How My Mother Made Me a Reader

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Some people are, unfortunately, born out of their proper time; either too early or two late to live the life that would have fulfilled them. My mother was  one of those people.

She graduated from high school in December of 1929, straight into the Great Depression. This sounds like the worst possible luck; and for my father, who left high school in the same year—without graduating—it probably was. But for my mother, bad times meant good opportunities. She had a high school diploma at a time when most women didn’t; she could type and take shorthand; and best of all—no, really—her home-life wasn’t happy. To what was probably the whole family’s satisfaction, at age eighteen my mother took an apartment in Chicago with some friends who wanted—at least for the time being—to have jobs instead of husbands. One of them worked at Sears, Roebuck, and recommended Mother for a job there.

Before the Depression, women at companies like Sears had mostly been confined to the sales floor, and restricted to departments like clothing, where employees were salaried, and not—as in furniture, and appliances—on commission. But as the depression deepened, Sears cut its expenses by hiring women to do what had formerly been strictly men’s jobs. My mother replaced a better-paid man in the accounting department; worked hard; and did well. She even got raises, though her salary never approached those of her male co-workers. She was thrifty, and before long she was able to afford her own apartment. She furnished it with the aid of her Sears Employee Discount; and bought herself an extensive wardrobe. Given what I know of my mother’s execrable tastes, both the furniture and clothing were probably horrible; but she, at least, was happy with her choices.

In later years, she hinted that she’d had a love affair or two during this time; but like most women of the day, what she wanted, ultimately, was to be married. In 1939 a friend at Sears set Mother up with her brother. Three months later, the two were wed; and three months after that, Mom quit work because riding the street-car to her job made her nauseous. My brother was born seven months later.

Even as times changed around her, Mom continued to insist to her own children that “working women” were emotionally stunted, unfulfilled beings who were to be pitied. But in fact, she envied them. A lot. She hated housework and found children and child-care tedious.

Her escape from household monotony was in reading fiction; and this is Rule One in my system for Making Your Children Readers. If you want to make readers, be a reader yourself. Read a lot. Read obsessively. Read so hard that the world recedes into a thing of no importance whatever, and keep it up for hours at a time. You may as well know right now that your children regard most of what you say as no more than an annoying buzz in their ears, but they closely observe what you do. Tell them to read; give them all the excellent reasons that reading is good; and they will not hear you. Swat them away like flies when they disturb your reading, and they will want to discover for themselves the secret joys you find there.

Rule Two of the system is, after your children are four or five years old, read aloud to them; but never as much as they would like. Mom started many books aloud, but I can’t remember her ever reading one through to the end. After a few chapters she’d go dutifully off to stand at the kitchen stove for awhile, her own book propped before her, boiling something she could allege was “dinner,” and leaving the book she’d been reading to us kids lying somewhere, open. It never lay unread for long.

Rule Three is to have a lot of reading material right in your house. People are surprised when I tell them that I never had a library card until I was in college; but honestly, the fact that my mother was too busy reading and boiling dinner and wishing she was Vice President in Charge of Something Big to take her children to get library cards was a big part of why I am a reader today. Our house was full of books, and they stayed around—not for two weeks, as a library book would have—but for my entire childhood, or in other words, until I got around to being interested in them. In the fourth grade, to the shock of my teachers, I read Oliver Twist. I read it because my mother happened to own a copy with interesting wood-cut illustrations. I studied them for a while, trying to figure out what the story was from the pictures; gradually worked my way through the smaller blocks of dialogue; and ended by reading the whole thing just to see how it all came out. I read hundreds of books that way.

But the best, most effective rule of all is Rule Four. Rule Four says, put your kids to bed at a ridiculously early hour (I was ordered to bed at 8:30 until I was in high school) in a room with no source of entertainment save a well-stocked bookshelf; and then supply your children with bedside flashlights.

Then go off and enjoy a quiet evening, reading. Do not ask, next morning or ever, why your children’s flashlight batteries are always dead.

Rationalizing Your Way to Virtue

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We now know for sure that it isn’t the ability to use language or tools that sets man apart from other animals; and the jury’s still out on whether, if there even is such a thing as a capacity to contemplate the divine (huh?), man is in exclusive possession of it. But nobody’s shown to my satisfaction that any other species but humans so consistently and imaginatively rationalize. Our ability to conjure up exculpatory reasons for what we do seems to be our great defining characteristic.

