Proud to Read Banned Books

bannedbooksI’m climbing onto the soapbox for my annual speech about banned books. We all have the right to our opinions, and for most of the countries in the world, this includes voicing these opinions. If we can write and talk about our views, why should we not be allowed to make our own decisions regarding the stories we choose to read? This is why I “celebrate the freedom to read” every year. Besides, as a published author I’m against censorship. (Though, sadly, as a teacher I must at times “censor” excerpts read aloud in class due to the topics; after all, I feel it appropriate to consider the sensibilities of the other students, but this is the topic for another time.)

40bannedbooksWhat irks me the most about the lists of “censored” books (which include both those books challenged and those that are banned and removed from library shelves), is the reasoning behind the “complaints.” I often wonder whether the books have been fully read by the person complaining. When I worked at a library years ago, I was also baffled by written complaints from parents about a book. Clearly, they did not want their child(ren) to read these books and that is perfectly acceptable (see my first few sentences above); however, to make this “decision” for every other reader is the issue I have with such challenges. Perhaps I’m “offended” by the saccharine and shallow reading material you choose. But I don’t restrict you from reading it. See, this is the central point of the freedom to read–choosing your books.

Here are just some of the “reasons” behind books being challenged: “offensive language” (according to whom?); “sexually explicit” and includes “homosexuality”; “violence” (do you watch much TV?); “unsuited to age group.” This year, graphic novels top the list for children’s books included. In fact, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins for challenged do to “anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.” Do you realize how many families enjoyed this movie (which followed the book’s plot line very well) and had discussions about the heroes-readissues raised in the story? For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, the reasons include: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. If you’ve read this book, you know Alexie is Native American and the book is about living on Rez. Is someone offended by the portrayal of whites in this book or of Native Americans? If it’s the latter, then the book needs to be read not censored. The main character is trying to break the cycle of poverty of his family. Incidentally, many of the children’s books that make the list include “unsuited to age group.” Hello? These children’s titles are juvenile literature published by the children’s division of a major publishing house and I’m supposed to believe that those editors and publishers don’t know the target audience?

The first time I reviewed the list of banned and challenged books from the past, I was shocked to see so many books I loved, some that I’ve only read because they were required reading in literature classes. Many have changed my views on life because I read them. Here are a few I read in school (and am rereading while tutoring high school students): The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (1925); The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939); The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906); To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and so many more.

As an author, my mind whirls through potential story ideas based on how my life might be different if I had never been exposed to literature deemed “harmful” by some other reader. Even this finds it way into my writing, in a world I’m creating where Kaeylene lives in a time in her world when some others decided the who and what of daily life for all (and of course, she fights against this “norm”). Thankfully, it’s only a fantasy and I travel there to continue writing it on my terms.

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Insights on Aging from Charlie and Algernon

I’m plagued by thoughts of aging lately. Not so much in myself, though I’ll admit to moments of decrepit muscles and wormy memory. No, I’ve been shocked by changes in people around me. Perhaps it’s from having watched my father decline during the past year, but as neighbors return for “Season” I’m surprised that they seem much older and less spry. Because they are dressing younger and trying to act younger, my guess is they have aging on their minds too. It’s unsettling. I’ve always believed that you are truly as old as you feel and members of my family have been assumed much younger due to physical fitness and energy.

So where does this anxiety over aging come from? I’ve found clues in recently rereading Flowers for Algernon,  Daniel Keyes’ Nebula-winning novel. (Actually, the story has probably exacerbated my anxieties.) I had to read the novelette (which won the 1960 Hugo award) several times while in school. But I’ve finally read the novel, a goal ever since reading the book Algernon, Charlie, and I by Keyes about the writing of this award-winning story.

A writer's journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing "Flowers for Algernon."

A writer’s journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing “Flowers for Algernon.”

