Ben's New Study/Writer's Retreat/Super Villain Lair/Childhood Dream

You may have had this experience when you were a child. Some adult gave you a piece of paper, probably that kind that has lines on the bottom half and a space to draw on the top half, and asked you to draw/describe your ideal house or bedroom. If you are like me, you drew a castle. With robots inside. And lots of guns and swords and bows and arrows. And maybe a water slide snaking in and out of the windows, and a system of tunnels allowing for easy entry and escape underneath the moat filled with sharks and alligators. The adult did not tell you you could never achieve this dream. He/she did not say, "Um, Ben, that's a dumb idea. The water slide looks structurally unsound. Alligators and sharks probably wouldn't live together like that. I'm a little disturbed by all the weapons. This is a childish fantasy, and you should really get over it as soon as possible." If the adult had said that, we would all think that adult is a jerk.

But the world does say that, and we all accept it. Or most of us do, anyway.

Not me. I say the world is a big fat jerk.

My family just bought a new house. It's nothing too grand, just a cookie-cutter house that's virtually indistinguishable from the other houses on the street. Seriously, we've discussed what kind of tasteful lawn ornamentation we can buy that will help us identify our own house without making the new neighbors think we're too weird.

Inside, I get to be weird. I now have my own study/writer's retreat/super villain lair, and it is a childhood dream come true.

Warning: Some of you may find the images that follow to be childish. That's because you have been given advice from somebody who accepted some variation of the Apostle Paul's decision to become a man and "put aside such childish things." Sucker! The joke is on you! Do you know Paul's life story? He spend his adult life first helping the Pharisees and the Romans persecute and kill Christians. Then he went blind for a while. Then he spent the rest of his life building Christian congregations, getting shipwrecked, heckled, tossed in jail, and writing letters until his previous employers had him executed. But you know what he did to support himself financially while he was building those congregations? He built tents. Do you know what a three-year-old calls it when he tosses a blanket over the couch and a chair? A fort. Now, Paul was a true believer, so I'll bet he didn't look back over his adult life and wish he could trade in all the letter-writing and shipwreck-surviving for more time building forts. I'm sure he was happy with his choices. Personally, I'm a skeptic, so the whole executing people and then being executed thing does not sound glorious to me. It sounds unpleasant. Building forts? Cool.

The purpose of this epistle is not to evangelize for extended childhood. It's to show off the room that makes my wife shake her head and wonder how she could end up stuck with a man who has gone bald and grown a gut but somehow managed to get less mature during their fifteen years of marriage.

I started with a room. It looked like this, but slightly bigger and in three dimensions:

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Then I painted some lines on the walls. 20150226_015034 (800x450)


And more lines. Then I added color to some of the spaces.

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Then I did some sponge painting.

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Yep. I made a castle.

Then some friends helped my bring in my bookshelves and boxes of books. (Thanks to my moving buddies!)

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I populated the shelves.

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My college friends will like this one.

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Here's my book with statues of a couple of the characters (the Egyptian gods Sobek and Khepri).

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Here's a couple of my favs. Yoda. And Shakespeare. And Star Wars in Shakespeare's style.

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I like turtles.

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I think Virginia Wolf described this project succinctly.

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Not pictured but included in the room: swords, bows and arrows, guns, and lots of toys.

And yes, I do have a robot.



Is this room ridiculous and childish? Yep. And awesome. Should I put aside such childish things so I can be a normal soon-to-be-40 dad with a mini-van and a fantasy football team drowning his dead dreams in ironic Pabst? Nope. Should I get shipwrecked and tossed in jail and executed by Romans? Hell no! Adulthood blows. Build yourself a castle with a robot. Or whatever you wanted when you were 6. Because it's probably a whole lot more fun than what the world tells you to want now.

Now I'm going to go ask my wife if we can distinguish our cookie-cutter house by digging a trench, flooding it, and populating it with alligators and sharks. Just little ones. Classy, like a koi pond, but capable of repelling very small Visigoths. Wish me luck!



