Cheer Up

This is a tough season for many of us to get through, especially if we live in northern states where the cold and darkness are pervasive. The holiday season with its lights and parties and cheerful frenzy may help to buffer us a bit, but it’s hard to completely escape the effects of shortening days and below freezing temperatures. Add the news cycle and you’ve got a recipe for despair. This year the news seems especially grim. TV, radio, newspapers, as well as social media are filled with distressing reports of shootings and drug overdoses and political buffoonery.

I reached the Age of Complaint some time ago. That’s the phase of life when conversations with your peers focus on lamenting how badly young people are being raised, how dismal social and educational standards are now, how grim the future looks because young people are entitled, spoiled, and lazy. In writing circles, we also talk a lot about the death of the novel, the demoralizing state of publishing, and the disheartening lack of interest in reading among young people.

I suppose there’s a grain of truth in all these complaints, but I remember my parents complaining about very similar things.  And I know that a little history checking will show that similar laments were voiced more than two thousand years ago.

On a recent bleak winter afternoon, I spent a few hours as a visiting writer sitting in with two classes of ninth graders in a nearby public school. The classroom atmosphere was a lot more chaotic and effervescent than the classrooms of my youth. We sat behind tables (not desks) in a big square. The boys clustered on one side of the square and the girls on the other. (Some things don’t change.) The students’ clothing and postures were non-conforming and individualized. They were relaxed but respectful – and brimming with energy.

They asked questions and so did I – we talked some about my novel, but mostly about writing and reading. And I came away with something I didn’t expect: optimism about the future.

Contrary to the complaints of my peers, these young people were curious and creative and motivated to learn. And they loved to read. They got very excited about books they loved, and they told me that many of them spent a lot of their free time writing fan fiction and posting it online where they received feedback and inspiration from other young writers. They were bubbling over with ideas and the desire to express them. It truly warmed my heart.

So if the complaints of your peers or the apocalyptic sound bytes of the daily news cycle have got you down, here’s a solution worth considering: Turn off the news and social media and spend some time with a class of ninth graders.

It just might cheer you up.



The Quandary of Clichés

clicheThis year we celebrated Thanksgiving with our eighteen-month-old granddaughter. The experience was a vivid reminder of how completely a toddler can turn your world (and your house) upside down. I spent a lot of time marveling at how much energy she – and her parents – had, and feeling a bit wistful that I no longer have that kind of stamina. It’s challenging to balance a writing life and living with a preschooler, and while she was with us I didn’t even try. But after she left I sat down to put my feelings into words.

All I came up with was clichés about wanting to share the wonder and curiosity and joy a toddler experiences as she explores her world.

Clichés are a writer’s curse because they’re old and stale and tend to make a reader’s eyes glaze over. But they’re also usually the first words that come to mind. And the frustrating thing is that they’re often the best ones to describe something. After all, they’re clichés because they’ve been used so many times.

Over the years I’ve learned how to identify clichés in my writing. My first drafts are full of them. One of the most important tasks in my second draft is to root them out.

A few years ago a funny thing happened. I realized that I was writing my own clichés. They were words and phrases that I favored in my own writing and used quite a lot, even though I didn’t encounter them in other people’s writing. It was a strange experience – it had never occurred to me that images and descriptions original to me could become stale. But they had. So now I scrutinize my second drafts for my own clichés as well as others.

Meanwhile, I’m still left trying to figure out how to write about my granddaughter without sounding like every other grandmother I know. But the truth is that adorable, bright, cuddly, cute, curious, active, and sweet are still the best words I know to describe her.

And maybe that’s okay.

I love cliche