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Eavesdropping — A Dialog-Writing Exercise

So yesterday in my Novel Writing class, I sent the kids into the commons for the last 20  minutes of class, which happens to correspond with the lunch they don’t have. The commons was full of teenage humans. I instructed mine to sit down somewhere and start eavesdropping. They were to write down random lines of dialog that they heard people say. They turned in their 5 favorite lines. I laughed a lot. Their overheard lines were weird. Funny. Awesome.

Today I had them pick their favorite one or two and put them up on the board. I had made columns for them to place the lines in, and after they’d all put up their best lines, I revealed the  topics heading each column. So now there are 5 or more lines of dialog – totally unrelated – under each of the following topics: Song Lyrics, Polygraph Machine, Job Interview, Explain Earth to the Aliens, Break-up, Babysitter Report, Newspaper Interview, and Love Letter. Now they’re furiously writing scenes that use at least one of the lines in whatever category it fell. I love watching them grin while they’re working.

Here are some of the overheard lines:

“It’s more than just a hat.”
“I’ve been drinking your blood and tears.”
“No. He doesn’t want them on because of his bug bites.”
“She’s literally like the spawn of Satan.”
“Babe. He doesn’t like the shirt.”
“Do you want your socks on?”
“I’m the whitest white girl here.”
“I seriously almost hit someone in the parking lot.”
“There was a guy who shipped two whales to Utah and kept them.”
“It’s free real estate.”
“Don’t write that down.”
“There’s a drink called the Hissy Fit?”
“Get out a marker and write YES on the goldfish.”
“He underwent intensive psychotherapy.”
“Something magical is about to happen.”
“Just buy a hose, you freak!”
“My mom was like, ‘Did you put on makeup? You know there’s guy makeup, right?'”

Clever little eavesdroppers. I can’t wait to see what they’ve made from their spoils.

Dr. PimplePopper

This is a thing. I wish it were a thing I made up myself, because DR. PIMPLEPOPPER. But, in fact, my Kid 3 showed it to me last night.

Let us go back.

There is a truth universally believed but partially unacknowledged that there are few more satisfying feelings than getting rid of a zit. Am I right? The grossness factor adds to the overall satisfaction, I’m pretty sure. This is a thing that my kids and I have discussed.

So Kid 3 climbs into my bed last night and says, “I know you’ve had a bad day. This should help.” And she hands me her phone. Pulled up to Instagram. And I proceed to watch video after video after video (after video) of this dermatologist … wait for it … popping zits. Apparently she’s gotten past the HIPA laws because she wears a camera on her head and FILMS THE POPPING OF THE GOOEYS.

It’s horrifying.

And I can’t look away.

It’s so awesome. My life is forever changed.

Unanswerable

Dear Friend,

Letters are the only way I can talk to you now. For six months I’ve tried to write about you, about what you have meant to me all the years of my life since I was seven. I’ve tried to write about your illness. Your cancer was such a bully. I don’t know how to say what it meant to watch you fight it like a warrior. How I felt like a coward for keeping my distance, even though I know that this kind of fight (especially for you) needs a little space. I’ve tried to write about your gifts, your character, your talents. I know you hate it when I talk like this, but I don’t even know where to start. You are one of the only people I ever knew who was universally liked. Who was good at everything. Who balanced so well.

I wrote you a letter the night I came home from your viewing, and it was a jumble of nonsense. I couldn’t say – even through my fingers – any of the things that I meant. I certainly couldn’t say them to your kids that night. Or your husband, who stood for hours, tender and loving and strong, hearing the awkward condolences of literally hundreds of well-intentioned but human people. Raw grief is so messy, and when we offer it up, it has to transfer heart to heart. The words-to-ears grief never translates quite right. That night I could only think that you didn’t look like you because you weren’t smiling with your teeth. That’s how I always see you in my heart – those perfect teeth showing when you laugh.

You’ve been appearing in my dreams for the last few weeks. You show up unannounced and sit on the couch or help me chop onions in the kitchen or take a seat in the car. You brighten the dream world like you did the real one. You slip in naturally. You fit. You laugh and show all your teeth. I wake up in a combination of sadness and joy, and that’s what life is made of.

I want to tell your story, because it’s the way for me to tell my story. You are etched into my history and onto my heart. I want to tell about “meeting half way” on our bikes, but I (almost) never left as quickly as you did, and you (almost) always had to ride the long half. I want to tell about you playing violin and me singing with you or (once) accompanying you on the piano – and how even when we were small, I knew you had a great gift. I want to tell about baking and decorating dozens of bright colored cakes. I don’t do that anymore. But we spent days and days and days over the years practicing and eating and laughing.