When We Can No Longer Relate: Creating Characters in an Age of Growing Economic Inequality

MoralDisorderI was just reading a short story from Margaret Atwood's collection Moral Disorder titled "The Art of Cooking and Serving." To say the story was beautifully written is redundant; it was written by Margaret Atwood. In this particular story, an eleven year old tosses off a casual complaint about the fact that her parents' cabin doesn't have a refrigerator or a boat for water-skiing. It's not central to the story, but the detail suddenly kicked me out of the narrative and got me thinking about characterization and class. I expect that I am supposed to feel warmly toward the story's protagonist, but this small detail immediately makes me resent her. Her family can afford a second house but she complains about the amenities? I can barely afford one home which is far too cramped for my family, but we can't figure out how to get out from under it and into something more suitable. As an adult, I'm acutely aware that I am lower-middle class in my country (and very wealthy in relation to the majority of the people in the world). I don't think Atwood wanted me to resent the character (an 11 year-old, after all), but my class status makes this difficult. While I'm consciously aware that her childish reaction to the cabin is entirely realistic and understandable, and I can't reasonably expect an 11 year-old to count her blessings against the circumstances of others, I just have trouble relating to her. This one detail has made her feel distant. Not so much that I can't find other ways to connect to her and like her, but more than any single, small detail should affect my relationship to a character.  And, as a writer, that has me worried.  Income inequalityNot too long ago, Americans weren't even allowed to talk about class. The only people who spoke openly about it were the absolute dregs of our society; communists, artists, and academics. To even mention it, we were told, was to try to incite "class warfare." The forbidden nature of the subject didn't change the amount of money in anyone's bank accounts, but it did maintain the illusion of a cultural homogeneity longer than it would have lasted otherwise. At some point, the numbers told a story that all but the most ideological and willfully obtuse could not deny: The rich are getting dramatically richer. The poor are getting relatively poorer. The middle-class is thinning and fraying, like a rope pulled too tightly. There will come a point at which we have two distinct classes in America. There will come a point, at some unspecified time after that, when we acknowledge that fact. When it comes to social policy, I think it's all to the good that we are recognizing this change. Of course, it doesn't mean we can agree on solutions or even on whether it's a real problem. In our political climate, everyone has gone to their corners, of course. There's lots of talk about income inequality, and people are starting to talk openly about capital inequality now, too, though that's still pretty wonky. I could blather on it about it all day, but I won't. Rather than put forth policy proposals about changes to the tax code, as exciting as that would be for everyone, I think it's worthwhile for writers to consider what this will mean for us as we create characters.

Once upon a time, people calmly accepted the fact that their societies were composed of haves and have-nots. In literature's ancient past, the characters were almost all haves; heroic warriors who were also kings, beautiful maidens who were also queens or princesses. When peasants were depicted at all, it was because they were on their way to becoming haves through pluck or twists of fate (and even then they were mostly haves who had been mistaken for have-nots and had to rediscover their true, noble station). 

Readers rarely complained about the over-representation of wealthy characters in literature. That's because poor people couldn't read.

The middle class is a modern invention. The terms wasn't even coined until 1745, and even then it described a small but growing bourgeoisie population. Understandably, these mercantile city-dwellers didn't mind aspirational stories of middle class people becoming aristocrats, and they weren't turned off by stories that gave them glimpses into the lives of aristocrats themselves. As George Orwell pointed out, the middle class always wants to change places with the upper class. The upper class wants to stay where it is. Only the lower class wants equality, because they have the most to gain from it, so peasants might have wanted equality in the form of equal representation in literature, but again, they couldn't read. 

Exporting education to the lower classes is an even more modern invention. In the 1800s, elementary education became available to the (slim) majority of children, and even then secondary and higher education remained closed off to most students due to sexism and racism. Still, though some would point out that correlation is not causation, I am a firm believer that it was the rise of free, public education that created the middle class in America. 

Now we find ourselves regressing, and I wonder about the effect on literature. Once, when a writer wanted to write a story in which social class wasn't a significant theme, she could simply choose to make the characters middle class. Suddenly, it wasn't a story about poverty or wealth. The characters' class was still relevant, still defining in many ways, but it wasn't a signal to the reader that the character was too foreign to be relatable, or was deserving of pity, or was someone to admire or envy. The character had to earn pity or envy or admiration in other ways. 

