#WhatIwrite and #whyIwrite it

The National Writing Project is once again sponsoring the Why I Write project. If you are at all connected to social media, you’re likely aware of this initiative. Professional and amateur writers are posting their responses to the question using hashtags #whatiwrite, #nwp and #dayonwriting.

As a teacher, I believe wholeheartedly in getting students to write. Getting them to believe in the value of the written word is often slightly more problematic. But of course, they don’t realize how much real-world writing they actually do: the texts, the blogs, the emails, and the FB status updates are all examples of writing and have as much value as the literary essay my grade ten students are currently writing.

I’ve been a life-long writer. Ever since I figured out my parents’ little blue Brother typewriter and could start typing out my stories, I’ve been hooked on words. I love their power and their potential to create a world; I love the music they can create, the emotional impact they can have. Even when they frustrate me, I love them.

Like many teens, I wrote a lot of sappy poetry in high school. I wrote short stories about boys who broke my heart. I wrote hundreds of letters to pen pals all around the world. Perhaps I wouldn’t have considered those letters ‘real writing’ back then, but each epistle honed my ability to commit thoughts to paper coherently and creatively.

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me an electric  typewriter. Don’t mock me; it was 1979. That thing weighed about 50 pounds and the correction cartridge was bigger than an 8-track, but still – I felt I now had the potential to write the next great Canadian novel. Because that’s what I wanted: to be a writer.

Oh, I know.

Still…I do write. A lot. I’ve written hundreds of pages of fan fiction. I’ve written dozens of newspaper articles. I’ve written feature stories for magazines. I’ve written half of a really dumb novel. (And rewritten that half a zillion more times.) I have close to four hundred posts here at The Ludic Reader. I am inching up on 1000 tweets.

I do love that the Internet offers writers the opportunity to share what they’ve written. Community is important. But even without it, I think I’d still write. It helps, sometimes, to just listen to my thoughts and then try to sort them out on paper – or in cyberspace. Writing gives me the opportunity to be more than I am.

Stitches – David Small

I am not a graphic novel aficionado, but David Small’s Stitches  has been on my tbr radar for a while. Small’s memoir of growing up in 1950’s Detroit with an older brother, a radiologist father and a bat-shit crazy mother (although the discovery of her secret life makes her a tad more sympathetic) has won a slew of accolades and was a finalist for several major awards including the National Book Award.

I can’t comment on the quality of the art – or how it compares to the art of other graphic novels because I don’t have any frame of reference. All the pictures are simple and black and white, but they were very effective drawings.

The story of David’s life begins at six. The reader learns a little bit about his family, his absent father, his cold and distant mother.  Memoirs aren’t meant to dissect an entire life; rather, this is the story of one life-altering moment. A growth on David’s neck, discovered when he is 11, must be removed. The diagnosis: a cebaceous cyst. It takes David’s parents three and a half years to organize the surgery – not just one operation, but two. When David wakes up from the second operation, he discovers that his vocal chords have been severed and he is, for all intents and purposes, mute.

I read Stitches in an afternoon. It’s a sad tale, made darker because of the author’s muted drawings. For anyone wondering whether it is possible to have a worthwhile life after a craptastic childhood, Stitches is proof-positive.

Ashes – Ilsa J. Bick

We learn quite a lot about the feisty heroine, Alex, in the prologue of Ilsa J. Bick’s dynamite YA novel, Ashes. She’s stubborn. Aunt Hannah tells us that. “…once you’ve made up your mind, there’s no talking to you,” she says. She’s seventeen. And  she has “a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball” lodged in her head.

Alex is on the run, sort of. She’s decided not to do any more of the experimental  treatments for her brain tumor – so she’s left her Aunt Hannah and headed to Waucamaw Wilderness in Michigan to clear her head and scatter the ashes of her parents, who had been killed in a helicopter crash.

Alex is enjoying the solitude of the woods until Jack, his granddaughter, Ellie and their dog Mina happen by. Ellie is eight and is clearly not happy to be tramping through the woods. By page 25, Jack is dead and Alex and Ellie are running for their lives.

By page 72 both Alex and the reader know they aren’t in Kansas anymore. When she and Ellie stumble into a camp site, this is what Alex sees:

The boy and girl were eating. Stuffing their faces, actually. Splashes of blood smeared their mouths and dripped over their chins like runny clown’s makeup. With a grunt, the boy plunged his fist into the woman’s abdomen and rooted around before coming back up with a drippy fistful of something liverish and soft enough that Alex could hear the squelch as the meaty thing oozed between his fists.