I want to tell how you were my touchstone through my growing and grown years. How you ground me to my past and believe in my possibilities. How you gasped with joy when I drove the long way home from the publisher so I could bring you the first copy of my book. Twice. How you’re the one I called in the middle of the night when my mom died. How you called me in those months you were home sick to ask for reading recommendations. I’m so glad you got to meet Scout and Atticus and read “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “The Book Thief” before you were finished here. How even though you loved to learn, the whole reading-fiction-for-pleasure wasn’t so much your thing until you decided it should be and then you asked me. I felt like I was sitting with you and we were sharing the open-mouth dazzle of Zora’s prose. And sobbing together at that second-last chapter of Book Thief. Oh, Rudy.

And I had no idea that you were living your last month. When we went for that three-hour breakfast with M and M over Christmas break, I’m not going to lie – you looked tired. But you felt so good. Remember? You said that you were a little afraid they’d make you go back to work soon. And on the way home, I said a long prayer. And I asked God to not make you go back to work.

And then.

And then.

It happened. I got a text. It said that probably I should get over there. And I came in my sweats and I sat in your bed with you and I listened to you and I whispered answers to your questions and I still hoped that it wasn’t the last time. And we told each other things we already knew. Good, important, best things. You offered to carry a message to my mom. And we cried tears and we held hands like we never used to do because your boundaries came right down. I saw your soul and you saw mine and we were together in a minute of eternity.

And I still can’t imagine writing about you in any way that does you justice. You were the best of us. You are the best of us.

I miss you, friend.

Love, Becca

Morning Mantras

It’s not meditation, not really – because I’m not sitting still. I understand the value of that part, and I’m all for it. I’m just saying, it’s not how it happened today.

Today it happened for 2.5 miles up the mountain and then 2.5 miles back down. And here is what I told me, over and over:

Time is abundant.
You are strong.
Your words bring beauty to the world.
All-powerful God knows your needs and desires every good thing for you.

And now I believe it. I trust it. I feel it.

It’s Summer, Don’t You Know.

School has ended for the year. (*Whew*)

It was a great year. Moments were long. Months were short. At the end of every year, I have a tradition (all three years of my professional teaching life – I’m such a hack) of giving a “What Every Boy Needs To Know about Being a Man” speech.

As an English teacher, I have the privilege of teaching about Feminist Literary Theory. Every kid who comes through my classes can tell you that means looking at gender in stories, poetry, plays, and novels and asking “What does the gender of the character have to do with the outcome? With the attitudes of others? With the tone?” Therefore, every kid who heard my “What Every Boy Needs to Know about Being a Man” speech knew that Boy and Man are non-gender-specific. It’s just a great title (which I stole from Secondhand Lions).

Here is the short version of the speech:

Wilhite’s “What Every Boy Needs to Know about Being a Man” Speech, Version 2016

  1. You will not regret the actions that are prompted by kindness.
  2. We teach people how to treat us.
  3. The proper response to a compliment is eye contact and “thank you.”
  4. Everyone is going through something.
  5. Your stories matter.
  6. You have unlimited capacity for excellence.

Those who wanted to took home the preceding notes of the short version. The long version explained the short version. Such as, #1 — you may very well regret the consequences of all kinds of things, but the action? The kindness-based Thing you did? You shouldn’t have reason to regret the Thing.

And #2 — when you smile or growl, respond, react, or stand up for yourself, you’re teaching others how to behave toward you. I’m not always comfortable with that. Some people that I know treat me without any semblance of respect. But I recognize that I allow that to happen.  There’s a lot of power in that understanding.

#3 went on for a while (surprise!), talking about how eye contact is a magnet for connection, and how when we “nahhh” at a compliment, we’re really saying, “you’re wrong,” and nobody every really wants to hear that.

#4 is mysterious and surprising to a whole lot of high school students, but once their eyes are open to the possibility that it’s true, they get a bit more empathetic.

5 is big in my creative writing classes, but also in my English classes — and for everyone. Tell your story. Speak your words.

The last one is a thing I’ve been working on a lot — developing and nurturing growth mindsets. It’s cool. And hard. But I can do things that are hard. (See? I’m already doing it.) Something I say at school (kind of a lot) is “I believe you can succeed in whatever you’re willing to work really hard for.” It’s interesting that some kids “succeed” in school without trying very hard, while others stretch and work and push to be moderate students. I want to redefine success for these “others” — to celebrate the B that came after serious revision and thought and fingers-to-keyboard time.

——

One of my students asked permission to post my list (made cute by her skills) on Pinterest. I smiled and said of course. I didn’t mention that I will never, ever see it there. I’m afraid of Pinterest. It has a tendency to allow me to feel bad about myself. So I stay away. Instead, I surround myself with happy-making things like delicious foods and good books and nice people and the sun and long walks up tall mountains.

And now the summer happens. Busy or lazy, full or quiet, hands on keyboards or turning pages of someone else’s books… I’m happy today.

Revitalized

I went to the world’s best [*] writing conference this weekend. There were many, many reasons to be joyful.

