Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Being a Writer

One of my students asked me this summer when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had to think about that a bit and finally said, "I don't think I decided that I wanted to be a writer. I just was one."

For as far back as I can remember, I always saw a blank piece of paper as a challenge. It sits there, asking/ challenging / demanding that I put words on it. In a box I still have marble notebooks -- remember them? -- from elementary school that were never completely filled with classwork; when the school year ended, the pages with math exercises or spelling words were torn out, leaving me with any number of blank pages. The earliest ones include adventures of the Elmont Junior Detectives, my homegrown version of the Hardy Boys starring my friends and me.

Writing was combined with my feeble attempts at being a comics artist in more notebooks, as I composed single-panel gags starring Penelope Jones and his friends as well as comic strip-style adventures of Superduck (who was not a duck), Secret Agent George P. Wombat, and Johnny Applepix.

Blasts from the Past: The comic strip characters from my junior high school years

Once I had taught myself to type (45 wpm with four fingers!), blank sheets of typing paper joined the notebook pages as invitations for me to write. The dozens of stories I wrote as Hobart Pumpernickel during my high school years is testimony to that, along with pieces for the school literary magazine, The Muse, and columns for the newspaper, The Oracle.

The Hobart stories continued into my first couple of years at Hofstra, along with numerous issues of The Purple Moose, a "newspaper" published for the staff of the yearbook, and some novellas that featured doppelgangers of myself and my friends.

At the same time, I was writing countless letters of comment to the editors at DC and Marvel, some 135 of which were published in the comic books. It was all those letters that were the first step towards my career in comics and getting paid for my writing.

These days, I do virtually all my writing on the computer, but I have to admit that I don't feel the same way about an empty screen as I do about a blank sheet of paper. It lacks that "personal touch."

I still put pen to paper during my CTY writing classes; there are a few of the assignments that I will do as the kids do them. There's also the pad on the clipboard that I kept in the dorm room; more than a few nights found me sitting on the couch or outside on a bench, filling the pages with pieces of stories. A couple of them are finished, others are substantial chunks with notes of how I intend to proceed, but some are no more than a few sentences.

Do I think I will finish them, along with expanding on all the ideas that I've jotted down and stuffed into folders in my desk? Of course... as long as there is blank paper and a way to get words on it.

After all, I'm a writer.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Salary Gaps

The current issue of TV Guide cover features an article about the salaries of TV stars and includes numerous lists of actors, actresses and assorted TV personalities and how much they earn per year. Some interesting bits of information from this article:

* Mark Harmon makes $500,000 per episode of NCIS, which, based on a 22-episode season, comes out to $11 million a year. (The top annual salary for an admiral in the U.S. Navy is about $225,000.)

* Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, and Sandra Oh each earn $350,000 per episode of Grey's Anatomy, or $7.7 million annually. (The average salary of a physician in Seattle is $98,000.)

* Mariska Hargitay earns almost $8.5 million playing a New York City detective on Law & Order:SVU. (Excluding overtime and shift differential, a detective in the NYPD with ten years experience earns just under $100,000 a year.)

*Kaley Cuoco earns $6.6 million playing a waitress on The Big Bang Theory. (The average salary for a waitress in Los Angeles is $44,000, with a high of $68,000.)

* Judge Judy makes an incredible $45 million per year! (The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court earned $223,500 in 2011. A U.S. District Court judge earned $174,000, which Judge Judy earns in less than a day and a half!)

According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income is about $51,425, and the median income per person is about $27,041. What's wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Teaching Writing

Over in her blog, my friend Barbara Rogan poses the question "Can writing be taught?" It is not as easy to answer as it might appear.

Anyone can write.
On the first day of every CTY class that I teach, I have the students go to the first page of their notebooks and write the sentence, "I can write." I then go around the room and ask each of them, "Can you write?" Indeed, they all can.
On the next line, they add "I can write anything." And, again, I poll the class, asking if they can write a poem, an essay, a short story, a review, etc. Again, they reply in the affirmative.
On the third line, they add "I can write anything if I try." And that, I tell them, is the goal of the course. We will explore a wide variety of types of writing and the key is to try to do every one. "If, at any point in the next three weeks, you tell me, 'I can't do this, Mr. R,' I will send you back to this page in your notebook."

