Saturday, April 29, 2017

Power (Brian Katcher)


A quote from Douglas Adams:

It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

I'm not sure why this quote keeps running through my mind the past three months or so...

Oh, yeah.

So what are the common tropes for the powerful characters in literature and the arts? What do they have to say about Power?

The Mad Dictator:

 Hard to believe he played the both Hawkeye Pierce and the zany professor in Animal House

President Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.

 The Icon:

O'Brein: We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

 The Machine:

HAL: The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

The Petty Tyrant:

Nurse Ratched: If Mr. McMurphy doesn't want to take his medication orally, I'm sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way. But I don't think that he would like it.

The Soulless Bureaucrat: 

Lumbergh: Hello Peter, whats happening? Ummm, I'm gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmk... oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I'm also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we sorta need to play catch up.

The Psychopath:

Dr. Lecter: A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.  

So, in summary, we're all doomed. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

True sources of power (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

In our world, I see too much talk about power as a way to dictate outcomes to our own liking. At its worst, power is about controlling others.

But at its best, I see power as self-determination.

Stories typically revolve around power struggles and power shifts. Main characters tend to find their power at the end of a story, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they conquer all. It may mean finding a voice, a patch of ground, self-respect. Often it means giving up the desire for external signs of power, instead seizing on some greater inner gift.

In Bunheads, the main character tests whether she wants to find her power only on the ballet stage, or risk seeking it in other places as well. In Unwind, the characters assert power over their own futures in a dystopian society that claims ownership of their very bodies. In Want To Go Private? a girl discovers her own voice is found within herself, not under the spell of a mysterious stranger. The characters in The List struggle within a society that tells them the source of female power is looks, external beauty.

Often, characters find that like Dorothy in Oz, the magical slippers were on their own feet the whole time.

Questions I like to think about when developing a story: Who has the power at the beginning, and who has the power at the end? What is the true power in the story, and what do the characters think it is? How and when does the power shift? 

With every story, we challenge characters (and readers) to discover the sources of power and use them wisely.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Of First Ladies, Monarchs, and Expressions of Power in Everyday Life (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I've been thinking about power and how we express it a lot lately. The recent Melania Trump First Lady portrait controversy brought it to the front of my mind, especially as I read the many analyses comparing it to the portraits of previous first ladies. 

For a look back at depictions of first ladies, check this out.

Ever since portraits have been a thing, leaders have had themselves portrayed in ways that express their power and show where their power comes from and where it goes. Think of all those monarchs giving a sneaky side-eye to a globe. They cartoon-villain whisper, "Mine. All mine."

#bows #sleeves #collar #pearls #cantevencarrythatcrown

We've come to expect people to be shown with things that in some way express their power. We notice when it's not there. Even if it's something as simple as the American flag in every legislator's portrait, we want it there.

But it's not just world leaders. Anybody who has the power to create images can and does use those images to express power.

We see it in high school yearbook photos. What's your thing? Band, sports, academic team? Put it in your picture, so everyone will know where your power comes from.

Jewelry is an expression of power. (Get close-ups of the rings at weddings.) Clothing is an expression of power. (Power suits, anyone? Shoulder pads? Sumptuary laws? Empire waists have that name for a reason. Women's fashion during wars of empire tends to simulate pregnancy because look at all this cannon fodder we're making. You don't have to go back to Jane Austen. Check out 2004.)

Because I have always had a deep, deep hatred of McMansions, I follow the blog McMansionHell. The author, an architectural historian, argues that adding purely decorative columns to houses is a means of attempting to co-opt the power of institutions like banks and government buildings. 

If you visit the Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, you'll see that it's decorated in weaponry. Beautiful, artful designs done in heavy firearms and gleaming blades.

#arsenal #pistolfan

People get mad at humanities scholars who work beyond the ivory tower for pointing this stuff out. I know I'm not alone in having been screamed at (literally, right in my face) by people who can't stand to have their surface notions disturbed.  But pretty pictures are rarely just that. Expressions of power are everywhere. It's helpful to look past the image and think about what it's really saying.

Monday, April 24, 2017


I’m terrible at keeping journals. I’ve tried about a hundred different times, and it just never sticks. Part of it is that I’m a full-time writer already, so at the end of the day, the last thing I really want to do is unwind by…writing. Especially just to recount what happened that day—which never seems anywhere near as exciting as what happens on the page.

