Next week, during the Winter Break from school, while I'm writing, I'll be taking frequent breaks to work on holiday cards (I give myself until the 12th day of Christmas...or longer) and homemade candy gift boxes with my daughter. In the past, we've done these things well in advance of the Hanukkah, Christmas, the Solstice, and all of the "official" winter holidays around here, but that didn't happen this year. That doesn't change my gratitude for all of the wonderful, loving people in my life. I am so grateful to and for them in so many ways. Putting the spirit of gratitude out in the world is one way paying it forward, backward, and every which way. So, I'm looking forward to making this a "thanksgiving" Break!
The lovely thing about this time of year is that Smack Dab is NOT in the Classroom! Vacation Time is here.
I vividly remember the utter joy of being able to read WHATEVER I WANTED TO READ. The last day of school was the best—visiting the school library where librarian Mrs. Hayes had bowls of peppermints on the tables; choosing books, old beloved ones and new ones, to take home; carrying them piled in the crook of my arm in sweet anticipation.
Ten days to read. Ten days to be lost in other worlds, turning page after page. Ten days of paradise that could only be made better if it should snow.
Every child needs the wild, free reading time to adventure and explore new books. So let go of “structure.” Let go of “improving.” And for ten days, let your imagination roam.
Happy Holidays, and Happy Reading. And may you have snow!
By this point in the month, my fellow bloggers have pretty much covered the Paying it Forward theme. I’ve been trying to think of something new and different, and finally cried uncle and decided to turn the conversation in a new direction: asking for help.
Like many other children’s writers, I love to visit schools to talk about reading and writing. I also teach writing workshops at SCBWI conferences and, sometimes, in friends’ living rooms. Both are things I’d like to do more of, but I’ve never been very good at promoting myself. And while teachers, librarians, and writers have always been positive about their experiences in my visits and workshops, I’ve never been very good at asking for recommendations.
Over the past few months I’ve been trying to change that.
When someone tells me they learned a lot from one of my workshops: “Would you mind sending me a blurb for my website?”
When a conference organizer says something similar: “Would you recommend me to other SCBWI chapters?”
When a school librarian tells me that I excited and inspired her students: “Are there other schools in your area I should contact? Can I use your name?”
When an adult reader tells me how much they enjoyed one of my books: “Would you mind posting a review on one of the online bookselling sites?”
I’m always happy to help out fellow writers and readers, but I’m not comfortable asking for help myself. But I’m starting to get used to asking the questions. Some people say yes and never follow through (which is fine, people are busy). But mostly they’re happy to help—all I need to do is ask.
Now if only I could find the time to update my website........
Once, during a long, Minnesota winter, my young daughter and
I spent our days living as Piglet and Pooh.
As Piglet, I fretted; as Pooh, my daughter offered calm. In our old two-story house, our own Hundred
Acre Wood, we went on expotitions, admired Christopher Robin, took advice from
Owl, doted on sweet Roo. Pooh stopped by
in search of honey, or stood under an umbrella waiting for the rain. When I was scared of the unknown, he held my
hand. That winter, A.A. Milne’s books, and
the characters he’d created, were as real to us as the never-ending snow
outside our door.
Those young days with my daughter disappeared, still every Christmas
season we unpack the little mailbox where Pooh and Piglet left each other letters
long ago. That winter, before she was a
reader, my daughter could decipher Piglet’s simple messages, and the notes that
filled our mailbox were cryptic little letters, simple child drawings Pooh and Piglet understood. Piglet wrote to Pooh; and Pooh wrote
back. And those letters meant so much to us, they're still inside that box
How far we were that Minnesota winter from A.A. Milne and his
1920’s England, yet how present his work was in our quiet, daily lives. What he’d once imagined, we imagined; and we
took it to our hearts, and made his story ours.
Even to this day I am my Pooh’s Piglet.
Who can guess the power of a book: the way the characters
are company, the way they are our friends, the way they teach us how to live
Thank you A.A. Milne for those winter days of dreams.
Both the good and bad thing about having my blogging turn fall later in the month is that I get to read everything posted on our chosen topic by my fellow bloggers before deciding what I want to contribute to the ongoing conversation. This month I've had the chance to be struck by the outpouring of generosity of my fellow writers: so many people giving so much to others in so many ways. So it's time to release just a teensy weensy bit of my own inner Scroogism.
I believe in paying it forward. I've been the beneficiary of great kindness from fellow writers, and I've tried to pay forward as much, and more, than I've received. But . . .
