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The Joy and Hilarity of Students Who Google Essay Questions About Literature

Over the past few years, I’ve written hundreds of essays about creative works.  Some of those works are parts of the canon, while others are merely cool pieces published in random literary journals that caught my eye for whatever reason.  It is a great honor that writers value Great Writers Steal as a resource.  My original intent was to isolate elements of writing craft to help creative writers improve the work.  Along the way, of course, I’ve done an awful lot of literary analysis that is helpful to students who need to write essays in response to their teachers’ questions about literature. Continue Reading

GWS Writing Prompt: Two in a Rowboat

The British Library did a great service to humanity when they released millions of images from their collections into the public domain.  The men and women who created this very, very old printed matter are long dead, but their work lives on.  Take a look at this interesting image.

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Are your creative juices flowing?  This image could inspire so many works of literature:

  • A poem about a friend who won’t share his whiskey even if you’re freezing to death.
  • A story about two men waiting for their third friend to return so they can head to their cabin.
  • A novel about a son coming to grips with a father who never did anything he wanted to do.  The son wants to be a ballet dancer…but the father just has to toss some beers into the rowboat and go fishing.
  • A video game in which you must resist pushing a button to trigger your friend’s ejector seat, no matter how annoying he gets.
  • A story about two friends who are on a trip to fulfill their comrade’s dying wishes by pouring his ashes onto the coast where the three spent so many happy times.

What do you think?  What ideas does the image inspire in you?

A “New Vonnegut” Would Be Great for Labor…If We Could Get More Laborers Back Into Literary Reading

It’s Labor Day as I write this.  As any writer can attest, there really is no day off.  We’re always thinking about the next story, the next poem.  We’re always asking our characters what they should do next or just living with a problem in our heads, hoping a solution makes itself apparent.

The overwhelming majority of writers have “real” jobs, too.  Did you read my recent cry from the heart?  I’m trying to help writers help themselves by expanding the tent and inviting in the readers of “literary” fiction that we’ve alienated over the past few decades with our increasing insularity and rejection of entertainment as a priority in literary work.

Did you see Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor’s 2013 piece for Jacobin that was recently picked up by Salon?  The authors provide us with an excellent history of Labor Day and engage in a powerful analysis of the work of a writer who is indeed a working-class hero: Kurt Vonnegut.  Gannon and Taylor are indeed inspiring:

Literature is not – and cannot – be the only force in this fight for economic justice, but its potential contributions should not be understated. Vonnegut is such a potent example of this literary-labor nexus because of his immense popularity. Readers treasured Vonnegut’s literary imagination not just for his stance on politics and economics, but his masterful storytelling, his inimitable wit, and his humanistic compassion. Binding these literary qualities together with his political outlook makes him relevant more than ever today.

I’m beyond depressed to report that the authors are forgetting one crucial oversight.  Yes, Vonnegut is one of the titans of twentieth-century American literature.  His books exemplify my personal aesthetic (and that of Great Writers Steal Press) because they are entertaining and meaningful, in that order.  While eleventh-grade English teachers have been assigning Vonnegut for decades, reading the man is not homework.  He shares new ideas and plays with language and appeals to the child and adult inside us all at the same time.

I’m sure it’s fair to say that many non-writers are reading Vonnegut because of sheer cultural momentum, but he surely holds a smaller share of the proverbial “men and women on the bus” than he did in the sixties or seventies.  There are fantastic “literary writers” today who address labor issues and the like in an interesting and accessible fashion–T.C. Boyle comes to mind.

The great problem is that literature can not have a powerful effect on a populace when few are reading it.  Tattoo this backwards on your forehead so you don’t forget:

We have lost a significant of those people we are hoping to entertain and motivate.  We need to get them back by emphasizing Vonnegut and those like him who are still alive.

Ask yourself some very important questions:

Were Today’s Vonnegut twenty-three years old right now, would his early work get him into an MFA program?

Would Today’s Vonnegut receive equal respect from science fiction readers and literary readers?

Would Today’s Vonnegut be able to get a teaching position, an agent or a book contract for his books, ones that seldom feature the voices of women or people of color and surely would catch the ire of cultural pedants for “retrograde” social attitudes?

If Slaughterhouse-Five were released today, would it make a sound?

 

Gannon and Taylor’s piece is very well-written and I liked it a great deal, but this essay of my own is an attempt to take their discussion one step further: how do literary readers reclaim the blue-collar reader so we can have some of the same cultural effect Vonnegut did in decades past?  

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we’ll never solve the problem if we don’t acknowledge it exists.

