The Skye Saga

Byron and SkyeIf you have a kid between three and seven and don’t have an utterly screenless existence, you probably know that the current rage is Paw Patrol, a TV show/toy franchise about a team of rescue pups who… well… let’s just say that whenever there is trouble around Adventure Bay, Ryder and his team of pups are there to save the day.

Our boy’s favorite non-Lego toys over the past few months have been Paw Patrol pups that come with badges and backpacks that open up and do stuff. One is Skye, the only girl in the original pup line-up of six (they’ve since added another to the show). We found that while the other pups weren’t too hard to find, Skye was nearly impossible to find. And the reason was obvious: Girls love Paw Patrol as much as boys. Girls want Skye.

But Byron also loves Skye. And he wanted use to round out the set. So for months we were regularly and fruitlessly checking the ransacked shelves at Target and Toys R Us, where, for reasons that can only be explained by recent news and public opinion, we would find only piles of unpurchased Chase toys (Chase is the police dog).

Byron also noted that most of the merchandise featuring all the pups never had Skye. She wasn’t on the shirts, or the party plates. He was confused, and the message must have started sinking in: Skye isn’t on my shirts because as a boy I’m not supposed to want her on my shirt. Skye isn’t on the paper plates because she is less important than the boy pups. And that’s where we have to intervene, affirming for Byron that it’s OK to like Skye and the companies are dumb for leaving her off.

Byron also likes Lego Friends and Lego Elves. He likes the unicorn girl minifigure almost as much as the alien trooper. He likes Shannon Hale’s Princess in Black and Bratz and some show about a fairy tale high school with mostly girl characters. But he isn’t a feminist superkid just yet. I can see the culture taking its toll, his occasional grimness when offered a book about a girl, especially if she’s not an animal. He will opt for the space robot action figure over the big-eyed kitty every time at McDonald’s, and the fact that eyes are on him and one is described by the cashier as a ‘boy toy’ certainly influences him. And he’s not even in school yet, where other boys will surely coach him on despising girls and things for girls.

The gender splitting I’ve complained about in books is extreme in toys and television, so appalling I really can’t believe how passively parents accept it. Why must any mixed-gender franchise be 5/6 boys? Why did all the superheroes from my childhood go on steroids? Why do all of the Lego girls come in slimmed down from the classic, sturdy, Lego minifig body? For that matter, why do you have to paint a six pack on the male figures, on top of their uniforms? I don’t mind that the girls in that fairy tale show talk about dating and dresses, but why can’t boy characters ever show a little vulnerability, be a little smitten, be a little concerned about how others perceive them?

There’s lots more I want to say here, so I’ll have to come back to it. Suffice to say that kids are sufficiently assaulted with gender role expectations before they reach Kindergarten, and it’s maddening. Books are the least of the problem. The bigger part of the problem is everything else: clothes, toys, movies, TV, even breakfast cereal boxes.

Incidentally, Byron did not want to be photographed with Skye, and seen playing with a girl toy, but his mother told him that it’s important for the world to see that boys can play with girl toys. That’s what convinced him. Good work, B.

The Lazy Bee

The Lazy BeeA while back I blogged about an Ursula K. Le Guin story that injects ants with human consciousness and modern human values, and opined that I would like to see a story that didn’t see eusocialism as oppressive — I think we can learn from these little citizens. I have since (while doing immersion tasks on Duolingo) found exactly that story in the form of a fable by author Horacio Quiroga, which seems to be a testament to the responsibilities of an individual to her community above personal will. The ending seems dead serious, but the story seems to have an ironic bent, too, in its didacticism against intelligence (even as cleverness and learning saves the bee heroine).

This story is closer than the Le Guin, at least, to understanding the eusocial colony of insects. I particularly like the use of “sister” as greeting among bees in the hive, since they would be sisters, as well as carrying the flavor of fellow travelers in the early 20th Century, when the fable was written. I have not read enough Quiroga to know his intent but the era and the location make it more likely that he was sympathetic to socialism, having seen the hell foreign capitalists wrought on his continent.

