Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Reads: In the Mood for Words

I realized today that while the majority of the books I'm in the middle of right now are YA, they basically have nothing in common with each other.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Damage by A.M. Jenkins

Of course I've been reading all of these books for awhile now, but each is perfect for a different mood. When I want a little adventure mixed in with some romance, I delve into the story of Cammie Morgan and her fellow spies at the Gallagher Academy. When I want an audiobook that's going to make me laugh and cry (often at the same time), I travel to Oakland in the late 1960's. If I'm in the mood for some self-improvement and word play, I get down and dirty with Grammar Girl. Or for those moments when I want to curl up and just feel, I depend on Austin Reid's second-person narrations to make me see that the world is so much bigger than my own emotions.

People tend to get fixated on sitting down and finishing a book cover-to-cover. I used to think like that, too. But often times, we need a reprieve for the intense emotions of literary novels or a day trip into the world of nonfiction to broaden our horizons. Just because we can't finish a book in one sitting doesn't mean it's not a good book or even that we're not enjoying it. All it means is that book might not be the right choice for that one moment.

So if you're having trouble getting through the book you're currently reading, try putting it down for something completely different. At least for a little while.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Five: Signs of Spring in DC

It's been such a beautiful week that I decided to head to the Mall on my lunch break to look for some signs of spring in DC. And within minutes I found all the sure indicators that winter is finally over.
  1. Construction: Most of the time it's roads and walkways that are being repaired after the harsh winter weather. Well, harsh for DC anyway. But today I stopped to check out the progress on the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
  2. Bikers: The other day I was reading a Washington Post article about how the city infrastructure can't keep up with the increase of bike commuters. So if you want to see the city on two wheels, please be careful!
  3. Musicians: I will admit, some street musicians are horrific, but this bucket beater happened to be quite good. Over the years I've been lucky enough to catch a few professional musicians practicing in tunnels and Metro stations because of the fantastic acoustics.
  4. Cherry Blossoms: Today marks the peak of the 100th year of these historic blooms, and any DC-area resident will tell you they are the highlight of the season.

    (This picture was taken by a passing tourist.)

  5. Tourists: More than 16 million people visit out nation's capital each year. I happened to find this one sitting around on the Mall today. (It's my mom, in case you were wondering.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Retraining the Night Owl

All-nighters are kind of a regular thing for me. I get sucked into a good book that I can't put down even for my 40 winks. There's so much on my mind that I can't get any shut eye. A looming deadline means no Z's for me. It's like I don't want to miss any of the adventures, so I can't allow myself to fall asleep.

But all that's changing. Thanks to some health issues and a resolve to improve my lifestyle, I've been early to bed and early to rise for almost a year now. (Old habits die hard, so this isn't always the case, but it is becoming the new normal.) And I've noticed a subtle change: I'm happier in the morning.

This morning I woke up early, and while I couldn't convince myself to go to the gym, there were so many great things about having three hours to myself. The first moments after awakening, I lay in bed for a few moments enjoying the sounds and smells of spring. Then I got to read a book from my grad school reading list and check the newspaper for interesting tidbits. I didn't have to rush through my morning routine or run after the bus. I even had time to pack a lunch and eat breakfast. While nothing in particular made this morning extraordinary, I literally stopped in to middle of gathering my things to leave and thought, "This is the best morning I've had in years, possibly ever."

I once read this book about a character who waffles back and forth between redemption and sin. He can't seem to decide if he's worth saving or even if he can be saved. And for the TV junkies out there, you'll recognize that conundrum as a common theme in the show House. This lack of faith in humanity's ability to change drives me crazy. While current events and statistics might make us doubt that things ever get better, that mentality just isn't true.

When I was in high school I read this quotation: "What I am going to be, I am becoming." (I think Thoreau said it, but as it's been about 15 years since I saw it, I can't confirm that attribution.) This philosophy has quite literally shaped my life. Every choice I make puts a little piece of future-me into place, and every action leads to both opportunities and consequences. I look back on the past 30 years, and I'm in awe of everything that I've been able to do and how different I am because of those experiences.

Maybe that's why I like YA lit so much--the characters are constantly in flux. In these books we see ourselves balanced on the precipice of our own future. It gives us hope people can be redeemed and that the next year, the next decade, the next millennium will be the Golden Age.

As for this night owl, all I really know is that tomorrow morning will be even better.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Commitment from a Commitment Phobe

I have officially committed to attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA program starting this summer. And for someone who has trouble deciding which shoe to put on first, it was not an easy decision to make. But thanks to a generous scholarship, a schedule more friendly for maintaining work responsibilities and the advice from some very wise creative writing professors, I'm totally at peace with my decision.

Okay, maybe not totally at peace. I'm still slightly panicked at how I'm going to pay for this, get all of my work work and school work done, and survive Vermont in winter. Knowing "Vermont should be beautiful [that] time of year, with all that snow" brings me no comfort. Between Wisconsin, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Idaho, I thought I'd served my time in snowscaped states.

Yet even before the winter term comes (You know, after the summer term that starts in LESS THAN FOUR MONTHS!), I feel a bit like I'm going spelunking without a flashlight. No matter how many people I've talked to who have completed the VCFA program or how many questions I pepper the VCFA faculty and staff with, I still have no idea what to expect or even what is expected of me.

I think this might be worse than going to college right after high school.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The First Amendment and Faith

I often blog about censorship and freedom of speech. It's an issue that I feel has great relevance to our day and has the potential to make a stronger, more peaceful society. So when my friend posted about an event for the Religious Education Freedom Project at the Newseum, I was intrigued. (And when I found out it would get me out of doing laundry Thursday night, I got on the attendance list right away.) That is why I went to hear John M. Barry talk about Roger Williams, the man who first introduced the concept of the separation of church and state to the English-speaking world.

