Charles Todd, author of Proof of Guilt, the latest entry in the bestselling Ian Rutledge series, comes to the Ivy Bookshop Tuesday, February 5 at 7 p.m. to discuss his latest thriller, in which the Scotland Yard inspector must contend with two dangerous enemies!
Most schools make students satisfy some sort of writing requirement before graduation. For many students, that will mean passing a couple of courses designated as “writing intensive” — but at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, they do things differently. Or at least they used to. In order to graduate, ODU seniors had to pass a writing test in which they basically had to sit down and write something. But way too many couldn’t do that — and so the requirement is being phased out.
Now, there’s something to be said about ODU’s writing test being outdated; can one timed, 500-word essay really show a student’s writing ability? As Inside Higher Ed notes, “Most writing experts today advocate for a more comprehensive approach to assessing student abilities.” A writing portfolio, or a decent grade in a writing-intensive course, is going to say a lot more about a student’s ability to write than one brief test. And ODU isn’t ditching a writing requirement entirely — instead, students will have to pass two English courses and one writing-intensive course in order to graduate.
But something about the situation doesn’t sit right with me.
It’s the first day of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and you know what that means — if you haven’t already written 1000+ words today, you’re already behind.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, the name pretty much says it all — all over the country, people spend the month of November trying to speed-write a 50,000 word novel. The idea is that the looming deadline forces you to get over your writer’s block, silence your inner critic, and just go for it. Which, of course, means that most of what ends up getting produced this month will probably be pretty bad. (For some reason, NaNoEdMo [National Novel Editing Month] is nowhere near as popular.) Then again, Sara Gruen’s bestselling Water for Elephants allegedly began as a NaNoWriMo project, so who knows.
From what I hear, the way to get through the month is through liberal doses of both caffeine and camaraderie. Last year, writers in Towson met for write-ins at Ukazoo Books, and it looks like those meetings are likely to resume this round as well. Check out the site’s extensive, sometimes angsty forums for details on writerly gatherings near you.
As a service to our young readers (and let’s face it, their neurotic parents) we will print over the next few months winning college essays from local students who were accepted into their first choice college or university. The author of the following essay is a Gilman alum and Dartmouth sophomore. See our top story “Coaching College Essays” for tips on how to write a winning college admissions essay.
Whenever I show a photo of my family to new friends, they invariably do a double take. No, it’s not because my father is Joe Biden nor because my sisters were raised by wolves. It’s because of me.
In my family of six, I am the only one with red hair — and not auburn-red, chestnut-red, or any red close to my parents’ brown, but a loudly lustrous, fire-orange red. And like most redheads and unlike my family, my arms are speckled with galaxies of freckles and my skin roasts scarlet under minimal sun exposure. I am, in many ways, a genetic non sequitur. My appearance does not follow from the premises of my existence.
As a result, strangers often either mistake me for someone else’s son or demand an explanation. From the moment I had a tuft of carrot on my head, the ladies in my mother’s garden club would come up to me, grab themselves a handful, and ask, “Where on earth did you get that fabulous red hair,” as if it were a rare ficus from the Galapagos. I heard the same from barbers, teachers, shopkeepers, anyone with a working pair of eyes, really.
Thankfully the answer doesn’t involve the mailman or tinkering with chromosomes. “From my grandmother,” I can say confidently, since I have inherited, quite unmistakably, the exact shade of persimmon-red hair of my mother’s mother. Coincidentally, I get my first name from her maiden name, making me a party to a remarkable hereditary phenomenon: all of the children on her side of the family named Harrison at birth — three of us so far — also, as a result of a certain common attribute, share a set of nicknames that includes “big red,” “carrot top,” and “pumpkin head.”
The oddity surrounding my birth and naming has always inclined me to consider my red hair a definitive aspect of my being, much more so, I imagine, than those with blond or brown hair do. As my hair goes with my name, so too should it with my identity. Growing up as a redhead, I’ve realized, I faced a unique set of challenges that have, for the better, profoundly influenced the person I have become.
One such challenge was the lack of redheads in my life. With Grandmother hours away, I was the lone freckle-face at home, and often the only one in the class. The sole redhead on TV came on way past my bedtime. The only fair-skinned fictional hero I ever found was a comic-book character. And as for historical figures, let’s just say I gave up on them when I learned that George Washington had red hair but powdered it white.
I was in a world all my own — a solitude that, while alienating at times, ultimately helped me find myself. By the time I reached the impressionable years of middle school, I felt in full command, able to deviate from the standard paths and avoid ready-made molds at will. I found my callings and threw myself into them with all of my might, even if they were things that might be mocked in the locker room.
While my friends trained to become expert video-game warriors, I armed myself with my parents’ old Nikon and took pictures. With some luck and some hard work, I caught the eye of a veteran photographer and spent a summer in his studio. I also did not seek to hide my love of food, and preparing it. In my lacrosse-playing days, I was known to cook for my teammates after hard-fought games. And now, I have taken a chance on a year off in a far-away land, working at King’s Academy in Jordan, a blooming, young school in a region marred by violence and strife. This is a risk I know for certain I could not have taken without the courage I amassed through these experiences.
My grandmother used to tell me, “There aren’t many of us, you know. You should feel pretty special.” And I do, because although I’ve flown solo for much of my life, I’ve found that the path that strays from the flock often leads to a world of infinite possibilities.