It’s a waking nightmare. But these flesh eating teens aren’t the only thing Alex has to contend with. For one thing, she’s completely cut off from the rest of the world. She is quickly running out of supplies. Winter is coming.

This is one of those no-holds-barred works of fiction that teens will love. I think boys will especially love it because it really has a gross-out factor.  As the story went on, it did make me think about Patrick Ness’s novel The Knife of Never Letting Go a little. Like that book, Bick’s novel stretches out beyond the confines of teen against supernatural/fantasy/strange forces/etc and starts to tackle some other questions. What does it mean to be free, for example.  Who is trustworthy and how can we be sure they don’t just have a personal agenda? Ashes has a crazy mythology: part religious fanaticism, part survival of the fittest.

As Alex tries to figure out what has happened to the world…and herself (because she isn’t the same anymore either), Bick continues to introduce new perils and characters we must decide – as must Alex – whether or not we can trust.

Ashes is the first book in a trilogy and I will definitely be continuing on with the series. Bick’s writing is crisp and fast-paced. Alex is a great character – smart and resourceful. Although the book is written in the third person, it’s a limited point of view – so it feels like first person narration. You really do see everything through Alex’s filter.

And holy-ol’-cliffhanger. Great book!

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same books over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

Meet Hazel. She’s got cancer. It started as thyroid cancer, but now it’s in her lungs. There is no cure, but there is this miracle drug, Phalanxifor (Green points out in his acknowledgements that it’s a made up drug.), and although Hazel’s lungs are practically useless and she has to be hooked up to her oxygen tank all the time, she does okay. Except for, you know, the depression. Or whatever.

Her parents insist that she go to the  cancer survivor’s support group meeting – which she had grown to “to be rather kicking-and-screaming about” – and it is there that she meets Augustus Waters.  He’s in remission after losing his leg below the knee from “a little touch of osteosarcoma.” Her immediate reaction: he’s hot. From this point on, I flew through the pages of  John Green’s YA novel The Fault in Our Stars, alternately laughing and crying.

Telling you much more about the plot won’t actually do the book any justice. Besides, it isn’t so much about what as it is about to whom. The Fault in Our Stars is driven by the magic that is Hazel and Augustus.

Their relationship begins over an exchange of books (be still my heart). Hazel lends Augustus her favourite novel,  An Imperial Affliction, the story of Anna, a girl with a rare cancer of the blood. But, Hazel says:

it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in AIA, Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.

Hazel has some unanswered questions about An Imperial Affliction. She has tried for months to get in touch with the book’s author, Peter Van Houten. When Augustus actually makes contact with Van Houten, it sends the pair on the trip of a lifetime.

But much of that is plot and while the story might be predictable in many ways, there is nothing ordinary about this novel. Nothing. Hazel has been sick for a long time; she has already come to terms with her mortality. What she doesn’t know how to do is live. Augustus is the perfect antidote to her doldrums, beautiful and funny.

And make no mistake – this book is funny. These kids know how to laugh at themselves. When  Isaac, another member of the support group, loses his remaining eye to cancer he says: ” …people keep saying my other senses will improve to compensate, but CLEARLY NOT YET. Hi, Support Group Hazel. Come over here so I can examine your face with my hands and see deeper into your soul than a sighted person ever could.”

As if navigating the thorny path to adulthood weren’t difficult enough, the teenagers in this book must also contend with bodies that have forsaken them.  It is also heartbreaking to watch Hazel’s parents try to protect their daughter, even when they know they can’t. As a mom myself, I can only imagine how horrific it must be to care for a terminally ill child.

Augustus sums it up best: “…the thing about pain…it demands to be felt.”

Absolutely my favourite book this year.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I read Helen Dunmore’s novel With Your Crooked Heart many years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. Dunmore’s prose is like poetry, every sentence a perfect balance between beauty and truth. Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is the fourth novel I’ve read by her, and I have also read her collection of short stories, Ice Cream.

A Spell of Winter concerns the lives of Cathy and Rob, siblings who live in a crumbling manor house in England.  Their guardian is their maternal grandfather, “the man from nowhere”, and through Cathy’s eyes he is seen as stern and unsympathetic.

When A Spell of Winter begins Rob is nine and Cathy, our narrator, is seven. They are on their way, with Miss Gallagher, to visit their father in the sanatorium. It’s a traumatic visit – and also marks the last time the children will see their father alive.

The children’s lives are isolated and insular. Cathy remarks:

I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.