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the flowers are for the grave of a lab mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the successful subject of an experiment combining neurosurgery and a combination of enzyme and hormone injections to triple his intelligence. At least the researchers thought his results were successful. That’s when they decided to test it on Charlie Gordon, a young man with an IQ of 68. Within a few months his intelligence surpassed that of everyone involved in the research. Not until Charlie and Algernon are “displayed” at the annual psychological convention does Charlie realize a major flaw in the experiment.  By now his intelligence has peaked and Algernon is showing signs of decline. Charlie races against the time he has left to find a solution only to realize that the decline he will face is in direct correlation to the rapid increase in his intelligence. During the course of not quite eight months Charlie triples his intelligence and then returns to an IQ of around 70. The only problem is this time he holds a hazy understanding that the people around him whom he used to think of as mental giants are not as smart as he thinks they are. Unlike before the operation, he knows that when they joke with him they are really making fun of his low intelligence.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

As I read this novel I considered what it must be like to go from docile acceptance and contentment in a simple life to super-intellect marred by an inability to relate socially or emotionally with others. One of several problems Charlie faces is finding no one to talk to since even the brightest could not sustain conversations with his font of knowledge. Yet, how is this different from aging? Not simply the mental decline which may show itself in senility, but even the slower response as an octogenarian gathers thoughts before responding during conversation. Or, the slower movements septuagenarians develop to maintain balance and avoid minor injuries.

Charlie begins to stumble and must “remember” to walk carefully to avoid tripping — “knowledge” he regains in order to survive again with a double-digit IQ. I also think of Charlie having a sense that he used to know things, such as remembering reading a particular book but not recalling what it was about and opening it to discover he recognizes only a few words. Do the elderly have such feelings? Do they also have a sense that they used to know about a topic but cannot articulate facts or add to a discussion about it? I believe I saw such realizations cloud the eyes of my father during the last year. Not that the elderly have below-average intelligence but those feelings of “knowing” they “used to have” sharper reflexes, better recall, something to add which is new and thought-provoking—those realities of aging must make them at times feel like Charlie with a sense that what he once had is lost and he knows it.

The most touching part of the story is watching Charlie try to retain his knowledge but watching it slip through his fingers. Like sand in an hour glass, youth slips away. We can do nothing about it, really, except perhaps slow it, try to make it move at a different rate than it does for others. In the end, aging is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we work hard, play hard, or both, we move through the process of growth and decline and are left with a “knowing” that we accomplished something, that we lived our life. For some, like Charlie, we can feel happiness despite not being unable to recall why.

It’s interesting that children want to age, be older. I recall trying to look and act older all during my teens. And then, when we finally have that wisdom and respect we seem to seek in our youth, we feel the need to try to reverse time’s influence by dressing and acting younger. This cycle of life is strange indeed. Thanks to both Charlie and Algernon, I think I have enough insight to alleviate my anxieties. Here’s to living in the present and enjoying the knowledge, wisdom, and physical abilities we have in this moment.

Seasons of Life — and Writing

I’m celebrating a milestone birthday as I round another decade’s corner. Though my friends will joke about my age, I don’t feel all that old. No need for black balloons and crying that I’ve topped the middle-aged hill; I actually feel like celebrating! I’m excited by the possibilities. Each decade in our lives is like embarking on a new season. Some have more meaning and significance than others, but all are milestones.

When I reflect on my life I can mark those milestones by the seasons in my development as a writer, too. My early writing years felt as if I were in a holding pattern. I lived to “write someday.” Eventually (thankfully) I moved into a season of writing and reading excessively and taking as many classes and workshops as possible. Next I simply wrote and submitted like mad and, once I’d garnered a dozen writing credits, I began my “reading-study” season again. I read about craft and studied how the pros accomplished their craft. I dissected published stories and articles to learn how the pieces fit together.

Finally, I began teaching. I realized that when I explained what I had learned about craft, it validated for me all I knew and had acquired about this writing business. That gave me confidence. It also forced me to look at my writing from a different angle, especially when students asked questions and I had to figure out how to express the answer. I believe it was during this season in my writing that my talent/craft soared. Things clicked and flower buds of productivity burst into bloom. This was also the season that I most enjoyed my writing because the work of it no longer took so much effort but instead brought joy – it felt free and easy.

Eventually I entered a reflective season. I closed myself off from the demands of sharing what I had learned and focused instead on doing, on producing. I was incredibly productive during this season, but I also felt the loneliness I had often heard other writers expressing (but had not understood as I do now). That loneliness drove me to seek something in my career and I ended up looking within, reflecting on life and craft and career. My writing deepened like the shades of green during Michigan summers and Florida winters. During this time my fiction improved because personal reflection helped me develop more rounded characters as well as the twists and turns that create engaging plot lines.

