Eighteen and Life

Perhaps no one has ever captured the angst of being 18 better than when Alice Cooper sang, “I’m Eighteen and I don’t know what I want.” Not even Taylor Swift, who explored being “15” and being “22,” has had the audacity to take on Alice and “18.” A wise decision, Taylor.

As reflected by my many years teaching seniors and by my choice of main characters for my novels, I’m clearly a big fan of the age. Eighteen is a time fraught with conflicts and change and the drama they inspire. It’s an age when the typical teenager believes she knows a whole hell of a lot more than she actually does. However, only experience can teach her otherwise or, in some cases, actually validate her belief and demonstrate the often wrongheaded thinking of much-older adults. In either case, these experiences make for great storytelling.

At eighteen, a person is still more the product of her parents’, teachers’, and often church’s thinking than she is of her own. But as she goes off to college or moves away from home, she can start unpacking and sorting through all that these others have crammed into her suitcase and determining what to keep and what to discard. At eighteen, especially if she moves far away, she has the rare opportunity to free herself from whatever reputation she has acquired and re-invent herself in a place where few, if anybody, knows her name. At eighteen, life still holds more potential than disappointment. At eighteen, life is lived more urgently and love is felt more deeply than it will ever be again. There are still first experiences waiting to be had and last nights of beautiful agony to endure. The pains of life and love are greater, but their joys far sweeter. The flesh is electric. The brain is fertile, And the heart is open.

I know that many, if not most, would disagree with me, but if I could be one age forever, it would be eighteen. For my money, there’s no better age to be alive, but I’ll just have to settle for writing about it.

“Say What You Need To Say”

swear words
“Nothing [is] good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

By the inclusion of the occasional “bad” word in my novels, I have willfully hamstrung my potential sales in the education market. Schools are very sensitive to parental/community overreaction to their children coming across curse words in school-assigned texts; therefore, they are reluctant to purchase books that make use of them. This is true even when the words are accurately reflective of reality. Not long ago, a local school district came under fire for teaching Walter Dean Meyer’s novel FALLEN ANGELS, a modern classic set “in country” during the Vietnam War, because the mostly-teenaged soldiers occasionally use the “F-word.” I somehow doubt those “grunts” said “Darn!” or “Fudge!” or “Poop!” very often. And when they said “Shoot,” it was in an entirely different context.

Father Flanagan, the priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage, is famous for saying, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” I’m not sure that I totally agree with Fr. Flanagan. It seems to me that some people are simply born evil, but the relationship between nature vs. nurture in personality development has nothing to do with this article. Instead, I’m going to share how I have long used Flanagan’s motto to make the similarly-contentious point that there is no such thing as a bad WORD; only words used in inappropriate environments and due to inappropriate training/example/thinking.

To begin with, I’ve never been a Grammar Nazi who corrects every double negative, incorrect use of “who” or “whom,” or the confusion between “can” and “may” or “I” and “me.” In fact, I find such people pedantic and annoying. Sure, I have a few pet peeves, but for the most part, I try not to nag. I especially believe that there is far more room for loose grammar and blue language in the spoken word than in the written one. But in either case, words are intended to facilitate communication, and as long as a speaker’s words are understood, I believe she is communicating appropriately.

“But what about curse words?” Some would ask. I believe that even curse words are appropriate in the correct environment and context. For example, despite a fairly-extensive vocabulary, I swear like a sailor when I’m with my buddies, but I don’t believe I have ever used a swear word in my mother’s company or in front of children. Another example of the contextual appropriateness of curse words occurs in movies that have been edited for television. In these the curse words have often been dubbed so that a word like “shit” becomes a garbled “shoot.” The replacement word typically doesn’t fit the situation or the character and completely ruins the scene by rendering it laughable. Even the “F-bomb” is acceptable in the proper environment. I’m thinking of that Maroon 5 song “Payphone.” In the unedited version, in utter disgust, Adam Levine sings, “One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick,” and it has punch. On the radio-friendly version, he sings, “One more stupid love song, I’ll be sick,” and it just lacks something. As an extreme example, dirty talk between the sheets would become clinical, un-sexy, and pathetic without the use of so-called curse words (I’ll let you imagine a few lines for yourself.).

