Archive for July 18th, 2007

Feeling My Way to the Write Side of the Desk

July 18, 2007 @ 9:53 pm | Filed under:

Or: In Which I Tantalize the Other Kidlit Bloggers by Not Naming Names

During graduate school, I wrangled myself a part-time job at a local children’s bookstore. This was not exactly a responsible thing to do at the time. After all, I’d taken out student loans in order to finance my two years in the MFA writing program at UNC-Greensboro, so that I could have the privilege of studying under the great Fred Chappell and also so I could apply myself seriously to writing and see if, given the time to devote to craft, I was really cut out to earn my living by the pen. Or keyboard.

Scott was off to New York to begin his internship at DC Comics, pursuing his own dream, and my plan was to spend my two years of grad school doing nothing but writing. I had to work, of course, and I landed a paying position on the editorial staff of The Greensboro Review, the MFA program’s national literary magazine.  The demands of my job as assistant poetry editor, and, in my second year, poetry editor proper, were more than enough to fill the hours not already consumed by my classes, homework, and the composition of original poems and stories for the demanding creative writing workshops.

So naturally, the first thing I did was trot off to the children’s bookstore and pester sweet-talk the owners into hiring me. I just loved that store so much. I wanted to spend time there, among those lovely books, so many of them my old friends. I didn’t know, yet, that children’s literature was my genre—it may sound obtusely un-self-aware, but honestly, it just hadn’t occurred to me that the kind of books I wanted to write for a living were going to be children’s books. No one in the program was a children’s writer, or talked much about children’s literature. We were Serious Poets who read Kumin and Larkin and Heaney; we were Serious Short-Fiction Writers who spoke of The Atlantic Monthly in tones normally reserved for sacred texts. We were all going to write Serious Novels or go broke publishing chapbooks of earnest, intensely serious poetry.

Yet there I was perched on a stool behind the counter at the Dolphin, between the spin rack of beginning readers and the endcap display of Newberys, contentedly reading my way through our inventory. I couldn’t even pretend I needed the job to supplement my poet-in-a-garret paychecks from the Review; I spent every dime of my bookstore earnings on books. I could not, after all, let that tasty employee discount go to waste.

Eventually a classmate pointed out to me that all of my narrators—even in my poems, for I (alone among my peers) favored narrative verse over lyric poetry—were children or elderly people. Sometimes both, in the same poem. Gradually it dawned on me that my comrades-in-ink were approaching writing from a different landscape than I was. The vistas that informed my work were golden-brown Kansas prairies and blossom-clad Prince Edward Island lanes—not the gritty urban streets of the late 20th century. The characters who peopled my imagination were leprechauns, maiden aunts, and barefoot lasses. The stories I was interested in telling had to do with getting into scrapes and getting out of them again, or discovering lost things, or coping with eccentric and boisterous relatives who had a way of putting you in awkward yet ultimately hilarious situations.

By the time I graduated in 1993, I had learned how to articulate my interests, and when I went looking for a job in publishing, hoping to get my foot in the door (and also ready to settle down in New York, where that comic-book-editing boyfriend of mine was shopping for engagement rings), the doors I knocked on were all marked "Children’s." FSG passed on me because my sample reader’s report made no beans about the fact that I thought the manuscript I’d been given to peruse was sloppier than the junk drawer in my kitchen. I didn’t mind, because they were only offering a salary of $15,000—hardly enough to pay for half a month’s expenses in the New York City of the mid-90s. "To be honest," admitted the senior editor who interviewed me, "most of our entry-level staff relies on help from their parents."

Random House offered a more reasonable starting salary—still small potatoes, but at least you could afford your own potatoes instead of having to mooch off Mom and Dad’s. And the executive editor I interviewed with there thought my reader’s report showed sufficient common sense to warrant an offer. I had been given the manuscript blind, unaware that the author was actually a person rather highly regarded in the field. I thought his concept was appealing, and there was a fun, quirky quality to the writing that I quite enjoyed, but the plot, in my opinion, was riddled with holes. The manuscript, I summed up, had potential but would need a tremendous amount of work.

The editor, it turned out, agreed with me one hundred percent. One of my first tasks upon taking up residence in my cubicle was to draft a letter, to be tweaked and signed by my new boss, laying out the points of revision necessary to turn the manuscript into a publishable novel. I found out who the author was, and I gulped at my audacity in issuing so blunt and stern a critique.

(It was right about then I knew for certain I did not want to pursue a career on that side of the desk; the editor’s life was not for me. The job, I hoped, would be a stepping-stone to a writing career—and so it was.)

The Esteemed Author politely and calmly disagreed with the editorial feedback, averring that he viewed writing as an art akin to the Chinese craft of painting on rice-paper, a fiber so fragile that revisions are impossible. He cordially withdrew the manuscript from our consideration, offering to write a new book for our house and amiably confident that another publisher would be happy to accept the manuscript we had problems with.

