Voiceless

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“Hello,” I croaked. I knew that the person on the other line could barely hear me, and I wondered why I’d bothered to answer the phone at all. Too late now.

“Uh…is Philip Myton there?” said the receptionist from the clinic my husband uses.

“No, he’s not.” I breathed more than spoke those words.

I then explained that I had laryngitis in as few words as possible. The lady seemed relieved to know, and I tried to imagine what she had thought when she first heard me. From her reaction, I thought I must have sounded like a phone call from a dead relative I remember in the spooky stories my friends told at sleep overs.

Laryngitis came on this week in the middle of my morning class on Tuesday. I croaked when I could make a noise at all. The phone call came at a time when I had rested my voice for many hours so the receptionist could hear me.

Watching people react to me reminded me of staying in Germany for a time. I looked like the Germans all around me so no one treated me differently until I opened my mouth and they heard my accented German. One man on the street asked me directions and his face changed completely when I told him I was new to town.

But at least in Germany they knew I was only foreign. When I used my froggy voice this week,  everyone stepped back a few paces, not wanting to catch whatever it was I had. I don’t really blame them, but it felt strange.

Trying not to talk while communicating with my family also proved a major challenge even though they were used to my call from the dead sound.

When I was younger, I thought about what it would be like to lose my hearing or my sight and asked myself which would be worse. But I never considered how vital my voice is.

As I thought about my froggy voice this week, I remembered my writing. When the words work, it feels like a have a voice. Like what I am trying to say moves across the page and into the minds of my readers. When those words don’t work, I am croaking and people look at me (in my mind’s eye) like I have laryngitis.

I got over the physical laryngitis this week. I’m hoping to kick my writing voice laryngitis to the curb, too.

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Liar & Spy – A Review

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So here I am writing my second book review on this blog. I hesitate to criticize other writers.

However, I’m hoping to look critically at these already published books and then better understand how to do this amazing thing authors do: weave a story and make it work. I’m hoping that by writing this out, I’ll get a better idea of the process. Even toddlers can get better with binoculars given time and practice.

With that hope in my heart, here’s what I think of Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead.

Liar & Spy is about a middle school boy struggling at school with bullies and at home with a move brought on by his father’s loss of a job.

It started a bit slow for me and took some time to take off. I was hooked a bit by the descriptions of the first meeting between the two friends involving a poster about the Spy Club with handwritten messages on it in the lobby of an apartment.  Stead wove pieces together about taste buds, pointillism, liars, and spies in ways that worked for me.

The way she described middle school torture also worked for me for the most part. My 7th grade son related to the teasing that took place in this book.

I mentioned earlier that I had trouble listening to this one on CD because I wasn’t sure how an artist’s name was spelled (Seurat), but I did like learning about pointillism. There were also notes spelled out in the audio that got a bit tedious. However, that wouldn’t have been a problem if I visually read the book.

My only major disappointment was that the new friend of the character often came off as too pushy to be a good friend – even with the twist on why he was being so pushy at the end. Tactics like ‘have I ever asked you to do anything for me before?’ left a sour taste in my mouth. I wanted to like Safer because I could sense that the author was making him good. But it was a bit tough for me through the pressure he put on the main character.

I can’t imagine how hard it would be to write a second book as good as Stead’s Newbery Medal winning When You Reach Me. That one took my breath away with all of the twists and turns and would definitely be worth looking into if you haven’t read it and love surprise endings.

Ok. That wasn’t true. I can imagine because I am trying to write a book as good as When You Reach Me. It’s hard. Hard like digging in the ground of my garden this January but pecking away at the keys of my computer brings me much more joy than gardening in January ever could.

Reading with My Ears

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My sister Mary recently told me about listening to Snow Falling on Cedars with her 14 year old son. He needed to finish an abundance of school assigned reading and had fallen behind, so she checked out the CD’s for the long holiday drive to his grandmother’s house.

“I didn’t remember the sex scenes from when I last read that book,” Mary said.

She noticed them while driving with her son. At first she thought she could manage to listen with him but soon decided to fast forward. She ended up skipping several sections even at the risk of missing any important plot details.

I hadn’t remembered those scenes, either. As my sister and I started talking about how listening to a book is different from reading the book, I realized some of why I often like listening better.

When I listen to a book, I am forced to sit through every word. This is why Mary had such a hard time with the sex scenes and also why I have a harder time with the violence in audio. When I read a book, I can zip through these parts, looking for important plot pieces but not absorbing every detail. Over the years, I’ve become a terrific skimmer. Often this is because I have a long swath of boring information to wade through for my day job, for a mortgage, or for my taxes.It’s a hard habit for me to break if I happen to hit an uncomfortable or slower spot in a novel.

When I hear the book, I am stuck taking in every word. The excellent part of this is that I don’t push forward as much and actually get more out of many of the books I listen to on tape. I wrote recently about The Book Thief with it’s poetic descriptions of the sky and a muddy kids’ soccer games. I felt more like I lived those experiences than I might if I flew through the pages with my eyes to find out what would happen next as fast as possible.

