or be with her.

Here’s the thing: Tan’s women are strong. They survive the grossest indignities, but they are their own worst enemies when it comes to loving men. They love unreservedly and ill-advisedly. In fact, their greatest passion in life seems centered around men, and it always causes them and those they love immeasurable pain.

In fact, these women often fall in love much more so of the idea of these men than the men themselves. That’s the case with Lucia and Lu Shing. We know before Lu Shing ever tells Lucia that his passion is for art, and that his passion even for that is pale.

The book’s title comes from one of Lu Shing’s paintings. The painting makes Violet feel uneasy when she finds it: “I felt certain now that the painting meant you were walking into the valley, not leaving it.” What she doesn’t know is that Lu Shing paints this same scene again and again, altering it at the whim of customers. She also doesn’t know that while the painting is a copy of an old master, the place is real, and it is a place she will visit and will have to escape.

Lu Shing seems muted, even when he paints. The women in the book ultimately take on this same muted quality when they are older. True, they survive. But they do so at the cost of vibrant feeling.

When Lu Shing is still in the United States he is asked “How do we capture the emotion in art?” His answer is telling: “The moment is altered as soon as I try to capture it, so for me, it’s impossible.” It’s also telling that he comes to the States as a young man to study with a landscape artist. There’s a stark, uninvolved, observer quality at work here that is, nevertheless, not without its own beauty.

There is no easy, happy ending to this book. Reunions happen, but not rosy, tearful ones. The strong women remain adamantine, and because of that, emotion is not something that they can afford to spare.

Just as Lu Shing has only walks through a life of shame at his weakness, so the women survive, but their connections seem both strong and tenuous. They are fiercely independent and yet devoted to the idea of one another. While we believe they stay in touch, the infrequent nature of their contact makes us believe they would survive just as well without one another. And yet this is a novel well worthy of a second read. What better message than that while we are connected, we are also strong enough to survive on our own?

Did you happen to catch the short story “The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover in last week’s New Yorker? What he writes toward the end of the story is true of this novel: “…and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what ‘now’ is while one’s in it.” I couldn’t sum it — or life — up better myself.

There is so much more to this book. I wholeheartedly recommend it. In fact, perhaps it’s time I read it again. Have you read it yet? Do you intend to read it? What else of Tan’s have you read?

P.S. I anticipate revisiting this book once I am back from China, so look for an update then.

Julie Brickman’s Two Deserts

Julie Brickman’s Two Deserts draws us into exotic worlds — both foreign and domestic —  that slowly reveal to us the unacknowledged and unknown layers of life in and around us all.

Brickman’s well-crafted stories expand exponentially with their deft movement, bittersweet insights, and unexpected humor. The book’s titles are often darkly humorous and always intriguing:”The Cop, the Hooker, and the Ridealong,” “Supermax,” and “The Dying Husbands Dinner Club” all live up to their titles.

One of the bravest stories is “Gear of a Marriage,” which consists of five pages of nothing but lists, starting with “Hiking boots, 2 pair,” and ending with, well, I won’t say what, but illness is involved. It’s the single most devastating story in the collection, its spare prose and unique form perfectly wringing from us an intense emotional reaction using matter-of-fact language.

Brickman explores various points of view as well: first, third, and the underrepresented second.  She’s not afraid to explore those vast deserts.

That Brickman has also been a psychologist benefits the reader as she zooms in and out of minds and psyches, of hearts and emotions. This is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure collection for adults, although a more apt name might be “What Would You Do?” Constantly putting her characters into impossibly difficult situations, Brickman keeps us curious, longing, wondering. No matter in which desert we find ourselves, we find an oasis in this collection.

Nowhere is this better represented than in “The Cop, the Hooker, and the Ridealong,” where a psychiatrist muses “The end of subjectivity was the end of the only kind of truth that could steer a life, truth rooted in self-discovery, the stark naked truth generated by the guts.” This beautiful, deep sentence sums up this tender collection.

Smart, brave and true collections such as this one don’t come along often enough, and they certainly don’t get the attention they deserve sometimes because they are smart, brave, and true.  These stories certainly are.

“Swift” Speaking by The President of Ireland

michael d higgins

When our daughter was young, Barry would often read aloud to her. He once read an excerpt from “Gulliver’s Travels” and she giggled incessantly upon realizing what “making water” meant, bright child that she was. The next few hours found her laughing and repeating the phrase. I’m not entirely sure that’s what we wanted her to most remember (Or repeat. In front of her grandparents!), but she has never forgotten it.

While in Ireland recently, we were offered the opportunity to attend the Swift Satire Festival in Trim. It was a pleasure made doubly so by the President of Ireland who is not only a leader, but a scholar, giving the festival’s inaugural address.

The president spoke eloquently and with fervor about Swift, a man who had also been the dean of a local church in Trim, a town more recently distinguished for having the castle used in the movie Braveheart. (Pictures to come.)

Higgins ended his speech with a word to writers, one I shared today with my students, and one I take to heart:

“Without the engagement and passion of people, without the raised voice of the intellectual and the poet, without the willingness to engage in public discourse at the price of personal risk, without the willingness of the powerful and the well connected to feel such a thorn or scruple as will impel them to disturb the composure of their class and peers and go on to champion the cause of the marginalised and the excluded, we will not have a society which is worthy of the support and allegiance of all of the citizens.”

At the conclusion of his speech he shook hands with a few of his listeners. My husband and I were happily among those. Sad to say, our hands were too occupied to use our camera to record the event. But what’s the chance we’ll ever forget it, anyway?

I Want to Launch a Little Free Library!

Do you know about Little Free Libraries?  I first read about them in Writer’s Digest, and then again at a conference I went to last Friday.  I was lying in bed reading WD and was so charmed by them that accidentally woke my husband by exclaiming over them.  Now I want to put one up!

When I was a child, I did not have access to a library. My parents had books, scads of them, but they were just occasionally obtained odd box lots.  I lusted after books.  Sadly, the few books on the shelves at my grammar school were uninspiring and we were not encouraged to take them home anyway.

When I was in high school the state started a library that loaned books through the mail, and I was delighted!  They printed a catalog and you sent in your card to request the books you wanted.  I was always delighted to come home and find out what books had come in the mail for me.

So, what is a Little Free Library?  It’s this:

(Image from http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/little-free-library-originals.html .)

Yes, you erect a little box not much bigger than a birdhouse in your yard to encourage people to take a book and return it when they are finished reading it.

The irony about my wanting one is that we live less than a block from the library.  But I want so badly to go back in time and give my child self books.  Perhaps I could partner with a friend of mine who is working diligently to fix up my hometown.  They still don’t have a library there, at least not in the rural area where I lived.

In the meantime, I still want to put one up, because I know that some of my students have children who cannot check out books due to fines or lost materials.   Perhaps if we put up a library, the gaggle of children who gather a block down to wait for the school bus  (or their parents) would stop by for a book.  I’d like to think so.

We’ll see if I do or not.  What about you, would you consider doing this?