Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mostly, For Worse

It’s the end of an era—a lame and annoying era, sure, but an era nonetheless.

This weekend, Lynn Johnston is kinda ending her long-running comic strip “For Better or For Worse.” On August 30, 2008, after twenty-eight years, the oh-so-heart-warming adventures of the Patterson family will finally come to an end.

In appropriately hokey fashion, the final panel has an old lady named Iris advising a young bride that she needs to be there for her husband “for better or for worse.” (Now that’s clever!)

Now, I have to admit, I never saw the magic in “For Better or For Worse.” I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t love-to-hate-it. I just found it groan-inducing. And so, I can’t say I shed a tear when I found out it was ending.

What’s that? It’s not actually ending, you say?

Did a call from the comic-strip governor trigger a stay of execution? Did Broom Hilda threaten to turn Lynn Johnston into a Ziggy-like newt if she doesn’t keep writing? Not exactly.

Note how above I said Ms. Johnston is “kinda” ending her comic. I used that qualifier for two reasons:

(1) Ms. Johnston has already been in semi-retirement for a year now. Since September 2007, she’s been writing new material while also running some old strips, as flashbacks.

(2) August 30th merely marks the end of the current storylines. Starting on September 1st, Ms. Johnston is going to go back to the beginning—that is, back to the original strips from 1979—and start telling the same story over again.

Confused? Me, too... but this is how I understand it.

See, the thing that distinguished “For Better or For Worse” from other comics is that the characters aged in real time. (In contrast, the Family Circus kids have stayed the same age for 48 years, while the eldest Blondie kid should be 74.)

And as the "For Better or For Worse" characters got older, the stories got more complicated. So that’s why Ms. Johnston wants to go back to a simpler time. Back to when Michael and Elizabeth were new parents, and the kids were young and carefree. Back to before she had to deal with competition from the likes of FoxTrot and Drabble.

And just like George Lucas touched-up the original Star Wars movies (to the unanimous delight of fans everywhere), Ms. Johnston promises to “fix” things the second time around—maybe add some new dialogue, say, maybe change some of the drawings.

But overall, she’s going to write and illustrate the same stories over again. She even has a name for this concept: “new-runs.”

This plan, as far as I can tell, will allow her to enjoy her retirement without having to walk away completely. See, eventually, papers will run old “For Better or For Worse” strips half the time, and these “new-runs” the other half.

Now how is this different from her current arrangement, with old strips running as flashbacks? It seems hard-core fans (and apparently, they’re out there) thought the flashbacks messed up the continuity. Also, Ms. Johnston has evolved as an artist over the years—so much so that the old comics seemed as if they were drawn by a different person entirely.

But with the "new-runs," she can run old strips and new strips, but since the new strips will look exactly like the old strips, the transition will be seamless.

And yet, though I give her props for blazing a trail with her “new-runs” concept, I wonder if 50% new “For Better or For Worse” is 50% too much. Maybe it’s time to hang it up. Just walk away.

And not just "For Better or For Worse"; maybe it’s time for all the great comic icons from the past to put the quill in the inkwell for good and call it quits.

Here’s what I mean: a few weeks ago, I went on vacation to Cape Cod. My family has been doing this vacation for over thirty years. A lot has changed in that time: Thompson's Clam Bar has shut down (despite having the coolest radio commercial ever); the Cape Cod Mall got a makeover; videogame staples like Dig Dug and Galaxian are long extinct, replaced by those stupid games that spit out tickets (which you can trade in, after you collect about a hundred, for a pack of Smarties).

But a lot has stayed the same: the beachside hotels; the pine-needle driveways; and most of all, the comics.

Look, I like nostalgia as much as the next guy, but I have to say, the geriatric array of comic strips in the Sunday edition of the Cape Cod Times bummed me out a little. Below are some of the titles the Cape Cod Times ran in its funny pages on August 17, 2008 (along with some facts and figures I got from that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia):

Classic Peanuts: The original Peanuts debuted in October 1950. Since Charles Schulz' death in 2000, papers have been re-running old strips as “classic”: according to the fineprint, the comic running on August 17th was from 1961.

Garfield: Debuted in 1978. (Yes, that means the fat cat turns thirty this year.)

Doonesbury: Started in October 1970.

Hagar the Horrible: Started in 1973. Creator Dik Browne died in 1989.

Wizard of Id: Began in 1964. Creators Johnny Hart and Brant Parker both died in 2007. (Interestingly enough, they died a little over a week apart—with Hart dying on April 7th and Parker on April 15th).

Andy Capp: Started in 1957. Creator Reginald Smythe died in June 1988.

Hi and Lois: Debuted in 1954. Of the two co-creators, Dik Browne (of "Hagar the Horrible" fame) is dead, and Mort Walker is 85.

B.C.: Began in 1958. Creator Johnny Hart died in 2007.

Dilbert: Began in 1989.

Beetle Bailey: Began in 1950 by Mort Walker. One of the only comics of that generation still produced by its original creator. (Did you know Beetle Bailey is actually the brother of Lois, of "Hi and Lois" fame? It’s true.)

Family Circus: Debuted in 1960.

The Lockhorns: Started in 1968. Creator William Hoest died in 1988.

Blondie: First published in 1930. Original artist Chic Young died in 1973.