I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind when writing fiction. Any character who isn’t meant to be a certified psychopath should not only have clear motives for what he does, but should consciously (and—to be authentic—continually) rationalize his misdeeds.

In stories I’ve written, based mostly on people I’ve actually known, the rationalization often turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the work. This is because many times humans don’t just want to convince themselves and others that some unkind or unfair thing that they’ve done isn’t really so bad after all, or should be excused because of some extenuating circumstance. People often rationalize their behavior all the way from bad to good; even from positively evil to virtuous.

Take, for example, an elderly aunt of my mother’s, now long dead. According to Mom, this woman’s perennial state of simmering rage was likely genetic. She was apparently just born hating the world. But after being raised in the same tepidly Methodist household that produced my grandfather and several other perfectly normal people, Auntie embarked on a quest for a rationalization for her inner rage; which, after some early experiments with radical—really radical—politics, eventually led her to a small church which preached that to hate your neighbor was a sure sign of Salvation. Like the members of Westboro Baptist, the innate anger of the members of Auntie’s church was righteous anger; and intolerance of not only the sin, but the sinner, too, was virtuous and good. Everybody who ever met her disliked her; but Auntie was—in her own mind, at least—sure of Heaven.

I’m seeing the same thing in certain Trump supporters. For years, some of the ones I know personally kept their bigotry and sexism quiet (at least in public), though the rest of us were all more or less aware of what they really thought. Then along came the Trumpkins, relabeling political correctness (otherwise known as an effort to screen overtly racist and blatantly hurtful language from public discourse) as hypocrisy; and bad manners and aggressive self-promotion as authenticity. Some Trump supporters are simply delighted—beyond delighted—to see hatefulness and prejudice redefined as “virtues”, because they like to be virtuous as much as anybody. Now, without having had to abate their hate and prejudice in the least, they can tell themselves that they—like Auntie—are so full of virtue that they’re sure of Heaven or at least a tax cut.

Of course, the problem Auntie had with being actively disliked is a problem for some Trump supporters I know, too. And if I were writing them in a piece of fiction, they would definitely see very soon that real virtue, practiced properly, doesn’t alienate you from your friends and relatives. In the meantime, I’m getting a lot of good information on how to write about families torn apart and old friendships destroyed by ideology, which is useful, I suppose; though sad. It remains to be seen whether I’ll also one day be provided with many examples of happy reconciliations and tearful resolves to try, in future, to come to some better understanding.

Welcome to My World That I Just Made Up

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I made up a new maxim. It is, “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes they make in picking what kind of book to write are condemned to keep writing the same kind of book.” It’s not very catchy, it’s grammatically a little obscure, and it probably won’t catch on generally; but I hope that pinning it up over my desk and looking at it every day will stop me from making another literary foray into applied sociology.

Like most writers, I think, one of the reasons I started writing stories in the first place is because I’m interested in human psychology. I try to figure out the answers to my questions about how people’s minds work by making up characters and moving them through the various life situations that constitute my plot. But outside of people, my greatest love is history, and I keep seeking insights into history by creating whole societies, and moving them through the various historical situations that constitute my plot. For me at least, this is really tough.

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to write an original—and yet believable—character, because individual personalities vary so much. Any being with opposable thumbs is plausibly human. Ever known a Heathcliff or a Cathy? Me neither—but I’m perfectly able to believe they might exist. And to write an original society is pretty easy, too—but not to make it convincingly stable, or lasting.

This is because societies are like dogs. Breeders can work hard and create animals as different as Great Danes and Chihuahuas; but let them relax their vigilance and in a few generations they find themselves with a bunch of very similar medium-sized, flop-eared, saber-tailed mutts. (–Nothing against mutts, by the way. Mutts are my favorite breed.)

Similarly, put a bunch of humans together, and however they initially conceive their society, eventually they evolve one that has similar rules; norms; authority groups; social, familial and religious structures and institutions; and exhibit the same degrees of cooperation and conflict as every other human society.

I won’t say that I’m a contrarian, but the fact that this homogenization is so general annoys me. So I keep writing fantasies in which the characters are human, but the societies they have evolved are different. Then I spend the whole book trying to figure out why, and how to keep them that way.