The most extreme use of words that are generally deemed inappropriate for public consumption occurs when utilizing those terms that are charged with venomous disrespect for a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I would argue, however, that even these – more so for the writer than the speaker – can be used appropriately. The best example, of course, being Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I’ve tried to read censored versions in which the n-word (I can’t even type it; I find it so distasteful.) has been changed to “slave.” The conversion ruins the story and lessens Twain’s intended satire regarding the wrongheadedness of racism. And although I do not like the “C-word,” I watched a character in HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS use it in reference to a female rival, and it stung in a way that the “B-word” never could. As a child, I was sometimes chided for using the word “hate.” Adults would say, “Hate is a strong word.” I always thought, “Yeah, that’s why I use it.”

In my classroom, I often compare the words at a writer’s or speaker’s disposal to a handyman’s tools. Although it would be inappropriate and less effective to hammer a nail with a wrench, we wouldn’t label the wrench itself as a “bad” tool. It would simply be being used in an improper context. So don’t let the Grammar Nazis and the language prudes get to you. In the words of John Mayer, “Say What You Need to Say.”


Football’s Proper Place?

Youth Football
Whenever I post a blog article or a Facebook status update pertaining to the dangers of concussions in football, I receive a few “blow back” responses. These rebuttals typically accuse me and my novel GOODNESS FALLS of contributing to the softening of America’s male children. The argument is that contact sports, such as football, are necessary for the toughening up of our kids because the adult world is a difficult place where only the strong survive, and if we continue to coddle our children, they will grow up soft and ill-equipped to prosper in that world. I certainly understand their point; however, I feel it is a position no longer tenable in the modern, technology-based society where brain almost always trumps brawn. What is especially pernicious is the possibility that this argument for the need to “toughen up” our kids is little more than a thin justification to preserve a sport that provides so many of us with not only entertainment but also with such a sense of self-worth – through our identification with our favorite schools and professional teams – that we cant imagine a life without it. “O – H . . .” “Roll Tide!” And, “Go Big Blue!”

Were we still living in an age when proficiency in hand-to-hand combat was not only necessary for survival but a measurement for assigning social status, I might agree; however, we are not living in such barbaric times. Even those who did possess the physical attributes and martial skills conducive to those periods were primarily pawns for those in power. They were tools used either for military gains or for entertainment. Today’s football players and MMA fighters, for example, are not much different than the gladiators of ancient Rome. Like trained circus animals, they prostitute their talents in bloodsports to the aristocracy who, in turn, put them on display for the common people as a means for them to vent anger and frustration that may otherwise be directed at those powerful few. True, for a brief time, some of these gladiator/athletes are well remunerated for their performances. An even smaller number rise to a level of celebrity that lavishes all sorts of excess upon them. However, for the majority, their time in the spotlight is brief. Either they die in or as a result of their time spent in the arena, or they limp back into crowd and are quickly forgotten.

I sometimes question our motives for pressing our kids into participation in such violent games. Even more, I hate to think that our youth and high school football programs are little more than a way to feed the egos of over-involved parents or a way for some of them to relive their pasts; or that they are little more than an important piece of the profit puzzle for the athletic equipment industry; or that youth and high school football programs are little more than feeder programs for successive levels of football in which the stakes – both economically and in terms of injury – grow increasingly higher; or even that they are a little more than a means to teach “toughness” (whatever that is) to our children. But, sometimes, I wonder if these motives are not exactly the case. What I do not “wonder” about is the potential for catastrophic injury still posed by participation in the sport.

I’m willing to bet that if someone conducted a study to identify the number of highly-successful individuals who played football at some point in their youth that number would be substantial. I am, however, just as certain that an equal – if not far greater – number did not play football, yet they somehow had the necessary toughness to excel in a variety of fields. Therefore, the argument that football or other bloodsports are vital in the training of our young men falls apart. Admittedly, it may be useful for some, but it is far from the only method to produce the sort of individual who possesses the necessary qualities for adult achievement. I might even argue that much of the macho skill set learned through participation in football is actually counter-productive to success in the much more subtle and nuanced worlds of business, finance, law, politics, education, and medicine for example. What’s important is that we keep the place of football in its proper perspective. Contrary to much popular belief, it is not an institution fundamental to our survival as a society. However, if properly managed, it can continue to play a positive role in the education of some children.

As I’ve consistently stated, I’m not advocating for the abolition of youth football. All I’m saying is that there are additional measures that can still be taken to safeguard our kids, including baseline testing of cognitive functioning prior to participation; the limiting of full contact drills, the better monitoring of head strikes; and the better instruction of coaches regarding the recognition and treatment of head injuries just to name a few.