Shoe: Debuted in 1977. Creator Jeff MacNeally died in 2000 (and with him, any chance of knowing why the strip is called “Shoe” when the main character, that sort of plump, world-weary reporter-bird, is actually named Cosmo. Shoe is another guy. What’s up with that?)

The Born Loser: Debuted in 1965. Creator Art Samson died in 1991.

And, of course, count in "For better or For Worse" in that list as well.

Now, just look again at the birthdates of some of these comics. Dilbert is the “new kid,” and he’s almost twenty. Beetle Bailey originally enlisted during the Korean War, for crying out loud! And if the comic "Blondie" is 78 years old, that means the character Blondie has to be in her late 90s!

Not only that, how do some of these comics continue to survive, having offered such little in the way of actual entertainment for so long. Don’t get me wrong: I thrilled to the philosophical musings of "B.C." back in the day, and I admit to owning three or four of the ninety-seven Garfield books.

But Andy Capp—never found it funny. Not once. And Family Circus? Family freakin’ Circus? Come on! Bil Keane has made a career out of recycling five running gags:

* Billy takes over for Bil Keane
* Dead grandma looking down from heaven
* Dotted Arrow follows one of the kids around the house/ neighborhood
* Kids blame mishaps on “Ida Know” and “Not Me”
* Parents imagine what kids will be like as grown-ups

How has Bil Keane been able to stretch out five gags for forty-eight years? It boggles the mind.

Quite simply, they’re just too old. All of them. They have to go—“For Better or For Worse,” included. No new-runs. No nothing. Just done.

Problem is, I don’t see a ton of feisty up-and-comers waiting to take their spots once these strips step down for good. As part of my extensive research, I also reviewed the comics in the Boston Sunday Globe and the Boston Sunday Herald. Both papers ran some old chestnuts, but they ran some (relatively) "new" ones as well, such as "Rose is Rose", "Stone Soup," and "Zits."

And I have to tell you: these new comics weren’t great. At least, I didn’t find any that I could see running, in any form, fifty years from now.

What does that mean? Maybe the comic scene is an obsolete medium. Maybe some day, there will be no funny pages... or, sadly, pages at all, for that matter.

Or maybe a new batch of artists will crop up, who will create new iconic characters—new Garfields and Dagwoods and Woodstocks.

Till then, I’ll guess we’ll have to suffer through “new-runs”… for better or for worse. (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cure for the Summertime Blues

Well, tomorrow is my first day back in class. To commemorate the passing of Summer 2008, I thought I'd re-print an article that ran a year ago, in the August 2007 edition of a now-defunct magazine called CT Slant. The piece is a little dated (with references to Shrek and Captain Jack), but I wanted to run it because I think it eases the transition into autumn.

Weird note about this article: the editor asked me in June to write a piece about the end of summer. So I had to re-create in my mind the dog-days of summer only a few days after I got out of school. Psychologically, I think it sort of messed up my whole summer.

Anyway, here's the unedited version of the piece, originally published in CT Slant under the headline, "And So It Begins."

If you’re thinking about finally taking the kids out strawberry picking, you’re about a month too late.

Unlike the apple-picking season, the Connecticut strawberry season is short, running only from the second week of June to the first week of July, tops. During that window of time, when the majority of strawberries have changed from green to whitish to pink to red, the season peaks; in other words, the majority of strawberries are ripe. But that moment of ripeness is also the moment of decay; after that, the strawberries get soft and squishy, a yummy snack for some nasty black bugs.

In many ways, Connecticut’s strawberry season can serve as a metaphor for our entire summer—not just in terms of the fleetingness of both but because New England summers also tend to decay. The ripeness of July gives way, as it does every year, to a soft and squishy August, forcing you to face a sad fact: the party is just about over.

Actually, you first faced this truth a long time ago, back when you were just a child. Remember those days? The bell would ring on that last day of school, and in that instant, the whole summer would stretch out before you like the limitless blue Atlantic. To this grade-school version of you, summer means freedom—a special kind of freedom, one unlike any other, that delicious, glorious, “no-more-teachers’-dirty-looks” kind of freedom.

But that very freedom can also paralyze. You have so many things you can do, you end up doing nothing. You have so much free time, you end up wasting it.

And so, not long after the dust from the fireworks settle, you find yourself saying, almost against your will, those two words that mark the unofficial death knell of summer: “I’m bored.”

And not long after that, you overhear your mom on the phone saying to her friend, “I can’t wait for school to start so we can get back into a routine.” You’d take her to task for her blasphemy, if not for that part of you that actually agreed with her.

Hey, don’t get me wrong: I love summer. I love everything about it—from barbecues to bocce, from the scent of sunscreen to the rush of liberation that comes from walking outside barefoot. But even I can’t deny that, around the first week of August, you see signs of summer’s decay at almost every turn.

At the multiplexes, your Shreks and Spideys and Captain Jacks have been eased out, replaced with underwhelming Underdogs and Daddy Day Camps and, yes, new Care Bears movies. Liquor store owners have removed all Summer Ale stragglers from the shelves. For weeks now, Target has been pushing “Back to School” sales.

Summer decays. But that’s not altogether a bad thing. It has to decay; the deteriorating dog days of early August cushion the blow for September, when summer finally leaves us for good. And by winding down the way it does—with a whimper, not a bang—summer actually gets us excited for what’s coming up.

