Monday, October 31, 2011

The Importance of Being Uppity (Part 1)

Each of the four main characters I wrote about in my book is what you could call uppity.  They don’t know their own place, or even knowing it, and being reminded of it, they choose to go beyond what is expected of them.  I didn’t realize at the time that my characters were a product of my own audacity.  But it is obvious to me now.
There was first “the leap”.  For each of my characters it was there, boldly stepping out into the unknown in one way or another.  And for me it was leaving teaching after fourteen years with just the vague promise to myself and others that “I’m going to write a book”.  I remember students saying, “Oh, I guess we’ll be seeing you on Oprah when she selects your book for her club”, and it had the ring of similar statements we, as teachers, might say to students as they headed out into the world.  The talented actor or singer might be told, “See you on Broadway”.  I remember saying to students from the Communications Club, “See you on CNN.”  And it was always meant by way of encouragement, of course, but did any of us really believe it was possible, those doing the complimenting or those being complimented?
I know when I started writing this book, all I initially aspired to do was to write it, and if I had to self-publish a few dozen copies to hand out to friends and family, well…that would be enough.  Even as months rolled into a year and more, and the story began to take greater shape, as my characters began to take those leaps, there I was, still setting my sights relatively low.  In talking about it with family, I’d sometimes make reference to writers who were influential to me, or how they did a certain thing and I was building on that…and it would always be followed with the statement, “not that I’m comparing myself to them.”  It was an involuntary reaction, you see, as in strike patella tendon with triangular rubber hammer and watch foot kick.  “Not that I’m comparing myself to them” became such an overused expression that it became understood…‘til then it went mostly unsaid, being understood and all…‘til then I stopped thinking it entirely. 
And somewhere between the start of that second year and the end of it, I began to truly aspire.  Aspiration, I came to understand, is a wonderful thing.  Something changed in me during that second year of writing.  I became uppity, no longer bound by the restrictions I’d placed on myself or allowed others to place on me: doubts, and what-not….the sort of “that stuff might happen to other people, but not to me/us” mentality….and the granddaddy of them all, the Irish Catholic imperative to be humble that can become so entwined in one’s DNA that it makes that reactive “not that I’m comparing myself to them” become every bit as real and involuntary as the patella tendon reflex.  They all started to fade away in that second year.  The bar was raised higher.  And I allowed myself to dream…for me, this time, and not just “the others” who that stuff was always happening to.  And nothing would ever be the same again.    
(Continued next Monday…tune in Thursday for a culture/society/history reflection.  That’s what I think this blog will be: Monday mornings for inspiration, Thursday afternoons for reflection.  And if you like what you read, and are not being tracked by the FBI and need to stay off the radar, well…maybe you’ll consider following this blog…takes just seconds, I promise.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"History" My Ass!

So in the process of writing this novel there was a great deal of research, of course.  I began with what I thought was a good idea of the history of the Irish, but was (and still am) shocked to discover what I didn't know.  Seven of my eight great-grandparents were from Ireland.  I was a history teacher for cryin' out loud!  And still, what I didn't know about the "Famine", about the plight of my ancestors, actually led me to tears when I let it enter my creative soul.  And then I got mad as hell, and still am! 

I offer only "exhibit A" by way of explanation:

The title of the book is The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland.  I bought it as a teaching tool, I think when I was already teaching at Kellenberg but perhaps before that, when I was teaching in Brooklyn at Our Lady of Refuge.  It's 400 illustrated pages, so...good for middle school and early high school, which is what it was meant to be.  Only here's the problem: a story on Josiah Wedgewood entitled "Vasemaker General to the Universe" merited 415 words of text and two pictures.  Wedgewood lived in the mid-18th century, and like most Brits at that time defined "The Universe" as essentially the equivalent of Europe and the British Empire as it then existed.  But my problem with Mr. Wedgewood is not about his delusions of grandeur (since that is a title he gave to himself), or even with the Brits of the mid-1700's.
No, my problem is with the bastards who published this "History of Britain and Ireland" in 1996.  And why?  Because the entirety of the Irish "Famine" in the 1840s merited just 316 words of text and one illustration.  A hundred words less than the so called Vasemaker to the Universe.  And even then, the incompetent fool who wrote the description of the "Famine" focused on the British Corn Laws which kept tariffs high on imported corn even after the first thousands had died from starvation.  And the incompetent fool who wrote this text simply addressed the human toll of this "Famine" with a SINGLE SENTENCE......"But the repeal (of the Corn Laws) came too late to save the 800,000 people who died in Ireland."

I guess that's the Oxford way of saying...."Whoops, our bad.  Now let's talk about pottery."


And why do I always write "Famine" with quotation marks?  Because it wasn't a famine.   Because there was plenty the land produced besides the blighted potatoes.  There was wheat and corn and all manner of livestock...the bulk of which was put on ships bound for Merry Old England. 

So yeah, I got mad.  And I still am.