To Write or Not to Write; to Educate or Not to Educate; Puppy Dog Eyes as a Literary Device

As you know if you’ve spent any time here, mostly I use this blog to report on the doings of my hilarious children. But every once in a while I stand in the shower and think of long imaginary blog posts. Since I’ve more-or-less given myself the day off from being productive in real life today, I think for once I’ll let try to get some of my thoughts written down. This could probably be three blog posts. (This probably should be three blog posts. On the other hand, if I leave them as one, you can skip one post you don’t have time to read, instead of three posts you don’t have time to read.)

Topic One: Two Write or Not to Write

When I was a teen, a friend’s mom had a sign that said, “A clean house is the sign of a dull mind.” (I think the sign was on a doormat, which is a funny place for a feisty message. She was no doormat! And neither was her doormat!) Since I was very inclined toward orderliness, I found this message a little discouraging and insulting. Of course I knew it was just meant to be funny–but I still feared it denigrated me for being the kind of person who would put mental energy toward house cleaning.

Quite a few years into my career as a homemaker, I’m growing to like the doormat. It’s pretty hard to keep up an interest in cleanliness, even if I love the results. (It’s especially hard when it feels like cleanliness is a battle in which I’m outmatched, six to one. That’s not really true or fair, and my kids are really good workers sometimes, but it can still feel that way.)

For me, a similar dilemma to the one between mental pursuits and house cleaning can be found in writing versus sewing. Years ago my sister Suzy told me that I should take up writing, and if I’m remembering right, she even said I should choose writing over sewing. She meant it as a compliment (and I took it as such) and, although I’ve usually had similarly high levels of interest in writing and sewing, I’ve also long recognized that writing has a more lasting result and can be shared with more people. But I still like to sew.

It’s not really that I can’t both write and sew. But my free time can be so spare that it feels like I can barely do either. And it definitely feels like I can’t write, sew, and have a clean house. (Unless I make a fortune on my writing and hire someone to clean my house. But–and this could be a whole tangent–for now I’ve felt it’s right for my kids to have the experience of growing up in a home where we do our own cleaning. The reason that could be a long tangent is because I’m not asserting that’s the right answer for everyone at all times; I just feel like it’s the right answer for my family right now.)

Anyway, I’ve really always been a writer, whether in my extensive journals as a teenager, writing papers for college, writing long emails home when Dean and I lived in Amman (blog posts before there were blogs),  or now, when I can’t keep myself from saying stupid “humorous” things on Twitter and Facebook all day long. I love language; I love rearranging words. I even love the challenge of trying to fit a complete thought into 140 characters on Twitter.

On the other hand, given my other life choices (five kids!) I’m not craving any kind of writing that’s not purely self-driven (I’m not dying to edit; I’m not dying to do technical writing; I’m not dying to do freelance writing). I’m not so driven to write that I’d do it for free (other than here, or sometimes in long comments on others’ blogs). And, most daunting of all, although novel-writing is (with a few exceptions) the type of writing I most admire, I’m not sure I have any stories in me. I don’t sit around dreaming up characters and plots, like some successful writers do. I’m probably best at personal essays or opinion writing. (And I guess I have my blog for that.)

I suppose my point is that you might see more thinking-about-stuff posts here on my blog eventually. Or maybe my point is that maybe I’ll try my hand at plots and characters someday . Or maybe it’s that I’m going to be doing lots more sewing. (I can’t give up sewing. I have too many fabulous supplies waiting to be played with. Just like Scrooge McDuck can’t give up his gold because it’s too much fun to swim in it.)

I just remembered a whole other tangent about writing that I’d had in mind. I’ll save it. Or not–I’ll see if I can come up with a short version.

I read an online article recently that said people these days have fewer close friends than in the past; fewer people they’d truly confide in. The article speculated that it’s because online friends don’t challenge us in the same way that real-life friends do; they don’t require any service of us, and they don’t criticize us. Since criticism and service lead to real intimacy, our online friendships remain superficial and leave us without close real-life friends. (Side note: it’s interesting to think about how religious practice can work to meet these needs. My church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, gives willing members many, many opportunities to serve others face-to-face, as well as to learn from mistakes.) Anyway, I think having real-life people to talk to can make a writer feel much less need for written self-expression. My mom read an interview with Marilynne Robinson (the Pulitzer-prizewinning author of Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home) and the interviewer asked Robinson about the gap of many years between her writing of Housekeeping and Gilead. Robinson answered (in my mom’s paraphrase) that she’s not normally particularly driven to write, but that when she wrote Gilead, she was really missing her grown sons.

So one answer, if a person does want to become a professional writer, would be to have lots of feelings and few people to talk to. 🙂 (Also it’s important to avoid the use of smiley-face emoticons, which is very unprofessional.)

Topic Two: To Educate or Not to Educate

I just read this article, which I like and agree with, whose author says he would reform schools by getting rid of classrooms. Since most of my political and social ideals are of the tilting-at-windmills variety, I love it when someone will assert a crazy theory like that and defend it pretty well.