Anyone can write anything.
There are no restrictions about who can write poetry or novels or songs or any other type of writing you can think of. All it takes is your own determination to do so.

Anyone can write anything if they try.
 All you need is paper and pen or keyboard and monitor or any other means of getting the words out of your head and onto something you can read.

But just because you can do this does not guarantee that what you write will be something anyone else wants to read.


So, can someone be taught to write?

Sentence structure, grammar, spelling -- they have rules that can be learned.  Tone, voice, audience -- they can be explained with examples and understood. I can explain sensory detail, comparison and contrast, the concept of "show,don't tell," and any number of tricks I use to spark my imagination. Learn all these things and you will be a better writer.

And no. What I cannot teach is creativity. Like the ability to play baseball at the Major League level or play the violin like a virtuoso, being an excellent writer is a talent that some people are born with and most people are not. You can learn all the rules and follow them completely, but without that last piece of the puzzle you will be just one of many. (That's not to say you can't become a successful writer; some mediocre authors have managed to make a fortune by writing the right book at the right time.) 

I'm reminded of two colorists who worked at DC Comics when I was Production Director. One learned every rule there was about coloring a comic book page -- using complementary colors, how to draw the reader's eye to a specific part of the page, how to make the important action stand out -- and had a long and successful career as a journeyman in the business. The other had a talent for coloring; she could look at a page and instinctively know what would work. Yes, she too knew the rules, but she also knew when she could break them for a better effect. And it was that ability that set her apart from her peers and won her accolades and awards.  

It is the same with writing. Plenty of authors can be taught what they need to reach journeyman status. It is the rare few who have the talent to excel... and that's the part that no one can teach.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Couple of the Many Faces of Mr. R

One of the mainstay lessons of my CTY Writing & Imagination class is the adventure of the glowing green kids. The class is advised that, the previous night, six other students were discovered in their dorms glowing bright green. By interviewing a variety of people, they are usually able to figure out what has happened.

The cast of characters includes Ulysses S. Feedum, the head of food services at Washington College, and his sidekick, Ima Server, portrayed by yours truly and Lauren (my former teaching assistant and co-instructor, now the instructor of the other section of the class).

Ima tells Feedum something of great importance.

Feedum is an irascible character with a Yosemite Sam-type voice who warns people, "Don't ask what's in the scrapple, ask who's in the scrapple!" Ima, who "gradjiated the seventh grade" and has an extensive "vocaberry," is responsible for making the desserts and is a big fan of Jell-O.

Also available to be interviewed is Norman Timperry, a spokesperson from CTY Central played by Lauren's TA Matt, who is a master of answering questions by not answering them. More often than not, he will respond with, "That's an excellent question. Next!"

Dr. Willa B. Better, the head of the emergency room at Chestertown Hospital, has been played first by Lauren and more recently by Amy and Dom, two of my past-year TAs, as an overworked narcoleptic who nods off even while answering questions. Dr. Better got a different spin from my 2012 TA Kim, who turned her into a human roller-coaster whose energy skyrocketed with each jolt of "5-Hour Energy" she swigged and then crashed just as quickly as it wore off.

Finally, there is Dr. Wolf W. Wolfgang, the lab-coated, bespectacled marine biologist and head of science at Washington College since 1953.  Wolfie is an expert on the Marianas Trench, "vich, as you know, iss the deepest part of the Specific Ocean." He gets called to the hospital to examine the green kids and is upset because he cannot cut one of them open for further examination. "I am a man of science!" he proclaims in defense of his plan. "I don't understand why the parents of these students don't see that!"