He knew his business. A year later the book was published by that same FSG editor who had passed me over for his assistant position.

Charlotte Mason, Discipline, the Deputy Headmistress, and Running Wild on the Cereal Aisle

July 18, 2007 @ 2:31 pm | Filed under:

The Deputy Headmistress has a great post up today about flaws in Charlotte Mason’s approach to discipline. I appreciate the DHM’s remarks on this subject, because this is a topic that has caused me a lot of head-scratching over the years.

On the one hand, yes, I totally get what Miss Mason was after in regard to habit-training. People do mostly tend to do what they’re in the habit of doing, and if you’ve got a bad habit, a way to banish it is to practice doing a good or desirable thing in its stead. Enough persistent practice, and eventually the good thing becomes the habit, the automatic behavior.  A patient and diligent mother can make a sort of game out of this for her children, helping "lay the rails," in CM parlance, for good and socially pleasing habits. All manner of examples come to mind: not slamming doors, washing hands before meals, brushing teeth, clearing dishes from the table, making beds, and so on. These are good habits to have, and a household chugs along more smoothly and happily if such actions are routine. I’ve had great success with this principle, whenever I’ve taken the trouble to apply it. (I seem to have trouble pulling off the patient and diligent parts at the same time.)

But all those "habits" are outward, active, task-oriented. There are other "habits" which rely upon interior qualities and are affected by temperament and circumstance. As the DHM notes, Miss Mason’s recommendations for altering behaviors like tantrums, lying, and stubbornness tend toward sorrowfully raised eyebrows or a gentle application of "natural consequences"—the "natural" consequence of behaving unpleasantly around mommy being removal from mommy’s presence.

But I also think this is why CM takes discipline so lightly, as
something easy for the alert and clever mother to address with nothing
more than a look and a shake of the head. It’s always a simpler matter
to get a child to mind somebody not its parent, or not as familiar to
it than it is to get a child to be consistently obedient with Mom when
Mom is the only one around. It’s not the same as having Nurse, Cook,
Gardener, under nursemaid, parlourmaid, second housemaid and the tweeny all there, and all bowing to Mom’s authority.

I also note
that a lot of the distractions offered to redirect the attention
involve sending the child to other adults (take a message to cook, take
this package to the gardener…) Somehow I just don’t see that working
for me (The crock pot wants to see you…).

Frankly, in the days
of outhouses, chamber pots, an army of servants, nurseries on the top
floor of the house, and children constantly being supervised by a
well-trained nurse, I doubt very much that Parents’ Union mothers often
found themselves dealing with such issues as a preschooler wiping a
clumsy hand on the bathroom wall instead of washing it with soap and
water, a child stuffing the toilet with matchbox cars, pulling dresser
drawers out and dumping out all the clothes, gluing baby dolls to the
living room rug, finger painting in Mommy’s make-up or lotions, and
dumping out bottles of cooking oil on the kitchen floor while Mommy is
cooking dinner. Mommy wasn’t cooking dinner. Cook was.

A few years back, we had a rough patch when I was pregnant with Wonderboy and having some hip-joint trouble that slowed me down. This coincided with some, hmm, difficult behavior in a certain four-year-old. I procured a coach’s whistle and made a habit of simply whistling for Scott (working downstairs in the basement office) whenever the certain someone was out of line. Daddy would come barreling upstairs, and good order was restored before his foot hit the landing. But this solution did nothing to solve the real problem; there was no discipline involved, merely distraction. Distraction is a great tool for babies and toddlers but does nothing to help a four-year-old overcome a tendency toward tantrums.  I might just as well have been banishing the child to the nursery, as in one example in the DHM’s post, and letting poor Nurse cope with the tantrums herself.

A few years before that, I inadvertently launched a firestorm on the Catholic Charlotte Mason discussion list by asking for help applying CM’s discipline philosophy on a practical level with another child—again, a four-year-old!—who had certain habits (primarily, I recall, of the running-amok-in-grocery-stores variety) which were not altering under the gently grieved looks Miss Mason recommended a mother cast in such a child’s direction. The conversation quickly drifted into the spanking debate, always an explosive subject on e-lists, and was speedily and firmly curtailed, leaving me none the wiser. I wasn’t in favor of corporal punishment anyway, so the spanking arm of the discussion hadn’t seemed to apply to my situation, and the conversation died before anyone could explain to me what to do when my preschooler didn’t respond to gentle suggestion the way Miss Mason so confidently assured me she would.

I had to do what everyone else does and blunder along as best I could, learning through trial and error. Much error, I suspect. Fortunately most children seem hardy enough to survive a heavy dose of parental blundering. Certainly the four-year-old who once sent me seeking advice from strangers on the internet has become an exceedingly pleasant person. Even in grocery stores.