Category Archives: Op-Ed

Life and Art and Patterns and Mess

I read an article I read on the Publishers Weekly website called “Why Life and Writing are Inseparable” by Amie Barrodale, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

The thing that struck me first and drew me in was that the article opens with a discussion of writing, drops a rambling sentence of personal bombshells into the narrative, and then picks up the writing topic again without missing a beat. The result is jarringly familiar to anyone who has ever tried to combine life and writing, or life and illustrating, or life and any other creative endeavor. And especially so as I write this toward the end of a school year, which combines the chaos of life with the artistry of teaching.

Barrodale conveys the life/art balance through the structure of her story more effectively than if she’d used words alone, and at the same time establishes the importance of structure and subtext in her writing.

The article goes on to describe Barrodale’s early writing as having a focus on craft, until she found herself shifting to stories from her own life for the larger part of her career. We then find ourselves shifting from this brief focus on craft to a story from Barrodale’s life that takes up most of the remaining bulk of the piece.

And once again, in an entirely different way, I was struck by the author’s remarkable use of structure to support her theme. Much like concrete poetry, in which a poem about a fish might be shaped like a fish, Barrodale’s story about her life was actually shaped like her life—and can there be any better way to show the inseparability of life and creativity?

The story part of the article tells of Barrodale’s experiences carrying bowls around a Tibetan cave during a meditation retreat. She focuses on rules and norms, and how it felt to be in disagreement or conflict with other practitioners of the bowl-carrying arts.

via GIPHY

Like most readers of the article, I’ve never been on a meditation retreat to a Tibetan cave, so I have no personal stake in the theory or politics Barrodale is describing. Readers can approach this story without the baggage we’d bring to a similar story about writing, or illustrating, or whatever creative endeavor we’re most experienced with and passionate about.

Which seems to be entirely the point.

A story about bowl-carrying techniques among cave-dwelling meditation practitioners can serve as an effective metaphor for any artists fumbling in the dark with the traditions and strictures of their craft. So what seems at first to be a tangent away from writing actually becomes the meat of Barrodale’s thesis about writing. Yet again, she uses structure rather than words to support the idea that writing and life are inseparable.

I thought the resulting essay was by far the most carefully, deliberately, and effectively structured article I’d ever read. But as a counterpoint, an irate reader in the comments section berated the author, editor, and publisher alike for releasing what she saw as an entirely unstructured article that “reads like someone journaling.”

Althrough we read all the same words, we read two very different articles.

From my perspective, the comment writer missed the most important aspects of the piece, as if looking at a fish-shaped poem and seeing only a random jumble of words. And from her perspective, she might say that I imposed an imagined structure on the article where none was actually intended.

Where I saw a pattern, the comment writer saw a mess.

Thinking about how the same article can be read and interpreted so differently by different people revealed the final puzzle piece in my quest to understand the connection between life and art.

Life is messy, but human beings are wired to extract patterns of meaning and importance from that mess. As creators, we seed our work with those same patterns and hope for the best. When a pattern resonates with a reader’s messy life experience, it feels true and a powerful connection is made. But a reader who does not connect with that pattern, no matter how artfully arranged, will only see the mess.

We may think we’re building stories with characters and plot, lines and color, structure and theme, but on the most basic level it’s all just patterns and mess.

Just like life.

Challenge Day: The Boy in the Corner

The boy hunched in an empty corner of the gym while the rest of the seventh and eight grade sprint-walked across the floor to join two Challenge Day leaders in an impromptu dance party. Everyone in the room vibrated with nervous energy and twittering laughter. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

It was December and I was an adult volunteer for a six-hour, immersive Challenge Day experience at a local middle school. My job was simple: participate like everyone else and pay attention to any kids that might be slipping through the cracks.

Imagine a school where everyone feels safe, loved and celebrated. Imagine enemies finding common ground and making peace; friends healing past hurts and making amends; people igniting their passion for service and leadership; adults and youth working together to create a school where everyone is included and thrives. This is Challenge Day.