 

 


I am certainly no Kurt Vonnegut and neither is my pal Curtis Bradley Vickers.  We are both united, however, in our desire to bring literary work back to the masses.  Consider visiting readingisnothomework.wordpress.com and letting us know if we’re on the right track.  Pick up one of our eBooks.  Stories cost one-third as much as a cup of coffee.  My chapbook still costs less than a large iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.  (And it will stay with you longer.)

 

Please Check Out GWS’s New Venture and My Cry From the Heart!

Big news!

Great Writers Steal is now publishing eBooks.  Too many people believe that reading is homework, so we’ll be publishing stories and poems that are both entertaining and meaningful.  We want to regain the attention of the proverbial “woman on the bus.”

I’d be grateful if you’d check out the site and consider looking at the debut selection.  There will be books for writers, but the primary goal is to dispel the notion that reading is homework or something that you only do when your TV is broken and your cell phone is dead.  That’s why the URL is: http://books.greatwriterssteal.com.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m trying to start a very important conversation.  We literary souls have turned away many prospective customers and it’s imperative that we isolate and address the causes.  We can continue to be a gated community in the larger world, or we can try to regain a measure of the cultural relevance we once had.

Please read, share and interact with the piece.

Excelsior!

Nathaniel Tower, Bartleby Snopes and Avoiding Cliche the Bill Watterson Way

One of the greatest joys of being part of the writing community is how giving most people are.  Stephen King has written multiple books about writing craft and has given countless lectures, all because he loves the community so much.  James Patterson gives millions of dollars to independent bookstores to ensure they can continue to support writers who don’t sell as many books as, well, James Patterson.  I noticed an interesting and pleasant enough debate that took place and I wanted to share my own thoughts.  (Many people have already done so, but I’m guessing you haven’t read what I’m about to say…)

Bartleby Snopes managing editor Nathaniel Tower wrote a guest post for freeze frame fiction in which he described the cliches that he’s sick of seeing in submissions.  Mr. Tower’s suggestions are fairly conventional and understandable.  Stories that begin or end with a character waking from a dream.  Yawn.  Stories that begin with “light streaming through the window.”  (I was not aware that was a thing.)  Mr. Tower is not being rude; his bio even points out that many of his own published works violate the rules he just laid out.

Laryssa Wirstiuk wrote a response in which she affirmed Mr. Tower’s cheeky caveat.  There are plenty of exceptions to the rule.  For example, Ms. Wirstiuk cites stories such as:

“In September, the Light Changes” by Andrew Holleran (story that begins with streaming light); “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (story with a “death ending”); “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore (sentimental cancer story based on true cancer story)…

What’s the difference between a great story like “Bullet to the Brain” and a terrible, overdone story that confronts the same subject matter?  Say it with me: Storytelling skill.  An understanding of how to break the rules.  World-class facility with language.

Most of us don’t have those qualities, so we should be aware of the dangers about writing a story based on a cliched premise or with cliched characters.  The best way I can think of to illustrate the principle is to take a step back and to return to childhood for a moment.

Ohioan Bill Watterson is the genius behind Calvin and Hobbes, one of the funniest and most touching comic strips ever.  The premise is deceptively simple; Calvin is a precocious little boy who explores the world and its people with Hobbes, his pet tiger.  (A companion who, of course, only comes to life for Calvin.)  Mr. Watterson put a decade’s work into this magnum opus, alternately touching the funny bone and the heart.  He ended the strip in 1995, loathe to allow the quality of his work to flag and secure in the feeling that he had said everything he wanted to say.

After his retirement, Mr. Watterson retreated (even further) into the anonymity that he loves.  I’ve always remembered this well-written story that James Renner placed in the Cleveland Scene.  Mr. Watterson did not abandon creative pursuit in the years after he sent Calvin and Hobbes off on their eternal journey.  Instead, Mr. Watterson experimented in another artistic form:

An industry source who wishes to remain anonymous says Watterson paints oil-on-canvas landscapes, but sets fire to each as soon as it’s finished. Supposedly, he was told that the first 500 paintings an artist creates are just practice.

Isn’t that beautiful and sad at the same time?  If the anonymous source is to be believed–and why not in this case?–then the world has lost many works of art.  Works that would be worth thousands of dollars.  The story is also touching; what matters most?  The creative journey, the putting of brush to canvas.  (Or pen to paper.)

I also tend to think that Mr. Watterson’s impulse is correct.  The first million words you write are just practice.  The first stories, poems and novels are preparatory drudgework that teach you so much of what you need to create work of value.  Writing and painting are exceptional in that they are pursuits from which you need never retire.  Right now, my close, personal friend Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet.  In thirty years, he’ll be unable to turn on a minor league fastball.  How many people have a realistic hope of constant improvement?  Eternal excellence?