It seems to be published as a picture book, in both Spanish and English, but minus it’s classic status I seriously doubt any publisher would do a children’s book with such a message against personal exceptionalism and individualism. Unwavering faith in these principles seem to cross all religious and political factions. The fable now would have to take the turn of Lionni’s Frederick, where the other bees come to love the lazy bee for her imaginative flights. For the record, I absolutely love Frederick and can barely read it without tearing up. But sometimes I feel only one side of the story is every told, and that such fables not only prevent us understanding the natural world, but from fully understanding ourselves.

What other fables about ants and bees (or other eusocial organisms) that seem to deal with the role of an individual in a society are out there?

Planting for Pollinators

I was inspired by one of my own characters to plant a “bee garden,” this spring, and today planted the better part of my wife’s little pocket of prairie with beardtongue, salvia, bee balm, black-eyed susans, coneflowers, thymus, verbena, coreopsis, asclepias, and yarrow. There’s an empty spot for milkweed we’re getting from a neighbor. The stuff in back is prairie grass that’s (mostly) been there for years.

pollinator garden

It doesn’t look like much now, but by mid-summer most of these guys will be 2-4 feet high, in bloom, humming with bees and crawling with caterpillars. My wife even supports this venture though she doesn’t like butterflies, but it will be hard not to be taken in by the potential magic of watching, with our bug-loving boy, a monarch nudging its way out of a chrysalis one late summer morning. Thanks to a book by a local author, he is also expecting bison.

Failure + Yoda + Me

Erin DionneNext up on our tour of failure is Erin Dionne, another “niner” and excellent writer of middle grade novels.

“Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”- Samuel Beckett

I fail every day. Multiple times, actually. My life consists of parenting two small kids, teaching full time at a small college, and writing.

And always, every day, failure.

Teaching that night class? Missing bedtime. Papers to grade? The writing time gets ditched. Invited to write a blog post about failure? Blew the deadline. Taking the kids out on a Saturday afternoon? Well, no failure there—but I fight “I should be working” guilt, nonetheless.

People talk about finding “balance,” or “managing the writing life”. I have looked for the elusive balance—it doesn’t exist (at least, not when your kids are three and six). I’ve put systems in place to manage my life (implementing a bullet journal, being really careful about how I spend my time), and something always comes up to smash my carefully constructed house of cards.

But I still go for it.

YodaYoda’s quote has been my mantra for years. Cheesy, I know, but the distance between “trying” and “doing” is important to me.

Merriam-Webster defines “try” as “to make an effort to do something: to attempt to accomplish or complete something,” and “do” as “to bring to pass.”

Attempting to do something doesn’t cut it for me. I need to bring that book to pass. I need to complete what I start (which is why, when I took up knitting, I wanted to finish that sweater/scarf/hat in one sitting. It was a terrible hobby for me.). But “bringing something to pass” isn’t always pretty, especially the first time around. Pinterest fails are proof of that.

This is also why I’m not all over Pinterest.

Like all writers, I put a lot of effort into my work. I struggle over drafts, agonize over revisions, and stress about reviews, sales, and what comes next. Over and over, I remind myself that as long as I keep doing something, I’m doing something—even if all I’m doing is moving forward in small steps. I eke out those hours—or minutes—to work on my novel. I set aside time to grade those papers. I play with my kids.

Most of the time, I feel like I am failing at all of it: the writing is crappy, I can’t ever get to the bottom of the grading pile, my kids watch too much TV. That’s when Beckett comes in:

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I first saw his quote on poet January Gill O’Neil’s blog. As much as Yoda encourages me to keep going and keep doing, Beckett gives me the permission to do so badly. I don’t have to succeed every single time I do, I just have to suck a little less next time. For someone like me, who holds herself to unreasonable standards and sleeps very little, this is freeing.

This manuscript stinks? I can make it better with revision.

This class discussion bombed? Next time I’ll approach the topic differently.