  1. I got to be with writer friends. Some of these are my most precious people I see only once a year. Some of these are my very favorite people that I get to see now and then. Some are new friends who make room for me in their hearts. Some are people I get to hang out with in other venues on some kind of regular basis. Some of them I run into at the movies or in Costco. Some of them do author visits at my school, or at my kids’ schools. Some of them are FAMOUS. All of them are kind, wonderful, gracious.
  2. My family is totally capable of living without me for DAYS at a time. They thrive without me. This is not an excuse for me to run away. It’s just a thrill that they all like each other and know how to wash their own shorts.
  3. I wasn’t in charge of anything. I didn’t teach a class. I didn’t emcee. I did have one tiny responsibility – I got to be in charge of the Teen Meet-Up, where I got to meet the (wait for it) teens who came to the conference and chat with them and listen to them talk about their writing… and introduce them to James Dashner, who was a total gentleman with them, making them all feel important as he talked to them about being a star (and called each of them by name).
  4. So much writing advice. I went to amazing classes where I heard talented, award-winning authors talk about character development, plot structure, story arcs, priorities, marketing, business, motivation, and determination. I listened to agents talk about what makes a story sing. I heard Brandon Sanderson read to us some original fiction… from his 8-year-old. It was about pill-bugs, and there was a twisty ending.
  5. I got re-energized. Re-excited. Re-vitalized to do this writing thing. I got inspired to go to work. I got eager to write beside my students — and (gasp) in front of them. I got ideas to finish my revision – and to start it in the right place. I had thoughts about genre. Genres. I had confidence, and wow — that’s worth the price of admission any day.

 

[*] ldstorymakersconference.com – this is the place. (Or will be, when it shows stuff for next year’s conference. Be patient. We just finished.)

Long, long ago…

I just had occasion to remember something.

When I was in 7th grade, (can you, reader, already feel the tension mounting? the horror building?) I had a co-ed PE class. (Now? Now can you feel it, reader?)

The end.

Just kidding. But I really did have a 7th grade co-ed PE class. One for which we “dressed out” daily. And there were various and sundry humiliations attached thereto. But I just want to tell you about this one day, this one moment, and the eternal fallout that it caused.

PE class was ending. I don’t remember what we did that day. Don’t remember what we played, but I know it was inside, so not golf or tennis or a mile run (all of which I did very, very badly). The moment was after that part. After going down into the girls’ locker room at Batesville Middle School and changing back into my dress. I don’t remember why exactly I was wearing a dress to school, but there must have been an occasion. I have always pretty much been a jeans-and-sweatshirts kind of girl. This dress, though. I remember it clearly. It had large pastel squares on it, like maybe 6-inch squares of pink and blue and light green and yellow and cream. (Do you remember, reader, that “cream” was totally a color in the mid-to-late eighties?) The dress zipped up the back. I fear it may have had a rounded collar, but that could be a misremember. I know it had a very, very full skirt. Like the kind that even at the mature age of whatever-I-was-in-7th-grade (12, of course), I couldn’t really help myself — I had to twirl. Not in public, necessarily. But for sure at home. It was an excellent twirling dress.

The dress also had a belt, because it was the 80s. The belt was wide and pink and vinyl/plastic. It flattered my 12-year-old waist. Oh, I loved that dress. And so. I wore it to school for whatever the occasion was. And at the end of changing time in PE, I walked back up the steps and into the gym.

7th grade PE was co-ed but divided (occasionally). The girls sat on one side of the gym, and the boys sat on the other. After changing back into our “street clothes,” we took our places on opposite sides of the gym and waited to be excused. I didn’t want to wrinkle my cotton dress, so I stood in front of the bleachers, facing the other girls, maybe talking to one of the Angies, maybe just waiting and listening and totally not twirling. Meanwhile, the boys were slouching on the bleachers opposite.

Could someone have told me? Could the knowledge have descended like a bolt of figurative lightning? Maybe the teacher tapped me on the shoulder. Maybe a creeping sensation caused me to check. I don’t know how I knew, but suddenly, I KNEW.

My skirt was tucked. Up. Into my belt. In the back. And there I stood, already way too body-conscious at 12, with my backside completely THERE. “Facing” the boys.

I could try to describe the humiliation. I could endeavor to explain the horror. I could even delve into the certainty that none of the girls — literally no one from “my” side of the gym — tried to hide me or help me. I remember that I spun (fast) in a half circle. I tugged. I smoothed. I tried to smile. I tried to ignore.

But I never forgot.

To this day, I have a compulsion to check the back of my skirt EVERY time I leave a room. Sit in a chair? Check the skirt. Stand up? Skirt check. Use a bathroom? MUST CHECK THE SKIRT. And, although some may say it makes me nosy, I am always willing to tell/hide/help anyone who is in a Dire Skirt Predicament. Because sisters, reader, need each other. And I will die happy if that particular event never happens to me again.

White Rain

White Rain, he calls it.

How clever. How charming. How distinctly incorrect.

Because no matter how cute you are when you describe it, it’s still spring snow. It’s still cold. It’s still dark. It still makes my feet cold. And my heart cold. And my temper quick.