Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Santa, Baby

Parenting is an interesting exercise in examining your priorities. You can have really strong ideas about how you will approach a particular issue. Infant sleep for example. And then your child comes along and upends all your notions. You think the idea of “sleep-training” by letting your child cry sounds barbaric and awful and will definitely emotionally damage you and your child. And then your child will not sleep for longer than half an hour at a time at night for the first eight months of his life unless he’s sleeping in your bed, and boy are you tired and achy, and you just can’t stand it anymore.

So you decide that, really, letting your child cry will not kill either of you. And after a terrible week, your child learns how to put himself to sleep.

The most recent example of this shifting of priorities in my life has to do with Santa Claus.

One of the things I thought before I had kids was: I am not going to lie about Santa. No judgment implied of anyone who lets their child believe in Santa. It was just that as someone who believes in God (and someone who is not Christian, but celebrates Christmas in a mixed-faith household), I felt uncomfortable with the deity-like attributes Santa has acquired. The idea of teaching my children, once they reached a certain age, to disbelieve made me uncomfortable.

My husband didn’t feel the same way. But as is his wont, he humored me and let me have my opinion.

Now, meet my four-year-old son, N. He adores all things Christmas. He loves any celebration, really, but Christmas especially. He has already started losing sleep thinking about the holiday. We have been having great fun putting up our tree and decorating the house and wrapping presents.

And he believes in Santa.

If I say, Santa isn’t real, N thinks about it and disagrees. Because he’s seen Santa, in the mall.

If I reveal that I fill N’s stocking every year, he thinks about it and seems a bit befuddled and concerned. Because, why doesn’t Santa fill my stocking, he seems to be thinking, when he fills up all the other kids’ stockings?

Truly, I don’t mind that N believes in Santa. It’s more an issue of my own beliefs–I’m not so good at hiding them, as you can see.

And it occurs to me that in the future he may believe other things I don’t. And I want to always be the kind of parent who lets him have those beliefs.



I’ve been trying to come up with a really good, well-thought out post about so-called “Muslim rage” and censorship and Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling and artistic control. Because there’s something similar about the way Rushdie, in the New Yorker excerpt from his new memoir, writes about whether or not he was trying to offend anyone when he wrote “The Satanic Verses” and the way Rowling has over the years apparently tried to control the way she is portrayed.

The Harry Potter books have been banned by some, and yet Rowling herself has sought to limit the journalists who cover her. (It’s one thing to refuse interviews. It’s another to agree on condition that you get to approve the quotes.)

Rushdie was imperiled and basically imprisoned for ten years. And yet he seems to me to not allow that, in the absence of a fatwa against an author’s life, people have the right to be offended by a work of literature, or even the idea of a work of literature–just as the author has the right to write that work.

Maybe I’m wrong about Rushdie’s sentiment. It’s hard to say given the awfulness of what happened to him because of what he wrote. The idea that an authoritarian regime could reach beyond its borders to strangle an artist’s creativity or even take his or her life, or the lives of his or her loved ones–that thought is not alien to any artist who lives in a democracy but has family who reside in a totalitarian state.

Eight things that seem more important than working on novel No. 2

  1. Eating cake
  2. Watching Gordon Ramsey
  3. Deciding Slate’s tech writer is a tool of Microsoft
  4. Stressing about not working on novel No. 2
  5. Reading blog posts about writing
  6. Writing blog posts about writing
  7. Wondering what the deal is with Tumblr
  8. Thinking about ice cream

Well, when you put it that way …

Reading Like a Writer

Recently, my friend S sent me a book as part of a care package. On a Post-it Note stuck on the cover she wrote, “Have you read this? The pacing of the last 10-20 pages is amazing!”

Can you tell S is a writer?

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about Reading Like  Writer. What does that mean? It’s sort of like a woodworker staring at a Thos. Moser chair. Unlike you or me, he doesn’t just stand and drool. Well, he does, but then he wipes away his drool and tries to figure out How They Did That. What tools did they use? What kind of wood? How did they get that effect? How did they stain it? Can I do that, too?

Similarly, if S were reading as a reader, she might have written something different on the Post-it Note: “The last section is a page-turner!” But she was clearly thinking about what made the last 20 pages compelling. Something about the way the author parcels out information, about the way she builds and relieves suspense. (I’m sort of guessing here, b/c I haven’t gotten that far in the book.)

Reading like a writer means not just being swept away by a scene, but going back and trying to figure out why that scene swept you away. Was it the dialogue? The actions of the characters? A vivid description of emotions or setting? How did all those things come together to build tension or suspense or beauty or mystery?

When reading like a writer, look for

  • Character development
  • Plotting and structure
  • Language
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Dialogue
  • Setting and description
  • Scene and pacing

It’s a lot! Usually, there are one or two or three things that a particular book does really well, and that’s what I focus on, rather than trying to follow the ways the book handles every single element of fiction. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any time to just read a passage a drool.

I’ll be following this post up with some posts where I look at particular elements in books I’ve read recently. Look for a post on structure soon. I’d also love to hear from my readers about how you “read like a writer.”

As an aside, Margaret Atwood has read every Conan the Conqueror book!

Whose Point of View?

One of the things a writer learns with experience is when to stick by her guns, go with her gut, and when to change direction.

