Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tapping on our Brows

Principal Don Reiter, right
I’ll start by saying I know absolutely nothing about Maine Principal Don Reiter, or what happened in his office when he met, privately, with a student at Waterville Senior High.

But isn’t that where we arbiters of sexual misconduct always begin? Peering through tightly shut windows where the shades are drawn, then drawing conclusions about what happened? We take dueling narratives, leaven them with our opinions about the narrators (he’s a predator/angel/victim; she’s a liar/heroine/victim, take your pick) drop them onto the roulette wheels of “justice” and watch … as lives are wrecked.

Here’s the only thing we do know: somebody’s lying. One of two people is an unreliable narrator. And in the absence of any evidence beyond he said/she said, which story do we choose to believe?

Principal Don Reiter’s tale: on the first day of classes this fall at Waterville Senior High he was meeting with a female student in his office. They were sitting on the couch. She propositioned him. The meeting ended, and he reported the incident to school authorities. And his wife. Who filed for divorce a few weeks later.

What little we know from the student: during a meeting alone with the principal, he told her that he had a secret: every year he chose a student with whom to have sex, and that this year he’d chosen her. He threatened her … she’d never graduate … if she revealed this secret. She was upset, and promptly reported the incident.

Because of legal issues surrounding privacy, further information is sketchy, but if news reports are credible, other details include:

·        Shortly before classes began this fall, the student and her mother had appeared in Reiter’s office to discuss the student’s credits because it didn’t look like she was on target to graduate. He said they needed to meet with her guidance counselor.
·        After conferring with guidance, the student reappeared at the principal’s office, where she was told she needed to make an appointment.
·        On the first day of school the student was called out of class, down to Reiter’s office. At this point the closed-door meeting in question took place.

Within days of this incident, the superintendent placed Mr. Reiter on paid leave, called the cops, and investigations began. Two months and many, many interviews with staff and students later, the superintendent has recommended that Mr. Reiter be dismissed, the police have filed a report upon which the District Attorney has yet to act (she says she’ll wait to see what the school board will do) and the school board is now grappling with whether to accept … or reject … the superintendent’s recommendation to fire Mr. Reiter. As the board met this past week, crowds of Mr. Reiter’s supporters gathered outside their doors. When, after many hours of deliberations they emerged undecided and scheduled a subsequent meeting, folks were upset.

You can’t make this stuff up. Well, you can … but it’s called drama. Approaching the level of Greek tragedy. Because everyone loses. Everyone. Either Mr. Reiter is a predator, a wolf who has been prowling, undetected for years, among our innocents … or he is a cruelly, unjustly accused victim whose career and personal life have just gotten trashed.  Either she’s a traumatized victim, a child whose doe-eyed view of life has just been shattered… or a psychopath along the lines of the borderline-personality-disordered character Amy in Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel (also a movie) Gone Girl.

If that weren’t bad enough: enter the Greek chorus. Lawyers, from both sides. The administrators who just want to make it all go away, crying for his job on a plate. The mobs of friends of the accused rallying in his support. The victims’ rights advocates claiming: see? See how difficult it is to speak out against sexual predation? This is why so many cases of rape and sexual misconduct go unreported.

My head spins. So does my imagination. Which is why I usually retreat to poetry at times like these, because what constitutes hard and fast, legal and the fair, eludes me here.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, a son of Gardiner, Maine, wrote, in his poem Eros Turannos: “We tell you, tapping on our brows, the story as it should be. As if the story of a house were told, or ever could be.”

If ever a line reaches out and grabs you by the throat, it’s that one. All of us, the readers of these disparate stories, tapping on our brows. As if we know. Could know. Perhaps the true tragedy is that we don’t have the slightest idea what went on behind that door, yet are required to judge. Life demands it. Continuing to rise and shine and work and go to school together demands it: a choice. A decision. Justice.

Someone is lying. And that lie is a Molotov cocktail thrown into the living heart of a community. Regardless of how this sad business concludes, everyone gets burned.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Almost there ...

Plot map for my next book.
Among the many ways I torture myself (besides stringing real cranberries and popcorn for the Christmas tree each year): rereading passages from my finished books while I’m in the early stages of writing a new book.

It’s like that scene in the movie Crimes of the Heart, where the sisters regularly sneak peeks at their father’s medical text, Diseases of the Skin. They know it will horrify them but they Just. Can’t. Stop.

Now, I realize how that sounds, and no, I’m not saying my finished work is akin to leprosy. But my “unfinished” work sure is.

First drafts and early exploratory journal entries into new worlds and new characters are terrible to behold. Well, mine are, anyway. I flounder. I grasp. I struggle to understand: who are these people and what the hell are they trying to do? I write barely comprehensible fragments, or run-on-paragraphs that lead nowhere good. I use adverbs. Lots of adverbs. Stephen King would have a field day with my use of –ly.

Somehow, miraculously (well, it’s not really a miracle, it’s called REVISION) all that bad writing eventually rights itself into a story arc; visual scenes; dialogue which isn’t cringe-worthy. You shift the tectonic plates of your imaginary world and kill off characters left and right until you can focus on the small stuff. Tweaks. Like, Is that really the verb I want here? Should I use a pronoun or proper noun here? Should I change her ring tone … ?

Yesterday I wrapped up the almost-final draft of my next book (I say “almost final” because it still has to go to a copyeditor, who checks for typos, inconsistencies, the sort of nit-picky stuff that drives me crazy but can absolutely sink your book if you miss it so yay for copyeditors!) which means I’ve been living with The Small Stuff for a few weeks now.

Coincidently, my writer friend, Paula Bourque, asked via Facebook for other writers to share their late-stage revision tips, and a treasure trove of terrific suggestions poured in. A few I knew/already used, but several were brand new to me, and turned out to be super helpful. Here are a few of my favorites:

From Lynda Mullaly Hunt: Set a day aside and read the entire thing out loud. You hear things you don’t hear when reading silently. (Thanks, Lynda! I read myself hoarse.)

From Cynthia Lord: Change the font and print a copy. It will look different enough that your eye will read every word again … if it looks familiar your eyes sometimes read what you think it says, not exactly what it does. (This was a great idea, Cindy. I swapped Times New Roman for Arial and found all sorts of errors.)

From Sarah Albee: Do a ‘find/replace’ for words you suspect you use too much. (Wow. My characters frowned and shrugged way too often! Glad I checked.)

From Lynn Plourde: You can delete “that” most of the time. (THAT is so true, Lynn!)

From Megan Frazer Blakemore: Give yourself breaks and walk around, even if it’s just around your house. (I don’t think I did this enough, as my aching back will attest ….)

From Kate Messner: When I review copyedits, I take a blank piece of paper to cover up everything beneath the line I’m reading – helps me to slow down. (I will definitely do that when the dreaded copyedits come back!)

My own late-stage tip is to hunt down adverbs and the verb “to be,” replacing them as much as possible with vigorous, transitive verbs. Examples of writers who “do verbs” brilliantly: Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See and E. Annie Proulx in The Shipping News. I’m a big believer in verbs.

Okay, now: to follow Megan’s advice and get out of this chair.  No, better yet: vault from this chair!  (See? Didn’t that create a picture in your mind?)