Here’s what I mean: I teach high school, and at the start of every year, I always marvel at the energy those first few days bring. And most of this energy comes from the students themselves. That’s right: the students—the same kids who proclaim their hatred of school to anyone who will listen, the ones who danced a jig on that last day in June—are now legitimately excited to be back.

Don’t get me wrong: they’re not exactly begging to get back to lectures on the Harding administration or quizzes on the periodic table. But they know that the beginning of school means the beginning of autumn, and in New England, autumn has some pretty cool associations, too— pep rallies and corn mazes and country fairs and apple-picking. These kids have watched another seemingly endless summer recede before their eyes, and they’re understandably sad to see it go, but they’re also are excited for what’s next.

So, yes, you’ve missed your chance to pick strawberries, but don’t despair. Instead, look at what’s coming up. Strawberry season’s over, sure, but hey… how ‘bout them apples?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Teach the Second Day

"Summer is short. But summer school is long."
--Brian, former summer school student

"July is a month of Saturdays. August is a month of Sundays."
-- qtd. by my boss

Two weeks ago, my summer school job ended. One week ago, I was vacationing on Cape Cod. And one week from now, I'll be right back in school.

Kind of depressing, when you put it that way, isn't it?

Before the last drips and drabs of summer officially go down the drain, I thought I would offer some advice to the new teachers, the ones who are fitfully trying to get everything ready before Showtime. My mentor gave me this advice when I first started out, and I still follow it to this day. Here goes.

So, let's say you're a new teacher, and you're thinking about what to do on that very first day of classes. You figure you'll take attendance, probably mangle most of your students' names, and then... what? What do you do with them on that first day?

Now, your instincts may be telling you to go over all the nuts-and-bolts stuff-- you know, the course requirements and the attendance policies and, probably most importantly, your classroom management pronouncements.

And that's a good instinct, because that stuff is essential. It's also boring as all get-out. I mean, drier-than-burnt-dust kind of boring.

It takes a special kind of teacher who can dazzle the students with a review of the syllabus. And if there's ever a day you'll want to dazzle them, it's the first day. That's when you want to grab them. Moreover, that's when you want to impress upon them that your classroom is a place where work gets done.

The fact is, as cliched as it may sound, you really don't ever get a second chance to make a first impression. Does that mean you won't ever get them back if you make an unfavorable first impression? Of course not. You'll definitely get them back. But it's a battle you can avoid if you hit it out of the park on Day One.

So instead of doing all that administrative, nuts-and-bolts stuff on the first day, why not push all that off until the second day? And what do you do on the first day? The second day's lesson.

See, the second day is when you had planned to do some real teaching. For the second day, you've designed a great lesson-- one that's engaging and exciting and thought-provoking. The second day is when you're going to show off your pedagogical chops, when business is really going to pick up.

So why not do that good stuff on the first day? Why not teach the second day first?

Think about it: You go into the first day with all this energy. And, believe it or not, so do the kids. Yeah, everyone's bummed out about the summer being over, but even the students come into the classroom on that first day with an unmistakable enthusiasm, a readiness to get it started. Can't really explain it, and it doesn't really last for long. So why waste all that energy-- both yours and theirs-- by reading over your "drop-the-lowest-quiz" policy?

"Wait," you might be saying, "Won't they eat me alive if I don't review my classroom management rules on that first day?" Oh, you can touch on it. But I'm saying don't spend the whole period on this kind of stuff. Instead, roll out your surefire lesson, one that engages the students so profoundly that they don't even have time to consider goofing off.

I remember, in one of the dippy education courses through which all aspiring teachers must suffer, one of my instructors once said, "The best classroom management tool is a good lesson plan." Now, I'm not sure I always believe this, but as far as the "Teach the second day" philosophy goes, it's pretty sound.

The best part of all this is you don't have to do any extra work: as a new teacher, you already have the second day prepared. You've probably had it prepared since June. So just move it all up a day. And then on the second day, you can take some pressure off yourself and review all the necessary, but nevertheless unthrilling, adminsitrative stuff.

Teach the second day first. Think about it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Interview with Ellen Wittlinger, Part II

Ellen Wittlinger is an author of Young Adult (YA) novels, including Razzle, Zigzag, The Long Night of Leo and Bree, Blind Faith, and Parrotfish. She is probably best known, however, for her novel Hard Love, which won the Printz Honor Award for excellence in Young Adult literature in 2000.

Hard Love, published in 1999, is narrated by an alienated (and alienating) teenager named John who falls for his lesbian friend, Marisol. In July 2008, Mrs. Wittlinger returned to these characters with the publication of Love and Lies: Marisol's Story, a brand-new story told from Marisol's perspective.

The following the second half of my blog interview with Mrs. Wittlinger:

Mark Dursin: You once said that a novel can’t be about just one idea; instead, a writer needs to explore several different “strands” and then somehow weave those strands together. Could you talk more about that? How do you come up with the “strands” for your novels?

Ellen Wittlinger: The strands develop as the story goes along. A book about a boy who falls in love with a lesbian girl might be interesting, but if you add in that both of them are writers who are putting their thoughts down in zines, there's another dimension to the story. If their surroundings are of interest too--she as a city kid, he as suburban, and both of them discovering the joys and beauties of Cape Cod--there's more richness. If the girl is overprotected by her mother and the boy is not even touched by his mother, you've set up an interesting dynamic which can work through their characters throughout the story. In other words, you set up situations which will make the work deeper. I hope that makes sense.