Let the blow back begin. I’m happy to face it.

What Book Would You Choose?

Mountains Beyond Mountains
I attended my son’s college freshmen orientation day last week, and I was a little bit surprised to learn that John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” would be the common text for all incoming freshmen. It’s not that I don’t think “The Fault in Our Stars” is a well-written and entertaining read; I gave it a favorable review and recommended it myself in an earlier blog post. It’s just that I didn’t find it particularly engaging intellectually – which is not to say that every novel has to be so. Many of our favorite reads are potboilers that sweep us speedily along the surface of the text until we find ourselves surprised when we turn the final page to discover it’s over. In fact, some have described my latest novel, GOODNESS FALLS, in a very similar manner. Many have told me they preferred GOODNESS FALLS to SO SHELLY for just that reason. And that is totally cool!

My point here, however, is that a common text assigned to an entire incoming class of college freshmen should be something with greater heft and potential for “stretching” these young and pliant minds. The chosen text should be something more challenging to the students’ cognitive abilities. It should be something that forces the students to question long held notions of what is right, true, and good. It should be something that ennobles the students by their mere experience of reading it. It should be something that forces students out of their particular geographic and social comfort zones, the very ones from which many are soon-to-be removed. It should be something with a sense of social awareness and responsibility that inspires students to escape the egocentric understanding of the world with which many of my generation’s parents have cursed their children and to embrace a more altruistic worldview.

If I were the king of the world and could choose the single text for all incoming freshmen at every university in it, my choice would be Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It’s the nonfiction narrative of Paul Farmer, a Harvard-trained physician and anthropologist, and his attempt to combat tuberculosis in poverty-stricken Haiti and a similarly endemic indifference to the Haitian suffering amongst too many Westerners. The title is a Haitian proverb that teaches that life’s problems never come to an end and that one should always look to the next challenge, for it is in the striving that a meaningful life is found, especially in attempting to leave the world a better place than we found it. Its Amazon page accurately says, “This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created . . .” Kidder champions Farmer’s driving notion that “the only real nation is humanity.”

As I said, I enjoyed “The Fault in Our Stars.” I did find it a bit cloying and emotionally manipulative, but I also turned pages until there were no more to turn, which I feel is the ultimate determiner of a worthwhile read. As a mandatory common text for incoming university freshmen, however, I feel it falls far short of the purpose of such an assigned reading and plays more to pop culture than high culture. For anyone looking for an outstanding read for their young adult student or for themselves, I highly recommend “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” “The Fault in Our Stars” is the sort of book that may temporarily change one’s mood. “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is the sort of book that may permanently change one’s life – and the world.

W.I.P. until I R.I.P.

A Work in Progress
Authors often refer to their current project as their w.i.p. or work in progess. If you’re a writer, you have at least one. I write books a lot like I read them. I usually have at least two books going at one time; it’s the same with my novels. I almost always have one or two at differing points of completion. This system would make a lot of readers/writers crazy. It’s just what works for me. As a writer, I’m often asked about writer’s block. I think this system is one reason why I can always answer that I’ve never experienced it. If the words and ideas just aren’t flowing with one w.i.p., I can turn to another one.

Today I finished what has to be at least the fifth re-write of my current w.i.p., and tonight I’m starting what I hope will be the last. Each time, the process moves much quicker, the story gets a little tighter, the language more descriptive, and the characters more drawn out. I’d compare it to staining woodwork; it’s just a matter of putting on layers until you get the shade exactly right. For those who know better, trust me, I’ve never stained anything in my life except the front of my shirts, but you get the idea.

The other day, I was thinking about that abbreviation, w.i.p., and I thought how much the phrase “a work in progress” actually applies to me and people in general. Whenever my kids fall a bit short of our parental expectations or their own potentialities, I remind my wife that it’s okay because they are still works in progress. I also know that I am constantly “re-writing” who I am. I know that the version currently writing this blog entry won’t be around for long, as I’m still trying to deepen my stain. I always tell my students that when I see them in the future, I hope I don’t recognize them because they will have grown so much from the year I spent with them when they were seventeen or eighteen-years old. I don’t think there are many things sadder than stasis.

