What Baseball Fields and Blow-drying Have to Do with Brainstorming

Okay, so I’m a sucker for picking things apart. When my brain latches onto something interesting — especially something with lots of intricacies, complications and contradictions — I love to explore it as deep as I can.

Here’s what my head’s been mulling over since this weekend.

Religion fascinates me — and not even just other, potentially exotic religions. I’m often fascinated by my own religion that I’ve belonged to all my life. And as an apprentice storyteller, I’m particularly fascinated by how religion uses stories to teach behavior.

(Hubby insisted Yankee Stadium be the image)

For example, my religion advises refraining from work on Sunday, and while I have no memory of when I heard the following story or most of its details, what always comes to mind about Sunday is some fable about a baseball field that had the greenest, lushest, thickest grass.  It so happened that they didn’t play Sunday games on that particular field. Then, the schedule became more hectic and they decided it was necessary to play on the field every day of the week. You can guess where this is going, right? Because the grass didn’t have a “day of rest,” it was no longer as green and healthy.

I know that this isn’t really how it works in baseball. When a team goes on the road, obviously the field gets a break while they’re gone and the grass gets a rest from being trampled, regardless of whether or not that time happens to fall on a Sunday.

But obviously it was an effective story, because it’s stuck with me for years. And I’m okay with absorbing the principle of it despite the questionable facts because I think the moral is true: we are much happier and healthier, mentally and physically, if we give ourselves at least one day off each week.

(And Hubby the Baseball Fanatic added, when I mentioned what I was writing about, that we also all need “away games”: vacations. He must have missed that post.)

For me, taking Sunday “off” means specifically that I try to refrain from working on my writing or my grading. But the other thing that fascinates me about religion is examining the internal side of it. I should be thrilled to give myself a day off from work. But because I’ve told myself I shouldn’t grade or write, there are many Sundays that grading and writing are all I seem to think about. Human nature is so weird, isn’t it?

And then, what’s even more interesting is the way we bargain with ourselves. I say, “Well, I’m absolutely not going to open my manuscript and work on that, but if an idea happens to come to me, I think it’s okay to jot it down on note paper.”

What I’ve discovered is this: while at first skipping Sundays seemed like a huge sacrifice (takes longer to get back into the swing of the story on Monday, etc), I’ve come to realize that Sunday is often when the “grass” of my story does the most growing. I trample it all week as I try to get the most use out of my story ideas, and then on Sunday it gets the chance to grow wild.

Yesterday once I finished getting dressed for church, Hubby commented on how long it had taken me. The reason was that I kept getting interrupted. I would blow-dry one section of my hair and some great line or idea for my novel would hit me, and I’d have to put down the blow-dryer and write down the idea.

I wasn’t doing it on purpose! I swear! But the ideas just kept coming, the way really healthy grass seems to grow faster than you can mow it.

Specifically, yesterday what kept popping into my head were ideas on how to improve my query letter blurb. My goal is 150 words or less, like my friend Brodi Ashton’s awesome example that I often refer back to. My previous best was 243 words; with the free flow of blow-dry brainstorming, it got down to 167.

If I can hit my 150-word goal by Thursday, I’ll post the query blurb to get opinions on how well it entices you to read the book.

On a side note, I have to end this with one last fascinating thing about religion that you can take or leave. It’s just my brain exploring even deeper.

I can imagine some readers thinking, “What’s the point in the restriction at all? Why shouldn’t you be able to write on Sunday if you want to write on Sunday? You could choose to ‘take a day off’ on another day when you don’t feel like writing.”

After all, that was where the baseball field fable failed: it didn’t prove that it had to be a particular day.

For me, it’s a combination of factors. One, I like the principle of sacrifice and the idea that I give up one thing in order to gain another — as well as the notion that for it to be a sacrifice it shouldn’t be just whenever it’s convenient for me. If I took a day off when I didn’t feel like writing, I very much doubt ideas would rush at me while blow-drying. The sacrifice is what creates the reward.

