Monday, July 19, 2010

A Road Not Taken

A poem that always leaves me puzzled is Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.  Most people know it by its most famous line "I took the road less traveled by".  When I first heard the poem in high school, my English teacher said it was about a celebration of individualism, of going your own way, forging your own path, etc etc. But I never bought into that explanation.
The poem seems simple enough. The first stanza puts us right in the middle of the woods with a hiker who comes to a fork in the path. A decision has to be made about which road to take. That part I understand.
But what I don't get is the narrator's voice. I never know exactly what tone to take when I read it (which makes reciting it out loud very difficult). It starts out factual, but then it runs the range of emotions. Sometimes the voice seems gloomy. Other times it’s optimistic. Other times it seems cagey and sly. Every time I read it, I get another feeling.
And then there’s that last stanza which talks about a future regret. What do you do with the line "I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence…?" Go ahead. Place the back of your hand on your forehead and say that line out loud.  It's almost melodramatic, and Mr. Frost is not known for melodrama.
A few months ago, I did a little research. Here's what I found.  When someone asked Robert Frost about this poem, he said, "You have to be careful of that one. It's a tricky poem. Very tricky." 
Some scholars believe Frost wrote this poem in the persona of his friend Edward Thomas. Frost and Thomas took frequent walks in the woods and Thomas would always wonder about the other paths. Now the voice starts to make a little bit of sense. Instead of it being Robert Frost’s typical voice, he’s writing in a way that gently pokes fun of his wistful friend. BTW, I can totally relate to Edward Thomas when it comes to wondering about those other roads. Playing the "what if" game is one of my favorite pastimes.
Okay, let's get back to that path.  The narrator looks down one road but then takes the other “because it was grassy and wanted wear” so we assume he took that road less traveled.  But then in the very next line he claims that when it comes to travelers the paths are pretty much equal: “Though as for that, the passing there/Had worn them really about the same”.
Some scholars suggest that in those lines Frost is talking about his own decision to become a poet.  Maybe he’s saying the world is filled with poets.  Writers like to think that their decision to write is unique but anyone whose ever been acquainted with a slush pile will tell you that there are a lot of us out there.
So he’s taking a path that’s well worn. Then why does he sigh?  And why does he know he’s going to sigh?  For me, this poem always comes back to those last lines and the sigh that the narrator has planned for the future.  Is it one of regret?  Of satisfaction? Or is he still making fun of his friend?
I can’t decide.
There’s a reason I’m thinking about this poem. I’m at a point where I have to make some decisions for the characters in my w.i.p.  And I’m having a hard time.
I know. I know. Writers are supposed to write and eventually our characters will let us know how to shape the story. But honestly, sometimes I have to step in and make a few decisions.  First person vs. third?  Where and how the story begins. Right now, my main character is telling me every detail of his life including his earliest memories. At some point I’m going to have to say to him, “Dude, that’s not going into this story”.
So when you’re writing and you come to that proverbial fork in the road, how do you make your decisions?  How do you know it’s the right path?  Heck, how do you know you're making the right decisions in your non-writing life too?

BOOK GIVE AWAY: I’m so thrilled to be a guest blogger on Ellen Potter’s and Anne Mazer’s creativity blog this week.  Their book SPILLING INK is one of my new favorite books on writing. SPILLING INK is written for kids, and children will love it. But it’s a great book for writers too. Both Ellen and Anne are very forthcoming about their own writing process. I love this book for its great practical advice and for its honesty.
 Hop on over and make a comment on the blog post, and you’re automatically entered into the contest to win a copy of SPILLING INK.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why I write middle grade: It started with an apple

Down the block from where I grew up, there was an old house with a beautiful garden. Unlike the other homes in Massapequa, this one had a chain link fence surrounding the front lawn. I'm not sure exactly how high it was but when you're in third grade and about 4 feet tall, the fence appeared insurmountable.
On each side of the walkway leading up to the house, there was an apple tree.
Now my memory could be playing tricks on me, but that year, there was this apple that appeared fully grown the moment the tree blossomed and stayed on that tree until it dropped its leaves in late fall.
Every afternoon, my friend and I would walk by that apple.  (For privacy reasons, I'm changing my friend's name and calling her Eve).
"It's going to be gone. It's too perfect not to pick," Eve would say when we rounded the corner before we reached the house.
But the apple was still there.
"They don't want it. Otherwise they would have eaten it by now." 
Eve agreed. "If someone doesn't pick it soon, it will fall to the ground and rot".
But it never did.
Oh sure, there were other apples on that tree. But none of them captured our attention like this perfectly formed, brilliant red, amazingly round thing of beauty. 
"Maybe we could knock on the door and ask them if they'd give it to us," Eve suggested. But the gate was always locked. So we'd slow down, stop to tie our shoes and linger, hoping to find someone outside. There was never anyone around (which is a funny thing since gardens like this don't happen by themselves. Somebody had to be tending to it).
We talked about what that apple would taste like.  We even talked about hopping the fence, climbing that tree and picking it.
"It would have to be me," I'd say. "I'm a better climber." But that fence was high and that tree wasn't an easy one to climb.
Every day we'd come up with a new scheme, but we never picked that apple. Eve wasn't the type of girl to do it, and I was too afraid I'd get caught.
Looking back, I wish I had.
Yes, I know. I'm talking about trespassing and theft so I'm not exactly proud of my wishful thinking. 
Here's the thing: If my friend and I were book characters, the story would have ended differently.
Those two girls would have gotten to that apple, and whatever the consequences, it would have been an adventure.
That's one of the wonderful things about middle grade novels. It allows readers to go exploring and do things they normally wouldn't do.
If you ask me why I write middle grade,  I'd tell you how important books are to people that age and how important they were to me when I was young. I'd also wax poetic about how so many MG books are beautifully written, talk about character arcs and themes, and ramble on and on about my favorites.
But maybe there's another answer.  Maybe the real reason I write middle grade stories is because someplace deep inside me, there's a third grade girl reaching for an apple.