MD: You have a knack, I think, for writing endings that readers don’t expect (Gio doesn’t get the girl in Hard Love, Kenyon moves away in Razzle, and I won’t spoil the ending of Love and Lies). Still, the endings are still appropriate and satisfying to the characters. How do you decide the best—not necessarily the most obvious or easiest—ending for a book?

EW: It has to satisfy me. My endings sometimes frustrate my readers and they write to ask me what happens next. But I prefer the more realistic endings. Movies tend to tie things up in a bow at the end, but that's not how real life works. I think it helps the characters to live on in the readers' minds if you aren't sure just what will happen to them next. That's the way I like books to end, so that's the way I end mine!

MD: Do you have the ending in mind as you write?

EW: Again, it depends on the book. Sometimes the ending is inherent in the beginning and sometimes not. I would say usually I have a vague idea where I'm going, but I don't know exactly how I'm going to get there. Which makes the writing more fun for me. When I'm just working toward an ending I've already decided on, it's not as magical.

MD: What are the nuts-and-bolts of your writing process? When and where do you do your writing? Do you write everything on computer? Do you save drafts?

EW: Now that my kids are grown and gone I have a much more lax schedule. The Internet has also played a role in eating up a chunk of time that I used to use to write. These days I usually spend the morning doing email, business and promotion stuff, until a late lunch. Afternoons are for writing, and if I'm working well I'll sometimes go back and work again after dinner, but not usually. I make notes in longhand and sometimes write a poem or other short piece in longhand, but all the novels are written on the computer. I do save drafts, at least for awhile. In fact, I use up way too many trees because I like to print everything out and see it as I'm revising. I revise in longhand before going back to the computer.

MD: A growing number of English teachers feel that we should replace the “classics” with Young Adult books (which kids tend to prefer), but seemingly just as many feel that the classics are foundational and should never be removed from the curriculum. Where do you stand on this?

EW: I think there's a place for the classics in high school, but I'd certainly like to see YA books brought into the classroom as well. There are so many wonderful, well-written YA books now which speak directly to the teen experience, and not every kid will find these on his/her own. It seems to me that acquainting them with YA novels might very well spark an interest in reading in teens who are bored silly by Silas Marner or Great Expectations.

MD: Do you think academics, as a general rule, have a snobby attitude against Young Adult literature?

EW: Oh, sure. Hey, teachers aren't paid much--they should at least be able to feel a little bit superior. And adult writers certainly feel that way about YA writers. I try to let it roll off my back, but sometimes it's maddening.

MD: You may be one of the most “fan-friendly” authors I’ve ever known. You respond personally to e-mails (that's how I came to know you); you have a Facebook page; and now you're doling this blog interview. Do you think that kind of accessibility is unusual?

EW: Not anymore. I think it's become incumbent on us to reach out to our fans. It was my publicist who suggested I get MySpace and Facebook pages, and it was a good idea. But even in the past there were always authors who responded to fan mail diligently. And if I got more of it, I probably wouldn't be able to. It does eat up writing time.

MD: What kinds of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?

EW: I just finished reading Mark Doty’s Firebird: A Memoir, for my adult book group. I do read a lot of YAs, though. I've been reading graphic novels lately (Bone, Vampire Loves, etc.) in preparation for writing one. I loved Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. And I'm looking forward to digging into the new John Green novel, Paper Towns, and M.T. Anderson's second volume of Octavian Nothing. Oh, I recently read and loved E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, too. And I like to read books about writing-- for example, Take Joy by Jane Yolen which I've also been dipping into lately.

MD: A few years ago I had a student who said Hard Love was the only book he ever actually read in high school—I mean, cover to cover. And he liked it so much that he went out to the local library and got out another one of your books, Razzle. (His mother was entirely amazed by this behavior.) And I have a bunch of stories like that, about reluctant readers who really gravitated toward Hard Love. Why do you think that is? What is it about that book that captivates people?

EW: I've had letters and emails from kids telling me this too, but to be fair, I know many other YA authors who get similar letters. This is obviously why we need lots of different kinds of books available for this age group. They aren't all going to like the same thing. The miracle is when you get the right book to the right kid at the right time.

As far as Hard Love goes, I suspect what draws kids in is (1) the zines which make the book look different and maybe make it easier to get involved, and (2) the straightforwardness of the two main characters: Marisol, who is a truth-teller, even if it hurts; and John, who's just beginning to understand the truth about himself. Truth is very important to teens, and they often believe that they're the only ones telling it.

MD: I remember you told a story about how your husband was describing to someone the kinds of books you write, and he said, “She writes about how art can save you.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment of your body of work? And how can art “save” a person?

EW: I think it's a very apt assessment, although maybe not the last word on the subject. I think many people are "saved" by art when the world doesn't seem kind to them otherwise. An artist can be herself, no matter how odd the rest of the world finds her. The art itself gives you the self-esteem you might not find anywhere else. Art is a safe place.

MD: How has Hard Love "saved" you, as the author? Or, at the very least, how has it changed your career?

EW: Hard Love has definitely set me on the right path as an author. Winning the Printz Honor has kept the book in print and more and more teenagers seem to find it all the time which is very rewarding. It's helped me find an audience for all my books, and it's allowed me to write fulltime. I owe a lot to that little book!

Friday, August 8, 2008

An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger, Part I

Three summers ago, I read for the first time Ellen Wittlinger’s young adult novel Hard Love, which recounts a few months in the life of a teenage boy named John who falls in love with his lesbian friend.

