Sunday, October 19, 2008

That thing we MUST do...write

In my email box this week, along with 27 notices that I had won the lottery in various countries in Europe for a cool $2.5 million (huzzah) and 52 ads for enlarging my member (um, okay), I got a letter from an old friend, Chris Baty.

Some will recognize the name. If you have ever separated yourself from friends, family and reality for the month of November, if you ever dedicated yourself to no sleep and spasm-inducing amounts of caffeine, if you ever toyed with the idea of living in your car with your laptop plugged into the cigarette lighter to get a little quiet time then you know who Chris is. He’s the pied piper of National Novel Writing Month, the clarion voice in the desert (well, San Francisco actually) calling more than 100,000 writers to their destinies, computers and coffee makers to pour their jittery alter egos into a 50,000-word novel produced in one month.

National Novel Writing Month or Nanowrimo to the obviously unbalanced insiders, is the gauntlet thrown down to all who would call themselves novelists, writers or word-whores. Come on, poseurs, says Chris, show us what you got. It’s easy, from the outside, to sneer at such a paltry amount, I mean, real writers write weighty fare like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged at 565,000 words. That’s a real book-length manuscript. Right? Yeah, right. 50,000 words is about 200 printed pages and a short novel to say the least, but it’s also a great start on your own Atlas Shrugged or It or A Suitable Boy. And the beauty of Nanowrimo is that if you finish 50,000 words before the end of the contest, you can just keep going and going and going until midnight on November 30th.

Since blinding speed is the characteristic most favored in this contest, painstakingly crafting elaborate, subtle or elegant plots is just plain silly. Nanowrimo is all about the messy, ugly, gross, misanthropic first drafts that may eventually become real manuscripts after enough love and revision. Or not. Think the Sistine Chapel done by toddlers with finger paints. It’s about just puking out a story onto the computer screen and not worrying that your adoring public or future public will think less of you for writing such crap. The goal is 50,000 words in somewhat coherent sentences that tell a somewhat coherent story, how you get there is your business. In fact, Chris’s answer to the problems and paranoia associated with plotting stories is his book No Plot, No Problem.

One of my favorite aspects of Nanowrimo, besides the camaraderie, the competition with other regions and that nasty bitch, Time, the insanity and mainlining pure adrenalin is the sister competition to Nanowrimo for students. The Nanowrimo Young Writers Program encourages grade school and high school students to join in the craziness by the classroomful. In the process, they learn how ugly a first draft can be, and how that’s alright. They also learn about competing with a deadline and working on a team toward a common goal. A bunch of kids whose first contact with writing is through the Young Writers Program turn around the next year and join the rest of us in pursuit of a novel in 30 days.

Even though I didn’t make it to 50,000 last year, I’m game of another go this year. I got kids, house, husband and a full ticket going at ASU but who cares. I'll give up sleeping. Chris, you won’t have to send your goons out to drag me back kicking and screaming, I already got my feet in the starting blocks.

So if you’re already horribly busy but plagued with stories floating around in your head, you must nano. If you always wondered how people came to wander through your office, bleary-eyed, mumbling about MCs and theme, you must nano. And if you ever wanted to prove to the world that you’re one crazy SOB, you must nano. Come, we’ll nano together.

Check out Chris’s brainchild that grew into a 40-foot gorilla in a pink tutu at

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Ma-Nah Ma-Nah Phenomena

In terms of personal accomplishments, I don’t usually like to toot my own horn but there is one feature I am particularly proud of: I’m first generation Sesame Street. Jim Henson’s magical muppets helped teach me to read, to count to 20, to share and to cooperate with others. Robert Fulghum may have learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten, but my life lessons came straight from the curmudgeonly Oscar the Grouch and gentle Kermit the Frog. In fact, Henson’s large family of muppets has remained my good friends, entertainers and mentors throughout my life.

Here’s a short homage to some of my favorite people, um, muppets

My friend Kermit…

My secret love, Oscar the Grouch…

My esteemed professor, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker…
(with help from Waldorf and Stadler, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the very much missed Gilda Radner)

That culinary genius, the Swedish chef…

And finally, better than a fortune cookie, my little guru…

So thanks to Jim Henson and all his crew that have made and continue to make magic from foam rubber, sticky-outy feathers and techno color fake fur. I still know all the words to the “I Love Trash” song and sing “Rubber Ducky” loud and long in the bath. Some of the wide-eyed innocence may have been replaced with cynicism and gray hair, but I remain a member in good standing of the Muppets Mutual Admiration Society.

I leave you with one last video to remember… Ma-Nah Ma-Nah

Saturday, October 11, 2008

3 Ways My Life Sucks Worse Than Yours

I have a friend. We get together on an increasingly infrequent basis to girl talk over cosmos and large salads. When we get together we play a sort of a game, one that never really had a distinctive name but if we had to call it something it should probably be called 3 Ways My Life Sucks Worse Than Yours.

The rules of the game are fairly simple; an upsetting moment is recited, with particular emphasis on the residual angst and where on the hierarchy of personal pain the event falls. The listener makes no move to fly back in time to fix anything, she doesn’t become evasive or pretend to read the menu, she makes no judgments on the veracity of the speaker’s topic or indicates what actions she would have taken in the same situation, she gives no advice for the next time, in fact she rarely says anything other than to offer to buy the next round. Body language, however, is key during the game. When the speaker reaches the crescendo of crises in her horror story, the listener nods her head with understanding and empathy.

And then, that’s it. The game is over. Who won? Well, we both do, but I’ll explain how later. Meanwhile, back at the ivory towers of Academia, I am finding that they play a cut-throat variant of our little bar game. Their game is different enough to require a different title. Let’s call it, 3 Ways My Life Sucks Worse Than Yours and You’ll Never Understand My Experience So Don’t Even Try. Whole books, doctoral theses and careers have been created around this high-stakes version, then made sacrosanct by a close proximity to Knowledge.

On campus, this institutional form of the game is played by seasoned professionals who, for this semester at least, congregate in the area of Women’s Studies. Here they tell me that the oppression white females experience is a completely different animal from the oppression faced by minority women that is wholly alien to the oppression experienced by minority gay women. Okay. So it morphs into a more sinister game of My Oppression Is More Oppressive Than Your Oppression and You Still Can’t Understand It So Don’t Even Try.

It occurs to me, from my travels in the writing game, that by refusing to allow the reader/listener any access to the possibility of empathy, the speaker has burned her own bridge, not even burned it, more like, nuked it out of existence. Every character, every argument, every rant, every sentence, every tear, every wish, every love letter, every boring interoffice memo, every second wave feminist manifesto, every word waits. Waits for that silent nod of the of head, the one that says, “I understand.”

The disconcerting push-pull of “hear me” and “my experience is incomprehensible to you” destroys viable communication before it begins. Feminism is killed off by its own practice.