Jessica Anya Blau is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her Masters in fiction. Currently, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Goucher College in Maryland. She has been awarded scholarships from Bread Loaf and The Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and fellowships from Johns Hopkins University and Sewanee. Her stories have won numerous awards and have appeared in notable magazines and anthologies. She is also the author of the novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.
We talked to Jessica about her much praised sexy second novel, Drinking Closer to Home (Harper, 2011), a funny and ambitious family story inspired by her own Santa Barbara peeps.
Fishbowl: Your laugh-out-loud funny + super moving second novel Drinking Closer to Home is inspired by your real life. Exactly how much is whole-cloth true? Overweight, “lesbian” cat, Maggie Bucks, a real family pet?
Jessica Blau: All the animals are real and I used their real names. I figured they wouldn’t sue me. I did take liberties, like putting dead animals with ones that are still alive. Gumba is dead now. And so is Jasmin. Little Carl White might be dead now, too. I never ask about her. Fat, nasty Maggie Bucks is still alive and getting fatter every day. She’s the size of an ottoman. It’s gross. And there’s a new cat who came in since the book was published. His name is Fweddy Wobitzer. He’s like some rude, spoiled boy who wears knickers with a ruffled shirt, and prances around like an entitled prince. But at least he’s better looking than Maggie Bucks.
FB: Who was the most difficult character to write, and why? The easiest, why?
JB: They were all fairly easy—they were based on my family so their voices and actions are embedded in my head. Anna was the most fun character to write because she behaved so badly at times. She does the most drugs, has the most outrageous sex, and is the most outspoken. All that stuff’s pretty fun to put down on the page.
FB: How did you get so expert at writing funny and convincing sex scenes? Would you say the awesomely detailed sex scene is becoming your trademark?
JB: I’m glad you think they’re awesome! I think that I don’t even realize I’m writing a sex scene, in a way. So I approach them the same way I approach any scene—from an interior place, feeling the characters, seeing the movie run in my head. I was on a sex panel at the Baltimore Writers’ Conference and so I had to actually sit down and think about how I write sex scenes. What I discovered is that writing good sex is like writing good dialogue. More than anything else it should reveal character. So, rather than writing a play-by-play (hand on breast, hand on penis, etc.), which would come off sounding pornographic, the writing should focus on the internal lives of the characters (someone worried about greasy hands sliding right off a breast, etc.). The scene should show who these people are and what it’s like to live in their bodies at that moment. Does that make sense? I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re not freaked out by sex and just write it like any other scene involving two or more (or less!) people, then the writing should be equal to all other writing in the book.
FB: Your own one-of-a-kind mom is alive and well, but she is ill in the novel — did this poignant element of the story bring your family closer, or were you already great long-distance friends (as the closing Q&A suggests)?
JB: I’ve always been very close to everyone in my family. There are periods when we’ll drift out, but we always drift back in again. It’s a “no-obligation” family—you don’t have to show up for anything, you don’t have to call on birthdays, etc. (In fact, everyone in my family seems to forget birthdays). So when we see each other, it’s because we really do want to see each other.
FB: Would you have been able to tackle this deep life material so generously and humorously at an earlier point in your life, do you suspect?
JB: That’s a good question. I do think I was ready for this story when I wrote it and certainly couldn’t have written it earlier. It took a lot emotional distancing to look back on stuff that did happen and be able to tell it as a narrator and not as a participant. For most of us, the readiness comes with the distance. If you’re too close, still feeling it in your gut and the backs of your eyes when you tell it, then it might come out sounding like junior high diary entries, ie: “Oh mah gawd!!! You’ll never believe what happened!!!”
FB: Is it less intimidating to write a story inspired by your West Coast fam from the faraway reaches of Baltimore, MD?
JB: I think it’s easier to write about California from the faraway reaches of Baltimore. The distance helps me see it from more of an outsider perspective. My brother lives in Amsterdam now, my sister’s in Boston, and my dad’s in New York City. Only my mother is still in California, in the house that shows up in the book.
FB: Is your next novel, which I’ve read has mystery/thriller flavor, inspired by your own life as well? Give us a teaser synopsis.
JB: The next novel is 98 percent fiction. It’s about a good girl, 20 years old, who does something really, truly stupid and bad. The novel is essentially the unraveling of the knot she finds herself in. It takes place in Berkeley and Los Angeles—two very different but equally cool cities.
FB: Will you write a Baltimore-based novel sometime, do you imagine, and if you ever did, what would it be called?
JB: Well I do love Baltimore, so I love the idea of a Baltimore book, but I’ve never thought of writing one. I’m not sure why. Maybe if I title it now, the book will come to me. Okay, here’s the title: High Ponytails, Hot Weaves and Headbands. Of course I’m commenting on the hairstyles that run the gamut from Hampden to Guilford. But, that’s no good, is it? Okay, how about this: Running Reds. Only a Baltimore person would get that. After 15 years here, I’m still not used to the fact that you can’t drive immediately on a green light because you have to wait for all the red-light-runners to finish flying through the intersection.
FB: Have you sold this current novel as an ebook?
JB: It is available as an ebook. And you can get it on Kindle or Nook. I have a Nook that I use when I travel. It’s a lot lighter than five books.
FB: Do you think that most dedicated fiction readers will primarily read electronically in 10 years, and what will that mean for the publishing industry?
JB: I have no idea. Really, there are so few things I know in this world. When I was 19 I thought I knew everything. When I was 29 I thought I knew a lot but not everything. Now I realize I know very, very little. This is okay; it just means there’s more to find out.