May 16, 2016

My Teenage Loves

After the trauma of sharing those two high school stories about religion and death, I avoided reading further in my old notebooks for a while, but now it's time for another entry in my childhood writing series, so I've bravely forged onward.

My earliest steno notebook contains mostly lists and notes, with some writing in the back, including the first draft of the theater scene from last time. The next is almost entirely fiction. I started my personal creative writing kick during the first year of high school but really got enthusiastic about it in the summer that followed. I've read through all of notebook #2, which takes me through the first half of sophomore year.

Since all the entries are dated, I can see that from summer on, I usually wrote at least a few days a month, with periods of regular daily writing mixed with gaps of weeks when I didn't write. I often worked on the same piece for multiple days, not only in close succession, but also sometimes returning months later. The constraints of a bound notebook meant that if I'd written something else in the meantime, I'd have to continue an older story some pages on, and I didn't mark this in any way, so certain sections of the notebook contain interleaved bits of stories diverging wildly in topic or tone.

I edited as I wrote, which is visible in the frequent crossed out words and sentences, plus occasional arrows indicating parts to be reordered. As we saw last time, I later did more serious revision of selected stories on my computer. Almost everything in the notebook is unfinished. Sometimes my interest in an idea fizzled out after a page, sometimes I wrote many pages and even multiple scenes, but very little became a full story. I'm sure I usually started writing with nothing more than a premise or an opening line in mind, and it can be hard to reliably wring a plot out of that. Today I still have just as many ideas that go nowhere, but I no longer take the time to write them down until I've given more consideration to whether they're viable.

The contents of this notebook are overall pretty boring. The stories tend to star teen girls, often attending a private high school similar to mine or saddled with an annoying little brother. In a departure from writing what I knew, more of these characters drink coffee than I would have expected, since I didn't start enjoying coffee myself until my thirties. Often some promising bit of conflict is introduced, as in the story of three friends discussing a generally beloved teacher who one of them dislikes, but the idea is abandoned before we learn the cause of the turmoil. I suspect I frequently wrote myself into a corner and was unable to imagine the dark secret driving whatever came before.

The first draft of the autumn story from last month's post is in here, and to my surprise, there's also a still earlier incarnation of that story. It's much shorter, mainly a riff on the "fall is the season of dying" idea I all but wrote out of the final draft. It features characters I used repeatedly around that time, initially only in stories I told myself inside my head but eventually in some I wrote down. I probably saw some promise in the concept and decided to try it again with characters who didn't bring along all the backstory I'd already developed.

As is the case today, I read a fair amount of science fiction as a teen but didn't write much that wasn't set in the real world. The one piece of science fiction in this notebook is the start of a story set in 2010, 20 years in the future, when the earth is in crisis due to overpopulation and the hole in the ozone layer. It starts strong: "Joanie stared out the window at the gray rain and remembered a time when there was color. From behind her came the sounds of children sleeping fitfully or crying softly." Alas, after a couple of pages explaining how the world went to hell, I stopped writing.

This notebook ends with a lone entry that's pure journal. It comments on what I was up to at that particular moment (watching a Paul Simon concert airing during a public television fund drive) but mostly analyzes my unrequited crush on one of my friends: "Dammit, I love him! Love. Love. That word. Do I love him? Am I 'old enough' to love a man? Oh, sure, why the hell not?" It's full of the turmoil of not-quite-16-year-old emotion, and I'm afraid there's going to be more of that particular agony when I move on to the next notebook.

The story from this book that's most worth sharing is unlike any of the other contents, but it does represent a major aspect of my life at the time. While I angsted over painful unreturned feelings for several friends during high school, my purest love was for the music of The Beatles. It's true that I did sometimes experience so much love for Paul McCartney that I was moved to kiss a photograph of him, but on the whole, The Beatles brought me more joy than anguish. Anyway, here's this thing:

May 2, 2016

April Reading Recap

I had another fantastic reading month with three great, recently released books:

WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN by Kaitlyn Greenidge: When the Freemans are selected by researchers to adopt a chimpanzee into their family and teach him sign language, Charlotte reacts with teenage skepticism and resentment. She's angry about leaving Boston to move to the Toneybee Institute out in the Berkshires, where she'll be one of the few black students at her high school. Charlotte's younger sister adores their new chimp brother before they even meet, but Charlotte remains wary of the experiment. Living at the Toneybee puts a strain on the whole family, and when Charlotte learns about racist studies buried in the institute's past, she questions the motives behind their selection.

This is a fascinating, unusual novel that covers a lot of ground. I was impressed by the range of topics woven into the story and delighted by how many happened to align with my own interests. The characters are well layered, with specific traits and flaws, and I was invested in every one of their problems. I only wish that some of the narrators had been given more chances to speak and that certain threads had been explored in greater depth. This is the rare novel that might have benefitted from being longer, but the story as it stands is an excellent, complex work.

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson takes place in the small English town of Rye at the dawn of World War I. Beatrice arrives in Rye to serve as the new Latin teacher, and she's immediately the subject of much controversy, because the idea of a woman teaching Latin is shocking. The declaration of war provides a new focus for local politics and gossip, as the most influential residents vie to surpass the patriotism of the others. Hosting a group of weary Belgian refugees offers the townspeople even more opportunities to display generosity and pass judgment. While those around her fret about respectability, Beatrice tries to concentrate on doing what's right, with the assistance of the sensible young surgeon Hugh, his flighty cousin Daniel, and their kind but fierce Aunt Agatha, who wields her power in the town for good, most of the time.

I haven't mentioned even half of the great characters in this novel, some I adore because they're wonderful people, some I adore for their ridiculous awfulness. The story is built around interesting dynamics between the characters, whether these take the form of possible romance or petty power struggle. It's a well constructed comedy of manners, but as Simonson warned at the author event I attended, the humor does give way to tragedy at several points. There's a war on, after all.

The middle of the book dragged, but just as I was worried it would disappoint, many events happened at once, and the rest of the story kept a tight hold on my interest. This is a worthy follow-up to the excellent MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND.

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter charts the development of the Broadway musical that has received and earned every praiseworthy adjective I might bestow. Short chapters describe each step of the journey from idea to opening night, introducing every person involved in bringing the show to reality. These alternate with, and often coordinate well with, the lyrics to the next song, which are presented in full, with fun and informative annotations. Scattered throughout are reproductions of other interesting documents, including pages from Lin-Manuel Miranda's notebooks and Alexander Hamilton's pamphlets.

The Hamiltome is a beautifully packaged book: large, thick pages with deckle edges, full color photos, a smartly designed layout, and a faux-leather binding. I savored it slowly, luxuriating in the fascinating look behind the scenes. If the cast recording plays on repeat inside your brain, I'm sure you'll appreciate this book. If you haven't listened yet but remain curious, perhaps experiencing the music and the book together will allow you to join us.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michelle Colman has analyzed book illustrations and real estate listings to value the homes of children's book characters: "Many children's books have been set in New York City--think Harriet the Spy or Stuart Little. In this day and age of record-setting prices, how much would those fictional characters have to pay to live in their homes today? Who would have seen the most appreciation, Eloise or Lyle Crocodile?"