In his poem Ulysses, Tennyson, in the voice of Ulysses himself, says “How dull it is to pause, to make an end / To rust unburnished.” I totally agree with Tennyson. Therefore, the title of this article and one of my many philosophies on life. I hope to be a W.I.P. until I R.I.P.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

As I’ve noted in an earlier blog, one of the most challenging aspects of choosing to publish independently – as I did with GOODNESS FALLS rather than going through a major publisher – is gaining exposure for your book beyond family, friends, region, and one’s already-established audience of readers. Without question, the most effective means for building buzz is through the word-of-mouth recommendations as made by those who have read and enjoyed the book. Many of you have done this already and have been a valuable means of expanding my audience. Quite a few have gone a step further and tweeted or given GOODNESS FALLS a recommendation through Facebook. In both cases, I can’t thank you enough! There is one more strategy that those of you who have read the novel could do me a huge solid by participating, and that is by rating the novel and writing a review on GOODNESS FALLS’ Amazon page. It’s just a fact that testimonials and reviews from readers are very important to book buyers. Therefore, if anyone is so inclined, I will be forever grateful if you could visit my Amazon page to rate and write a short review of GOODNESS FALLS. I’ve provided the link below.

I’m Going Country!

Gone Country
I love it when readers tell me that they loved GOODNESS FALLS, that they couldn’t stop reading, and more or less read it in one sitting. No compliment could be more flattering to a storyteller. However, I have to laugh to myself when I think that, in total, it took me over four years time and three different versions to write that darn thing. But, trust me, I’m not complaining. The question that typically follows those responses to the book is “”What’s next?” Well, let me tell you.

While promoting GOODNESS FALLS is still a major focus, I’m slowly giving more of my time to what I intend to be my next novel. I’ve been working on this novel for over two years. It too has gone through several manifestations. My summer project is to rewrite it one final time and to begin exploring my publishing options in the fall.

I can give you a brief plot synopsis and, I hope, whet your appetite. It’s titled OHIO and is the story of a female country singer/prodigy, who, at fourteen and under the strict control of her stage mom, her manager, and her Nashville record company, had already reached the peak of country music stardom, including top-selling singles, spots on the bills of major tours, and Grand Olde Opry and CMA performances. Now at eighteen, however, her status in the country music world has sunk so low she has been reduced to playing county fairs in the Northern states. One night, tired of the road and tired of living the life others have imagined for her, she sneaks off the bus at a rural turnpike service plaza and disappears into a black, northern Ohio-country night with the half-assed plan of changing her identity, starting over, and living the life of a regular teenager. There, she discovers her self and the real meaning of being country.

I hope that piques some people’s interest. In the meantime, if you haven’t read GOODNESS FALLS, please do. If you have read it and liked it, please recommend it to all of the readers in your life. If you really liked it, give it a shout out on social media.

John Green and Me

The Fault in Our Stars
My completely one-sided relationship with John Green and his novels goes back nearly five years. Shortly after signing with Random House for the rights to SO SHELLY, my editor assigned me to read Green’s award-winning, debut novel “Looking for Alaska.” I assumed she saw similarities in our subject matter and writing styles and, perhaps, even wanted me to mimic Green. I remember reading “Looking for Alaska” and thinking, “It’s good but no better than SO SHELLY.” I now shudder at my audacity in the light of Green’s success with “The Fault in Our Stars.” Later, when SO SHELLY appeared in Random House’s spring catalog for 2011, I noticed the descriptive text read, “For fans of ‘Looking for Alaska.'” One reviewer of SO SHELLY actually wrote “Shelly reminds me of John Green’s female characters all mixed in one – over-dramatic, over-loving, and never falling for the right guy. And always with a mission in mind. The clues she leaves also remind me of Paper Towns (a novel I highly suggest if you loved this one). I couldn’t help but love her and her undying love for Gordon, the unattainable male that actually does love Shelly in a way that really cannot be described. . . . Lovers of John Green will fall in love with this novel.” Little did I know then what a compliment that would become in retrospect.