The first activities were mostly silly, racing to find a new seat if, as the Challenge Day leaders specified, “you were wearing clothes” or “woke up this morning.” All this racing around, interspersed with goofy dance moves, eased the tension in the room and shook up the normal social dynamics. Kids ended up seated next to people they didn’t know well. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

The program goes beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts, building empathy and inspiring a school-wide movement of compassion and positive change. We address some common issues seen in most schools including cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, suicide, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.

Once they’d loosened up the crowd, the leaders shifted into more serious activities that unpacked different issues often found in middle school. All of this built to an intimate and intense small group activity just before lunch. In small circles of four, we took turns finishing these sentences:

If you knew me…
If you really knew me…

This far into the day, we were ready to open up. Each and every one of us in my group (which didn’t include the boy I was keeping an eye on) shared intense and personal things. We cried. We hugged. We supported. We were human in the very best way.

And we were hungry.

At lunch, we were asked to pair up with someone new. By the time I had my lunch bag, the boy in the corner was back in the corner. I don’t how he fared in his small group, but I decided that he was having lunch with me.

“Can I join you for lunch?”

He nodded.

“How’s it been going?”

He shrugged.

“That was pretty intense, huh?”

Another shrug. He wouldn’t look at me. I showed him a picture of my dog and gave him a piece of jerky. Eventually he told me about his cats and his siblings. We were human in the very best way.

Returning to the group, the leaders launched into an exercise called, “Cross the Line.” You’ve probably seen a version of it on Facebook. We began on one half of the room. The leaders asked us to cross over if we identified with a series of statements. Have you ever faced food insecurity? Are you or someone you love struggling with mental illness? Have you ever faced discrimination for your skin color? Your religion? Your sexuality?

After each statement, we were asked to send love to those who had crossed over, and if we had crossed over, we were asked to notice how many were standing with us. Tears streamed down our faces. We held each other. No one was ever alone. Not even the boy in the corner, and my lunch companion crossed many times: foster care, divorce, incarceration, suicide, bullying… These were his challenges. These and more.

At the very end of the day, we were invited to stand up and speak directly to others in the room. To apologize, to appreciate, to reach out, to connect, to commit to taking the lessons of Challenge Day into the rest of our lives.

I stood and took the mic and thanked my lunch friend for telling me about his cats.

***

For me, Challenge Day encompassed everything I love about the humans we call middle grade readers. They can be full of bluff and bluster, goof and gallantry. And sure, some of them, like my lunch friend, wear thick armor. But they can and do crack open in the most beautiful ways. They hold light even in the darkest circumstances, and they can be reached by the right teacher, the right librarian, the right book.

I hope you will consider learning more about Challenge Day. You could bring a program to your school. You could volunteer like I did. The experience affected me deeply, and it reminded me of exactly why I write the books I do. I write them for the boy in the corner.

What Would President Julie Do?

My nine-year-old daughter and I have a game we play during car rides where we pretend to host a radio talk show. I do the voices of Frank and Joe and sometimes Wanda–don’t ask. My daughter does the voice of Julie.

During the last campaign season, Julie ran for president against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we had a lot of fun discussing various issues. After Election Day, Julie declared herself the winner and we’ve been rolling with it ever since.

One of President Julie’s first acts was to bury the Treasury Department underground and mark the spot with a giant X, because that’s what you do to keep your treasures safe. Her most current infrastructure project is a subway system that will connect to every house in the country so that people can get to work or school without worrying about traffic.

President Julie has named Joe, her fellow talk show host, as her Ambassador to Mexico. To make sure Joe doesn’t mess up our foreign relations too badly, she’s built a structure called “White House Junior” next to the embassy so she can keep an eye on things. Julie is learning Spanish in school, so she not only has lots of good advice for Joe but can help him with the lingo. In the interest of boosting morale among the embassy staff, President Julie recently moved both the embassy and White House Junior to a beach on the Mexican Riviera.

Meanwhile, Frank has had a series of unsuccessful postings in a variety of government agencies but hasn’t yet found a place where he can make a positive contribution. And Wanda is just Wanda–don’t ask.