I’m still learning.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about point of view. I’m afraid I may be using the wrong one.

When I started my novel, I envisioned three characters, three cities, three first-person points of view. First person just felt right, and it went along with one of the themes of the novel: individual expression versus community.

I wrote the first character’s chapters. I wrote the second character’s chapters. I wrote most of the third character’s chapters. I threw out the third character’s chapters. I decided to intermix the other two character’s chapters. Years of my life flew by.

I am now a little more than halfway through revising and rewriting so that the plot flows consistently. And I wonder, should I scrap the first-person point of view and move to third-person. The problem is that one of the two voices is stronger than the other. But I’m categorically opposed to doing some chapters in first-person and and others in third. And I don’t think one character can tell the whole story.

Compounding my problem: I’ve been reading “Away,” by Amy Bloom, a really good historical novel set in the mid-1920s. Bloom uses the omniscient point of view to very good effect, although most of the time we stick with the point of view of her heroine, Lillian. In Bloom’s hands, omniscient seems so … easy … useful. She doesn’t have to differentiate two voices. She doesn’t have to sound like a woman or a man, because she’s the Godlike narrator.

Alice McDermott has said that when she wrote “Charming Billy,” she tried her darnedest to write in the omniscient point of view. But the first person kept sneaking in, and eventually, she realized that the story was being told by somebody. That somebody is not a main character, but she embodies women as the keepers and conveyors of family stories.

So I guess the answer will come to me–eventually.

‘Even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart’

If you read the New Yorker or you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of the magazine’s 20 Under 40 issue. I’ve been making my way through the stories, and ZZ Packer’s “Dayward” really grabbed me, perhaps because it’s historical fiction, and my novel-in-progress is also set in the past. Or perhaps because–well just because.

I’d gotten to paragraph four before I realized the story was set in the post-Civil War South (“Two years free, Lazarus was hoisting himself up a pine like a runaway”). Writers take different approaches to weaving history into their fictional works. Books like “Sea of Poppies,” and a lot of the more “popular” (excuse the scare quotes) historical fiction, pile on the historical details. I think a lot of readers, especially history buffs, like their historical fiction strong on the history. Many people like to feel they learnt new facts while also getting a good story.

Other novelists go light on the historical detail. “The Known World,” “The General in His Labyrinth,” and Packer’s New Yorker piece take this approach. Though historical setting is integral to these works, their minimalist approach to creating a historical world enables them, I think, to speak eloquently toward contemporary, even universal, themes. (Racism, poverty, and the yearning for a better life; imperialism and growing older; coming-of-age, family, and escape.)

I don’t think one approach is better than the other, but as a reader and a writer I favor the latter. When a friend’s wife heard I was writing a historical novel, she said, “You must really like history.” Um, no. I don’t love history. Don’t hate it either. But it’s a means of saying what I want to say, rather than a passion.

The beauty of Packer’s piece is how she gets into the emotions of her 15-year-old main character. Stuck up a tree, needing to save his younger sister from the vicious dogs sent after them, he thinks

It was all his fault that they were in it like this. Ever suspicious of a God who hadn’t spoken to man, woman, or child in more than a thousand years, he nevertheless sent up a pinprick-brief prayer, even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart.

Ah, if I could write one image that vivid in my entire life, I’d be happy. Reading as a writer, I found Packer’s writing intimidatingly good. (Self-improvement resolution of the day: Turn feelings of intimidation into aspiration.) Reading as a reader, I found the story ignore-your-toddler-until-he-starts-whining-and-then-feel-annoyed-at-the-guilt-that’s-keeping-you-from-getting-to-the-end good.

It’s good to see historical fiction in the New Yorker. Not because that’s a mark of approval from the powers that be (literary historical fiction has been in vogue for quite some time now), but because I do like a good dollop of history with my fiction from time to time.

‘Shut Up and Get to Work’

This week, a coworker told me about a friend of his whose first novel was going to auction. A few hours later, the book had sold for five figures.

At first, I was like, “Wow, that’s so cool for your friend.” A few hours later–definite pangs of jealousy.

I wasn’t jealous of the book sale. I was jealous that this person I’d never met had finished his first novel.

Here’s some advice from blogger Tayari Jones: Don’t get pissy about who got published other than you. If you haven’t completed your novel, “shut up and get to work.”

And remember, you started writing because you love to write. When I say get to work, I am not telling you to pick up a hammer and start breaking rocks. When I say get to work, I’m saying get back to you. Get back to where you started from when you said you wanted to be a writer, when you didn’t know anything about the business.

I’ve been saying all along that the business of publishing does not concern me until I FINISH THE DAMN BOOK. But, I do think well-channeled jealousy is not necessarily a bad thing. It has spurred me to action more than once. I prefer to focus my jealousy on the types of things I can control. I can control, for the most part, getting the writing done. I can’t control, for the most part, whether someone decides to publish me. And of course, if I haven’t finished the novel, whether anyone would publish my work is a moot point.

So, kudos to my coworker’s friend for finishing his novel and doing all the hard work it must have taken to make it sale-able. And congratulations to him for getting a publisher.

And kudos to me for cutting the first three pages of a chapter yesterday and getting my characters right into the middle of the action. Baby steps.