Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Surprise Twist Ending

There are certain formulas we have become accustomed to in story telling. You've heard of  “set the problem, pose three obstacles in increasing intensity, climax, goal achieved, and resolution.” It is a mantra most writers repeat as we construct tales, from the shortest picture books to novels. When analyzing all but experimental literature, something of this pattern becomes evident.

There’s a new must in picture books, often referred to as the “surprise twist ending.”
 I wonder. How surprising is an expected surprise? Reading many newly published picture books I will have to be a spoilsport and say that while I detected this convention in most, few of them yielded a genuine surprise.

There lies the art. Formulas will never do.

Here are a few mini examples that, to my jaded mind, work their magic. These are from a site on Jewish Buddhism, a combination that invites a twist. 
Warning: out-of-the-box thinking required.

Drink tea and nourish life;
With the first sip, joy;
With the second sip, satisfaction;
With the third sip, peace;
With the fourth, a Danish.

Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.
Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.
Each blossom has ten thousand petals.
You might want to see a specialist.

Accept misfortune as a blessing.
Do not wish for perfect health,
Or life without problems.
What would you talk* about?
{I’d change “talk” to “write”}

And finally, apropos^

If there is no self,
Whose arthritis is this?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Typhoid Mary? No, Café Mary!

Piqued your curiosity with that ^ title?

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with Typhoid. I barely know what Typhoid is, beyond reading about that dreadful outbreak over a hundred years ago, and its silent carrier, Mary Mallon.

Discloser: Café Mary is me. This is the name I use whenever a person at a café/food counter says, “What name shall I put on this order?” For me it is always MARY.

If you’re still reading, you may be saying, “But why? Mirka is a perfectly nice name, and it is unique.”
There, precisely, lies the crux of the matter.

My café-restaurant name made its first appearance fifteen years ago, in Old Town Sacramento, California, in a tavern that looked like a throwback to the days of the Wild West.
With a dear friend and her daughter, DH and our two kids, we traveled by train from the bay area. After a lovely round of touring the Gold Rush Museum, Train Museum, and many (many) shops, we were famished. We settled on what looked like a saloon. While the kids and DH waited at a table, my friend and I made our lunch orders at the counter. Then a guy with a cowboy hat and jeans that were two sizes too small on him asked for our names.
“Stephanie,” said my friend for her order.
“I’ll get it right to you, Stephanie,” said the hunk.
“Mirka,” said I.
“”Huh? What kinda name is that?” said the hunk, whose name could have been Bo, or Chad.
I was about to do what I have to do everywhere, and spell it for him. He didn’t seem like he had the time to hear the explanation about Slavic diminutives, and how my birth name was Miriam but at the Children's House of my parents’ kibbutz there were two Miriams and my father chose Mirka so I will have some distinction, etc.
“M-I-R…” I started.
“”Nah,” said Mr. Tight Jeans. “ Don’t give me that. Give me an American name.”
I was thinking how Mirka is a Slavic diminutive of Mary. “Mary?” I said.
“I’ll get it right to you, Mary,” he said.
By the time our burgers and fries arrived at the table, I had no problem going under any name. But my kids couldn't understand why the server kept calling their mom by what, to them, was an odd name.
And so it became my café name. To this day, I think of it as my other identity for these sorts of occasions.

[A wonderful article in the New York Times reminded me, once again, how names have resonance and connotative identities. You can read it here- 

For writers, names are part of the story, and not a trivial part, either. To me, it is also part of how I write my life.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Visiting My Childhood Home---

---Is Like Visiting Old Writing

Just returned from Jerusalem, where I had the privilege of visiting the house and neighborhood I grew up in. I was reminded of an old Shalom Aleichem story where he returned to his childhood home and found the rooms have grown smaller, the street became alleys, and the tall trees have grown shorter.

Don’t get me wrong- West Jerusalem is undergoing a frenzy of new building, as is the whole country of Israel. It is a dynamic place with an almost maniacal energy, for good and bad. But my old apartment building and the streets surrounding it are not part of this fever, and they felt much lessened to me.
I write here not about the stuff you get from the daily news. I got a taste of that in the city-wide alarm sirens when collisions on the Holy Mount erupted, and saw the helicopters hover over. I saw troops descend on a shopping area near the old city the day a Palestinian minister died after altercations with Israeli security. Those troops were there to prevent further violence, which did not materialize. But this is not what I am referring to.

For the most part, the city of my birth and the country as a whole are thriving. Israel is bustling, creative, and internally argumentative as ever. Art galleries and cafes are full, and the fruits and spices of the market fill the streets with intoxicating fragrance. Jerusalem is eternally “the navel of the world,” as Ezekiel 5:5 and 38:12 coined it thousands of years ago.

But, at least to my eyes, not my old home. Not the place where I grew, and dreamt, and finally left only to dream of it, looking backwards.

It occurred to me that this experience is akin to visiting my old writing. Have you done that? Some writers say they can’t bear to read their old writing. Some aspects I remembered as powerful turned out to seem awkward, derivative, and so much less effective that they were in my memory. Reading old stories or old blog posts can have a discouraging effect.
But then, I always find glorious surprises. Not what I remembered, but what I barely noticed and certainly forgot. A turn of phrase with eloquent charm I can hardly believe came out of my typing hands. A line of dialogue as surprising as it is both punchy and profound. Did I write this? Pat-on-the-back.

Bittersweet. Like visiting my old home.

Here is my little unexpected bit of love that I found in Jerusalem, with an old feral alley-cat. In the weeks I was there, I came back to visit him many times, and he slowly allowed me closer. I worried about him when it rained hard and I couldn't find him in his usual spot. But when I called, he came. Finally, he agreed to  be photographed for my post, here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Facing Fears

A few years back I wrote a picture book manuscript about how an adult New Year’s celebration might look to a child. I was thinking about pre-school age kiddos. I called it HAVE NO FEAR, IT’S A NEW YEAR.
 I had in mind the raucous grown-ups’ celebrations juxtaposed with the childish sense that the world as we know it is about to change when the clocks strike midnight, and the ball literally drops at Times Square.
It is a story about facing the unknown, the new, and facing our fears.
The other day a writer wrote on a chat-board- “Every time I sit down to write, I'm scared.” 
How true. I can’t think of a time when I sat down to my daily session and that voice in the back of me didn't whisper, “maybe you can’t do it anymore.”
And then I do it anyway. I begin, continue, and end the session triumphant. I face my fear that I wouldn't, and I do. Write.
The story, all six hundred words of it, still sits in the drawer. My critique group made helpful suggestions, and I noted which resonated strongly with me. Then I wondered if I could do the story justice, and put it away. For later. Much later.
Maybe I can’t.
Maybe I will.
It’s a New Year!