Look at Whitney Houston sing live in 1985.  She’s the best.  The vocal just pours out of her.

Now listen to Whitney Houston sing in 2010.

Granted, there were some additional…issues that were getting in the way of Ms. Houston’s voice, but the world-class talent devolved into a barely competent speak-singer.

Fellow writers?  You and I have a chance of writing some decent lines or sentences the day we die.

I’ve been writing far longer than I should admit, and I think that the cliche stories that Mr. Tower referenced are a rite of passage, particularly for writers who start young.  I wrote my awful version of the “Adam and Eve” science fiction story.  My first novel wasn’t THAT bad, but it was heavily influenced by my love of The X-Files and the partner dynamic between Mulder and Scully.  I’ve definitely written a “death story” or two.

We all learn a lot through mimicry.  Children acquire language skills by emulating what their parents say.  Ballplayers start out in the sandlot pretending they are Justin Verlander staring down a batter in the seventh game of the World Series.  Writers, I suspect, engage in a lot of mimicry as they begin to find their own voices.

I suppose what I am urging is that we think of our cliche stories as practice in the same way Bill Watterson thought of his first few hundred paintings.  We can have a great time creating our cliche stories, just as it’s a lot of fun learning to throw a curveball by whipping the horsehide at imaginary batters.  And perhaps we should think twice before throwing that curveball to a real hitter before it’s ready.

Why I Don’t Care About the Manufactured Outrage du Jour

My mother abandoned her family, leaving my broken and broken-hearted father to try his best to care for three young children while working full time.  I was nine, my sister was seven and my brother was three.  Whatever security and stability I had in my life was gone, all because the woman who bore me decided that she wanted to hitchhike to Texas and to see Tom Petty in concert instead of giving me the parental care I needed.  I’ve always felt a smidgen of additional guilt.  I was my parents’ first child.  Until the day I was born, my father was a free man with a brilliant mind and good humor and great potential.  Once I fell into the world, he was trapped with a woman who simply didn’t have it in her to care about anyone but herself.

Few massive changes are instantaneous; my mother’s defection was no different.  I’m at the point in my life when my few friends and many acquaintances are getting married and having or caring for children.  These mothers and fathers are braiding hair and helping to build snow forts and doing what they can to bring enough money into the home.  My mother, on the other hand, did as little as possible to contribute to the home.  My father punched out of his factory job at 3 p.m., so that’s when my mother woke up.  She’d stretch and yawn and think about doing some work around the house.  Some days, of course, were easier than others.  I have been told that I once reached into my own diaper and smeared my own feces on the wall because that’s what happens when you leave a little kid in a crib all day while you’re sleeping and listening to Stevie Nicks records.

My mother began spending far more time with her unpleasant friends who lived on a street by the river whose name looked like a phone number.  She passed most nights swaying to mid-eighties adult contemporary while the rest of us slept.  She was gliding, I assume, on chemical wings.  The family home didn’t have any aerators in the faucets because my mother had nicked them for use in her marijuana pipe.  The family home didn’t have any flatware sharper than a butter knife because my father was scared one of the pieces would end up in his belly or his throat one day.  The family home was a dark place, haunted by tangible fear–when’s the next time she’s going to lose it?  Is she going to scream or cry tonight?  Both?  These are the childhood thoughts I contemplated as I spent hours sawing through my meat with a butter knife.

The statistics vary wildly, but infidelity is certainly a common occurrence.  I suppose that sleeping around isn’t an indication of bad parenting by necessity.  I do think it’s fair to say that having sex with some dude on the living room sofa while the children are sleeping and your husband’s sitting on the marital bed wondering what the hell he’s going to do is a source of harm to the family.  Particularly to the oldest, a boy who, fueled by dozens of Encyclopedia Brown stories, fancied himself a detective.  I didn’t know what she and Boomer or Tick-Tock or Grillface or whatever his name was were doing on the sofa, but I did know it was wrong.  Wrong enough that I crawled back from the living room and put my arm around my father’s shoulders and told him it would be okay.

The dude who had rolled up on the bike and stayed the night might have been a phase.  After my father bought her a Dodge Colt, my mother started a relationship with some man who was incarcerated in a prison far enough away that she put tens of thousands of miles on the car in less than a year.  If memory serves, the affair ended when she crashed the car just off John Glenn Boulevard.  I remember going with my father to see the totaled car, only a couple minutes away from Angie’s Bullpen, the baseball card store where he and I had bonded years earlier.