Well. I’ve been terrible at keeping traditional journals. In high school, I was fantastic at keeping poetry journals.

I wrote in them incessantly. Many of the entries have dates instead of titles. They were free verse accounts of what happened that day—how I felt, what was going on inside my head. It’s probably not such a coincidence that these poetic journal entries kicked in at about the same time I started dating. But the poems weren’t JUST about teenage heartache. They were about music. About things I saw, things I noticed for the first time. It was about the comings and goings of friends. 

I’ve always felt there was just something about boiling your days down to poetry—writing in verse makes you compact what you want to say. You find the single best nugget of the day—the bit you really would like to remember more than anything. Poetic journal entries also seem more honest. They force you to lay yourself bare. You strip everything away until you have four lines of complete unvarnished you. 

One of these days, maybe I’ll start a new poetry journal again. (When you’re sixty, do you look back on your forty-year-old self and say, “How naïve I was then!”??? It’d be interesting to find out.) At the very least, I’m certain that in twenty years, I’d love to have a way to look back at the complete unvarnished me I am right now.

PS: Many of those poetic journal entries made their way into my first book, A BLUE SO DARK. I tweaked some of the wording a bit to make it fit the storyline, but those are all poems I wrote when I was around fifteen years old.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Suggestion of Power

So... about this photo....

Before I was published, I took advantage of a Groupon offer to have headshots done for my website, bookcovers, and social media. The deal included 4 images plus make-up for the session.

The photos came out great -- if you follow me online, you've seen the one I use often. Me in a red sweater, holding a copy of my own book.

Except for one.

There's one picture of me that's a word... scary.

You see, I'm not a model and I've never worked with a photographer giving me direction before. He'd snap images of me in various poses, telling me to smile, not smile, show teeth, don't show teeth, look up, look down.

The physical directives were easy. But I had some trouble when he said things like "Look proud." "Look successful."

I didn't quite know how those things looked on me.

So after one of the wardrobe changes, we talked. I sat on a stool, he stood beside the camera. He asked me questions about writing, like why I wanted to be an author, or what my books were about. Up until this point, I had only one and that was SEND, which is about a former cyberbully trying to cope with the suicide he caused. The photographer asked me what I hoped the book would accomplish.

I told him straight up that I hoped to God it stopped a kid from making an un-undoable mistake.

Turns out, he was using a remote control to shoot images during that conversation.

This picture was the one snapped at that moment.

I don't know why, exactly, I don't use it. I look frightening in it.


It doesn't look like me, but it is me.

I just thought it was cool because words are a writer's medium. And it was through the power of words that this expression crossed my face.

Maybe I'll use this image more often.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

You Have the Power, Use it For Good (Alissa Grosso)

This picture of something that Octavia Butler wrote on the back cover of a spiral bound notebook has been making the rounds of the interwebs of late:

It's an excellent reminder that our thoughts and our intentions have power.

When things don't go our way, when we are unhappy, it's easy to lay blame on outside sources. We blame bad luck for things not turning out the way they should have. We envy others, and maybe even think that they have taken the opportunities that should have been ours. We think that if only we lived in a nicer home or had more time, we'd be happier and able to do all the things we want to do. It's an easy trap to fall into, but it is a trap.

The thing is, that's not really the way the world works. We know from quantum mechanics that individuals have power over the world, that the simple act of observing particles changes the way they act. You are not simply a piece of inert matter floating through life and being acted upon by outside forces. If you are reading this, then you are alive, and if you're alive then you have power. Use it for good.

Believing in your own power, is the first step in harnessing it. You must have faith in your ability to control your destiny, or it won't work. Thoughts are powerful things and if you doubt yourself or find yourself thinking pessimistically, things probably won't go too well. But if you have faith in yourself and think positive, optimistic thoughts, things will go your way.

But more than just using your power to enrich your own life and control your destiny, you should do what you can to make the world a better place. When Octavia Butler drafted her action plan, she listed the ways she would help provide opportunities for young people. Whatever your passion or interest, you can use the power you have to take action and make the world a little bit better.

So, get down to thinking or draw up your own plan, and starting thinking good things. Use your power to make the world a better place.

Alissa Grosso is a YA author, among other things. You can find out more about her and her books at

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Power of Two Desks by Jody Casella

Let's just say he wasn't my favorite student that year.

