Snafu! or, Should Writers Avoid the NYT Crossword Puzzle?

I’ve always been bothered by the New York Times crossword puzzle. Normally, I win at word games. I love words. I write words, read words, play with multiple meanings. If I were a dog I’d make myself a pile full of words and roll around, paws up, in ecstasy.

So why is the New York Times crossword puzzle so difficult for me and so easy for, say, my husband?

Now my husband is a pretty bright guy. Electrical Engineering degree followed by an M.D. But words…they are my greatest love. (Oh! Yes. Um. Of course. I mean after my husband, kids, other family members, and pets.)

Why do words fail me every Friday and sometimes even on Thursdays? Okay, I admit it, even the occasional Wednesday puzzle has a few empty squares. And, notice I don’t even mention Saturdays.

Recently I came across a Thursday puzzle where the clue was “a mess.” My penciled-in answer was chaos.

I have a particular love of the word chaos. I first came across the word ‘chaos’ while reading, and figured out the definition on my own. Chaos was, for me, a black roiling cloud that obscured the landscape and scattered and broke apart everything it brushed against.

When I left my home town of 1500 people and arrived at the University of California at  Berkeley, I tried out my beloved word in one of my freshman classes.

“It was chayoss,” I said to my professor and class. Blank looks. Finally I spelled it.

“C H A O S.”

“Kayoss” my teacher repeated.

“Oh, I said.” I knew that word too. I’d heard it. Kayoss meant a mess.

I discovered then that I had two vocabularies, one learned from living and one learned from reading. The same word could have different meanings in each sphere.

Back to the esteemed Thursday New York Times crossword. After much frustration, I puzzled out the correct answer to ‘a mess’: ‘snafu.’

That stopped me. An online dictionary agreed with the puzzle. One of the meanings of snafu is a mess.

I went to ink-on-tree-pulp dictionary. Snafu was listed right after ‘snaffle.’ Snafu was defined as “in characteristic disorder or confusion; mixed up as usual.”

I don’t quite agree with that one, either, but it’s better then “a mess.” (And yes, I do know the origin of the word, which I’m not going to repeat on my blog.)

In my head the word ‘snafu’ is related to ‘slingshot.’ For me they are sister words. ‘Snafu’ means you take aim at something, pull back the large rubber band, and when you let go all hell breaks loose. Nothing is as you expected. The rock hits a car window or gets stuck in the rubber band and snaps back into your face. Your carefully planned shot is ruined and life is a lot more painful and confusing after you executed the plan that was supposed to make life a little less painful and confusing.

Back to my super-smart husband. He went to a large Los Angeles high school, and took English classes that I can only dream of. I’m someone who learned vocabulary less in a classroom and more by reading. My rural high school had no college prep courses. By junior year I was writing my own curriculum.

So when the New York Times’ Thursday crossword defined ‘snafu’ as ‘a mess’ I finally connected the dots and understood why I’m struggling with these puzzles.

The dictionary in my head has often ignored even ink-on-tree-pulp definitions. Standard dictionary definitions are narrower, drier, and haven’t been tempered and expanded by the elation you feel when you pull back a slingshot or the confusion you feel on a dark cloudy night. Dictionary words are on-the-shelf clean. They were once lived by humans, but have been sanitized.

I’m slowly getting better at the New York Times crossword puzzle, and now find that worrisome. (Worrisome is my mother’s wrinkled forehead, a slightly sad look in her eyes.)

There are some obvious benefits to the puzzles; there are new words to learn (some of them ridiculous repeats like ‘tam’ that don’t show up much in literature). I’ve revived my interest in Roman numerals and have picked up some Greek.

But by learning someone else’s definitions, an ‘authority’s’ (police officer with arms crossed), I may be strangling my own, experiential, in-mind vocabulary.

Writing is a combination of precision (just the right word) and elasticity (exploring meaning). If I lose that careful balance between the two then, well…I’m just a dictionary. (Black book, dogeared pages, red underlines, sitting on the shelf behind me.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this new realization. The New York Times crosswords are addictive. Maybe I’ll continue, but beat myself up a little bit less about empty squares.