The next season was one in which I became focused on balancing a variety of teaching and writing. Long ago a Newbery medalist coached me and told me that I could take two paths in my writing career—focus and rise like a rocket, or scatter and spread my interests and climb slowly like a mere jet. I chose the latter only because variety is essential in my life. I became a freelance writer because I love language but also because I have a need to learn and share what I’ve learned with others. (“Teaching one reader at a time” has long been my motto.) I wanted a career in which I could thrive on a variety of projects and I often work on three books at various stages, plus a half-dozen shorter works, all at the same time. So, in this season I learned to better balance all the these demands plus those from family, friends, and so on. Life-coaching helped tremendously in this regard.

I recently embarked on a new season. In this season I am exploring creativity. How does it work? Why do I thrive on varied projects? What is it that I actually do when I get into that lovely flow of writing? Perhaps this is why I don’t mind having those decades behind me. The next is filled with exploring and creating. That’s exciting!

What about you? Have you ever thought about the seasons of your life? Where are you at as a writer and where do see yourself heading? Wherever it is, I wish you happy writing!

Subtle Seasons

It’s been more than a decade since I swapped peninsulas to move from Michigan to Florida. When I did, everyone told me, “You’ll miss the seasons. Florida only has two: hot and rainy or warm and dry.” They were right – and wrong.

They were right because I loved autumn with the crisp nights and sunny days, the bonfires and hay rides at the orchards, and the fresh apple cider from the local mills. I also loved the vivid colors of fall foliage; a weekend pastime was to drive Edward Hines from end to end to soak in the beauty. I missed autumn. I also missed winter–more accurately, the beauty of winter. It was the endless dirty piles of snow and ice from plowed parking and roads that I disliked. It was clearing the car in frigid temperatures that caused me to move away. And because spring stopped making all that bearable. I used to love spring and seeing the fresh light green of budding trees and tender grass sprinkled with the white and yellow and pink and purple of new spring flowers.

But they were wrong, too. When I settled in Florida, I felt the joy I felt for northern summers with their deepening and varied shades of green and their bursts of vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows. Day lilies and tiger lilies were a staple around my patio in Michigan. Though I couldn’t get them to grow here, I have fallen in love with the creamy white flowers and glossy green-black leaves of the Frangipani trees and the sprinkles of white, star-shaped fragrant jasmine flowers on hedge-like bushes. These plants herald summer and the coming rains. Our season to “suffer through,” just like the winters of Michigan.

Autumn emerges with vivid greens after all the summer rains. It is a subtle transition, one likely to be overlooked except by the very observant. Another herald is the noise of congested beaches and numerous cars, including more honking (something about southern drivers limits their use of horns, even in near-accident situations or car horns are usually northerners). The arrival of the Snow Birds is a true indicator of autumn when overnight travel time will double no matter how sort the distance.

The coming of winter is marked by the dropping of humidity and cool, zephyr-like breezes. Tension in the air also drops as locals give thanks for “paradise weather.” Leaves of the Ficus trees fall and walkways crunch with the hard brown leaves. For about three weeks we experience cool nights when sweaters are needed and sometimes frost advisories cause citrus grove owners to scramble to protect their delicate crops.

Spring arrives around March with the orange blossoms delivering their heady, sweet scent for miles on the breeze. The scent is citrus-y in the dewy mornings, but the sun-warmed fragrance in the afternoons reminds me of the lilacs I miss from my northern home.

So the seasons here are subtle just as the seasons of our lives creep up on us, yet they exist all the same. Someone tuned into her surroundings will notice the patterns emerge that transition one season to the next. And just as when I lived in the north, I look forward to the next season, the next stage in the progressing year, and my heart is content.

What transitions suggest season’s change where you live? Note those details for your next story or essay draft. Happy observing–and writing!

The Nature of Characters

Another season and semester of writing workshops is drawing to  a close. It’s been especially hectic during the past five months and my body is demanding a real break this summer. I’ve structured my schedule for more writing time and more time to wander and generate ideas.  I decided I need more time outside, enjoying nature, because that recharges my creativity. Of course,  I can’t wait to get started.

So, yesterday I wandered. I visited a local park to take a break from my writing and workshops. Today I’m wondering about what I saw when I wandered. It will filter into two stories I’m working on. I’ve come to accept that this is my writer’s brain at work.