I do see the similarities in our work, if, sadly, not in our degree of success, but remember that “The Fault in Our Stars” is Green’s fifth novel. I’m only working on number three. For all of his many and obvious talents as a writer, Green may be even more so a marketing genius who was way ahead of most authors in understanding the need to build his career himself, brand himself, build platforms, and utilize all facets of the Internet to build relationships with his audience. For example, Green and his brother Hank produce a popular video channel on YouTube (http://tinyurl.com/mrgz78g), and he earned an abundance of attention for “The Fault in Our Stars” by taking on the herculean task of signing all 150,000 copies of the novel’s first print run. Although my teaching career prevents me from devoting anywhere near as much time to promotion as Green does, I am learning from his endeavors. As for our similarities as writers, I see that we both write contemporary YA; we’re both dudes in a genre dominated by female writers; we both routinely explore the themes of love and death (which I have always maintained are the only two things worth writing about and that all other themes are somehow derivative of); neither of us is shy about including coarse language and portraying sexual situations in a blunt and honest manner; neither of us are particularly devoted to happy endings; we both regularly allude to classic works of literature; and we both tend to show off our vocabularies.

Since my first exposure to the work of John Green, I have followed his career with great interest (and now, if I’m being honest, envy), and I have read a couple more of his novels: “Paper Towns” and “Will Grayson, Will Grayson.” The latter he co-authored with David Levithan. Both books failed my 100-page test; whereby, I give a novel one hundred pages to hook me. If it hasn’t by that juncture, I stop reading and shelve the book. This is not to say that the problem necessarily lies with the author. Sometimes, I am not in the appropriate head space, or the story is simply so outside of my life experiences that I cannot relate to it. Many of these novels I return to later and find engaging on a second read.

I recently finished (It clearly passed the 100-page test!) “The Fault in Our Stars.” I have not yet, however, finished wrapping my brain around it. I need to ruminate a while before making any formal comments or criticisms. Knowing how difficult the craft of fiction is, I typically hesitate to write formal reviews, but I do plan to share some of my thoughts in my next blog post. So, please, check back soon.


Writer at Work

Writer at Work
One of the most common questions I’m asked is “When do you find time to write?” In fact, I don’t know if I “find” time so much as I “make” time. I don’t know how many people have shared with me over the years that they have a great idea for a novel. The only difference between me and them is that I actually sit down to write. Which means I’ve had to cut back on my television time, my Netflix time, my sleep time, and sadly, my reading time. These are sacrifices that simply have to be made. It was when I was in grad school pursuing my English Literature masters that I realized that there is a lot more time in the day than most of us realize. It’s primarily a matter of being attentive to how we spend it and making conscious choices to spend it in particular ways. Otherwise, it slips through our fingers.

During the school year, I “pick” at things. I jot down ideas; I draft a little; and if I have a project that is being prepared for release, I do a ton of editing and proofreading. It is, however, in the summer that I do the majority of my actual writing. My daily routine is to write for three hours in the morning, go for a run, eat lunch, take a short nap, then write for three more hours in the afternoon. If I have nothing planned for the evening, I may sit down and either write some more or read and edit what I wrote that day.

Tomorrow is my first full day of summer, and I still need to devote some of my time to promoting GOODNESS FALLS, I can’t wait to get back to writing. It’s without question the editing that separates bad from good and good from great writing; nonetheless, it’s the creation process that is the most enjoyable. I have a first draft of what I plan to be my next novel already completed. However, I haven’t hardly looked at it in months. I will read it out loud looking for plot holes, grammatical glitches, and clunky-sounding dialogue. I will cut out scenes that don’t work and add new ones to bolster the plot and to better develop characters and themes.

The yet-untitled novel is one that I have been playing with for over two years and about which I am very excited. I love its premise, but I haven’t yet quite fleshed out the plot to my satisfaction.


Acceptable Risk?


Saving U Green is a web page devoted to promoting “healthy living, healthy food, and living a green life on a budget.” It is run by Marla Zickefoose. a former Sandusky resident and SMCC grad. As many of her numerous followers are parents with children either already participating in or considering contact sports (She’s located in Texas, one of the few states more football-crazy than Ohio.), I reached out to Marla to see if she would be interested in me contributing a guest post to her page addressing concussion awareness. Marla graciously agreed, and I have linked it above.

While there, check out the many reviews, giveaways, fashion, beauty, and travel tips Marla provides. For your own edification, follow her page, subscribe to her newsletter, and follow Saving U Green on Facebook and Twitter. Marla is a gifted writer and a savvy social media entrepreneur. I didn’t do the math, but between Marla and more than 40 of her followers who re-tweeted her announcement of a giveaway of two signed copies of GOODNESS FALLS, potentially well over 100,000 people were exposed to the name Ty Roth and the title GOODNESS FALLS for the first time! You can’t buy that kind of publicity; well, at least I can’t.