High school English, tenth grade, the third year I taught, and I was over kids like this kid. The kid who skipped class or came late. The one who never brought his books when he deigned to show up. The kid who interrupted, loudly, while I was speaking. Got up from his seat at random moments and roamed the classroom.

I mean, what the hell?

And I was pregnant that year. Exhausted. Between second and third period every damn day I'd lumber down the hall and vomit in the teachers' lounge restroom.

On top of all of that, I had to deal with this kid. Barely September and our relationship, such as it was, was a battle of wills. Me, swollen and frazzled and trying to teach a lesson on Julius Caesar, say, and Him, barging into class late and flopping into his chair and spewing out whatever.

I threw him out of the classroom probably every other day.

Once, and I will never forget this, I'd just ordered him out and he flung himself up out of his desk and strode defiantly toward me, stopping only a couple of inches away, his teeth gritted, his hand out, finger pointing directly at my enormous pregnant stomach.

"I hope your baby is..." he said, and there was a long pause while he faced me, pointing, "a whiner," he finished, his eyes glittering, before he stalked out of the room.

[Side note: my baby was, in fact, a whiner. Flash forward two or three years when my toddler wailed plaintively about-- wanting a bag of cheetos ten minutes before dinner or begging to go outside without a coat in 20 degree weather or refusing to let me buckle him into his damn car seat-- I'd recall that student and his pointed finger and the vicious curse he'd cast upon my womb.

But I recalled it, laughing. It became a funny story told to my tantrum-y son. "Now, you know you're just whining because Mommy once had a student in her class who cast a spell on you, right?"]

Funny, because not long after the Whining Curse, the student and I discovered a solution to our problem with each other.

What happened was this:

One day I threw him out of the classroom and this time, I followed him out into the hall. Look, I said, I know you don't like me, and honestly, I don't like you all that much either. You bug the heck out of me...

Student: (grumbling and muttering and possibly casting additional spells upon me) Well, you bug the heck out of me too .

Me: Right. So what are we going to do about that?

Student: What?

Me: I mean, it's September. We've got an entire school year ahead of us. Do we really want to have this battle every day?

Student: (still grumbling and muttering) I just want you off my back.

Me: I want you off my back too. How can we make that happen?

Student: (looking down) I don't know.

Me: Maybe we can do something to make that happen.

Student: (grumbling and yet looking at me curiously) Like, what?

Me: Like, you come to class on time and bring your books and sit in your seat and don't talk while I'm talking. If you do that, I'll do something for you. What do you want?

Student: (now staring at me) I want... (he pauses here and for a horrifying moment I wonder what he's going to request)  ...two desks.

Me:  Two desks?

Student: (shrugging) Yeah. Two desks. I get bored sitting in one place for an hour. Sometimes I just feel like getting up and sitting someplace else.

Me: (nodding vigorously and restraining myself from falling upon my knees in gratitude at the simplicity and honesty and beauty of this boy and his modest request.) You got it.

Long story short, I set him up with two desks on opposite sides of the room. For maybe two or three days he took full advantage of our deal. Hopping up, annoyingly and intrusively, a dozen times a period, staring at me defiantly as he did so, testing to see if I'd call him out for it and go back on my promise,

but I didn't, and after a while, he sat, most days, in one desk.

I won't say this kid ever became my favorite student. He still came late to class occasionally, still blurted stuff out every once in a while, (and of course, there was the power of his lingering whining curse to contend with later), but our daily battles were a thing of the past.

Who knew it was so easy?

It occurs to me now that I owe this student a thank you. So--

Thank you, Demarcus McGee, for teaching me that sometimes the only solution is to take a quiet moment in the heat of battle, and ask the other side what they want...

and listen.

Friday, April 7, 2017


2012 was our first year.

Twice a year, I retreat to the Texas Hill Country with a group of amazing women writers. For three nights and four days we write, critique, talk and laugh. We sit quietly with our work, up early and up late, sometimes as many as 15 or so of us in a ramshackle old hunting lodge with frightening amounts of creepy taxidermy. The above picture doesn't capture that part of it, but think dead boar heads and a tiny baby deer inexplicably arranged in a row boat with flowers. Yeah, really. 

