Monthly Archives: April 2011

Confessions of a Compulsive Confessor

            I
no longer go to church, but, like the growing number of fellow heathens in this
country, that doesn’t keep me from celebrating religious holidays.  Christmas and Easter provide a much-needed
opportunity to celebrate family and spend time with the ones we love.  And I must confess, I also enjoy the
excuse to eat frosted sugar cookies and marshmallow chicks. 

            Ah,
confession, it’s perhaps one of the few religious rituals I miss–well, that and
being encouraged to sing loudly and poorly in public.  Though I must admit, I didn’t appreciate confession as a
kid.  A few times every year our
CCD teachers would tell us we were escaping our regular classes and heading up
from the basement into the church. 
We were thrilled–until we realized we were being shepherded like cattle
being brought to the slaughter to spew our every indiscretion to God
himself.  As a little kid, I
remember sitting in the pews nervously tapping my feet trying to perfectly plan
out my disclosure.  But without
fail, I would practically forget my own name, never mind my beautifully worded
confession, as soon as I sat across from the priest (there was no anonymity
allowed by the bulldozer who oversaw our religious education-she fed off
children’s fear).  So instead I
spewed, like Chunk from the Goonies as he faces having his hand mutilated by a
blender.  And I left feeling
embarrassed and ashamed.

            By
the time I was a teen, I had smartened up a bit.  Or perhaps I had just become cynical and bitter over having
to listen to the bulldozer preach morality for so many years. 
Let me get this straight, you want
me to tell a guy you claim has a direct link to God everything I’ve done wrong
in the last six months?  Riiight.  That’s likely.
  Like
most of the rest of my confirmation class, I picked a few minor, typical kid
sins, rattled them off, and tried to master a look of appropriate
remorsefulness.  But at this point,
the Catholic guilt was ingrained, so once my smugness wore off, I eventually
still felt ashamed.

            What
I was never able to connect as a kid, though, was that outside of church, I
loved to confess–not only my sins, but also my friends’ and especially my
brothers’.  Poor Matt could never
get me to shut up about any kind of trouble we got into.  My parents were never the type to grill
us into fessing up–maybe because once I learned to talk, they never had
to.  One suspicious look and I’d
tell all, like a guest on the Springer show.  The burnt hole in my new sweatshirt?  Yup, we were lighting fires in the
woods.  I even confessed to things
of which my parents wanted to remain ignorant.  The mopped floor? 
Yup, there was a party here this weekend and beer was spilled all over the off-white tile. 

            My
brother thought he figured out a way to muzzle me when he was in middle
school.  He discovered
leverage–find something your sibling did wrong and hold it over her head every
time you want to get away with something. 
So when a neighbor and I spilled on the new rug in the playroom (after
he slammed the door to lock us in, knocking the jar of
Miracle Whip down the stairs), he thought he had the perfect
get-out-of-jail-free card.  And it
worked, for a while, months actually, if I remember correctly.  Every time I was about to rat him out, he would simply
whisper, “Whip,” and I’d bite my tongue.  But Matt overestimated my willpower.  He had clearly not learned that I was a
compulsive confessor.  So one night
as he was torturing me at the dinner table, I finally just told my parents,
who, as soon as they heard the spill was cleaned up, could not have cared less.  Matt learned I was too much of a dork
to barter bad deeds with, and I had my belief in the beauty of confession
confirmed. 

            It
is simply better to admit having eaten nearly a dozen cream-filled eggs in the
name of a holiday you no longer really celebrate than to try to convince
yourself or your Weight Watchers’ leader that the added pounds are simply water
weight from the salt in the one thin slice of ham you consumed.  Confession takes the weight off your
shoulders, even better than a few thousand extra sit-ups will take the Peeps
off your thighs.  So my post-Lent list of sins: I eat sweets too often, swear too much, correct not frequently enough, and thoroughly enjoy all of the above.  Damn, that felt good.


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Modifying in Moderation

 After six hours, I finally finished meticulously scouring more than four hundred pages of text for any and all words containing “ly,” editing them out wherever possible.  Shortly I will repeat this task with just, now, then, and some.  One might read this and mistakenly believe I’m waging war against all adverbs.  Truthfully, I adore adverbs; like many of my dependent clauses, I feel they modify my sentences quite nicely.  Unfortunately, in the writing world adverbs have become the redheaded stepchild of parts of speech.  They’re the equivalent to exclamation points in punctuation–to be avoided at all costs!!!