I also adore some of the actors’ voices because of what they bring to a text. Jim Dale is one of my all time favorite readers. I will never forget listening to my first Harry Potter book on the way home from church one day with my dad. We liked it so much we sat in the car to hear it. After that we brought it inside to set up in the living room and listen some more.

The Help was read by three talented actors with southern accents I would never be able to do justice to in my head if I read the book on my own. I can create accents in my mind’s ear for a time but, as I get absorbed in the plot, my thoughts slip back into Pacific Northwest suburban English. Jim Dale also helped me with his English accents — I especially loved his Hagrid and McGonagall.

I didn’t at first like this book on tape thing. It still bothers me that I can’t see the words on the page. I’m currently listening to Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead, and I’ve been bugged by the last name of the painter that the main character Georges is named after. Georges keeps talking about how it sounds like Sir Ott when his parents pronounce it. Later another character uses a French pronunciation. All the while I’ve been thinking, “How is it spelled? How does that look on paper?” When I looked it up, I discovered that it’s Seurat.  And then I got a flash of ‘I’m an art dummy or I would already know this painter’ which wasn’t a good feeling and distracted me from the reading even if it happens to be the truth.

I also don’t like that I can’t easily go back to see what I missed or have forgotten. If I hit a tough spot in traffic or my toddler points out a train, I sometimes miss things and don’t want to fiddle with the audio to pick it back up.

And sometimes I get so eager to finish the book that the end of my car trip is a great inconvenience. I remember once driving out to Alder Lake and back for the extra 2 hours of listening time which wasn’t all that good for my gas bill. Lately, I’ve taken to checking out the printed book and the CD from the library so that I don’t have this problem. I can read the book when I get home.

As I think about it, I suppose I really have my dad to thank for getting me started on audio books. He drove miles for his work, all across Washington and Oregon and never was much of a visual reader. It was such a pleasure to hear stories with him or to talk about the books we’d both heard. I’m grateful to Dad for the in the car experiences I get to have even now that he’s gone.

Maybe my sister’s experience with her son will get him listening to his own books on tape in the future. Maybe, if nothing else, so he can go back and listen to the scenes his mother fast forwarded in Snow Falling on Cedars.

Facebook Fasting

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I first started using Facebook when I went to China in 2008. Back then, the status line read Karrie Zylstra Myton is …. and I was supposed to fill in the present continuous with an -ing verb. Which only English teachers could name like the nerds that we are. It was fun. I loved feeling so connected to my friends back in the states and my only disappointment was that my computer averse husband never did post his statuses for me. Facebook held no charm for him.

Although I was disappointed in him, a part of me now envies him. Facebook calls me a bit more than I care to admit. I’m not talking about privacy issues here. I’m talking about where I want to be spending my life. The siren sound of Facebook sometimes pulls me into swirling waters. She looks beautiful and sometimes she is. But sometimes she eats up the time I want for my writing. And sometimes I think too much about what others are thinking because of her.

A colleague at work feels the same way about Pinterest. “Pinterest is a Problem,” she said. Apparently she wakes up first thing thinking about what others have pinned and what she can find to put on her boards. Listening to her let me know I’m not alone in my social media troubles.

When I started chapter 4 of the Artist’s Way, I decided to include Facebook in the ‘reading deprivation’ that Julia Cameron recommends. I gave up Facebook and curtail my emailing for one week. And I was unpleasantly surprised at how hard that was for me. I felt myself pulled to it when I knew I didn’t need it.

I know I’m not the first to think of this.  One of my favorite bloggers and online art teacher Melody Ross gave up Facebook for an extended period. Here is her blog post about it  along with an excellent video comparing a Facebook life to a strict cool whip diet.

I also heard a piece on NPR talking about this and found an article from a renegade Facebook escapee who wrote a book about her experiences as a fb employee.

After my week, I learned  how restful it is to lay off the status checking and posting. I felt relaxed at the end of my week. I felt less pulled and my mind less scattered to the four corners of what everyone is doing every minute of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against social media and have no plans to give it up for good. I love my connections online and the people I’ve met there as well as old friends I can now stay in touch with. I feel like it is a better way for me to get ‘news’ than the tradition media offers.

I also don’t think that this is a ‘new’ problem — this need to disengage from interactions goes back, I believe for all of time, especially for those of us introverts. Henry David Thoreau, after all, was making an escape long before the Internet.

I am, however, taking steps to give myself more rest from my online interactions.  I’m loving the time it gives me for art and family. If you’re curious about how it feels, give it a try. Just be gentle with yourself if you, like me, find yourself sorely tempted to break your fast. It helped me to say, “Wow. That’s interesting that way that I’m compulsively drawn to checking my page or email or what have you.”

Say that to yourself and then go play with your kids or pets, or go for a walk, or paint a picture, or write, or play your instrument.  You might be surprised how much you like it. Then please let me know what you thought and how you plan to keep social media in your life without falling over your head into the swirling waters again. For me, it’s a work in progress and I’d love to have suggestions.