Or maybe it’s the filled-in squares that I should be worried about. When I, finally, complete all of the squares in a Saturday puzzle, does that mean that my own metaphoric definitions have been overwritten?

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

It happened a few years after 9/11. Highlights, the children’s magazine, was having their annual writing contest. The theme was: “Write a children’s story set in the future.”

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The reason I write for children, the reason I read children’s books, is that children’s stories are stories of hope.  A children’s primer that I have from the mid-1800’s, which shows a couple grieving over an empty bassinet, says something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith have lost their child. They are grieving, but perhaps God will give them another child.”

Grim, I know. But even during an era when the purpose of a children’s book was to prepare children for a hard and unpredictable life, there was always a drop of hope.

I wasn’t thinking grim thoughts years ago when I learned about the Highlights contest. I plopped down in front of my computer, excited to travel to distant worlds or explore some facet of scientific discovery.

I sat.

And sat.

And sat.

I, who grew up with Star Trek and all of the subsequent science fiction stories. I, who still read science fiction and thrill at new concepts, couldn’t think of one story set in our future that ended well, or at least had the hope of filling the bassinet again.

It occurred to me, sitting in front of an empty screen, that we will never see or know peace if we can’t keep an image of peace in our minds.

So every September 11th I try to fill the bassinet with hope. I draft a story about a peaceful world set in the future.

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Not all butterflies and kittens, but a story that brings me a little closer to understanding who we are. I write stories about how we, humans of all faiths and backgrounds, can, hope by hope, drop by drop, build a better world.

Join me. Write about a peaceful world on September 11th.

Here’s what you do. Sometime during the day or evening set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit down and write about a world without war. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news?

You don’t need to be a “writer” to join me. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can join the Facebook event.

 

Hunger is…

This week I’m giving over my blog to some talented writers.

The students at McDonald Elementary School in Seattle has been studying hunger. Here are similes and metaphors from Ms. Roughton’s 3rd graders.

“Hunger is like walking through a desert with no end.” – S.

“Hunger is like a river with no water.” – anonymous

“Hunger is like a stray cat sitting on the streets having no food to eat except litter.” – M.

“Hunger is like when you take off on a plane when you are sick.” – W.

“Hunger is like the rain falling down on a fire.” – W.

“Hunger is like an empty table at dinnertime.” – S.

“Hunger is like a sickness with no end and no medicine.” – G.

“Hunger is like a dinosaur roaring in your stomach.” – O.

“Hunger is like a fruit tree you can’t climb.” – J.

“Hunger is like a fire without a flame.” – E.

“Hunger is an apple out of reach.” – E.

“Hunger is like a hamster that has no home in winter.” – S.

“Hunger is like a hiding place that does not hide you.” – L.

“Hunger is like a school without a cafeteria.” – B.

“Hunger is like a puppy at a puppy mill.” – G.

“Hunger is fear following you around.” — M.

“Hunger is your empty plate you have every day.” – M.

The Toilet Paper Superhero

You can sit down to a writing prompt and go to all sorts of fun and weird places. Recently, a friend sent me this prompt: “Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

My first thought was ugh, now I have to get all personal and deep. But then I remembered the toilet paper.

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My dad always bought in bulk for his newspaper office, and one day this massive package of toilet paper arrived. This was long before Costco and bulk buying for the average citizen. All of that toilet paper in the back corner of my dad’s office was as good as a circus side-show to me and my friends. (I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade.) No one in my small town had ever seen so much toilet paper in one place outside of the Vasey Brothers grocery store.

Looking back, it’s possible my dad had misordered for his small company.

But for me, it was a sign from Jesus. I went to church with my family every Sunday. I knew that if something extraordinary appeared in your life, that meant that God had a hand in it. Not just God, but Jesus, who actually came down to earth and dealt with people.
So I started thinking about why Jesus could possibly have brought all of that toilet paper into my life.

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At the time I was a huge fan of the Superman real life adventure series. The one where a broad-shouldered man in a cape jumped off tall buildings and flew through the air. (One of the worst disappointments in my young life was that our small town didn’t have a phone booth.)

My best friends at the time were Cathy and Christy M., identical twins who loved fooling people by trading places. One of my claims to fame was that I could always tell them apart. We spent every day after school together, either at their house or at my dad’s workplace.

