Garn Press Interview: Rick Meyer, Author of Flush: The Exaggerated Memoir of a Fourth Grade Scaredy-Cat Super-Hero
Rick Meyer is a celebrated scholar and a well-known social justice activist who has devoted his life to the support of teachers and children. He is also a much-loved teacher, but many might not know that he is also a great storyteller.
If this is news to you or if you are already a fan of Rick’s storytelling, Flush: The Exaggerated Memoir of a Fourth Grade Scaredy-Cat Super-Hero, is bound to be at the top of your summer reading list. Flush is one of those wonderful books that can be enjoyed at any age. Fourth graders will love it and so will their parents and grandparents.
Rick’s voice rings true – Flush is great storytelling written down – honest, without affectation, it is a simple tale brilliantly written. Here’s the scoop:
When fourth grade ends, Ricky is on his own for the summer because his parents have jobs and his sisters are sisters so he’s not interested in them. The summer begins on a high note as he rides his bike on adventures that include gathering old lawn mowers, baby strollers, lamps, appliances, and other things left by the side of the road.
Summer joy changes to a roller coaster ride of catastrophes and disasters when he is beaten up and his bike is destroyed not once, but twice. The summer meanders through other adventures, including a recurring nightmare in which Ricky is flushed down the toilet. Catastrophe follows disaster as Ricky works to keep his summer secrets from his parents, fearing they will get a babysitter to keep watch over him if they know some of the many things that have been going on.
Garn Press and Rick Meyer Interview
On Authors and their Books
Garn Press: Do you have a favorite author?
Rick Meyer: When I was growing up, reading served two purposes. First, I did it in school in order to answer the never-ending stream of teachers’ questions about what was in a book. I found myself wanting to say, ‘You’ve got a copy of the book. Why don’t you just find the answer yourself.’
The other purpose was studying Jewish history, at first once a week in Sunday school, but then three times a week that involved walking to the temple two days a week after school and going to Sunday school as well. The weekdays were for Hebrew lessons, but there was a lot of history to study, too — over 5000 years’ worth.
This all taught me to hate reading until I found Stan Lee and other comic book writers. That’s probably why I’m drawn to current-day graphic novels, although when I was a kid, graphic novels were graphic in ways that made us KNOW that our parents could never see that we were reading them.
All that changed when I became a second grade teacher and a librarian at our school told me to read to my students. When she gave me Charlotte’s Web, my life changed. I hadn’t read it before and this was long before there was a movie version.
That book engaged my students and me as we questioned so many things about it. I was teaching in a rural farming community and the kids knew a lot more about the book that I did. They knew the smell of a rotten goose egg. They knew about spider webs in barns and how rats were selfish survivors and connivers. Every important lesson (or at least many of them) in life is in Charlotte’s Web. Friendship, family, dedication, hope, possibility, survival, generations, doubt, and more are themes that saturate the pages of that book. I decided that EB White was a genius and that book remains a favorite. I read it once a year.
All these years later, I find myself reading Chaim Potok and Elie Wiesel because I resonate with the wisdom in their works. When my father died, I found a book of short stories by Sholem Aleichem in a bookcase that my dad made. I found the stories comforting during this intense time and believe that sometimes, I need to read a Jewish author. Their way of seeing the world is comforting because they help me feel less alone. I can hear their voices as I read.
GP: Is there one author who has influenced your writing more than any others?
RM: No. Isn’t that odd? I’ve always felt the author within me quite strongly. I found myself narrating different stories for my own life at a very young age. We’d drive home from my Aunt Sadie’s house along Grand Central Parkway in New York, and I’d watch the trees go by and think about living in the woods and growing my own food. When we went to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, I imagined myself in the future quite differently as I visited different exhibits there.
