Tuesday, September 30, 2014
And not really about September memories, but memories in general.
Because as a writer, I've found that memories, the good ones anyway, the ones I've told at dinner tables and to my children, are what have made me a story-teller, such as it is. In a large Italian family, all they did, at every gathering and holiday, was tell memory-stories. Embellished, most likely, but fun and meaningful. I learned, from a great many storytellers, how to pick the juiciest and plumpest memories, the ones with a beginning, middle, and most important, punch-line of an ending. We ate them up with the pasta and laughed so hard I choked. On several occasions. Those stories brought me out of my shell and made me feel like I belonged and took root in some deep place inside me.
People ask where my stories come from. I suppose the simple answer is the place where they were planted.
Friday, September 26, 2014
Then I dug around a little more and found the later drafts, heavy packets of paper that made me feel guilty (so much paper!) but also went about 200 pages into a story that still tugged at my soul. I found all of the clippings that I'd saved during research: newspaper articles about seals that had wandered into New York City waters, musings on what would actually happen if one fell into a black hole (nothing good), Yoruba folktales, analyses of C.S. Lewis and fairy tales, my photographs from a tour of a secret subway tunnel in the heart of downtown Brooklyn, and more from a sort-of secret swimming pool in the bowels of Columbia University -- one of the oldest indoor pools in the country, featuring a bronze lion's head that once worked as a fountain, spouting water onto the swimmers below. And chapters upon chapters reuniting me with a beloved, difficult, wonderful protagonist and her adventures above and below ground.
I had put it all away a long time ago, having gotten to that point where I could see neither the forest or the trees and needed to step away, for a long while, so that I didn't give up. Because I couldn't give it up. I was stuck, frustrated sick with that on-the-tip-of-my-tongue feeling of a book that dangled just out of reach. But I couldn't let go of it for good, but I had to let go for a while...before it got really, really bad.
Last week, I looked through those dusty, overstuffed accordion files and they breathed -- still living with the magic of story.
It's time to start again.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
...Have I learned more this year than I ever thought I would? Yes. Has 2014 been enlightening in a thousand different ways? Yes. Do I know more about myself as a writer than I did this time last year? God, yes. But the ups and downs of the past year are starting to exhaust me.
Usually, September does feel like a fresh start, a new beginning. Not this year. Right now, I sort of have the same feeling I used to in May, when the school year was starting to come to a close. That road weary feeling.
But I know myself well enough to also know that part of this feeling stems from the fact that I'm in the midst of finishing up. I'm finishing up the last of my blog tours, finishing up a rewrite. When I get this rewrite done, I'll take a deep breath, and I'll look toward the next project in line: a project I've wanted to get out into the world for a decade. And I'll get a second wind. And that September new-beginning feel will finally hit me.
Because it will be--it'll be a brand-new beginning.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
And of course September meant a new classroom and a new teacher. I always felt a sense of potential and possibility as I walked to school on the first day. I feel some of that same excitement now when I read the beginning of a new book.
For a fun reading exercise, have students choose three different book beginnings, a paragraph or page, that made them feel excited to read the book. Have them discuss why they found those beginnings compelling.
Then, for a writing exercise, have them write the beginning of their own story in three different ways. Share those with the rest of the class, and have the other students choose which beginning makes them want to continue reading and why.
And have fun.
Monday, September 22, 2014
I felt that way this month. My September memories are much like those of the other writers on this blog. I, too, delighted in shopping trips, new school supplies, and the idea of a clean slate. I entered every September with optimism and joy. As much as it wasn’t cool to admit it back then, I enjoyed school. Summers were often boring, especially by the end of August.
I thought I had nothing to add, and then I remembered books. Wasn’t it exciting to get all those new books at the beginning of the school year? I can still remember the inky smell of them. And making book covers out of brown paper grocery bags.
But even better, there were the school book clubs. In the beginning of the school year, when the teachers were full of energy and willing to do extra, they passed out those book club flyers and sent them home with us. Those flyers were filled with affordable books, and I almost always got to buy something. Of course I wanted ALL of them, but I could choose one or two.