To be honest, before reading this book, I never really got much out of Young Adult (or YA) Lit; the topics and characters just didn’t interest me that much. But I enjoyed reading
Hard Love so much that I looked the author up on the Internet and shot off an e-mail that said “You redeemed Young Adult Lit for me!”

Later that day, Ellen wrote back. We’ve maintained a correspondence to this day.

That’s not the only reason why Ellen Wittlinger is my favorite young adult novelist, of course: there’s also her writing voice, her engaging characters, her ability to reach even the most reluctant of readers. I’ve seen it myself, time and time again, with some of my own students: proud non-readers who end up really liking
Hard Love. Just as she redeemed YA Lit for me, she redeems reading for these students.

Even if you’re not a teenager, even if you’re not much of a reader in general, I encourage you to read some of her books, which include
Razzle, Sandpiper, The Long Night of Leo and Bree, Blind Faith, Parrotfish, and, of course, Hard Love (for which she won the Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature).

Ellen’s most recent book, a follow-up to
Hard Love called Love and Lies: Marisol’s Story, was published in July 2008. While Hard Love is narrated from the point of view of John (who also goes by the pseudonym Giovanni), Ellen tells Love and Lies from the point of view of John’s former love interest, Marisol Guzman.

Recently, Ellen agreed to do a blog interview with me, which I will publish in two parts. In Part I, below, we mainly discuss her newest book,
Love and Lies; Part II broadens the conversation to include her career and her writing process.

Mark Dursin: Love and Lies is a follow-up to Hard Love, but I notice that the word "sequel" is not used in any of the promotional descriptions. On the cover, for example, Love and Lies is called a "companion" to Hard Love. Any reason? Does "sequel" have connotations you wanted to avoid?

Ellen Wittlinger: Calling the second book a "companion novel" was my editor's choice. He felt that "sequel" would lead the reader to believe that both books are from the same point of view, and they aren't. In fact, John/Gio has a much smaller role in the new book, while Marisol becomes the protagonist and takes center stage. I do, however, sometimes refer to L&L as a sequel just because people know what the word means and might be unsure about "companion."

MD: When you finished Hard Love, nine years ago now, did you ever have a sense that you wanted to return to these characters? Did you push to write this new book? Or did your fans lead you to it, or maybe your publisher?

EW: I didn't think I would ever write a sequel to any of my books because I always thought I'd finished the story I had to tell about the characters. For years, kids asked for a sequel to Hard Love, but I didn't even think that was possible because Marisol was headed to college and YA novels don't traditionally take place in college. But then, at some point, I started to think I would like to go back to those characters, especially Marisol. I always really enjoyed that character and I knew there was a lot more to explore with her, and finally it occurred to me that, duh, she could just defer college for a year.

MD: While nine years have passed in "our" time between Hard Love and Love and Lies, only four months have passed for the characters. Two questions about time: (a) Was it tough for you to get back into these characters after such a long lay-off? and (b) What's the relationship between "their" time and "our" time? When does these two books "happen"?

EW: Yes, it was initially difficult to get back into the characters. I was so afraid I would get them wrong and my fans would be upset that they didn't recognize the people they'd come to know in Hard Love. It just took a little bit of writing and rewriting (and re-reading Hard Love) to get back into their heads again.

As for your time questions, well, I think I fudged it a bit. The original book came out in 1999, and that's when kids were big into doing zines. By 2007 zines had faded into the background a bit, so I didn't mention too much about them in Love & Lies. Instead I have Marisol and John both taking a novel-writing class. I'm trying to get away with convincing you that these two books really do happen four months apart.

MD: Many of the changes that have happened in those nine years, it seems to me, involve technology. For example, back in the late 90s, zines were "the thing." Now, zines have been largely replaced by blogs. Do you think blogs are basically "zines on a screen"? And if Marisol were alive in 2008, would she be a blogger? (See, I snuck in another two-part question.)

EW: For the most part, yes, I do think blogs are "zines on a screen," and I do think Marisol would be a blogger now. But what I miss about online blogging is the tactile sense of physically putting your own book together, getting the type, pictures, etc. and making up the pages, then copying them, stapling them, handing them to someone. But that may just be my age. I'm not ready to give up books for the Kindle yet either. I suspect teens would not see any difference between making their blog page and making a zine.

MD: Love and Lies is narrated by Marisol, whom I've always found a polarizing character. From my experience teaching Hard Love, many students think she leads Gio on; they feel for him, but at Marisol's expense. Do you agree with that reading? And was there any conscious attempt this time around to make her more sympathetic?

EW: Well, I do know that some students, particularly boys, feel that Marisol leads Gio on. I didn't feel that was true when I was writing the book, though, and I'm always surprised by that idea. She does tell him right up front that she's lesbian and he shouldn't expect her to change. And she reiterates that throughout the book.

I think teens have read and seen so many happy-ending stories that some of them just expected these two would end up together no matter how unlikely that scenario was, and when it didn't happen, they were upset with the character (instead of me!). I don't like to tie up my books with pretty ribbons at the end. I like them to be hopeful, but not unrealistically happy.

As for me making a conscious attempt to make Marisol more sympathetic--it wasn't so much that I wanted her to be sympathetic as that I wanted her to understand what a hurtful love could feel like. Marisol is so confident, so sure of herself--to the point of cockiness--I thought that she needed a little wake-up call in order to grow and change.