Here’s what I saw. This park I visited has a fantastic nature center and fabulous pathways to wander. Few people realize that it’s a natural filtration system in the middle of a city. I wandered off the walkway to the nature trail that meanders through trees and other vegetation. Eventually I came upon a grouping of Ficus trees with I thought were incredible. Some looked like carved and woven “figures” but these were actually formed by the Strangler Figs wrapping the trees. Like cloud gazing, I let my imagination go and saw lizards, a tree nymph, alligators and other figures.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree. This is what I see when the vine “strangles” the Ficus.

As my friend and I walked on, my relaxed mind began weaving what I’d just seen into a fantasy story I’m working on. This W-I-P is actually a book but I’m still in the planning stages. A scene came to me in which my main character (MC) will need to find magically dormant creatures that everyone assumes are somewhere in the Forbidden Forest (or some such place) and awaken them. No one realizes that these creatures are “hidden” in plain sight on the very paths they walk daily. But my MC will eventually figure this out.

Later, on another path we wandered, I was startled when a breeze caused a patch of plants and fish tale palms to move. I thought it was a giant preying mantas! It sort of looked like one. It was green with palm fronds moving up and down as the insect moves its pinchers. While my friend laughed, I realized I’d let my imagination soar. We did spend a little time looking at the patch and imagining shapes as we’d done with the strangler figs. Now ideas are forming for a plant-based species in my SF story I’m working on.

So, today I am wondering what it would be like to be a walking plant. How would I eat? What would I eat? How would I move? I’ve already figured out how my MC in that story will meet her first plant-based creature. It will be meditating (praying?) in a garden and my MC will try to pick a “flower” from its head thinking the poor creature is actually a flowering plant. A nice subplot to show my MC’s lack of experience and ineptitude in her multi-species environment. (She’s had a lot of mishaps that show how naive she is so this could build on it.)

I’m eager to put my wonderings to the test at the computer. First, I’m wondering where my wanderings will take me next. It’s going to be an inspiring summer!

Nature-inspired Meditation

It’s Season in south Florida and for me that means teaching a lot of different writing workshops. I enjoy it but life becomes quite hectic.  One of my favorite ways to begin the day is to slip outside while the coffee’s brewing. I have an incredible view of a pond surrounded by greenery—trees, shrubs, and tropical vegetation—and a multitude of wildlife. The sun rises in the front of the building and I’m able to watch as it slowly illuminates the pine trees just beyond my lanai.

Squirrels play tag in the trees, causing the scales of pine bark to crackle and the needles to rustle as they bounce from branch to branch. Meanwhile birds sing and call as egrets and Louisiana heron stalk fish in the pond. I’m grateful for this natural serenade and beauty of dawn.

Once my coffee is ready, I sip it as I listen and watch, allowing my mind to ponder the drape of the long white pine needles or the patterns in the fanned palmetto fronds. It’s sort of a meditation, this routine; a quiet but energizing start to my day. It’s a luxury now, but one I can indulge more frequently during the summer. After this ritual, I’m ready to put pen to paper as I record in my journal the day’s beginning and then turn to filling a blank screen with words.

Watching Wild Life

I absolutely love my condo! It’s bright and sunny so I never need to turn on lights during the day. It faces northeast so I receive sun both morning sun (in the front where my office is) and evening sun (in back.) My favorite part of a “writing day,” meaning I’m home working on projects, is eating breakfast on the lanai.

Breakfast includes entertainment. I get to watch the activity on the 2nd tee-off for the golf course in this community. Most of the time this is simply the squirrels in the white pines and palmettos. Often it includes a variety of waterbirds in the pond. Sometimes it even includes golfers and their colorful language that drifts across the fairway. (During season it’s often quite entertaining! More than a few times I’ve held my breath expecting a serious slice off the tee to hit the building, but the tall trees protected it.)

So, I’ve been wondering: how is it that so much wildlife survives on this golf course? I’m glad it does, because it means the course doesn’t use as many chemicals as others in this area. The egrets, heron, turtles, and–yes, even the the bats–inspire me. And I’m relieved to see that the crushed concrete they added two summer ago to edge the pond didn’t kill the turtles after all.

Now, if only we could do something about those wild golfers.