Julie’s administration is working out well so far, although Julie sometimes worries that being President of the United States will interfere with her other career as a rock star.

As I listen to the political news from back in the real world, the question I find myself asking is, “What would President Julie do?”

To my ears, “Bury our most valuable building underground to keep it safe from pirates” makes about as much policy sense as “Build a wall to protect our coal industry from immigrants.” But then, as a spokesman for the Julie administration, I’m a little biased.

The second question I find myself asking is, “What does politics have to do with the stories we share with our children?”

The answer I’ve come up with is a personal theory that politics is actually a genre of storytelling. Where many classic stories begin with “Once upon a time…” political stories begin with “Imagine a world…” This would make politics a sister genre to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, all under the banner of speculative fiction.

Picture this:

A wandering storyteller comes to town. He takes to the stage. People gather around to listen. The storyteller smiles to form a connection with his audience. He waves his arms and hands for emphasis and speaks in a calculated cadence, repeating key phrases to punctuate his story. “Imagine a world where all the solar farms have been torn down and your children are working in a coal mine! It will be so amazing. So amazing. So amazing.”

This particular town’s economy was built by the coal industry. All the third-generation coal miners and their families applaud and nod approvingly. The storyteller has earned their five-star Amazon rating as well as their vote.

Then the wandering storyteller packs up his wares and moves on to the next town, over in farm country, where he tells that audience to imagine a world where international trade is negotiated by a real estate mogul.

Politics is storytelling because raw story is a form of raw power.

With the right stories, told to the right people, in states with the right number of electoral votes, a good storyteller can rise all the way to the top, becoming our Storyteller in Chief, a title we should totally be using to describe the awesome responsibilities of the presidency. A single story from our president can start a war or prevent it, plunge the economy into a recession or save it, provide hope in a time of need and solace in a time of tragedy–while an alternate story can cultivate hate and fear. A single story can reshape the world.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who can harness the power of story.

In the next town over from me is a boy, about the same age as President Julie, who is worried about his grandparents. The boy’s grandparents live in Iran, and the boy worries that he might never see them again, because a powerful storyteller has been telling a story in which people who share the same nationality and religion as the boy’s grandparents are scary and threatening.

The boy’s stories are true to life, told in the honest voice of a child, based on his lived experience. In the boy’s stories, his grandparents would only ever threaten to provide hugs, kisses, and home-baked cookies. I like the boy’s story better, and so does President Julie.

People who hear the boy’s story won’t be so easily sold on the politician’s story, and here’s why:

All genres develop conventions and shorthand over time. In the genre of science fiction, we no longer have to spend several pages explaining how a starship can travel faster than the speed of light–the reader just accepts it and we can move on. In the genre of political stories, “Imagine a world…” has become our modern shorthand for the original version, “Imagine a world, exactly like our own world, but in a hypothetical future where some aspect of government policy has changed…”

As the consumers of these stories, it’s important for us to push back when they cross into alternate genres. If a purportedly-political statement instead starts with a world that differs from ours in an important way, we’ve moved into the genre of fantasy. If the government policy relies on an alternate science than we one we know, we’ve moved into the genre of science fiction.

In the genre of political stories, the ones that will have a positive impact are the ones that start with the world as it is and lead us through a practical and pragmatic plotline to a better place that our world can become. Filling that genre with more voices and more stories, especially the stories of young people, can only make the entire genre better and stronger.

In this case, the boy’s story rebuts and undermines the story coming from our Storyteller in Chief. The one story contains a truth that reveals the flawed foundation upon which the other story has been built.

When we help the boy tell his story and get it out into the world, we can give the storyteller’s audiences a new perspective from which to “Imagine a world…”

And if we give our children a better connection to story today, we won’t have to keep wondering what President Julie would do. Hopefully someday we will find out for real.


Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty sci-fi novels from Tu Books and Spellbound River Press. He is the proud father of two potential future Storytellers-in-Chief.