Dr. Wolfgang, sans glasses and lab coat, on some kind of marine biologist adventure at nearby Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
The underlying purpose of this is to teach the students about voice and their assignment is to write up what happened using the persona of one of the characters. They enjoy doing it, particularly when it comes to sharing their work, because they get to imitate those voices.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Historical Fun Facts You Probably Didn't Know

As I have mentioned in other posts, though my CTY students are among the most gifted and intelligent in the world, they are often quite challenged when it comes to history. As a result, there was the belief among some of them that, since I was born in the previous millennium, I was there for everything that has happened since the Crusades.

Well, I have long claimed to have charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt "back in '98" and while he became President of the United States, I came to teach at CTY. Only one student ever challenged this, saying, "Mr. R, if you really were at San Juan Hill, what did you see?" When I replied, "Lots of Spaniards with rifles," she thought for a moment and said, "Hmm, maybe you were there."

This year the question came up whether I knew Thomas Jefferson. (After all, how could I know the names, in order, of all the Presidents if I hadn't known them personally?) "As a matter of fact," I told the class, "I was the one who told Tom to make the Louisiana Purchase. I said, 'Tom, we need to get those French out of here. We should offer to buy it.' Tom said we didn't have much money, so I told him to make them a ridiculously low offer, which he did, and, what do you know, they accepted it! And that's how we ended up with all that land!"


Another student asked if I had ever seen Babe Ruth play baseball. "Sure," I replied, but one of his classmates questioned that. "You're not old enough," he said.
"Babe Ruth last played in 1935," I pointed out. The student appeared to do some mental math and then said, "Oh, okay!"


Then there's the story about how Oog and I were sitting in the cave and invented a) the alphabet  b) comic books and c) printing.
You see, Oog was drawing all these pictures on the cave walls and was getting really tired of trying to depict everything that was happening. So I suggested that we needed words to go with them. Of course, first we needed to invent letters so that we could actually write the words, so we did that.
And then I started writing captions and dialogue to go with his drawings, thus inventing the world's first comic books.
And when Oog pointed out that carrying around cave walls to show our work to people was problematic, we invented printing!

Grandpa To Be

Those of you who happen to follow my adventures on Facebook are probably already aware that the next generation of our family is due to join us in early February next year. Chuck and Rebecca told us in a quite amusing manner a couple of weeks ago.

A little history behind how they told us: Some Christmases ago, Sammi got me a shirt as a gift, thinking that it said "Hofstra Dad" on it. In fact, she had inadvertently gotten one which said "Hofstra Granddad." When I opened it, I said, "Is there something I should know about?" We all had a good laugh about it.

Chuck latched on to this idea and decided that whenever the day came that he would be telling us such news, he was going to do it by giving us shirts. He has carried this plan along all this time and Rebecca told us she first heard about it five years ago, long before that were even considering starting a family.

So, at dinner, they handed identically-wrapped gifts to Laurie, Sammi and me and told us we had to open them simultaneously. Which we did.

And great excitement ensued...

The Common Sense Revolution

CTY 2012 ended on Friday as the second session students left for home. Like the first session kids, this group was energetic and entertaining, completing 75+ assignments during their three-week stay.

Among the more amusing things that happened was a discussion that led to the founding of the Common Sense Revolution. One of the students brought up the case of Florida lifeguard Tomas Lopez, who was fired last month for leaving his post to help save a drowning man. "This," she said, "makes absolutely no sense."

I pointed out that in about twenty years, it would she and her classmates who would be taking charge of the world and that they should make it a goal to fix such things. That led to our plan to meet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at noon on July 26, 2032 to announce it. The students embraced the idea and one even started making badges for everyone.

"Why do I feel that I'll be there all alone?" said the girl, suspecting that her classmates might not even remember this when the day finally rolls around.

"Don't worry," I promised, "I will be there and I will bring my class with me!" I also promised that I would start working on getting approval for such a field trip as soon as possible, as the wheels of the CTY process sometimes grind very slowly.

We will ignore, at least for now, that I will be 81 years old in 2032 and the likelihood that I will still be teaching CTY classes by then is questionable. But you never know...