Two, I like adhering to a religion that I can think through. Since I’m not asked to follow blindly but rather I’m given stories (however flawed) and experiences (however unique), etc, that help me see the logic behind the guidelines, there’s always plenty of room to expand the way I understand each principle. The more I test it out, doing whatever it is with varying degrees of insight, the more I come to appreciate the religion as a whole.

Three, see the entire novel Life of Pi, though specifically Part One and Part Three. I fell in love with that book when I read this on page nineteen:

“I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

I believe that. I believe that religious restrictions grant a freedom that those who’ve never experienced it can’t understand, the same way my ideas spring up freely on Sundays. It’s just one of those crazy, fascinating paradoxes of life.

End side note. 😉

Anyhow, what do you think of days off, religion, baseball, fables, blow-drying, grass, vacations, zoos, freedom, and ideas growing wild? When do spontaneous ideas show up for you?

Leave a comment!

The Moral of the Story Is . . . ?

Isn’t interesting how — unless a story is told like a parable with an obvious lesson — different readers take different morals from the same story? And, if you reread a book at a different stage in your life, you’ll likely take a different point from it than you did earlier. To me, that’s one of the things that make stories so awesome.

This weekend I scored the chance to borrow and read an early copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger, which comes out in July. I promise not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say general things, like that I loved it even more than the first one in the series, Shiver, and have fallen more in love with Stiefvater’s writing style. Also, this book gave me more to think about.

For example, I’ve started thinking how miserably difficult it would be to find your true love as a teenager.

Regardless of your opinions about true love leading to marriage, I think true love naturally leads to the desire to be together, to live together in the sense of creating a life together (not just sex), to come home to each other at the end of every day, to sleep beside each other for that chance to whisper about the things that fall into your head before sleeps takes you.

Teenagers (under 18) are sort of restricted in all those areas, and that’s definitely something that comes up in Linger and that carried over from Shiver. I felt that ache of frustration for the characters. I could understand where they were coming from.

After all, when I found love I was almost 20 — certainly still pretty young, but old enough that we were both already out of our parents’ houses and it was possible to get married, get an apartment, get furniture, get jobs, etc, within just a few months of when we started dating. If you find your true love at 15, 16, or 17, you’d be waiting years, not months.

But here’s where my perspective also handed me a different moral of the story than most teenage readers would take away: I also saw the story from the parents’ point of view.

Most parents do not want their daughter’s boyfriend sleeping in their daughter’s bed, regardless of how in love the two might be.

My gut reaction was to wonder if I’d want my kids reading a book like this when they’re teenagers. Would I want them to sympathize so strongly with the girlfriend and boyfriend while the parents seem a little like bad guys?

But then I started to think about what lesson there might be for me as a parent in this story — not that I believe Stiefvater constructed the story that way on purpose, but I believe that stories can naturally give us ideas about what things might be like in certain circumstances.

And what I think is that parents should be the ones sympathizing with the daughter and the boyfriend — not necessarily condoning their behavior, but respecting their feelings.

In this book, Grace complains that her mother is condescending, always telling Grace that she’s in lust, not love, and that it’s not really possible to fall in love so young and that Grace won’t really know that until she looks back. While all of that may be totally valid (I think it was the case for most of us that true love did not hit in high school, regardless of how often a high school heartbreak made it feel like it had), it’s the attitude of the mother that sabotages her relationship with her daughter.

On the flip side, one of the greatest things my mom ever did for me as a teenager was take me and my feelings seriously. I still remember being fourteen and liking a guy who liked me (looking back, I probably liked him because he liked me), telling my mom all about it, and being surprised at her level of sympathy and seriousness. Her tone suggested everything: that she understood, that she wasn’t treating me like or thinking of me as a kid, that she considered my feelings valid.

Now I wonder if she was able to talk with me that way because she and my dad were high school sweethearts. She knew very well that young love is possible.