We cook meals in shifts, bring and share copious amounts of snacks and wine and occasionally a bottle  or two of the stronger stuff. We share all the happy stuff and all the sad stuff and the amazing stuff,  all the scary and unfair stuff that comprises the writing life. It is hard to be a creative, to live a creative life and make books out of fleeting ideas. It is impossibly hard some days to endure the disappointments and rejections and micro-humiliations of the publishing world. And I think it's even harder because to write, you must feel the world and to feel the world means that it can rip open your soft little belly when you're not looking. But it's also a grand thing, this life, a true wonder as much as it's also painful and awful, and we celebrate hard as well. 

There is power in this. Power in these women. Power in community. Power in the writing. Power in being away from the bigger world and consistently functioning Internet service and the daily grind. Power in being there for each other. Real power that keeps us all going and writing and succeeding for the rest of the six months until we meet again. (Not that we don't see each other in between; mostly we do. Kid lit writers run in the same circles and do the same conference circuits and appear together at events. But those 2 long weekends a year? They're our time.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I Still Have All My Fingers (Bill Cameron)

About a month ago, I ordered the lumber in the picture to the right. A couple of guys dropped it off in my garage, and then I was faced with a problem.

The problem was turning that raw lumber into a home for four chickens, a place that would be roomy, safe, and secure. Solving this problem would require not only the use of power tools, but the ability to think spatially and multiple steps ahead—and especially it would require a skilled, steady hand.

In short, it was a job for a carpenter, something I most assuredly am not.

And yet, somehow, as of yesterday, the combined chicken coop/run has reached about 80% completion—far enough along that our four pullets (aged 7 and 8 weeks) can now spend their days in the run portion. (I cheated and included TWO pictures in this post so you can see how things look as of today.) The coop proper remains to be completed, but I can see the end now. And, most amazing, I still have all my fingers.

So what does this have to do with power—aside from the aforementioned power tools? For me, this whole project has been about overcoming my feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness in the face of a complex problem. It's about taking on a challenge that has often felt beyond me, and then figuring out what I needed to do to succeed. It's been about the responsibility I feel toward the four living creatures we have taken into our care. It's been about pushing myself to learn and grow, and then to feel pride when I've been successful.

That pile of lumber represents a moment when I felt powerless, and yet refused to let that stop me. It hasn't been easy, and I haven't done it alone. My wife has been involved from the beginning, helping with a variety of tasks and talking me down when my anxiety or frustration threatened to get the better of me.

And I have definitely had some frustrating moments. The structure isn't exactly an original design, but based on several coops I've seen online, most particularly the Bluegrass Coop. The world of DIY Chicken Coops is rich and varied and often quite creative. As with so many communities, urban chicken people are eager to share their often hard-won knowledge. Yet while I've gotten invaluable information from many posts I've read about other coop projects, there's a difference between a blog post with photos and actual plans. That difference is where my lack of carpentry skill and experience has faced its greatest challenges.

I've had to draw up my own plan and work out my own materials list. I usually miss something critical, which means I have to go back to the home improvement stores over and over. At my nearby Lowe's, they've seen me so much the staff often asks how the coop is coming.

I've made mistakes, some of which can be hidden with paint, some of which can be fixed, and some of which just have to be accepted. But I've also learned. Not that I plan to build a second coop any time soon, but I know if I had to, things would go much more smoothly and quickly.

The point of all this is that sometimes we feel powerless, but if we grapple with the problem head-on, we may find a way to feel powerful. I'm still far from calling myself a carpenter, but I'm more experienced and more skilled than I was a month ago. I've learned I can take on a scary project and find my way through it. Sure, there's more work to be done—some pretty complex—but I'm not anxious the way I was when that pile of lumber was first delivered. I know it will be difficult, and I may make mistakes. But I also know I can do it.

The Guess What? Chicken Hut in progress. This combined run/coop will comfortably house up to six chickens—especially since we will let them free range in the yard when we're home. The total footprint is 5' x 10', with the raised coop at 3'9" x 5'. The green platform at the near end will be the floor of the coop, which still needs the three outside walls. The run itself is protected with hardware cloth on all exposed sides, and buried wire to protect against digging predators. The clear, polycarbonate roof over the whole structure will ensure good light and protection from the rain, which will be collected in a rain barrel there to the left. The coop has an acrylic skylight, and will have multiple roosts—as well as windows for light and ventilation. The interior coop wall you see in place doubles as a door so I will have ready access to the coop for cleaning and maintenance. Access for the chickens will be through an opening in the lower left of the interior wall, currently covered so they can safely use the run during the day until I complete the coop.