I think I had an author’s voice early in life, but school squished that in so many painful ways. It wasn’t until graduate school at the University of Arizona that I felt myself reading to think and thinking to read and then using all of that to be a writer, but it turned out that those experiences led to my scholarly voice more than the one I use in novels and poetry. Every poet I see perform influences me by saying to me, ‘You can push yourself in so many ways. Just be honest and you’ll find what you’re looking for in your writing.’
GP: Do you think the relationships between authors and readers are changing?
RM: Yes because authorship is changing so radically, which ultimately influences readers. Bloggers, Tweeters, Facebookers, and all those other forms of social media are changing the landscape of what it means to compose. Everyone gets their voice out there and others are curious to read what they wrote.
So many students who say they are not readers or writers are so busy writing and reading in new media, but also dismissing that as ‘not really reading and writing.’ It is.
And so the relationships are changing between readers and writers and more writers are reading and more readers are writing. It’s a busy literacy time that we’re in. Personally, I don’t care very much that you may have had Rice Krispies for breakfast, but knowing that you’re writing about it and sharing it sort of tickles me as a writer. You say you’re not a writer, but you’re so busy composing you don’t want to do your homework!
What, then, is truly good writing and truly important reading? I’m not sure, but it’s changing all the time. Consider the amazing reading and writing that took place during Occupy Wall Street or the Egyptian Spring uprisings. These were intensely literate moments. Let’s hope that these new uses of reading and writing to challenge and interrogate the status quo continue.
GP: Have you noticed any difference in your own relationships with your readers?
RM: No one reads anything that I write so that’s difficult to answer — OK, just kidding a bit. My mom read everything that I wrote and I’m sad that she’s not around to read my first novel that is getting published.
Some of my graduate students read my scholarly work. But what can I say about that relationship? To my face, they love my work, of course. I wonder what they say about me on Facebook?
GP: If you could express one thought to all your readers what would it be?
RM: One of my teachers was Jiddu Krishnamurti. I went to hear him speak at the Town Hall in New York City once. At the end of an inspiring talk, one of the members of the audience asked, “Can you explain, please, why some of what you said is not consistent with what is in your books?” Krishnamurti replied, “Don’t read my books. Go and write your own books.” People laughed, of course, but this is an important lesson from a master. He wanted us to find ourselves, write our stories, and lead better lives through our own narratives.
Interestingly, though, his books were for sale in the lobby. As I left that night and saw people buying them, I wanted to say, “Hey, listen to the master. Don’t buy his books.” But then I thought that perhaps he needed that money to get by and to be able to get to New York and other places to speak.
He wanted his thoughts out there and his thoughts were organic. That was his message. Thoughts change and that’s a good thing. A book captures thinking for and at a moment in time. Don’t get stuck there, because the author surely didn’t.
On Writing as Part of Daily Life
GP: When do you write? Do you have a routine?
RM: Could I, would I in a house? On a plane? On a rock? Would I could I with pen? Or a mac? Or PC?
I’m one of those people that other people hate because I love to write. My job gets in the way of that. Sometimes my family does — but they make me see that’s a good thing.
I write whenever I can. I love to write on yellow pads because there’s less glare. I love a pen that’s comfortable to hold and doesn’t scratch at the page.
When I am into writing, I do it as much as I can. On a break between meetings. At night after dinner. I have a small flashlight next to my bed and a pen and paper. If I get an idea in the middle of the night, I put the flashlight in my mouth and shine it on the pad and write the idea.
I lose ideas if I don’t write them down — in that sense, I have paper brains. Ideas that are well crafted don’t stay in my head so I have to write them down. Then I usually realize they’re not that well crafted and I revise.
You’ll hate this — I love revision. I love to sit with a piece and massage it with different phrasing, words, sequences, points of view and more. This is my idea of fun. I know, it’s pathetic but it is true.
GP: How do you begin a writing project?
RM: I don’t. The project begins me. I was walking to the track where I work out one morning and I crossed a footbridge that goes over an arroyo, which is a stream that’s dry unless it rains. I’d crossed it hundreds of times in all the years I’ve lived in Albuquerque. But on that particular day, I imagined/saw a murder under the bridge. I got home and could not stop writing about it.