            Examining the previous paragraph, it’s easy to see that we use adverbs frequently in our writing as well as our speech.  So what is it about these modifiers that have English teachers, agents, and critics with their panties in a bundle?  The claim is that adverbs lead to sloppy writing.  I buy this–to a point.  There’s no excuse for describing a character as “very tired” when one could use “exhausted.”  And I scolded myself for repeating  “looked quickly” in my own draft when I was well aware better words existed: glanced, flitted, darted, or peeked, perhaps?  Sometimes writers use adverbs because they’re too lazy to think of or learn a more precise verb or adjective or don’t want to take the time or increase their word count by adding a longer description of an action.  But just as often, adverbs are necessary.

            One of my favorite authors, J. K. Rowling, has been criticized by reviewers and fellow writers for over-using adverbs, particularly after dialogue tags.  She loves telling us Mr. Malfoy spoke coldly (COS, 52) or Ron sharply (DH, 392).  The critics complain this breaks the golden rule of “show, don’t tell.”  The dialogue itself and/or the character’s actions or reactions should inform the reader of the character’s tone.  I’m sure this is often true, especially with less skilled writers, but there are times when writers need to cut to the chase.  Fantasy novels, in particular, already require tremendous amounts of description in order to create a believable world.  There isn’t always room to describe each reaction.  So why not forgo the dialogue qualifier altogether? Because there are times when the words alone can be read numerous ways.  Think of how often we become upset over an email only to later speak with the person and discover we misread the writer’s tone?  The gurus would have us clarify through actions or facial expressions.  Great, I’m all for the occasional raised brow, gnawed bottom lip, or narrowed eyes.  But there are times that won’t cut it.  Writers are supposed to be considerate of their readers.  I push the boundaries of this enough by requiring my readers to use oxygen masks after reading a compound-complex sentence riddled with dependent clauses.  I’m not about to cause them facial paralysis from contorting their faces in order to determine how my characters may have looked or felt while speaking.  If I can cut out a line of awkward description simply by using “sarcastically” or “sardonically,” I’ll do it.  If some critic wants to call me sloppy for it, hell, I’ll gladly keep Joanne company.  Afterall, one of Rowling’s critics scorned the billionaire author for using an adverb in the title of her final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (“Deathly Adverbs”, Boston.com).  Perhaps I should graciouslyinvite him to join my seventh grade language arts class, where he could possibly learn the difference between an adjective and an adverb, so the next time he lambastes an author, he won’t look quite so asinine.

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Head Case

            Monday
through Friday I follow the same commute to work.  I’ve done it for nearly nine years.  Yet, occasionally when I pull into my
unassigned but clearly designated parking spot, I wonder briefly about my
sanity.  Shockingly this concern
doesn’t stem from the fact that I’ve spent almost a decade in seventh grade–a
school year most of us have worked very hard to block out of our memories.  Instead, my worry is sparked on those
mornings when I can’t clearly recall one song I heard on the radio or one stoplight
at which I paused–and I did, like, totally pause.  When the engine turns off, I’m suddenly aware that I spent
the last twenty minutes lost in my thoughts, which for me usually means
imagining some scene from my latest story or daydreaming about magically
bumping into Mr. Right at the meat counter.  (The
meat counter,
really, Lauren?  Did I mention I’ve
spent too long working with seventh graders?) 

            Looking
past the dangers of driving with one’s head in the clouds, it’s not necessarily
a bad thing to take the time to tune out the world and listen to your own
musings for a while.  It’s a safe
way to vent frustrations, play out fantasies, or prepare for unpleasant
situations.  Most of my ideas for
writing also come from letting my mind wander.  In fact, when I’m stuck with a scene or can’t think of a
topic to blog about for the week, I usually throw on my sneakers and headphones
and pound the pavement for a few miles. 
The monotony of my short stride and overused playlists will eventually
force my easily bored brain to come up with something interesting.  I think as a writer and someone who has
always been a little odd and a little spacey, I can get away with this.

            Unfortunately,
my alter ego–the responsible, driven educator and homeowner–can’t function well
in la-la land.  Those little
buggers at school actually need attention, as do the litter box, the laundry
pile, and the growing collection of dirty dishes in the sink.  It’s easy to forget that while I’m
escaping reality, reality isn’t going anywhere.  And, frankly, I wouldn’t want it to.  Living the life I have, as opposed to
living in the worlds I create, is how I learned to be good at the things I’m
good at most days–teaching and writing. 