MD: Hard Love has just one ill-fated kissing scene, but Love and Lies contains some legitimate sex. Granted, you don't include long descriptions of, let's say, "sexual congress," but on the other hand, there's a tad more than just the implication of sex in Love and Lies. Why did you decide to go "there" in this book?

EW: You go where the book takes you. Marisol is 18 and she's looking for an adult kind of love. In the first book, there was no reason for more than a kiss, but in L&L, Marisol no longer lives at home, and she's involved with an older woman; it would be unrealistic for it not to move into the bedroom. I never write about sex without weighing and measuring each word because I know many other people will do the same. I put it in when it has to be there.

MD: I suppose I should ask about Marisol's lesbianism. I never found it problematic, and I never had any students or parents complain, but I sense it could be a problem for some readers. (After all, the people who want to ban To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn may not exactly warm up to a book about a young lesbian exploring her awakening sexuality.) Have you ever received any negative feedback to the character of Marisol?

EW: Hard Love was never, to my knowledge, publicly challenged. That doesn't mean, of course, that the book wasn't silently censored in other ways, removed from shelves, not purchased to begin with, etc. And I have several times been dis-invited to speak at schools when people realized that I had written books with gay and lesbian characters.

My bottom line on this topic is that I will talk about whatever books the students have read for my visit, but if a student has a question about another of my books, even (or especially) one with gay characters, I'm going to answer those questions too. This just makes some people very uncomfortable. Who knows, maybe Love & Lies will be my second book to be challenged! (The first was Sandpiper, which has been challenged several times for dealing with oral sex.)

MD: Hard Love has many recurring themes-- for example, the theme of "touch" (in the physical sense-- John's mother won't touch him-- and in the emotional sense). Any themes you want readers of Love and Lies to watch for?

EW: You know, I never write a book with the idea of "theme" in mind. I'm always a little surprised when people point out to me what my themes are. I think most authors would say the same. Theme is your job.

MD: Well, does that mean you don’t necessarily have an intention in your writing? Do elements like symbols or themes just “happen” as part of your creative process, rather than you writing toward them?

EW: It depends on the book. In a book like Parrotfish, of course I have an intention: to make the transgender character understandable and relatable. But I would say theme is never the first thing I'm thinking about. I always begin with character and then figure out/discover what those characters have to say, who they'll be, how they'll impact each other. I'm not thinking about theme or symbolism in the first draft, for sure.

As I go back and see what's happening in the book, what direction it's taking, then yes, I might enhance something to play on what's already there. That's the tinkering part of revision, and it's a fun part of the process.

MD: One more question about authorial intention: the knock against English teachers is that we over-analyze things, or we apply meaning to aspects of a text that the author may not have intended. Thoughts on this?

EW: Well, I think it depends how this is done. I don't necessarily think the author is the final authority on a book; I'm often surprised at what someone has taken from one of my books. A book is a sort of conversation between the writer and the reader. You take from a book what you need to take, so having someone point out what you might take from it--I don't have a problem with that. I think that sometimes kids get turned off to English because they feel that a teacher has sucked the life out of a book by analyzing it to death, but I think that if a teacher really loves and respects the book himself, this isn't going to happen.

MD: Judy Blume wrote five books about Fudge and his friends and family, and I don’t even know how many books Beverly Cleary wrote about Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby. Any chance you might write another book about Gio, Marisol, et al? Are there more stories to tell?

EW: Well, who knows? The ending to L&L is fairly ambiguous. There could be another story to tell about these characters. It probably depends on how well this book sells and whether my publisher is interested in doing a third book.

(Stay tuned for Part II of this interview with author Ellen Wittlinger.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Story Time with Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen calls his latest album Magic. After last weekend, I have an idea why.

Last Saturday night, my brother Matt and I saw Springsteen at Gillette Stadium. The show got off to an ominous start: even before the band played a single note, the sky erupted with a furious symphony of its own. Thunder. Lightning. Torrential rain and winds.

The storm didn’t last long, but what it lacked in endurance it more than made up for in intensity. Within seconds, we were all soaked. And when everyone took cover, we were also crushed and cramped under the same enclosures. To top it all off, we had to sit through an hour-long delay to ensure the worst of it had passed.

You know what? No one cared. No one complained. We were all just excited to see the Boss.

Now that’s magic!

The only moment that ever-so-briefly broke the spell for me took place right before the skies opened up. Just as my brother and I were walking into the stadium, we ran into two of my former students. (This qualifies as magical in itself; after all, there were only 30,000 people there.) I told them that the last time I saw Bruce was twenty years ago, in 1988.

“Wow,” one of them marveled, “I wasn’t even born yet.”

“Yeah, I was negative one,” the other mused.

Just then, as if on cue, we heard our first crash of thunder, as I wondered what threatened to put more of a damper on the evening: the rain, or the reminder of my mortality.

Twenty years—damn. A lot has changed during that time: I got married, had two kids. I moved to Connecticut, became a homeowner. Began a teaching career and started losing my hair. (Those two may or may not be related.)

A lot has changed for Bruce, too, in those twenty years. He divorced his wife and married his bandmate Patti. He divorced his band too, for a time, and went through a period of comparative irrelevancy as a singles act (Tom Joad, anyone?) before heading back to E Street where he belongs.