My mother’s process of extracting herself from the family took so long that the effects on my mood must have been obvious.  My third-grade teacher recommended I speak with the school counselor.  We spoke about baseball for a couple minutes before he shut the door on what I needed at that time–literally.  The school parade was filing by his door and he shut me away from the friends I wanted, needed to make.  I had hoped to find that companionship in Boy Scouts, but my mother pulled me out of that organization because the boys were older.  I was as much in love with baseball then as I am now, but I had to stop playing because my father didn’t have the energy to register me for Little League, even though I rode my bike to all of the practices.

After some cutting of the family pictures and some more sobbing and, I imagine, more infidelity, my mother finally left.  I finally understood what she was the first time I read The Glass Menagerie with Miss Rowe in 11th grade.  My mother was the picture of Tom and Laura Wingfield’s father on the mantle, the focal figure who drives the story and establishes the tone, but never appears.  The difference between Mr. Wingfield and my mother is that she never really left.  The honorable thing to do would have been to cut all ties with us and to let us heal.  Instead, the first year or so of her freedom was marked by drunken midnight calls in which she wept and told me she didn’t abandon us.  I remember not being convinced, but I still said, “I know, Mom.  I know.”  I must have been a good kid; I didn’t want her to feel the massive guilt of what she was: a failure at everything she attempted and a massive source of pain for everyone who depended on her and to whom she had made sacred promises.  It seems perfectly logical, therefore, that I’m in my thirties and remain unmarried and childless.  While I have done plenty of wrong in my life and committed sins I wish I could take back, I can honestly say that I’ve never been a bad father or husband.  I’ve never done the kind of lasting damage that should, but doesn’t, keep her up at night.

Instead of making a clean break, she made her departure as frayed as possible.  She moved back into town.  Any time my father was reaching some stability and starting to feel okay again, she would show up and she and her boyfriend would take my brother and sister fishing or whatever they did.  I was onto her.  I was old enough to realize that a person who makes triannual visits isn’t a parent.  A woman who gives her kids no money or time is not a mother.  She’s a selfless child who only cares about maintaining her personal vital lie.  She gets to wake up believing that she is a mother and that she did all she could for her babies.

The last time I was in the same building at the same time as my mother was when I was about sixteen.  My father told me the news: my mother had been arrested.  A drunk and disorderly?  And she needed to be bailed out.  After telling my father he had no obligation to the woman who found triannual visits too much of a trial, he asked me to come with him to post bail.  I must have been a fairly decent teenager; I still don’t understand women or the intricacies of the human heart, but I did and do understand that my father was looking for someone to support him.  So I did.

My mother did damage to my father, my siblings and to me that is at once tangible and incalculable.  While I take the bulk of the responsibility for what has largely been a wasted and lonely life, it’s also fair to say that my mother’s many offenses against decency is a substantial contributing factor to the person I am today.

My mother, it seems, is also the reason I don’t care about the manufactured controversy du jour.  A comedian made a joke six years ago that you find offensive?  I don’t care.  No one got hurt.  No joke has ever done to any human being what my mother did to my family.  A rapper used a word of which you disapprove?  I don’t care.  No rap song has ever put a single person in the hospital.

We are all offended by words on occasion; that’s perfectly natural.  I love John Oliver, but one of his recent Last Week Tonight bits offended me.  That’s okay.  He and I are in 99% agreement with respect to life.  The Duck Dynasty guy recently made some odd and offensive comments about atheists.  If I had had a real mother, she would have told me that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Being offended is another way of saying that you don’t feel like engaging with a real issue that does tangible, incalculable harm to real human beings.  The manufactured outrage culture is symptomatic of cowardice and apathy.  It’s very easy for “news” sources to make a brave stance against a naughty word.  It’s far more difficult and costly to cover real stories that are actually a problem.

I think I’ve always felt this way.  Like everyone else on the planet, I endured some “bullying” as a kid.  Both the traditional kind and the redefined version that includes causing any person any discomfort whatsoever.  But I’ve never wasted any time or thought thinking that taking offense means that I’m entitled to something.  The quality of my work may not reflect the time I’ve put into writing, but I’ve been scribbling stories and poems since before puberty set in.  Those who sit at a keyboard or uncap a fountain pen deserve our respect.  Unlike those who manufacture outrage, they are trying to add to our culture.  Those who write 100-word articles criticizing Trevor Noah, a comedian, for making jokes are manufacturing outrage.  Trevor Noah, on the other hand, stands on a stage, all alone but the microphone, and tries to make people laugh.  Society needs comedians and truth-tellers, even if they say things that we don’t like on occasion.  We do not need manufactured outrage.  Whoever combed through Mr. Noah’s 8,000 tweets mining for gold needs to devote that time to meaningful pursuits.