Perhaps it is isolation, perhaps it is abandonment, but eventually Cathy and Rob cross the line. Their story reminds me of another pair of British siblings who become lovers: Cathy and Christopher, protagonists of Carolyn Slaughter’s magnificent novel Relations (also published as The Story of the Weasel.) With a huge house to creep around in and no one to pay attention to them except Kate, their trusted servant, Cathy and Rob fall into a strange spell of their own.

A Spell of Winter has many of the gothic hallmarks: the gloomy dwelling, a sense of mystery, a distressed heroine. As long as Cathy and Rob are isolated, they manage to sustain their relationship. But like winter, it can’t last. Eventually, the real world seeps in in ways both expected and unexpected.

I loved A Spell of Winter. It’s not a ‘love’ story in the way Relations is. I wasn’t rooting for Cathy and Rob. I was rooting for Cathy. She is abandoned many times during her life, but her resilient nature, whether through necessity or tenacity, keeps her going.  The language is beautiful. And the story despite its dark subject matter, is brimming with the promise of spring.


Drowning Anna – Sue Mayfield

When Anna Goldsmith moves to Yorkshire from the south of England, she finds the transition difficult – that is until Hayley Parkin, the most popular girl at school, takes Anna under her wing. Sue Mayfield’s YA novel Drowning Anna unspools the story of Anna’s relationship with Hayley, which deteriorates almost as quickly as it began.

As Melanie explains:

Hayley Parkin goes off people. I don’t know why. Perhaps she gets bored with them. Perhaps she runs out of things to buy them. Perhaps she can’t stand competition. She doesn’t seem to need a reason. She drops people.

Drowning Anna combines third person narration with Melanie’s reflections and entries from Anna’s journal. From all these different points of view, we come to understand what has driven Anna to such a commit such a drastic act. Anna is a very relateable character. She’s smart, athletic, musical and attractive – but she’s also 14 when the story starts and given to bouts of self-doubt. Hayley Parkin is not the only thing wrong with her life: her teacher-mother is stressed out and moody, her doctor-father is never home; her older brother, Tom, is busy with his own life and doesn’t always live up to expectations – meaning there is extra pressure on Anna.

None of that explains, however, why Hayley decides to focus so much malevolent energy on Anna. She starts small by ignoring her, but it doesn’t take long for the harassment to extend to mimicking her accent (which, granted, means less in a Canadian context but having lived for a time in the UK, I understood this as a tool of torture), isolating Anna and actually physically hurting Anna.

Hayley, it seems, has a lot of charisma. The other students want to be in her orbit, but it feels sort of like, “keep your enemies closer.” We don’t ever get a clear understanding of why Hayley is so hateful, but it hardly matters. At the end of the day, Hayley will have to live with her choices.

Mayfield really captures the very particular cruelty of teenage girls. Anyone who has ever been bullied will see themselves in Anna Goldsmith.

The Returning – Christine Hinwood

I read a lot more Young Adult fiction.  I do it so that I can have conversations with students in my classroom. I read some YA because it sounds interesting to me. Recently, I volunteered to help review some books for the Dept of Education, books which have been selected for possible inclusion on the sanctioned reading list and thus destined for English classes in middle and high school. That’s how I came to read Christine Hinwood’s debut novel, The Returning.

The Returning, a Printz Award winner, is the story of how the aftermath of a domestic war between the Uplanders and Downlanders affects a disparate group of people including Cam Attling (a returned soldier), Pin (his younger sister), Graceful (Cam’s fiance) and Lord Gyaar (the man who saved Cam’s life). It’s alternate historical fiction – which reads like fantasy because the world is sort of, well, otherworldly. Is it the past? Future?

While not without its merits, Hinwood’s book didn’t appeal to me. The story is elliptical in nature, jumping around in time and place – never settling with one character long enough to allow the reader to really get to know them.

Cam is the only man from his village to return from the war and he’s having a difficult time adapting to life back on his father’s farm. Other villagers always want him to talk about what happened to their husbands and sons and brothers, but Cam just wants to forget. But it wasn’t just Cam’s war  – the world has changed for everyone. Da explains the war to Pin as a rock that has been:  “thrown and done, but the ripples do take longer to spread and flatten. That’s what this is, the ripples.”

I understand why Hinwood didn’t want to focus entirely on Cam – the war has affected many other people (including those from the winning side) – but I just couldn’t seem to keep everyone straight. Perhaps it was all the strange names: Diido, Hughar, Acton. Maybe it was the unusual way the characters spoke – although the writing was often quite beautiful. Maybe Hinwood was too ambitious, trying to capture the aftermath of war for too many players.

I just didn’t  feel like I truly knew any of the characters and so, for me, The Returning just didn’t have the emotional impact I had hoped it would