I decided that all three of us would become superheroes. We would jump off the top of buildings, just like Superman, and fly around and save people. Working for Jesus was somehow muddled into the plan, although the details were sketchy.

The first thing we needed to do was open the gigantic package of toilet paper and spread the rolls on the ground below the roof of my dad’s building, just in case we needed a couple of tries at flying.

Maybe at the back of my mind there was a worry that I didn’t have the kind of superpowers that enabled me to fly. Maybe not. I’d been recently experimenting by jumping off the couch onto pillows. Every fifth time or so it did feel like I was getting extra lift, maybe from Jesus, before I crash-landed.

I was sure that all of that toilet paper was a sign that I would finally get to fly. All I needed to do was convince the M. twins to jump off the roof with me.

“That just won’t work.” Christy was always the spokesman when they disagreed with one of my plans. Cathy wasn’t quite as eloquent.

“But we have to try,” I said. “For Jesus.”

“We’re not jumping off the roof.” Christy crossed her arms and got a hard look in her eyes. She wasn’t budging.

This was the beginning of the end. About a year later I was no longer best friends with the M. twins. They decided to find a best friend or friends who were a little bit more grounded in reality.

I remember exactly where I was was standing, next to that wall of toilet paper of course, when Christy turned me down. And I remember the shock of discovering that three kids who believed in Jesus could have such differing opinions on how to proceed.

So maybe my brief almost-stint as a toilet paper superhero was a bit personal and deep after all.

Your turn. Where will this prompt take you?

“Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

What About Maddi’s Story?

A few weeks ago I visited an elementary school in northern Washington State.

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The school held a food drive and collected 1600 food items before my visit.

I spoke to three assemblies and then led two writers’ workshops. At the beginning of 5th grade workshop, I asked the kids if they had questions about Maddi’s Fridge that didn’t get answered at the assembly.

One girl shot her hand up straight in the air. “Why don’t you do a second book, this time tell Maddi’s story.” What she meant was, tell Maddi’s Fridge from Maddi’s point of view.

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I answered her by suggesting the class read Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, a middle grade novel told from the point of view of a boy who has an empty refrigerator.

I went on to the next question. The girl’s hand went straight up back in the air. After answering a few questions I called on her again.

“What I’m asking is, why don’t you write Maddi’s story?”

The reason I love school visits, the reason I love to teach, is that I am given so much more than I bring when I walk into a school. I am given the gift of looking at the world in new and thoughtful ways.

The girl was asking me why Maddi didn’t have a direct voice in her story.

At this point I need to back up and let you know that the school I visited, the school that brought in 1600 food items for their local food bank, has a school-wide Title 1 program. In this school 29% of the kids come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of 4. An additional 11% of the kids are in families that earned less than $44,000 a year for a family of 4. (If you wonder how such a student body could bring in so many food items, read my blog post “What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid.”)

Many children in that school were already familiar with a grim statistic. Over half of American children are raised in families living below the poverty level. Some of the kids I was speaking with were living with empty refrigerators and empty cupboards.

Why didn’t I write Maddi’s story from her point of view? Why was Maddi’s story told by Sofia, a girl who had plenty of food in her refrigerator?

The simple answer is that I wrote a story based on my own experiences. I was an observer of a horrific event, the indifference our prosperous county pays to the hungry children in our midst. My childhood anguish when I found out that my best friend’s family had no food was still paramount in my mind as I wrote Maddi’s Fridge years later. I wrote from my point of view.

Maddi

But what about Maddi?

There has been a lot of discussion in the KidLit community about diversity in children’s books. Maddi’s Fridge has been mentioned frequently as a diverse book because it has a character living in poverty. (Remember, that’s now 51% of our children.)

But Sofia tells the story. Is that right?

What a difficult and complex question.

Maddi’s Fridge is my first book and I wanted to, was driven to, tell that story through my own eyes.

However, one story is not enough. There are 12.5 MILLION stories of childhood hunger happening right now in the United States. Why aren’t these stories showing up in the books we are reading. Not just books about hunger, but mysteries, sci fi, romance, adventure, fantasy, etc. Why are some groups so hidden from our collective consciousness? Why are so many children underrepresented in the books we read? Not only as characters, but also as viewpoint characters?