It was through the book clubs that I discovered Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series, and Marilyn Sachs—my favorite author in fifth and sixth grade—and too many others whose titles and authors elude me. But I can remember the day the book club box would arrive, and the teacher would pass out our books. I can remember the shiny, paperback covers, and the promise of getting lost in the story as soon as I got home from school. I’m sure that happened periodically throughout the school year, but I will always associate that particular joy with September.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
You’re the first audience to your work and the most important audience. Gloria Naylor
To the great artist, anything whatever is possible. John Gardner
What do I need in order to release my imagination? Toni Morrison
Fiction is forever fiction; but readers want to believe, if only for a few hours, that their lives and worlds have expanded. They want to respond as if fiction were real. Jewell Parker Rhodes
The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art. Junot Diaz
|Student work: Found object fish|
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Then I saw "starting a book with a first-day-of-school scene" included on one of those recently circulating lists of middle-school fiction cliches. I had a pang when I saw it. For not only have I been tempted to launch a story in this way, I have published a number of books that do precisely that. It's so awful to be called out for predictability! It's so cringe-worthy to be a cliche!
So in defense of myself, let me suggest ways that we can write about the first day of school that make this standard opening at least a little bit more fresh and new.
1. Consider why the first day of school is a special challenge for your character. It's not enough to be a new kid in a new school. But maybe your character has always been homeschooled and so is entering the regimented world of public schooling for the first time. Maybe he has a disability - a disfiguring appearance, a cognitive or affective limitation. Or maybe this first day of school is just a defining moment for her at this time in her life story.The heroine of my Dinah for President had been a force to be reckoned with in elementary school (Dynamite Dinah) and now finds herself pitifully anonymous in middle school. The title character of my Lizzie at Last overhears some peers making fun of her during a back-to-school shopping trip and yearns to reinvent herself in seventh grade. The protagonist of my After Fifth Grade, the World gets the meanest teacher in the school and is bound and determined to use her own abundant energy to reform her (with mixed results).
2. Consider introducing some distinctive features to your school that will give your story that ring of the real. Is the school overcrowded, spilling out into portables? Does it share space with another, rival school? Does it have unusual architecture, or an unusual curricular focus? A quirky principal, comical mascot, unique way of displaying school spirit, laughable motto?
3. Don't just take us through the character's opening day, class by class, in a dutiful way. Let each teacher come alive with (briefly given) distinctive mannerisms, unreasonable rules, noteworthy outfits, squirm-inducing get-to-know-you activities -- all of these intersecting with your character's distinctive challenge in a way fruitful for your larger story and character arc.
4. Assignment for the reader: how many different ways can you think of to do something fun with that hugest of all first-day of middle-school challenges - the combination lock? So far I've done two combination lock scenes that I can remember. After finally getting her locker open, Dinah collects her books and slams the locker shut in triumph - only to find that she's caught her skirt in the door. And Cooper in One Square Inch finds himself called a "combination lock genius" and instant sixth grade celebrity for his lock-opening prowess.
Maybe, even after all of this effort, the first-day-of-school scene will remain a cliche. If so, then all I can say is that there are good reasons why some things become writing cliches: it's because they speak so deeply to something so important in the human experience, in this case, in the experience of children who some distant day may be writing their own blog posts on what the first day of school once meant to them.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Monday, September 15, 2014
I was teaching third grade for the first time in a school that was new to me. I received my room key and my class list and made my way to the second floor of a great old school building. It was a 1930's classic with hardwood floors, high ceilings, and huge windows. My list had 24 boys and girls. One of the veteran teachers on the floor poked her head in. "Do you have your list? Let me take a look."
I handed her the list and she began ticking off the names "Marie. She's sweet. David. Oh, he's nice. He's quiet, but very smart. Tania. She's a bit of a hand full." On and on till she stopped in the middle of the list. "Oh. You have Sinclair. He's just bad. Don't turn your back on that one. He hit a teacher last year!" She shook her head and went on.
As we set up our rooms that day I met another teacher who asked to see my list. I asked her about Sinclair. She was hesitant. "He has a twin brother, Otis. Otis is the nice one. But Sinclair was in a lot of trouble last year." Her mouth turned down. "Then again his father died."
That night I planned my first day. Though I was still a new teacher I knew the beginning would be important. Especially for Sinclair.
Sinclair showed up the first day pimp rolling into the room. Head shaven. Collar of his jacket up. He found his name on a desk and threw himself down in the chair. He stared at the floor. No hello. Not even a glance at me.
I was going to try something I had read about, thought about, but in only my second year, had never yet tried. I asked everyone to come up and take a seat on the carpet. "Okay. Three things I want to do to start us off. One - let's get to know each other." To do that we played a fun memory game that allowed us all to learn each others' names. Sinclair mumbled his name and did not really participate except to smirk to another boy. When I asked him a direct question he just shrugged and looked down.