Now, twenty years later, the Bruce and the E Streeters are back together, but they’re not just doing same ol’, same ol’. Before the show, when I mentioned to my brother how excited I was to hear “Rosalita,” he warned me they probably wouldn’t play it. Even though Bruce always closed with “Rosalita” in the early part of his career, he only plays it sporadically now. You almost can’t blame him for wanting a change.

“Think about it,” Matt reminded me. “If Rosalita was a real woman, she’d be in her fifties now.”

Again: twenty years—damn.

And yet, the moment Bruce started playing, it was as if no time had passed. He still rocked, just as vigorously, as transcendently as I remembered. On that stage, he defies time, and through him, we do too.

How does Bruce accomplish this bit of magic? I suppose I could chalk it up to his much-vaunted energy, but that can’t be the only thing. After all, all the energy in the world can’t redeem lousy material. No, Bruce can defy time because the songs themselves are timeless.

And not just because his songs are catchy and eminently singable (even though they certainly are). And not just because Springsteen is a true poet, with a knack for vivid images and natural rhymes (even though he certainly is). For me, when it comes to writing songs,“ The Boss reigns because he is first and foremost a storyteller.

Take “Thunder Road,” for example: the song is a narrative, about a guy who wants to convince his girlfriend Mary to take that “long walk’ from her porch to his car, so they can leave their town full of losers and make something of their lives. It’s a simple story, really, but through those desperate, lonely people, Bruce sums up the longing and unfulfilled desires of the entire world.

This is just one example. Go through his catalogue, and you'll see all of Bruce's best songs tell stories: Jungleland—a story about gang violence; “Hungry Heart”—a story about the worst (and yet somehow most celebrated) dead-beat dad in history; “The Rising”—a story about a firefighter climbing one of the Trade Towers; even “Glory Days” is a story about folks who can’t stop telling stories.

I guess I always knew this implicitly about Bruce, but his ability to tell stories in song really hit me that night at the concert, as I watched him try on and then shed different personas with each new number. Then I started thinking about how essential storytelling is to so many other other songs I consider personal favorites:

“Hotel California”; “Boys of Summer”; “The Boxer”; “Cats in the Cradle”; “Roll Me Away”; “Message in a Bottle”; “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”; “Fast Car”; “American Pie”; “Margaritaville”; “Levon”; “Livin’ on a Prayer”; “Jack and Diane”; “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or “Allentown” or even “Piano Man.”

Heck, even “Puff the Magic Dragon” tells a story (and, no, it’s not about marijuana). Even “The Pina Colada Song,” even “Copacabana” tell stories. (Oh, come on: just try and tell me you don’t like them!)

And pretty much every country song in the world—from Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” to Dixie Chicks’ “Traveling Soldier” to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”—tells a story. That’s essentially what country music is: storytelling with a heaping side of twang.

We value stories so much in our music that we actually try to apply stories even when they’re not there. Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” for example, apparently has nothing to do with a drowning friend, but man, does that story ever ratchet up the song’s coolness factor. Same with James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”; his friends actually didn’t put Suzanne on that doomed helicopter. That was just a rumor that sprouted around the song. An urban legend. A story.

We don’t even have to understand the story the song is telling to like the song. I have no earthly idea what’s going on with Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”—something about jokers and thieves—but I’m hooked regardless. And I liked Elton John’s “Daniel” even before I found out I found out that Bernie Taupin had written a third verse which explained that Daniel was a Vietnam vet who lost his eyesight. Without that verse, the song doesn’t make much sense—but who cares? We know there’s something going on.

Thus brings me to my treatise: Songs that endure, songs that leave an indelible imprint on your psyche, tell stories.

Now can you have great songs that don’t tell stories but are simply fun and catchy? Absolutely. (See “MMMMBop” and mostly every song from the 80s not included on The Joshua Tree.)

And can you have songs that tell stories but still stink? Sure. (After all, that new Katie Perry song “I Kissed a Girl” tells a story, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to me.)

Still, it seems to me, as a general rule, that a catchy song with great lyrics that tells a story has a greater shot at immortality than a song that is merely catchy or merely has great lyrics. To me, it’s the difference between “Love Me Do” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Or “P.Y.T.” and “Billie Jean.” Or “Cover Me” and “Thunder Road.” (Sorry, faithful Springsteen fans, but it’s true.)

We need stories, as a culture and as individuals, because that’s how we learn. It’s a paradox, really: We learn about ourselves through other people’s stories. It seems counter-intuitive at first, and I often see students struggle with this idea when they write personal narratives. They don’t want to get too specific because they think someone else couldn’t get something out of it if they do. I have to assure them that the more specific a story, the more universal its appeal. And the more universal its appeal, the greater its shot at immortality.

That's the real magic of storytelling: the ability to transcend time.

One last thing: at the end of last Saturday’s show, just shy of midnight, for the seventh song of his encore, Bruce said he would play one final song—or as he called it, “one more fairy tale about New Jersey.” It was “Rosalita,” of course, and with those opening chords, the house erupted just as raucously just as it did twenty years ago—maybe even more so.

And let me tell you: for a woman in her fifties, Rosie sure can rock. Just like her creator, she hasn’t aged at all.