            Working
with people and writing about people kind of require you to know a little about
people.  Growing up, I was trained
by the masters in the arts of observance and loquaciousness.  Yup, Dad and Gram never missed a trick
and could, and often did, strike up conversations with strangers in the grocery
store.  Being young and
impressionable, I followed their lead. 
I lurked in the dining room or upstairs hallway to listen in to every
phone conversation my mother ever had. 
I pretended to fall asleep on Gram’s lap at holidays to catch snippets
of “grown up” conversation. 
And I was never one for headphones–how can you eavesdrop with your ears
covered?  So I probably never
grasped the concepts of MYOB or “Don’t talk to strangers,” but I
developed a curiosity about and comfort with people that have served me well,
both in my career and in my passion.

            Now
that I’m older I sometimes want to escape those “grown up”
conversations and wish I truly could nap on Gram’s lap a few hours each
afternoon.  But living in my head
not only keeps me up at night, it also keeps me from being present for some of
the best opportunities to people watch, to observe, and to notice the nuances
that will help me understand a student who baffles me or create a character to
whom my readers can relate.  So
I’m swearing off headphones at the grocery store and nixing writing or revising
during study halls.  Beware
unsuspecting shoppers and unrestrained talkers: you have just returned to being
fodder for my newest novel. 
 

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Misery Business

            I
contemplated keeping this week’s blog to one succinct sentence,
“Technology hates me, and I hate it.”  But that’s a compound sentence, so perhaps just, “I’m
an idiot” would have sufficed. 
Who am I kidding, I could have summed it up with a few choice
four-letter words, and no, I wasn’t thinking about another blog on snow.  But to keep it clean for any kiddies
(or their parents) who stumble upon this, I’ll expand and explain.

            Yesterday
after working all weekend on typing the sequel to my novel, I was being extra
cautious and went to back up my latest draft on my flash drive.  Except instead of replacing the
old draft with the new one, I rewrote over seven hours of work with the
older version, losing forty pages of revised perfection–okay, perhaps
perfection is stretching it, but still.   Needless to say I was a bit flustered.  A tad upset.  Slightly miffed. 
Okay, I swore and cried and pounded the steering wheel like a mad woman
the entire two-hour drive home from the Cape.  And I wondered why the cat was meowing…

            When
I got home, I went online in search of a remedy.  Surely, this could be fixed.  How many times have we been told that nothing you save on
your computer is ever really gone? 
We live with this looming fear that our every keystroke can be traced
back to us, or with this belief that every tech person is as skilled at
recovering information from burned and erased hard drives as Abby and McGee on
NCIS.  It’s a lie, people.  You want to hide that scathing letter
to your boss or the evidence that you’ve been secretly keeping a file on the
exploits of Charlie Sheen?  Just
invite me over.  Or better yet,
like the person responsible for teaching our young how to read (yup, me again),
just skim over the message asking if you really want to write over the file
with an older version, and hit “replace” with reckless abandonment.

            My
online search wasn’t completely fruitless however, because, though I didn’t find
a way to fix my mistake, I did learn something: misery really does love
company.  As I scoured the help
sites of tech-savvy nerds, likely very rich, very single tech-savvy nerds, I came across
numerous stories of people who had made the same foolish error I had.  Actually, most of the posts were
written by men whose wives, sisters-in-law, or elderly neighbors supposedly
flubbed up, but that’s a phenomenon for another blog on another day.  As I read these posts though, I realized I
found them oddly comforting.  The more
important the document lost by these poor cyber-strangers, the better I
felt.  Thesis paper: tough luck
kid, pull an all-nighter like every other college student does.  Doctoral thesis paper: yikes, that had
to be longer than my forty pages. 
Priceless family genealogy chart that took years to research: now that’s
real pain; I guess I can sleep better tonight. 

            I
know; it’s kind of disturbing. 
But when you think of it, we do it every day.  Who hasn’t gone to the gym or sat in a weight loss group and
secretly looked around for someone more out of shape than herself?  In fact, support groups in general are
based on the theory that misery loves company.  We boost ourselves by knowing others have been through the
same struggles we have, perhaps even had it worse.  As long as we’re not the only technologically impaired,
overweight, or unbuff gym-bunny out there, then we can feel okay about
ourselves.  We’re not freaks, we’re
just flawed.  It almost makes me
feel better about those days I realize all I’ve done is whine and
complain.  Really, I was doing my
co-workers and friends a service by helping to build their self-esteems.

            And,
hey, if you have a day when commiserating just isn’t doing it for you, go
ahead, recover that deleted file on Charlie Sheen, and smile knowing it could
be worse.

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