And what it did for me was create a mother–daughter relationship where I knew I could always talk to her. I was more willing to go to her for advice because I knew she wouldn’t talk down to me. And when you’re trying to navigate those hairy-scary teenage years, a relationship like that makes all the difference.

So maybe the moral of the story is that it’s great for YA books to treat teenage problems as being this real . . . because it helps us remember that they are. It helps us remember that teenagers are young adults — encountering adult issues and emotions for the first time. And if we can sympathize with our own teenagers as well as we sympathize with characters in a novel, maybe that will be beneficial all the way around.

Plus, looking at it that way, I’d be excited for my kids to read a book like this so we could talk about it together. I’d be curious to see it from their point of view and find out what morals they’d take from the story.

What do you think?

Leave a comment!

Morality in Fiction Is a Strange Beast

Here’s something odd I’ve been thinking about this week: Why do parents object to what they object to in novels?

Take for example Shannon Hale’s books. It blows my mind that anybody could complain about anything in her fiction, and yet she gets mothers who tell her they loved all her books up until they read fill-in-the-blank with such-and-such a kissing scene. Now they refuse to have that book in their home or let their daughters touch it for fear of contagion.

A kissing scene! Heaven forbid!

Goose Girlenna-burningbook of a thousand days

But the part that really boggles me is that they say they’ve loved Shannon’s books up to that point. Did they skip the parts in Goose Girl or Book of a Thousand Days that describe outright nudity? Or the parts in Enna Burning where Enna murders hundreds or thousands of people by burning them to death? They didn’t blink an eye at those huge moral issues, but they won’t have their daughters read kissing scenes?

I thought about this with The Hunger Games, too. After all, there is zero sex or swearing, and at first I caught myself feeling relieved. But then I woke up. Hello! Exactly how much violence is in The Hunger Games? More than in any other book I’ve ever read.


John Green recently wrote a post reacting to the challenges of his books in a Florida library, and he said something interesting:looking for alaska

Let me make this clear: An individual scene from a novel cannot be read out of context. It won’t make sense. It will seem other from what it is. You cannot know whether a novel is obscene from a screenshot of a single page on television news.

ALASKA is a novel about radical hope and the power of forgiveness, not about oral sex. The scene between Lara and Pudge–that humorous, massively unerotic scene–exists to argue AGAINST casual sexual encounters.

Strange, isn’t it? That having something “immoral” in a book can actually be an argument against that particular act?

But I think that’s true in Enna Burning, for example. Shannon’s certainly not endorcing burning people to death, and I think even the outraged-by-kissing-scenes parents could recognize that instantly. Enna is dealing with a complex moral dilemma in the book. So is Katniss in The Hunger Games. When your choice is kill or be killed, how do you preserve your own humanity?

Novels are a place to wrestle with those impossible scenarios in ways that strengthen our own morality, ironically enough.

I cheer for writers who can deal so honestly with the complexities of moral choice, and I think this goes back to censorship issues again. Do you want to shield your children from every little bad thing, or do you want to give them the better protection of being able to recognize things for what they are? If teens don’t encounter moral choice in novels, sometimes even seeing the consequences of *gasp* bad choices, how can we expect them to make good choices themselves?

forest born

Strangely enough, one of the kissing scenes objected to is the one in Forest Born that Rin remembers and hates herself for. The character isn’t justifying her own actions at all. She’s saying how much she regrets acting like that. Wouldn’t we rather have our daughters experiencing a regretable action in fiction than experiencing it in real life?

(A kiss, of course, being pretty far down on my list of worries as a parent, but the idea being that the vicarious experience helps prompt wiser choices in general, which I touched on somewhat in an earlier post.)

I realize it’s complicated. Not every “immoral” scene in a book or movie or TV show deals with legitimate consequences for bad behavior, but I think the media that does should be applauded, not criticized.

I welcome feedback from any perspective, however. Tell me if my thinking is off somewhere!