Incidentally, for all those who are interested, here's the set list from the Saturday, August 2nd Springsteen show in Foxboro, Mass:

Summertime Blues
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
The Promised Land
Spirit in the Night
Tunnel of Love
Little Latin Lupe Lu
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
Hungry Heart
Who'll Stop the Rain?
Murder Incorporated
She's the One
Livin' in the Future
Mary's Place
The Rising
Last to Die
Long Walk Home
* * *
I'm Goin' Down

Born to Run
Glory Days
Dancing in the Dark
American Land

Friday, August 1, 2008

Kid Rock... or Kid Crock

Note to Readers: Since my last post was about the responses to this article I wrote (back on July 9th), I figured I might as well re-post the article itself. (After all, I don't know when will take it down.) In this version, I restored some of the lines the editor originally cut for space reasons.

"Old and Busted, All Summer Long"
Mark Dursin
Hartford Courant, July 9, 2008

You may be wondering why you’ve been hearing classic rock staples like Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” on your favorite Top 40 radio station this summer. In fact, you’ve been hearing neither. And both. And at the same time.

You’ve actually been hearing Kid Rock’s latest single, “All Summer Long,” from his platinum album Rock N Roll Jesus. Technically known as a “mash-up,” this song mixes together familiar Zevon and Skynyrd bits into a concoction that has proven quite potent. “All Summer Long” has scaled to the top of VH1’s Top 20 Video Countdown and recently entered Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 20. And apparently, according to, the single is Number One in Germany.

The song, in other words, has its fans all over. I don’t count myself among them. In truth, the song offends me.

Now, one could make the case that the song was not written for a man in his late 30s like myself—except the lyrics suggest otherwise. In the song, the 37-year-old Kid Rock reminisces about the glory days of his misspent youth, when he’d take his girlfriend out to the lake to smoke and drink and…well, you know. The first line of the song even provides a year: 1989. So, actually, I fit the song’s target audience quite nicely, thank you very much. And yet, the song offends me.

Mind you, the concept of sampling—of borrowing sounds or melodies from other songs—doesn’t particularly rankle me. Hey, back in the summer of 1990, I liked M.C. Hammer’s “Super Freak”-fueled “U Can’t Touch This” as much as the next guy—and possibly more than the next guy (though it pains me to say it now). When done effectively, sampling can fire some healthy nostalgia: when you hear echoes of Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America’ in Gym Class Heroes’ “Cupid’s Chokehold,” or the distinctive hook of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” in Rihanna’s “S.O.S.,” you remembered why you liked the original songs in the first place.

Moreover, some artists breathe new life into old songs by putting them in unusual contexts. Bruce Hornsby and Michael McDonald may not have a ton of street cred, but they both got hip-hop makeovers courtesy of Tupac (in “Changes”) and Warren G (in “Regulate”), respectively. Heck, Jay Z even made the musical Annie seem cool in his song “Hard Knock Life.”

So, no, Kid Rock’s sampling of classic rock staples in “All Summer Long” doesn’t bother me—at least, not in theory. Nor am I particularly offended by the fact that the song is soulless, commercialized, corporate pap—even though it most assuredly is. The song has the word “summer” in the title, and—wouldn’t you know? – was released just in time for summer. Back in April, Kid Rock even allowed the song to be used as a theme for a World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view. Then again, a lot of songs on the radio are soulless, commercialized, corporate pap, so why should this one bother me so much?

Ultimately, Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” offends me as a high school English teacher. Not because I consider it plagiarism; technically, it isn’t. Remember, a plagiarist tries to claim, explicitly or implicitly, that borrowed material is his or her own, and Kid Rock does nothing of the sort here; he credits the original performers in the album’s liner notes, and he even refers to “Sweet Home Alabama” in the chorus (lest we think he’s unaware he’s ripping off other, infinitely superior songs).

Kid Rock is even going on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd the summer (you can catch them in Hartford on August 31st), which leads one to believe Kid’s cool with the Skynyrd camp.
However, though he may not have plagiarized, Kid Rock is definitely guilty of something else, maybe something even worse for an artist: laziness. Basing your whole song on borrowed licks from not one but two well-known tunes is bad enough, but the underlying theme of the “All Summer Long”—that whole “music inspires reminiscing about lost youth” thing—is so late-70’s Bob Seger. Basically, I defy anyone to find one original note or notion in Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.”

Here’s where it gets personal: As someone who reads hundreds of student essays each year, I am constantly battling against clichés—not only trite phrases but, worse, hackneyed ideas. Of course, the students don’t set out to write clichés; they think they’re generating good, original stuff. And, to be fair, “good, original stuff” is hard to come by in the derivative culture of 2008. (Just look at the term “derivative culture.” I didn’t come up with it, but I saw people using it all over the Internet. So even the vocabulary we use to lament the culture of imitation is inherently imitative.)

Is it possible to come up with a truly original idea? Maybe not. But the great writers can take the old ideas and reinvent them, look at them from different angles, take them apart and put them back together in funky, un-obvious ways. That’s very possible… but it takes work.

Unfortunately, I don’t see evidence of too much “work” in “All Summer Long.” Instead, Kid Rock lazily rolls out, quite literally, the same old song and dance… and ends up with, arguably, the biggest hit of his career. And that success more than offends me; it infuriates me. How can I teach my teenage students to work hard, to value their ideas, when Kid Rock can make millions off insipid, derivative dribble like “All Summer Long”?

In the original “Sweet Home Alabama,” the singer admits, “Watergate doesn’t bother me,” before famously asking the audience, “Does your conscience bother you?” I might ask Kid Rock the same question.