Thursday, April 18, 2019

Beyond Where You Stand

     Today is my fiftieth birthday.  I’ve been a school librarian for twenty of those years and a writer for a lot longer than that.  My first multi-volume epic was written at age nine, the story of a boy who created a planet by firing a square stone out of his sling shot so hard it fell into the orbit of a distant star and formed the planet Cuberon, the denizens of which fought an eons-spanning war against the rapacious Lizard Men.  A librarian is a kind of story-teller, too, and also a custodian of stories.  Stories echo through time and offer deep insights into what changes about us.
     As a custodian, especially if you work with children, you hear a lot (from parents) about the messages some older stories inadvertently give us, holdovers of obsolete thought, bad ideas from before we changed.  There’s an urge to make those ideas disappear, at the cost the entire story they're embedded in.  But those stories are an opportunity to educate people in how we’ve grown.  Surely there’s no more important lesson for a child than that we can evolve from what we were.
     It’s not as though we have reached the pinnacle of our enlightenment, not as though there are no ideas we hold true now that people down the line won’t read about and think us monsters.  Maybe every time someone in the future reads about one of us using a phone, they will think about the enslavement of children in the Congo who mine for cobalt, a component crucial to our smart phones.  We text away without much thought of that, just like someone long ago took certain things for granted, until something cast a light on it.  Usually a book. 
     Librarian or not, something else you hear a lot about these days is the bad things people have done in their lives.  Bad behavior they’ve exhibited, bad words they’ve spoken which, some contend, should be grounds for dismissal, for shunning.  But it doesn’t take that much work to see what their record shows: do they continue to act this way, hurt people around them, propagate bad ideas?  Or has their trajectory been upwards, do they appear to be improving, do they regret what they’ve done and are they doing predominantly good things? 
     There’s an urge to sweep away a person’s present along with their past, just as we seek sometimes to banish the bad ideas of our past so our present won’t be infected by them.  As if we could ever have grown to where we are without learning from the mistakes of our past.
     Turning fifty is an opportunity to think about growth.  Making the bad ideas of the past vanish, or suggesting that who we were is a trap we’re stuck in forever, is to deny our greatest strength: our ability to rise, to become better.
     Thanks for coming on this journey with me.  As the name of the website suggests, the journey is what it’s all about.
           

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Mythologies

     Our culture is ever more in love with mythologies: Star Wars, Harry Potter, superheroes.  The more that are invented and the more available they are, the deeper we go.  They're so much fun, it's easy to get lost in them, like we might lose track of the forest for how closely we're studying the trees.
     The forest -- the larger world the trees inhabit -- is important, though, because that's where we live.  We need to judge mythologies based on what they say about the world, on their metaphors and lessons, not just on what they say about themselves.  Relating them to our lives draws us outward and helps us engage with the world.  If we go down the rabbit hole of their invented histories exclusively, then the stories draw us ever inward, away from the world.  The best mythologies have always been about something bigger than themselves.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Must Writers Be Moral or Just Profitable?

     The New York Times recently ran an op-ed piece titled "Must Writers Be Moral?" focusing on the recent trend of publishers adding a morality clause into their writers' contracts.  This stipulates that, should a writer become the target of a scandal that could damage their sales or readership numbers, publishers are released from the contract and no longer have to publish the work as agreed.
     There are plenty of heady issues to address here and the piece engages with some of them.  One that it doesn't touch on is this: publishing companies don't care if writers are moral or not, they only care if writers endanger the profit margin.  This clause isn't saying writers mustn't act immorally, only that if they get caught for doing something (or get blamed for doing something they didn't actually do, or even traffic in ideas that are too controversial for the company), then they suffer the contractual consequences.   
    In a capitalist society, money is how we enforce morality, which seems dangerous for many reasons, not the least of which is that it allows profit to trump the the free exchange of ideas.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Most Important Graphic Novel of the Year

     New Kid is a graphic novel about a boy of color entering a predominantly White private school.  It's handled with sensitivity, intelligence, insight and humor and told with great accessibility.  I spoke with Jerry Craft, the writer and artist of the book.  You can have a look at the interview here.