It’s hard work. I’m crazy to do it. One of the societies in Ant-lands was a bit on the utopian side, and what with all the extra research I had to do on how utopias are created (and why they never last long), the damn book took me at least an extra year to write. And now I’m writing about the first encounters between different societies, and researching how long, in general, it takes people to realize how superficial their differences, and how deep and innate their similarities are. Do you realize how many books have been written on this topic? And I have to read a bunch of them.

Hence the un-catchy little aphorism pinned up over my desk. If I read it daily and take it to heart, my next protagonist will be a loner, an outcast from all societies. –And not the kind of loner who goes around making friends with the little woodland creatures, either. It wouldn’t be an improvement for me to have to research woodland creatures.

I’m Casting My Vote for Better Characters

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I know I’m not the first to observe that the current campaign for president is the most polarizing and divisive in memory; but I may be the first to find a good use for the fact that it is. I’ve decided that it will make me a better writer if I keep reminding myself that supporters of the candidate I don’t plan to vote for (and never mind which one that is) live in the same country I do, eat the same food, watch the same television, speak the same language, and are presumably cognizant of the same facts as I am, and yet hold completely different opinions and support completely different policies from me. Completely different. In fact, this election cycle has made me realize the degree to which I previously underestimated how much people can have in common and still end up in some ways totally unalike.

Sometimes when I write, I forget this. I put in characters who are “different” from the ones with which I personally identify, but I make them villains, or damaged in some way—even crazy. Or I don’t put characters like that in at all. I write exclusively about people who are like me. This election cycle, stressful though it has been, has at least been useful for reminding me that I personally do not define what is rightly human, and should include other kinds of people among my characters.

Otherwise, I’ll just end up writing another Looking Backward.

…And speaking of Looking Backward—which I’d rather do, because it’s a much more fun topic than the election—did anyone else have the same reaction to it as I did, that it was meant as a post-apocalyptic thriller?

No one warned me ahead of time that the book’s utopian future (the year 2000;  Looking Backward was written in 1888) was intended to be taken seriously. I kept waiting for the protagonist, the time-traveling Julian West, to realize that the citizens of the future he’d stumbled into were just waaaaaaay too content with their creepily bland and uniform culture. I waited for him to react with mounting horror to the growing realization that it was unnatural for everyone in this brave new world to be perfectly satisfied with a life spent doing nothing more exciting than listening to music (albeit right in their own houses, on their “telephonic devices”—Bellamy was a much better futurist than novelist); and never minding that the music they listened to was always someone else’s choice; or bragging to a stranger that they could eat all their meals “in any public kitchen they chose,” without ever wishing that they could select their own menu. Were all the citizens really so peacefully inclined that no one ever even wanted to watch a prize-fight, WrestleMania, or a hockey game?

And what was with the eerie degree of satisfaction the women—who were supposed to enjoy equal opportunities with men, by the way—derived from being able to buy any kind of fabric they wanted at one store? I’ve shopped for fabric. Even with a great selection, it’s not that fun. And furthermore, why were they shopping for fabric at all when Bellamy eventually reveals that in actual fact, clothing in this paradise is made of sturdy paper, to be discarded when soiled?

—Okay, the part about the paper clothes was actually in Equality, the sequel to Looking Backward—but that’s all right, because my point is that all the characters in both books were all identical to each other in outlook and attitudes*, and I mustn’t do that when I write. The guy on my street, the one with the sign for that other candidate for president, is a pretty nice fellow, really; and in a non-election year, I actually like him. I must try to remember to put people like him—not insane, and not evil—in my next book.

In the meantime, here’s an article on the subject of election-season stress that concludes with the useful recommendation to cope with anxiety by cuddling a puppy. Go visit your local Humane Society. They have puppies who will gladly exchange cuddles for calm with you.


*That is, they’re identical to each other except for a misguided few—briefly alluded to—who persist in committing unspecified “crimes.” Crime in the never-never land of Looking Backward is a “medical disorder,” and treated as such. Don’t eat the food in the public kitchens, Julian West! The public kitchens are obvious delivery-points for whatever substance the citizens are being secretly dosed with to engender all that exaggerated “calm.”

Creative, or Just Crazy?