(Library of Congress Digital Archives)
"Man hath not power to make laws to bind conscience, he overthrows such his tenent and practice as restrain men from their worship, according to their conscience and belief, and constrain them to such worships (though it be out of a pretense that they are convinced) which their own souls tell them they have no satisfaction nor faith in."
—Roger Williams
theologian and author of A Plea for Religious Liberty

A lot of my political views on religion stem from Williams' theories. He was a man of great faith who believed that religious freedom comes only when all religions (not just Christian sects but "the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships") are allowed to flourish. And this freedom can only come through a complete separation of church and state.

"When you mix religion and politics, you get politics... Nowhere in the Constitution does it mention God. It's a completely secular document."

I was most intrigued by Barry's concept that religious tolerance is not enough as it is merely a "watered-down" version of freedom. Tolerance can be removed and rejected at any time, yet freedom is a God-given right to all men.

I consider myself a faithful Christian. I attend church, was baptized and take the sacrament (or communion). I believe that it is through Christ that I can be forgiven of my sins, and his teachings and example show me how to be a better person. But I also believe that God allows us choice, and it is not for lawmakers to impose Christian beliefs and practices through the governance of America. I loved spending the evening thinking about how my faith in God gives me a better understanding of the First Amendment.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Thank you Mormon Insider for telling me about this wonderful event. I hope I will be able to attend more in the future.

The Religious Freedom Education Project is presented by the Wesley Theological Seminar, hosted by the Newseum's First Amendment Center and sponsored by the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation. I wanted to provided links to each of these organizations as they work hard to increase religious and cultural understanding by utilizing the principles established in the First Amendment.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I Knew Her Before The Hunger Games

I can say I knew Megan Shepherd way back when. You know, before I found her picture in the Us Weekly The Hunger Games spread.

See the woman behind Jennifer Lawrence's shoulder? (Squint just a little bit harder and tilt your head to the left. There you go!) I'd recognize that hair anywhere.

Plus, she looks like a writer hiding her creativity from The Capitol. But even President Snow can't keep her book The Madman's Daughter (Balzer + Bray, 2013) from being one of the most exciting books I've ever read. You can catch more fuzzy glimpses of Megan in theaters March 23. And oh yeah, the movie will probably be pretty good too.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Life After High School

I was messaging with one of my tutoring kids a few weeks ago, and she was sharing some of her concerns about going to college, especially as she found out she will be doing an early summer term, which means she heads to the dorms exactly one week after graduation. This girl is smart—like way, scary smart—and has no reason to think she won't do well in college, but the prospect of the unknown was making her anxious. Even I'm getting anxious over going back to school for a master's degree. And unlike my young friend, I've already experienced college and had four years to make the decision to go back.

For college freshman, the stakes are pretty high. You're leaving home for the first time, investing thousands of dollars in a future with no guarantees, moving on from the places and people you know and love, and subjecting yourself to the scrutiny of professors and administrators and peers and prospective employers. That's a lot of pressure for a 17 year old (or even a 30 year old).

Luckily, there are millions of people out there who have experienced those same worries about freshman year. And a few talented individuals have even written great novels about it. So from one future college student to another, here are some of my favorite books about life after high school. Not all of them are about going to college and dorm life, but all of them give insight into that frightening time we call "after graduation."

Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan: Naomi and Ely have been best friends for ever, but sometimes growing up means moving on from the things you love most.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak: Ed Kennedy has never had much direction until someone starts leaving him mysterious messages in his mailbox. Messages asking Ed to save the lives of complete strangers.

Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley: 23-year-old Scott Pilgrim is stuck in the past and even has a high schooler girlfriend to prove it. Yet when he meets the woman of his dreams, he must face his past to become the man she deserves.

Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty: Life has always been a bit messy for Jessica Darling, and college is turning out no different. Through the ups and downs of academia, Jessica learns that it tends to be our failures that teach us the most.

Girls in Pants by Ann Brashares: As the sisterhood prepares for college, they find that time and distance can't change a friendship built of love.

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle: The lives of two recent high school graduates collide in one unlikely moment as a boy who's been so dull that he has nothing but better things to look forward to falls in love with a girl who believes that her best years are behind her.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fact Checking Fiction

I spend most of my day fact checking. That's what you do when you write editorial content for a living. You look at statistics and social patterns and legislation to see how it all fits together to support what you're saying. Like today, I researched Idaho labor statistics and regulations on flexible spending accounts and media outlets in the Seattle area, all for different assignments. Media writing is non-fiction after all, and if you're facts aren't correct, you might as well be writing fiction.


Not really.

In my Batman Life (what I do outside of normal working hours), I'm working on a contemporary novel loosely based on my home-town high school. You'd think I'd never have to do any research for it. But I've spent hours researching the Russian Revolution, vintage band t-shirts, school library funding and anatomy—and that was just in the past 24 hours.

This week for my writers' group, I've researched a verity of topics such as British parliamentary procedure, ukulele music and Scottish slang. For a recent beta reading, I refreshed my knowledge of maritime history, music theory and disease treatment. And that doesn't even touch on the wear and tear my dictionary has been through to learn word origin and alternate definitions. Good thing I know my way around internet search engines, indexes and glossaries, and library databases.

The point is, a lot of facts go into fiction. People often ask me how I can "sit down and write a story," and the truth is, I can't. Without a background of research classes, essay writing, interview experience and a backlog of useless facts, my fiction wouldn't be readable, it would never even be more than an idea. In fact, I probably would never have story ideas as everything is based on a fact I read or saw or experienced.

So you want to be a writer? Make sure you get your facts right.