I wrote about that murder and everything that led up to and everything that happened after it for one-month straight, every night, for three hours. I’d come home from work, eat, and then write. Before I knew it, it was time to go to bed. I used that flashlight and pad and pen a lot during that time. When it was all done, I thought it was simplistic and too predictable.
I haven’t done anything with it. But I had to write it. It found me and I owed it to…someone or something to get it down.
Also, I hate when people say what I just wrote. It makes it seem like writing is this special connection to some aetheric place and some people are connected and others are not. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that the flash of inspiration is something that comes and then I decide – write or don’t write. I’ve lost many pieces, both scholarly and more artsy, by enjoying the flash of inspiration and doing nothing about it. Shame on me, right? I know.
GP: Do you keep notebooks? Use special paper?
RM: I have poetry and short pieces I’ve written from high school. They’re awful.
When I began to write seriously as a scholar and now as more of an artist, I already had my first mac. I’ll start on yellow paper, but I can’t read my own writing too often. I also like that I can close my eyes and write on the computer. I haven’t moved into the voice to text programs yet and probably won’t. I like that it’s so quiet outside of my head when I’m so noisily writing inside and on the screen.
GP: Do you listen to music when you write?
RM: No. I love quiet and solitude. That’s why I love that my wife has so many friends. She can go out with them while I write. Hmmm, now that I’ve written that I wonder if I should worry. Anyway, it’s so noisy in my mind when I write that music would distract me. I’d want to get up and lip sync or dance along.
GP: Do you share your writing while you are still writing or wait until you have a draft?
RM: All of my writing is a draft. It’s still a draft when it’s written. These responses are a draft. Anyone reading them may tell me what they think and then I’ll probably want to change something to make it more clear or to disagree with myself. Mostly, when I ask someone to read a draft, I feel as though I’m asking them for their left kidney. It seems like a huge demand to make of someone. And, they have to know how to respond to a draft. That’s really difficult for most people to do.
Honesty isn’t easy and knowing how to respond to a piece isn’t easy either. Many people want to tell their own stories as response; they answer my story or piece with one of their own. I want to tell them, ‘Hey, go write it for yourself then. We’re talking about me, here, not you.’ So I really need a therapist as a first reader, I suppose. They’re paid to focus on me.
But then there’s Hanna — my best friend who I’ve known since fourth grade. She lives in North Carolina and is supportive and loves me and knows my history so she knows how to respond with sensitivity, care, and honest. Brutal honesty, when I need it. That’s a true friend and a great draft reader. I never feel like I’m imposing a burden on her when I ask her to read. And she’s brilliant, in all meanings of the word. That makes sending her a draft momentous because it’s so serious. I don’t want to send her something half-baked unless I am stuck. She helps me get unstuck.
With any reader who’s willing to read my draft, I must remember this — and I hope others will heed this advice — a reader only gets one virgin read. A virgin read is the first; it’s the first time the reader reads it, and that only happens once. After that, they know the other versions they’ve read and that influences their thinking.
Take the virgin read and reader seriously. I even tell my doctoral students when they submit a paper or dissertation for me to read, “Are you sure? You only get one virgin read. Is it really ready?” Don’t take virgin reads for granted. They make all the difference, especially if you’re lucky enough to have someone willing to read subsequent drafts.
GP: How does your “day job” as an academic influence your writing?
RM: It’s my writing. So is my artistic writing. I love to write academic pieces and doing the research that distills into those pieces. That said, sometimes my day job just gets in the way of the writing I want to do. I want the solitude in which to think, question, push, and so much more.
GP: What about ideas for books? Do they percolate for years before you write, or do you work it out as your write, or perhaps a combination of both?
RM: Once I start a piece, like Flush, it may percolate for years.