And this is what worries me. Sure, it's a small concern in the scope of the problems that will arise as income inequality grows, but it's an issue writers will have to wrestle with. If I create a character who complains about the condition of her second home, I need to worry about have-nots feeling what I feel toward Atwood's protagonist in "The Art of Cooking and Serving." Conversely, I don't know how a much wealthier reader might feel about one of my characters who is, say, searching through the Target circular on Thanksgiving night to go bargain hunting on Black Friday. Do very rich people know what that's like? Do they feel pity for people who have to clip coupons? Disgust? Condescending amusement? If the scene of a family going through those circulars was presented as joyous and warm, would a much wealthier person admire those poorer characters or envy their family bonding? I just don't know. I don't know what's it's like to be very rich. I can try to imagine it, but I can also imagine what it might be like to walk on the moon or swim with mermaids. That doesn't mean I'm good at predicting what real astronauts or real mermaids will identify with in my stories.  

Once the middle class has essentially disappeared as a cultural group in the United States, will it even be possible to write characters without every story feeling like it's a story about class? Maybe that's fine. Maybe it's just a part of acknowledging something we should have been openly discussing all along. I'm very curious to see how writers (of novels, screenplays for TV and film, plays, etc.) handle the bifurcation of our society along economic lines. How are writers managing this question currently? How should they be?

Learning to Read like a Writer

[originally published at, here, in June of 2011] Ben Reading

Here’s a secret writers need to learn in order to master their craft: Writers need to learn to read. They don’t need to consume all the books on the New York Times best sellers list just to see which kind of monster is producing the most sales. Writers need to learn to read differently from readers. Writers need to understand that reading is part of practicing.

Part of my job as a high school English teacher consists of teaching students to become better readers by teaching them to identify the purpose of their reading. Are they reading for pleasure? Are they seeking information? Are they analyzing an argument in order to be persuaded or to refute the author’s position? Good readers can do these things. And that’s enough.

But it’s not enough for writers. Writers are artists, and artists need to be able to examine the works of their peers and betters in a different way.

Consider, as an analogy, film. When one of my sixteen-year-old students goes to see the newest big Hollywood blockbuster at the Cineplex this summer, he is satisfied by the experience. As a viewer, he was looking for entertainment, and the movie delivered. Done and done. Now, the cinephile goes to the movie theater and watches the same film (not anything high-brow, but something competently-made) and is also entertained. But she thinks about the structure of the story, the characters, the setting, the themes: She is, in short, a reader of film as text, and because she can do all the things we try to teach good readers to do when they pick up a novel, she gets a lot more out of the movie. She does not, however, come out of the theater talking about the tracking and handy-cam shots, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, side lighting and back lighting, fast cuts and slow fades. These were the techniques that gave the movie its punch and made it satisfying, but they aren’t her business.

These techniques are the business of the movie critic. The critic studied film back in college. She can not only tell you that The Conversation is her favorite Francis Ford Coppola movie, but she can explain why in great detail. She watches movies for a purpose, but it’s not to be entertained or to be informed or to be persuaded. At least, those aren’t enough. She watches movies because it’s her business, her livelihood, to evaluate them based on her vast knowledge of the way they are made, as well as what they make her think and how they make her feel.

And then there’s the film director. He watches movies differently than the casual viewer, the cinephile, and the critic. He watches to learn. For him, watching movies is part of his artistic education. It’s practice.