Fed the kids leftover mac n cheese and pizza for dinner? Tomorrow we’ll have veggies.

Have I made my peace with failure? Not exactly; because once you do make peace with failure, you slip into the realm of “trying.” Yet accepting the tenets of Beckett’s failure allows me to follow Yoda’s advice. As long as I keep failing better, I keep doing. And that’s success.

Tomorrow, I’ll fail again. Without trying.

 

Happy 99th Birthday to Beverly Cleary

Beverly ClearyHappy birthday to a living legend.

In celebration of the day, here is a recap of all my posts about Saint of Yamhill from last year, when I re-read many of her books.

A Realization

Homesick for Klickitat Street and A postscript

Spunky Girls (Ramona), Ramona, Relatability, and SerendipityHenry Huggins

Mr. Henshaw

 

On Failure

My next guest blogger is Jennifer R. Hubbard, author of three novels for young adults and a book on writing. I’m intrigued by Jennifer’s discussion of “failure narratives.” We’re conditioned by books and public speakers and various superstars and heroes to believe in ourselves, and to know we can do anything, which might inspire us but also prepares us poorly for other outcomes: ordinary, boring lives. I recall that the eponymous hero of Jude the Obscure was fixated for a time on the folktale of Dick Whittington; a favorite of mine, too, when I was a boy. Of course Jude is bound for a less fairy-tale existence. The minor classic, Stoner, by John “not-the-composer” Williams has a similar theme. Recommend your own in the comments, particularly those that perhaps celebrate the heroic struggles of those ragamuffin wanderers who never find a magic bottle.

jennifer hubbardYou would think writers would talk more about failure, since it’s such an integral part of the job description. We fail a lot. We abandon manuscripts, collect rejections, have projects canceled. Most traditional books don’t earn out their advances, which means they don’t hit their sales goals. We hear “no” a lot more than we hear “yes.”

Failure especially comes as a shock if we’ve had some success first. We expect to fail at the beginning of our careers, when we’re inexperienced. And we love the narrative of failure as a precursor to success; we love an earned happy ending. We love when the earlier pain proves to have purpose and meaning. But we don’t think of success as temporary. Once we’ve arrived, we don’t expect to get kicked out of the party. Why we expect this, I don’t know. We’ve read the cautionary biographies; we’ve seen the biopics. We’ve all seen famous names fade from view. Few people stay on top forever.

While failure sometimes comes from not working hard enough or not knowing enough—the problems we can control and overcome—it also comes from dozens of other little factors we can’t control or even foresee, such as fashion and timing, illness and disaster, culture shifts and technological changes. For every person who follows a formula to success, thousands of others follow the same formula and fail.

The simple fact is that failure is more common and more likely.

I have searched for failure narratives where failure is not just a precursor to success. They are rare and powerful. There’s Susan Allen Toth’s “Summa,” a chapter in her memoir Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, about ambition and perfectionism and loss, about what happens when you don’t live up to your potential, about how a couple of bad days can wipe out years’ worth of work. There is Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, in which the “breaking” overwhelms the “making.”

Loner in the GarretIn I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron wrote one of the most honest essays about failure that I’ve ever read (“Flops”). She was referring to movies, but her main conclusions apply more widely. In short, failure is painful and unpredictable. We don’t necessarily learn from it, and we don’t necessarily forget it. Failure can scar. In short, all the things we fear about failure are true.

Even as I write this, I feel the pressure to steer toward a positive message. Which may be why we don’t discuss the bitterness of failure much: What a downer! But for me, there is comfort in a few of these truths. First, since failure is a lot more common than success, we have plenty of company when we fail. Second, most failures are not fatal. And third: You never know. If failure is unpredictable, so is success. Some people say that neither failure nor success is as important as trying. (A variation of that sentiment even appears in the Olympic ideal, as voiced by Pierre de Coubertin.) I don’t know that I’d go that far—yet here I am, trying still.