I wrote different parts at different times. Lillie’s poop was really Lillie’s shit — a story about my mom’s cooking that I’ve been massaging in writers workshops for years. I was the director of a site of the National Writing Project, so I had seven summers and the years in between to write about mom’s cooking. I love that I had so many audiences to read and share it with. I watched their reactions, made changes, moved things around — and it was only a few pages long. But it was so much fun to move it from half to full baked with different groups of aspiring writers and teachers.
GP: What book or chapter of a book are you most proud of writing?
RM: There are three. Kathy Whitmore and I have co-edited three Reclaiming books. They focus on reading, writing, and early childhood literacies. The final chapters of each of those books are really powerful and we worked collaborative to craft them. We discovered the importance of joy, of listening, and of finding essential and true literacy learning spaces in those books. Get the books. The final chapters are worth the price of admission.
On The Role of the Writer in Society
GP: What does it mean to be a writer in troubled times?
RM: Most writers are troubled. We probably contribute to times being troubled, as we should. Because if we didn’t, how would things be questioned?
We owe it to our planet and its inhabitants to generate, name, and address trouble. We are part of the force that strives to advance consciousness — that’s our moral and ethical duty. That includes consciousness about what we’re doing, what others are doing, and how we influence one another.
We’re increasingly objects of large corporations and we seem to exist to serve them. Our HMOs, large box stores, education corporations, and more work daily to limit our choices.
We are becoming a corporate feudal society and it terrifies me. We’re losing the diversities that sustain us, just as hybrids in nature have a better chance of survival.
These are the things that worry me and keep me up at night. The search for hope and possibilities must remain central in these times and that’s why some youth are so inspiring to me. They’re talking back and taking back in many ways, artistically, politically, economically, and more.
GP: How is your writing connected to present day events?
RM: Both my scholarly work and the creative work in which I engage are composed to name, unmask, expose, challenge, interrogate, and activate — so that we keep our individual and unique senses of agency as we work to act upon the world.
GP: If you wrote a book about the future — the way you imagine it will be — what kind of book would you write?
RM: It would probably have to be a fantasy in which everyone listens to me!
Joking aside, my greatest fear is that we are heading for moments of intense and revolutionary change that could lead to the destruction of life, as we know it.
I’d like to write something about what happens after that moment that doesn’t resonate with the Terminator movies in which the machines have risen up and are working to blot out all living human beings.
The scary premise of the movie is that humans are like a virus that will consume the body — in this case, the planet — so the machines rise up once they’ve achieved consciousness. The machines figured out that we are the problem.
It’s that old Pogo cartoon, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We have a lot of self-reflection to engage in to face that we’re our enemy and to respond to that with infinite love and care and dedication to each other. Like I said, it’s a fantasy.
On Early Reading Experiences
GP: What are your earliest memories of words?
RM: I remember hearing, “NO!” a lot. I was kind of a daredevil, including such things as putting a towel around my neck so it looked like a cape and believing that I could fly off the kitchen table. When I regained consciousness, I remember my mother saying, “Don’t ever do that again.” I guess that meant not to try it off the roof of the garage, too.
My family was loud so I remember volume more than content. There were always arguments about everything: politics, religion, fertilizer for the grass, best route to take to someone’s home, and the list goes on and on. We argued about everything. My sisters and I still do. But it’s not fights, it’s arguments. We do love each other; and we did when we were younger. It’s just that the other person was always wrong and had to be told that. My parents modeled that very well, but they also held hands when they went grocery shopping.
GP: Do you remember your first books?
RM: I still have them. Three of those Golden Books with the gold and black tape along the edge and one called The Rabbit Brothers. The Rabbit Brothers is about two rabbits, both white. One loves everyone; the other hates black rabbits. It was published in 1947 and the issue of racism is loud and clear in it.
My mom always talked with us about issues of race, religion, gender, war, workers’ rights and more as she pushed us to interrogate the world for the justice to which she thought everyone was entitled.