But for my kids, we’ve already made the decision to educate them in classrooms, and, in spite of my radical opinions (here’s an old post of mine about some of the things I like about homeschool) I have to say that it seems to mostly be going well. My kids have had wonderful, dedicated teachers, and it seems like my kids are even of the subset who are able to learn fairly well by listening. (Or perhaps their teachers are good at providing hands-on learning opportunities.)

But I still think school is too long, and my kids do waste a lot of hours being bored when the classes go at a slower pace than they could, or are taught in a different style than is optimal for them. I’ve experimented with putting my kids in school part-time, and I liked it but they didn’t (they didn’t like the attention of being the special kid who left early) and sometimes they’ve been in advanced programs where there’s limited placement, so there’s no leverage for a parent to negotiate for shorter hours, since another kid would gladly take the full-time slot. So I’m kind of stuck with my kids spending much more time on formal schooling than I’d like, even though overall I like their schools and teachers and think they’re mostly having a good experience.

I also wish our schools offered more art and music and languages–but what I really wish (and here I go tilting at windmills) is that we could do away with almost all homework. I’ve heard (and believe) that there’s plenty of research showing that homework doesn’t improve outcomes at all. But somehow, it’s here to stay–and there’s even a common belief among parents and educators that better schools give more homework.

This year Mabel, who’s in 6th grade, is in an advanced program for gifted kids, and she’s a model student who shines in almost every area. (She told me that her friend noticed that when teachers look at Mabel, they get a fond, soft, expression in their eyes. I said, “You make them feel successful.”) But this advanced program insists on a heavier homework load, and Mabel hates it, and so do I. Even the creative homework ideas, which Mabel does extraordinarily well at (you should see the beautiful Emily Dickinson board game she made last year–really you should; maybe I’ll post some photos of it on here some time) don’t really always feel very creative to Mabel. Just because someone else was very creative to come up with the assignment doesn’t necessarily mean Mabel’s always thinking “Oh goody! I get to re-write a fairy tale for a different culture!” because a) she didn’t come up with the idea herself, b) she has lots of other ideas she’d love to spend her time on, and c) she has lots of other non-academic interests she barely has time for.

The other day, in one of her frequent anti-homework rants, she said, “They say we need more homework because we’re more advanced, but that should mean we need LESS homework!” All I could do was nod and commiserate. (But I don’t go so far as to tell her not to do it; I want her to be able to stay in the program.)

At least junior high will probably seem easy to her. Isaac was in the same program Mabel’s in for fifth and sixth grades, and he got frustrated with all the homework and writing assignments, and got really low grades his last trimester. But he’s thrived in junior high. (He does have good memories of sixth grade overall, and says he wouldn’t change his decision to attend.)

Topic Three: Puppy Dog Eyes as a Literary Device

I just finished reading a sci-fi fantasy by a Mormon author (published with a national press) that was very well-written and that I liked a lot–but I didn’t care about the characters quite as much as in Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, and wasn’t as invested in the romance in the story. I was wondering how an author makes me really care about a character.

I’ve noticed that some of my favorite romantic male leads in movies are those who are able to convey lots of longing, and I’ve identified one of their acting techniques as “Puppy Dog Eyes,” because every time they’re on screen, they’re gazing at the woman they love with vulnerability and longing in a way that just makes you want to pat their heads and say, “There, there.” Of course you also want a lead to be strong and brave and to make good decisions, but an actor who can convey underlying vulnerability (without being a sop) wins my heart.

In Harry Potter for me that happened in the scene in the very first book where Harry sees his parents in the Mirror of Erised, (okay, obviously I’ve shifted from talking about romantic longing to just talking about longing in general) which made me care about him enough to make it through seven subsequent VERY long books. (Of course there are also other characters you come to care about in that way (Snape!) or I might not have lasted.)

So I guess I’m saying that if you want me to really care about your characters, make them suffer, and also make them gaze longingly at the object of their affection. (Not that the author of the book I just read wasn’t trying to do those things, but somehow she just didn’t succeed at it as well as some other authors have for me. But I thought the book was still worth reading, which is why I haven’t named it here, so I won’t prejudice you not to read it.)

Guess what?! My kids are home! It’s time for homework and chores! The signs of a dull mind!

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This entry was posted in Books/Movies/TV/etc., Me thinking about stuff, Me? Opinionated?, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to To Write or Not to Write; to Educate or Not to Educate; Puppy Dog Eyes as a Literary Device

  1. Jason says:

    You’re one of my favorite writers.

  2. hannah says:

    I’m also in your fan club. I’d like to reserve an advance copy of that book you need to write.

  3. Jen says:

    I look forward to more posts like this. And I hope it will closely coincide with me having more time to read them.

  4. Jen says:

    Or my having more time, if that is correct? Gerund noun? Ugh. Just know you and your writing and sociopolitical / educational ideals are appreciated here.

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