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Before I started writing semi-seriously myself, I wondered why so many writers seemed to have come from “difficult” backgrounds. And by “difficult,” I mean specifically family situations with some seriously mentally ill people in them. It seemed like a lot of writers had also been poor; but in fact being poor and having mentally ill relatives—especially close ones—are not unrelated. It’s expensive to have mental illness. Seriously mentally ill people can’t keep good jobs, they make bad financial decisions, and even a brief stay for someone in a locked ward will cost the family a bundle.

Eventually I figured out (I think) why mental illness and writers are so often linked—and it’s not in the way that some of my literature professors said it was. They thought that having some crazy (their word) relatives meant that the authors themselves were probably also crazy; and that for the authors to be a little crazy helped them to write.

This is confusing “crazy” with “imaginative,” I think. Writing’s actually pretty hard work; and unless you think being self-motivated and disciplined is a sickness—okay; you might be right at that—crazy is the last thing a writer should be.

But if you know any mentally ill people, you know that they are often unpredictable. Furthermore, a lot of mentally ill people act more or less unpredictably depending upon how the people around them respond to them. Ergo—and you can believe me on this, because I know what I’m talking about—people who live with or close to mentally ill people often become hyper-vigilant to the thought-processes—however subtly expressed—of other people. They learn know that if they misread the mental state of a person with mental illness, their mistake may engender worse and more unpredictable behavior.  And since it’s hard, sometimes, to tell just who and who isn’t mentally ill, it’s best to be alert to everyone else’s mental state.

Okay, very sad. On the other hand, could there be better training in the world for people who want to create believable characters with credible motivations than to grow up hyper-vigilant to the way other people think and act?

Nope.

So the lesson here is that if you want to write and you have no known crazy family members—and after checking first to be sure that you’re not the one who’s mentally ill—you must, for the sake of your writing, drive at least one close relative around the bend immediately. Don’t hesitate: After all, it’s for art.

Such is Life

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My family tree produces more than its share of nuts, but there are also some wonderful characters and stories there.  I use them sometimes; but really, there are just too many.  I could write for a whole long lifetime and never get around to using half the available material.

My paternal grandmother’s life alone would make a shelf of novels.  Born in Pomerania, she came to the US—alone—at fifteen to join an older sister and brother-in-law in Wisconsin.  They had a business there (what kind, I don’t know) and according to my grandmother, worked her like a slave.

Her brother-in-law took advantage of her in other ways, too.  When she was seventeen, my grandmother had a child by him.  Her sister was either indifferent to the state of affairs, or possibly even relieved to have someone to share the burden of her husband’s demands.  The sister adopted the child as her own, and the situation continued as before.

When my grandmother was pregnant by her brother-in-law for the second time, she ran away to Chicago and lost herself among the large numbers of Polish immigrants whose neighborhood was centered on the Polish Catholic Basilica of St. Hyacinth.  A local priest introduced her to Joseph, a more recent immigrant from the same small village my grandmother had come from.  Joe was lonely, and looking for a wife.  The couple were wed just as soon as the banns had been posted.

It wasn’t until after they were married that my grandmother revealed that she was already carrying another man’s child.  To her surprise, her new husband was undismayed.  Babies were always a blessing, he said.

A story with a happy ending—unless I chose to continue it.

The marriage was an unhappy one.  The hastily-wed couple were ill-suited to one another.  My grandfather frequently said that when “the old woman” was dead, he would dance on her grave; and when the time came, he would have, too—except that by then he was too old and too feeble to dance.  The couple had twelve children, but buried six of them; interestingly, the daughter who was technically not his own was always my grandfather’s favorite.  My father and his siblings grew up not knowing that their mother had ever lived in Wisconsin, far less that they had a half-sibling there—until the daughter of that sibling (my grandmother’s first grandchild) wrote one day, apparently in a fit of adolescent pique at her mother, to inform them.

Though Grandma had long since quarreled with, and left, the Catholic Church, the shame of what she had been told there was her “sin” in “submitting” (at fifteen!) to abuse by an older man in an unfamiliar country was as sharp as ever, and the family, suddenly confronted by this new information, was thrown into chaos.

In the midst of it, my grandmother had a stroke.  Her devout older children (her younger children—my father, for one—had followed their mother out of the church), kept the priest who came to administer Extreme Unction waiting in a hospital corridor until they were certain their mother was unconscious.

Three years later, my grandfather died.  He was buried—not immediately adjacent to his wife of fifty years, but with the tiny graves of two Joseph, Jr.’s intervening.

“To keep them from fighting,” my father told me.