She sent me from New York to my first rally in Washington DC when I was 14 years old. Alone. On a train. Once I arrived in DC, I had directions to the park across from the White House.
Books were, for me, about issues that needed to be addressed. Even the Golden Book about the circus, which was simply a circus story, had issues worthy of concern, including should we even have such a thing as a circus? How fair was it to animals?
GP: What about your earliest memories of someone reading to you?
RM: On those wonderful and rare occasions, my mom took our four books and piled my sisters and me into her lap and read to us. Then she’d switch to singing songs, then songs in Hebrew, then prayers, and as one of us fell asleep, she’d take that one to bed and continue with the other two. My older sister always made it to bed last. She was the most stubborn of us. I’m not sure she liked the singing, but she liked to stay up late.
When my mother died, my younger sister inherited that rocking chair. It’s still in her house. I can’t believe how small it looks and that we all fit into it. It still makes me smile when I sit it in.
GP: Was there a moment when you first knew you could read?
RM: There was a moment when I first knew I couldn’t. Mrs. M-, my second grade teacher, had a big meeting with my parents. They never went to school unless summoned and Mrs. M- had done just that. She said I wasn’t paying attention and wasn’t learning to read and gave me a book to read at home. It was the same basal reader we used at school and it had awful stories about families and the dad always wore a suit, something my father did only twice a year during the High Holy Days. I hated the stories, found them dull and ridiculous, and rarely followed as I was supposed to. I then had to read them twice, once at home in preparation for school the next day, and then at school in my reading group. I was in the lowest group. My mother stressed a lot about this and asked me if I wanted to get into a good college. Pressure!
GP: What did you like about reading?
RM: I like when: I choose the piece, I have time to read, I can savor all the parts I want to savor, I can reread parts, I can study the text and really get to know it, and I can talk to someone about it. I don’t have enough time to do any of that and it makes me deeply sad. I mean, what am I waiting for? I’m old. I better get back to doing that now, before…well…
GP: What did you dislike about reading?
RM: When I can’t do it the way I just said.
GP: Did you have a favorite author when you were a young child?
RM: Who wrote Mad Magazine? I loved Alfred E. Neuman — I just googled how to spell that. I always thought it was Newman, like a New Man. I loved the irreverence and the in-your-face attitude.
GP: Did you read book series as a child?
RM: Does Mad Magazine count as a series? They came out pretty regularly.
GP: Can you remember doing research for a project in school?
RM: Read my book. The part about Georgia and Alabama is true. How sad that I reported on cotton and goobers but not on civil rights. Pathetic.
GP: Did you study for exams — if so how?
RM: I was obsessive. I’d write notes, memorize, recite, write essays, look things up, and still get a B-. No one ever told me about the importance of meaning. I was just trying to memorize. Even now I don’t know the dates of the War of 1812. I just can’t remember it.
On Early Writing/Drawing Experiences
GP: What are your earliest memories of writing at home?
RM: I wrote many letters to get stuff for free. I did homework. For a while, I wrote about scientific experiments I was doing in the basement. I kept track of all the things I mixed together and what happened. Nothing happened. It got boring so I stopped.
GP: Did you like to draw?
RM: Nope. But I married an artist. Does that count?
GP: Did you paint as a child?
RM: Sure. The garage door — with stripes. The kitchen cabinets. A few bedrooms. Those were chores during the summer when other kids were off at camp.
GP: Do you still have any of your early writing, drawings, or paintings?
RM: No but I have everything my younger daughter wrote from her first piece of writing through the end of second grade. Every single piece.
I neglected to save my older daughter’s work, but didn’t repeat that mistake. That incredible data set became the topic of my dissertation and I compared her school writing to what she wrote at home. It remains the longest dissertation ever written at the University of Arizona at almost 700 pages. It had to be bound in two volumes!
I loved writing that and my daughter was a collaborator on the work. I’d interview her and she was such a great informant. You can read parts of it in a book called Stories from the Heart, in which I write about the importance of writing to, from, and for your passions.