That fifth grade girl was telling me that she wasn’t in Maddi’s Fridge. Yes, she felt a connection with the book, but what about the Maddis of the world? Don’t they have the right to tell their own stories?

I am very proud of Maddi’s Fridge. It pushed into an area that was rarely explored by picture books and has touched the hearts of thousands of children and adults.

But that young girl’s question was a reminder to me, a reminder to all of us who write stories, to pay attention to the stories we tell. Who have we hidden? What voices have we unwittingly silenced?

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

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Several years ago the theme of the Highlights Fiction Contest was to write a story set in the future. I’ve always enjoyed entering this contest, and sat down to write my sci fi short story for young children.

The page stayed empty. Not for a few minutes, or hours, as sometimes happens. The page stayed empty for days. I thought of several dystopian story lines, but nothing suitable for very young readers.

It was a few years after 9/11, but I discovered that the hope I had always held for the future (I’m a huge Star Trek fan) was gone. It took me several days to calm my fears and find in my heart a story that envisioned our grandchildren and great-grandchildren living happily in a peaceful world. The story had conflict, of course, but not the dark images which had haunted my mind since the moment the towers fell and continued well into our generation’s endless wars.

Since that time I’ve stretched the ‘hope’ section of my brain by spending ten minutes each September 11th envisioning peace. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news? What games would our children play?

If we imagine what peace looks, smells, feels, sounds and tastes like, we’ll know how to get there from here.

You don’t need to be a “writer” to participate. Ignore grammar, spelling, all of those boogeyman that slow down even the most accomplished writers. Lock your editor in a drawer (internal, not the one at your publisher). Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can post your writing in the comments section here on my blog, or go to the event page on Facebook.

live long and prosper

The Blog Bullshit Meter

What I want to talk about is over-revising your writing.

Oh. Even at my desk in the Seattle area I can hear shouts from New York agents and editors: “Nooooooo! Polish your woooork!”

Ignore them. Some of us perseverate on manuscripts that we need to release. This is a real problem for me. I’ll sit on a project, anything from a picture book to a novel, and only reluctantly send it out because I know it’s not perfect.

I’ll share my favorite quote here on perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is an ugly thing, all stiff and rigid with pursed lips and beady little eyes. No one likes perfectionism. It comes from a stingy, mean-spirited place and serves no purpose except to make us feel terrible about ourselves and anything we create….Perfectionism would have God recast every sunset and chide Mother Nature for her choice of colors. If everything were left up to perfectionism, nothing would exist.” — Judy Reeves

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And even though I’ve read this quote to all of my students, my revisions get to the point where I am not longer polishing my imagery or strengthening my characters. I am creating a different story. And this one I will also find fault with.

The only reason I pushed to get Maddi’s Fridge published was that I read it in front of 70 people and they ALL loved it. That’s a really bad precedent. How often am I going to get 70 people in one room to approve of a manuscript?

Logically I know that I should let go. Illogically I continue to write and rewrite the same stories.

Last week, though, my blog told me to stop messing around. Not in so many words. I was revising a post, “A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts” that I’d been working on for six weeks. Yes. A blog post. Yes. Six weeks. And no, I still wasn’t happy with the shape of my writing.

Anyway, I noticed the number of revisions to the right of my WordPress page. At that point, it said 16 revisions. 400 words. 16 revisions.

If I believed that the afterlife came with a computer, or at least a pen and paper, maybe I could go on revising for that perfect story. But there’s a huge problem. Perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfect. Reworking and rewriting a piece can lead to stilted, dead language, and moribund characters. If you don’t allow yourself to stretch and make mistakes as an artist, you don’t progress.

What to do? Dot. Dot. Dot. If you’re looking for an answer to this problem, you’re reading the wrong blog.

One thing I will commit to: fewer revisions before I hit “publish” on my blog posts. This is good practice for me and the bullshit meter is sitting there keeping track, reminding me to let go. (Posted with only 6 7 revisions.)

The quote above is from Judy Reeves, “A Creative Writer’s Kit.”