Writers need to do the same thing. When we pick up a novel, we can remember why we fell in love with books when we were young. We can enjoy being transported to new places, getting to know new people, and absorbing new ideas. We can even evaluate the works in the same way critics do. But we cannot afford to stop there. We need to read differently. For us, every choice of simple or complex vocabulary, every choice about following the basic rules or breaking them, every choice about revealing the minutia about a character or hiding it serves as a lesson which will make us better writers. This is because we recognize all these things for what they are: Choices. Choices made by writers. Writers just like us, only better. Admitting that last part is absolutely essential to becoming better writers ourselves.  As long as we hold fast to the same choices we’ve always made, believing we are God’s gift to our readers, then not only is our writing a waste of time, but our reading is, too. Arrogant writers aren’t just obnoxious; they’re missing out on vital time to practice.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, talks about a group of psychologists who studied violin students in Germany. They divided the students up into three groups based on ability as determined by their teachers, then tried to figure out what made the great ones great and the mediocre ones mediocre. What they found was that the great ones practiced more. Not just a little bit. A lot more. In fact, they found a magic number necessary to become a virtuoso: 10,000 hours of practice. At a good clip, that takes ten years. They also didn’t find too much deviation from that. None of the virtuosos got by with very little practice, and none of the mediocre violinists practiced for 10,000 hours and remained mediocre.

Then, the psychologist began looking into other fields, and they found that the same magic number held up in every endeavor they examined. 10,000 hours. Athletes. Computer programmers. Ballerinas. Composers. And yes, writers.

The quality of those hours matters as much as the quantity, and that’s why writers need to change the way they read; it’s the difference between 10,000 hours of entertainment versus 10,000 hours of practice. One of Gladwell’s examples of 10,000 hours is the early Beatles before the British Invasion, when they were just a struggling rock band trying to find gigs. They worked in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany and would often play for eight hours straight to non-English speaking audiences and compete for attention with the strippers. Not only did this give them a chance to compose songs that are probably on your iPod right now, but they also had to learn dozens, probably hundreds of covers, and not just of rock and roll songs but of Jazz standards and other genres. What Gladwell doesn’t discuss is the influence of the music Lennon and McCartney were listening to, both before the Beatles formed and during this time. I would bet good money that these guys were not only reading the crowds to see what was working, but they were also listening carefully to the music on the radio and on the albums they bought, and listening in a different way than you or me. They were reading the music to become better musicians.

My preferred example (as a die-hard NBA fan), would be a basketball player. If a basketball player practices his shot for 10,000 hours, he will get to the point where he can sink his free-throws a very high percentage of the time, he’ll know where he can hit the highest percentage of three-pointers, and he’ll make some very tricky moves under the hoop on a drive. And he will lose. Why? Because he didn’t spend some of that time reading the scouting report about, and watching tape of, his prospective opponents. His 10,000 hours were spent becoming an oddity, a guy who could mop the floor with you at HORSE, and in its own way that is becoming a virtuoso. But he won’t be a great basketball player, because he didn’t learn to read his opponents.

Sure, the analogy is imperfect. Writing is at once less collaborative (despite great writing communities like #amwriting, we do our work in isolation), and less competitive (we don’t go head-to head with another author or team of authors. It’s not a zero sum game. More good books can generate more readers.) Maybe we’re less like players watching tapes of their opponents to learn to beat them and more like players watching the greats to learn from them.

So pick up a copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and learn from her choice to write the book not only in first person, but in the present tense. Crack open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and learn from his choice to eschew dialogue tags and conventional punctuation, then follow up with All the Pretty Horses or No Country for Old Men to reassure yourself that it’s not a fluke that just happens to work brilliantly but a conscious and careful choice he’s not always bound by. Read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and learn how a premise that seems doomed to be saccharine and trite becomes beautiful and powerful because of careful choices of characterization and intentional withholding.

Then go grab that guilty pleasure book on your nightstand. You know you have one. This is the huge hit by that debut novelist that fills you with rage when you read about the sales figures, and you grouse about it so publicly and with such vehemence that you can’t possibly admit how much you enjoyed the book yourself. Now, when you are flying through that weak prose, that thin characterization, or that awful adverb-filled dialogue attribution that makes you want to throw the book at the wall, stop and figure out why you don’t. Sure, it’s fine to identify the things you don’t like about the book. Note those choices so you will make different ones. But also acknowledge that there’s a reason that book is in your hands, and other copies are in a lot of other hands at the same time.

If you’re willing to do that, to learn from your betters (and yes, that hack on the New York Times best sellers list is your better, at least in some way) , then reading becomes part of your practice time, part of the 10,000 hours you need to rack up in order to become a true master of the art. Writing is practicing your shot. Reading is watching tape. You must do both to be great.