After the name game, I said, "Two. I have a question for you. Why are we here?" This simple question lead to a great discussion about what their expectations were and what mine were. They were very engaged and visibly surprised. I don't think anyone had ever asked them the question before, but it helped us clarify what the real goals of our year would be and what our beliefs about school were. Sinclair studied his sneakers the whole time, picking at the frayed laces. He never once looked up. When I asked if he wanted to add anything, he shrugged to the floor.
And finally, I made the speech I probably wouldn't have, except for Sinclair. I lowered my voice. "Three. I want you all to know something. Everyone here this year starts with a clean slate."
I said the next words slowly and with emphasis, "I-do-not-care what-you-did-last-year." Sinclair finally looked up. I met his eyes. They actually, visibly widened. I continued locked in, "I don't care if it was great or terrible. I don't care if you got all A's or all F's. It doesn't matter to me what you did on the playground, or in the classroom, or even at home. It means nothing to me."
I paused again. I drew an empty rectangle on the board and wrote under it, "Clean Slate." I turned back to the group. "Your year with me starts today. Right now. This is when we begin." I stopped. "There is no limit to how good we can make this year."
Believe it or not, as hokey as that all sounds, Sinclair really heard those words. He apparently needed to hear those words. I was just lucky I sensed it.
Sinclair turned out to be a fun, intelligent, loyal, trustworthy child. He had his incidents on the playground and could get stubborn and angry, but he always kept it together. He seized his second chance. His blank slate.
Because of Sinclair, every September for the rest of my teaching career, I drew that empty rectangle on the board and talked very deliberately about the clean slate.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
|Photo by: |
Rita Crayon Huang
Thanks for joining us at Smack Dab in the Middle Blog, Edith. Again, congratulations on the release of SPIRIT’S KEY!
Friday, September 12, 2014
Every September 2nd, Mom, my sister and I headed to the local shopping center - there were no indoor malls near us - for our Back-To-School outfits. We always got three new dresses. (In those days, girls didn't wear pants to school.) Why three? One for each day of the first week of school - Wednesday, Thursday, Friday of Labor Day week. It was an all day adventure, making the most of a taxi ride since neither of my parents drove or had a car.
We'd try on dozens of dresses as Mom waited patiently, until we settled on just the right ones. Then it was on to shoe shopping, again trying on endless pairs until the perfect shoes were found. Once we had them, we'd get new socks and underwear to go with it all. Depending on the fashion of the time, we'd also get hairbands, barrettes, or bows to enhance our new "dos". We'd get haircuts or perms, to match the whims of style.
We'd be exhausted after the long day of shopping. We'd pick up an order of Chicken Chop Suey from the Chinese restaurant before getting the cab back home.
Laying everything out on the bed when we got home filled me with pride and satisfaction. With new outfits - lovingly chosen - and fresh supplies stacked and ready, I could conquer the world. At least the K-8 world!
Do today's kids get that same feeling about back to school shopping? Dressing up in your best clothes, the pride of having your own "gear" and feeling a sense of anticipation? I still get "goose-bumpy" when I see those Back-To-School displays. With my own children grown and out on their own, I've had to channel my enthusiasm in a positive direction. So, every year, I load up on notebooks, pencils and all the goodies. Only now, I fill up two backpacks and donate them to OPERATION BACKPACK to give other children a chance to feel that special feeling. Everyone should have the thrill of a "fresh start" and a new beginning.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Thoughts and Things from Then
Still vivid in my memory, there are balsa-wood airplanes and Sunday quarters and fall-apart brisket and fried chicken and lemon meringue pies and other trademarks of my grandparents. These are the things stories are made of. Bus excursions to mid-week movies, waffles from scratch, leather factory smells, hands calloused by the strings that used to bind newspapers into tight rolls.
We all have so many personal details burnt into our memories, but the times they come alive for us is when we can also recall the facial expressions, the tone of voice, the emotions behind them. And only then can we begin to make our readers feel what we did once upon a time.
How can one write a blog post on "Remembering" -- on September 11 -- without a heartfelt mention of those who lost friends and family and to those who showed unparalleled bravery and compassion. I can't even imagine your difficult memories. I wish you millions of beautiful ones to stand to their side or