America has serious problems.  Families are suffering due to the collapse of the middle class.  Gay people still can’t get married in a few states.  A maddening minority of police officers are using excessive force and planting drugs on innocent men.  Guantanamo Bay is still open.  Let’s focus on the people doing tangible harm instead of the people who say things we don’t like, even though it’s far easier to retweet our anger than to seriously address a real source of suffering.

At some point after my mother was no longer in the house whose deed still bears her name, she visited on a Sunday night and was very cross with my father.  Married…With Children was on Fox 68.  We got a pretty good picture with our rabbit-eared television.  My mother folded her arms and told my father, “I don’t want the kids watching that show.”

My father asked why.

“Because,” my mother said.  “That show gives the wrong idea about women.  The wife is depicted as lazy and is a bad mother.  Don’t let them watch it.”

I’ve already introduced you to my mother, so you must see the irony inherent in her objection to the program.  No, women are not inherently lazy and most mothers are beautiful and loving people.  But she wasn’t.  And she was taking the easy way out, criticizing a comedy show for the potential harm that it could do to me instead of confronting the real pain and lasting hurt that she was doing to me.  To all of us.

Years from now, Trevor Noah will be a few years into his stint on The Daily Show.  He’ll likely be successful and the transition from Jon Stewart will be a dim memory.  Still, he’ll check his Twitter mentions and see that someone took seven seconds out of their day to call him a sexist or an anti-Semite.

Every second Sunday in May, people who don’t know her wish the woman who bore me a happy Mother’s Day.  Those who see her do the demographic math and assume she’s given birth and lend her some of the reflected glory earned by men and women who are real parents.  No one is going to tweet her to remind her of what she did to the people who loved her the most.  There will be no protesters outside her place of work imploring her boss to replace her with someone else.  People like my mother get away with hurting people because, in part, it’s much easier for all of us to train our flaccid righteous indignation on easy targets.  We get social brownie points from our friends for clicking “Like” on a “shared” “article” criticizing a comedian for making jokes.  Three seconds of effort earns us a shot of dopamine.

Our problem is simple.  We’d rather go after Peg Bundy than those who visit true misery upon us.

 

Here are Some Vile, Evil Comedians Who Should Be Sent to Offensive Island if They’re Not Already Dead

Friends, as I pointed out yesterday, many talentless, humorless scolds have decided they need to protect others from words and ideas.

Thankfully, Trevor Noah has been spirited away to Offensive Island, a bit of land in the middle of the Pacific where he can live out his days marooned on a beach, thinking about his free use of free speech. As The Daily Show looks for a new host, I’m wondering who they can select.

Here are some disgusting human beings who are not only unfit for Daily Show hosting duties, but for existing in Western society as a whole.  Who else should be shipped directly to Offensive Island, never to return?

Oh, and while you’re at it, please sign my Change.org petition to force Comedy Central to give The Daily Show to a comedian who has never offended a single person ever.

George Carlin

CRIMES: He’s anti-Catholic and racist.  And sexist.

Richard Pryor

CRIMES: Contributed to use of “n-word” in humor.  Drug use.  Lack of fire safety.

Lenny Bruce

CRIMES: Racism.

Chris Rock

CRIMES: Racism.  Lots of racism.

Anthony Jeselnik

CRIMES: Racism.  Sexism.  Crimes against Trumpanity.

Sarah Silverman

CRIMES: Sexism.  Racism.  Anti-Semitism.

Margaret Cho

CRIMES: Racism.  Sexism.  Homophobia.

Eddie Murphy

CRIMES: Racism.  Sexism.  Homophobia.

Jon Stewart

CRIMES: Racism.  Sexism.  Anti-Semitism.  Anti-Palestinianism.  Anti-American Exceptionalism.

GWS.OMG! Duck Dynasty Guy Fantasized About Violence Against Atheists! Mary Breaks Down Charlize Theron’s Vanity!

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The Duck Dynasty guy doesn’t like atheists.  Whaaaaaaaaa?
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GWS.OMG Thanx HLN! BruJo Gets New House and a Fish Looks Like a Star Wars Character!

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HLN is knockin it out da park today with all of the important news!  Did you know that Bruce Jenner bought a new house?  And that a fish looks like a Star Wars dude?
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GWS.OMG! Fox News Pointed Out That Eva Mendes Said Something that Could Be Construed as Sexist! J-Law and Bra-Coo 2-get-her! Mr. Darcy a Jerk!

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Seriously.  This is so craycray.  Eva Mendes joked that sweatpants are, like, a big cause of divorce.
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