GP: Can you remember being taught to write at school?
RM: That’s in Flush, too. Rows of letters. Rows and rows. And then a word or two. Until 12th grade when Mark Letterway, an amazing high school teacher, told us the truth about why people write and encouraged us to live the lives of writers. Some of us did. I did.
He was so supportive and accepting. He even had us use magazines to compose visual texts and that was in 1968! He let me be goofy; I cut out pictures of people and replaced their heads with vegetables and fruit. He worked so hard to find meaning in the work and I ultimately just told him the truth, “I think these people look better with fruit and vegetable heads.” He was disappointed, but didn’t give up on me.
When we got to the poetry unit, I flourished and he loved seeing that happen. He was a great teacher. I hope he’s still alive and not senile. If you’re reading this, Mark, you’re the man! I love what you did for me and appreciate it.
GP: What about taking tests – can you remember taking them?
RM: Remember all that studying I did? I’d get to class and hear my pulse in my ears, need to pee, be afraid to ask to leave the room, and do lousy. Math, English, Chemistry, etc., it didn’t matter. I panicked at all of them.
GP: Did you have to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests?
RM: Yes. Still panicked. Still did lousy.
GP: Can you remember if you had other sorts of tests? Short answers? Essays?
RM: All these questions are feeling like a test! So, now, as an adult, I’ve learned to respond by saying it’s ok for me to say, “We’re done here.” So, “We’re done here,” except for the little bit more, below, because it’s so important.
GP: What advice would you give teachers if they asked you how they could create opportunities for their students to become enthusiastic readers and writers?
RM: Write yourself. Live the life of a real writer. That’ll flip your instructional world upside down.
About Flush: The Exaggerated Memoir of a Fourth Grade Scaredy-Cat Super-Hero
When fourth grade ends, Ricky is on his own for the summer because his parents have jobs and his sisters are, well, they’re sisters so he’s not interested in them. The summer begins on a high note as he begins gathering items left at people’s curbsides, things like lawn mowers, baby strollers, old lamps, and appliances.
His plans to build a vehicle go well, and then he starts building a robot. But his plans are interrupted as he rides around the neighborhood one morning and gets jumped by Mike. Mike beats up Ricky, leaving him bloody and his bike in ruins. Fearing his father’s reaction to the wrecked bike and his mother’s reaction to his torn and bloody clothing, Ricky hides both and secretly works on repairing his bike.
His relationship with his father is confusing for Ricky as he tries to please him but just cannot seem to do so. Ricky’s father is equally confused by their relationship. The summer meanders through other adventures, including a recurring nightmare in which Ricky, a skinny kid, is flushed down the toilet. Catastrophe follows disaster as Ricky works to keep his summer secrets from his parents, fearing they will get a babysitter to keep watch over him if they know some of the many things that have been going on.
Flush: The Exaggerated Memoir of a Fourth Grade Scaredy-Cat Super-Hero
Publication Date: June, 2015 (Hardcover print)
Publication Date: June, 2015 (Paperback print)
Publication Date: June, 2015 (eBook)
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-39-1
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-40-7
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-41-4
About Rick Meyer
Rick Meyer has been a writer for as long as he can remember. He loves to play with language in ways that inspire readers to consider ideas that he thinks are neglected. Rick typically does this through his teaching at the University of New Mexico or in the professional articles and books that he writes.
But in his novels and poetry, he challenges readers to notice the subtle everyday things that we often take for granted. He writes about the flabby part of his teacher’s arm that extends from her elbow to her shoulder and is amazed at the way it wobbles as she writes on the board. Or the aroma of rice cooking with tomato paste, which can serve as an alarm for a pending dinner of doom that has the taste of every leftover from the refrigerator.
Woven through those subtleties, he brings to light the difficult parts of being a boy, such as dealing with a bully, convincing a friend not to murder a beautiful fish, and understanding the complicated relationship between a boy and his father.