Jennifer R. Hubbard (www.jenniferhubbard.com) is the author of three novels for young adults and several short stories. Her most recent book, Loner in the Garret: A Writer’s Companion, discusses failure and success and everything in between. She lives near Philadelphia with an understanding husband, a pile of books and chocolate, and a melodramatic cat.

My Biggest Failure: Letting the B-st-rds Get Me Down

We continue to consider failure through the wise, honest words of science fiction author Lyda Morehouse (and a few from Milton).

Lyda MorehouseIn the Koran, Iblis (Satan) feels Allah tricked him (long story, but he’s super mad about Allah’s newest creation, human beings, and when Allah presented this new muddy clump of animated clay, Satan refused to bow before it, because, he felt, that God was the only one worthy of his devotion. Satan thought that the point of this exercise to check the loyalty of the angels. He thought himself pretty smug for having passed. So, no surprise he feels very PWN’d when Allah says he will be cast out of Paradise for his transgression,) so Satan/Iblis says:

“Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path. Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left…”

Traditional New York publishers aren’t the Great Satan, but I have spent many days counting the ways in which I feel they share similar characteristics.

So.

Many.

Days.

There are a lot of reasons to be bitter about the state of publishing. My personal story of heartache has a lot in common with Iblis’s, at least in my own mind. I actually got into Paradise, which is to say that a prominent publishing house picked up my first novel. That book came out to a moderate amount of fanfare. From there on out, I tried to be a perfect angel. I never missed a deadline. When my editor called and said, “So, this Twilight book is hot. You think you could do something similar?” I happily said yes, even though maybe a tiny part of my soul died a little. I never fought editorial changes to my book. NEVER. “It’s their book,” I told myself. “They paid for it.”

Except once.

And then I was cast out.

I spent a lot of time brooding about this since. Was it just my time and was this the excuse they were looking for? I know that can happen because I narrowly avoided being “quietly shown the door” earlier because I met and bonded with my previous editor. My science fiction numbers hadn’t been what the publisher was hoping for, but we chatted at a convention and he, bless his soul, decided he’d tell me what his bosses had in store for me and helped me switch from science fiction to romance. So, I’d gotten some awesome breaks in the past.

Truthfully, I got fourteen published books out of my run; I was probably simply due for a fall.

But you would not believe the amount of time I have spent turning over details and events around that final moment. Who’s fault was it? Was it fair? Who could I blame? Should I have fought over creative differences earlier? Would that have helped my books be better, and thus improve my numbers? Or, was it a mistake to fight? Should I have continued to capitulate in hopes that things would get better and so that would have yet another book to write under contract?

Any one of those could have been my great failure. But, believe it or not, none of that really matters.

The mistake I’ve made is allowing myself to become bitter. The single most destructive force in my career has been me: my willingness to bow my head and quit.

I always believed that I could never not write, and that’s been true. I’ve been writing ever since my publishing career crumbled beneath my feet, but I gave up striving for publication. There are so many new avenues for writers these days and instead of exploring self or small press publishing, I have stared at the doors of heaven and shaken my fists.

This is a mistake—it’s a failure of resilience, a loss of hope that I’m finally beginning to recover from. I’ve been trying my hand at new ways of writing: a comic book script, collaboration, self-publishing, etc.

And I’m here to tell you that writing can still make me happy. It’s still the greatest job on earth. Ultimately, I have found an answer to the question another writer once posed:

“To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or by opposing, end them?”

It is better to oppose them.

It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

 Lyda Morehouse writes about that gets other people in trouble: religion and science.  Her first novel Archangel Protocol won the Shamus Award for best paperback novel featuring a private detective.  A subsequent novel, Apocalypse Array, also came in second for the prodigious Philip K. Dick award.  This, however, did not insulate her from failure and so she revived her career as paranormal romance writer Tate Hallaway, author of the Garnet Lacey series and the YA series, Vampire Prince of St. Paul.  She is now attempting to rise from the ashes again. Wish her luck and follow her progress at: www.lydamorehouse.com or on twitter @tatehallaway or via the various places she blogs, including www.tatehallway.blogspot.com