Archive | January, 2013

When a Book is More than a Story

26 Jan

I just finished reading The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I have probably read thousands of books during my lifetime, but I don’t ever remember reacting to a book as I did to this one.

The Language of Flowers is the story of a young woman who was abandoned as an infant, and lived in a series of foster homes, never becoming part of a real family. The woman who almost adopted her taught her the language of flowers, the meanings assigned to flowers during the Victorian era, when red roses came to symbolize love,  yellow roses infidelity, and most other plants you can imagine. The story begins when Victoria is eighteen and is released from “the system” to live on her own. She refuses to look for a job and ends up sleeping in a park, until she is hired by a florist. The story alternates between her progress as an adult and her childhood, when she is moved through the foster care system, and finally, through a tragic sequence of events, becomes “unadoptable” at age ten.

These two parallel stories held so much tension that I could not put the book now, but at the same time, if something horrible was going to happen to Victoria, I didn’t want to know. Just like Victoria’s conflicting emotions about the people in her life, I loved and hated this book at the same time.

As readers, what books have elicited that type of response for you? And as writers, how can we create that tension, that seesaw between good and evil, happiness and tragedy?

Killing a Cockroach with Kindness

8 Jan

Jump into life!

I was walking through the hallway of a local high school where I sometimes substitute teacher, and encountered a teaching standing in the hallway holding a small spray bottle in her hand and staring into a trash can.

“I’m trying to kill a cockroach with essential oils,” she said. She gave it another squirt. “Or at least make it drunk enough that I can step on it and it won’t crawl up my leg.”

“You need a cat,” I commented. My cats make short work of any kinds of varmints that they find.

The teacher continued to stare at the cockroach, giving it an occasional squirt of the essential oils. “We are out in the country. Well, we aren’t in the city. What is a cockroach doing here?”

The encounter made me think about how we react when we find something in an unexpected place. The teacher thought that cockroaches belonged in the city. It surprised me to see someone spraying a cockroach with scented spray. Somehow a discovery like this jolts us out of our everyday routine and forces us to think in a new way, at least for a moment. This is a valuable experience for writers in particular, but it works for anyone. We all need to be prodded every once in a while to just look at life and laugh or cry, or both.

As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Look for the Beauty

6 Jan


I was delighted to see this beautiful and innovative way that a high school English teacher had decorated her classroom. The actual windows offered a few a nothing more than the roof of the next wing of the building, and a tiny patch of sky. But the teacher had taken one wall and covered it to look like a view of the sea, complete with filmy curtains tied back with colorful paper chains.

It reminded me of how important it is to include beauty in the places where we live and work. So often we think only of the practical, utilitarian aspects of our home and office, forgetting that a sense of beauty can increase our creativity, productivity, and generally improve our health and well-being.

And while you may not be able to have a fabulous view of the ocean or the mountains, even a patch of sky or a view of some trees can make your work more pleasant.

My desk faces a window, and far from being distracting, I find it restful on my neighborhood.

What beautiful touches can you add to your work areas?