Monday, May 27, 2013

Novel as Unintentional Autobiography

I finished a rewrite of my first novel a few days ago (look out publishing world--submissions coming your way!).  Reading it again, I realized again how much of myself can be in a piece of writing even when I don't know that I am writing about myself.

I already knew that the germ of this particular novel came from my own life. When my littlest child was still just a baby, I took her grocery shopping. I had parked near the cart corral, so I placed her in her car seat and walked the few feet to put the cart away.  On the way back to the car, I had this sort of day-mare in which I got hit by a car and she was left in the car alone. That was the starting thought that became His Other Mother.

I gave Sherry, my main character a few things that came from me. She's female, not too much younger than me. I made her a middle school teacher. I gave her a love of baking and the use of it as a stress reliever. Those are all me. But other than that, I'm not much like Sherry.

Still, as I wrote the first draft, I realized at some point that some of the relationship dynamics between Sherry and her husband, Kirk, were similar to those between me and my first husband. Apparently, I had some things to work out and understand about how that relationship had gone. (It ended better for me than it did for Sherry and Kirk).

Sherry wasn't necessarily mentally ill when I started writing the novel, but along the way, it became clear that she was schizophrenic.   There are some people in my life that live with schizophrenia.  Apparently, I had some things to work out and understand about that, too. Even Sherry and Kirk's fertility struggles echo somewhat the struggles of some people who are close to me.

As I wrote the second draft, I found some of my ambivalence about organized religion and medical practice coming to the surface.  Apparently, my issues with doctors run deep--they're coming out in the second novel, too. 

I haven't decided what all this means. In the moment of writing, autobiography is about the furthest thing from my mind. I've never set out to tell my own life story, and Sherry's story is definitely not my own in that sense.  My own life, thankfully, lacks the kind of conflict that makes a good novel. But it was surprising and a little disconcerting to find all this personal truth in my fiction.

It has made me regard the novels I am reading a little differently as well. What issues is the author working through in these pages? Does my enjoyment of the book reflect my own issues?  How many novels could really be called "An Autobiography of my Subconscious"? Apparently, mine can.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mayday! It's May

Ah, spring.  The season of hormones and drama in middle school. Just in time for end of year testing, too.

My sixth graders are weepy. Sometimes they don't even know why. My seventh graders are wired or angry. They don't know why either. The eighth graders are either so sleepy they seem inert, or so excited about moving on to high school that they can't contain themselves.  Sometimes both at the same time. They can't tell me why.

They're all doing all of this for the first time. They have no idea what's going on. It's confusing. It's wild.  I've been here for years, watching, and even I don't understand this energy, this strange movement in the middle school symphony we call May. 

Couple this with where teachers are at this time of year--stretched thin, burnt out, worn out, exhausted, stressed out, frustrated, frazzled.  It can be a very difficult combination.  Tempers flare easily in May.  Even though it has rained a lot, you should assume the kindling is dry and tread very lightly in this forest.  The slightest spark and we've got a conflagration on our hands.

Maybe it's not a coincidence that May Day when written as one word (mayday!mayday!) is a cry for help. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Prisoners to the Test

Today I was held prisoner in a small, poorly lit and rather airless room with five other captives, all quite young.  Arrangements were made for the younger captives to have access to restroom facilities, but the two older women in the room were not allowed to leave.  No one had access to food or drink until after 1:00 p.m. The young captives were forced to take a seemingly endless test while the older captives watched, ensuring that they stayed on task.

Yeah, that's what we call End of Grade Testing. 

Physically, emotionally, intellectually, and other -ly you want to add . . .it's torture.  If it lasted longer, I'd think I'd have a case for having my rights under the Geneva Conventions violated.

I wonder if anyone's done a study on teacher attrition and end of grade testing. 

So here's my brief soapbox about End of Grade Testing:  it's a waste of time and money.  You could garner the same information about student comprehension by asking their teachers.  We're already being paid (embarrassingly little in North Carolina, but still, paid).  The whole industry has sprung up around the idea that somehow the people we entrust to educate our children cannot then assess them.

Today, my theory is sexism. Teaching is a female-dominated field. Government is a male-dominated field . . .and it doesn't even represent the best that the male half of our species has to offer.  If we just trusted teachers to do their jobs and gave them the resources to do it, we could drop the whole thing.

Check back soon for other conspiracy theories and railings at the heavens. There's a lot more testing to go.