What are we to do when we get requests to read and comment on manuscripts - sometimes full-length novels - from (and these are all real examples from my own life): our child's kindergarten teacher, our child's fifth grade teacher, colleagues at work, our pastor, friends of friends of friends - many of whom may be extremely offended if any of the criticism we offer is actually in any way critical? Most recently, one former grad student contacted me because his wife had written a book and needed feedback on it:"Of course, I thought of you." He said he could give her comments himself (though he has never written or published any fiction), but he thought it would be better if the comments came from someone else. "You know, the usual thing, what is your audience, etc. etc." He told me it would probably take me less than an hour.
What should I have said? What would you say? How do we balance generosity to others with respect for our own time and talents? How much is too much?
Here are some guidelines I'm in the process of working out for myself.
1. It takes just a few minutes to write back to someone to give at least some morsel of encouragement and tidbit of advice. Usually, in my case, the advice involves information about the existence and resources of SCBWI.
2. Sometimes, if a manuscript is short enough, it takes me less time to give a couple of general comments than it does to explain why I'm unwilling to do so. I can certainly tell people that what they have is too long to be a picture book, or would work better in prose not rhyme, or would work better without the illustrations provided by their cousin's sister-in-law's neighbor.
3. If it's a longer manuscript, I feel no guilt in declining for reasons of time and offering referrals to writer friends who critique for a well-deserved fee.
4. If someone lives locally, I truly never mind meeting for tea. I've done this many, many, many times, and without exception the people have turned out to be absolutely fascinating and delightful, where it was a gift to me to get to know them. This is exactly how paying it forward should feel.
As for my former grad student, I told him that what he thought would take a mere hour would actually take me more like a full day of careful reading and reflection, for a manuscript that fell outside my area of professional expertise. I told him about the value of a writing group, using my own group as an example, and offered suggestions for how his wife might find one.
I always want to give SOMETHING. But I don't give EVERYTHING. Because if I did, I'd no longer be able to give ANYTHING.
Ever since I was a kid, sitting
cross-legged on a stool in author Joy Lackey's kitchen while she
looked over my poetry, I knew writers were a giving people. Whether
you are brand new to writing (and eleven years old, no less) or
whether you're a published author, there is always someone willing to
lend a hand. Authors read each other's query letters. We listen to
each other's pitches. We smatter ink across each other's paragraphs.
We offer advice. Encouragement. Caution. Reason. Hope. We serve as
cheerleaders, coaches, and critics as needed.We are everything from a bickering family to each other's biggest fans.
So many people have helped me on my
writing journey, starting (but certainly not ending) when I was a
child. Some of those early experiences with the wonder that is the
writing community helped me to stay with this craft.
As authors, here are a few ways we can
pay forward the help we were given and assist a new generation of
1. Encourage a child to read.
There is no better way to grow future writers than to put books –
your own and others' – into kids' hands.
2.Encourage a child to write.
Provide the space. The paper and pens. The prompts. Whatever you
need to do to help kids jump in.
3.Teach kids to value each others' writing.
There is nothing more rewarding than helping kids create their own
honest. Cheerlead. But don't
only cheerlead. Kids
need to know that writing is fun, but that it is work, and that
there is value to second drafts, and third drafts, and beyond.
a fan. Kids need someone to want
to read their writing, to cherish each turn of phrase, to wait with
bated breath for the next installment.
Something good happened
to me in fifth grade— my teacher sparked within me the love of reading, and
that gift has never stopped giving.
As an adult, I became a
reading volunteer at my local elementary school because of what I had been
given all those years ago. His name was John and, like me at his age, he was a
poor reader. I wanted more than anything for him to know the excitement and joy
of getting lost in a good book. I wanted him to want “just one more page,” to
want more when the book was done, to wonder and think about the characters and
I spent two years, one
hour three times a week, with John, building up his reading skills word by
word, book by book, giggle by giggle, high fives by high fives. And like a
vitamin taken regularly, each story began to strengthen not only John’s skills,
but his confidence.
I hope that one day John
pays forward what I have given him, and that his gift never stops giving.
I've enjoyed reading this month's posts about how colleagues have payed it forward and the kindness they have received in their journeys as writers. I've had similar experiences. The writing fraternity is in general a very giving and supportive group to be a part of.
While helping clean up my college daughter's room this past week, I came across a copy of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien which came out in 1990. For those who don't know it, this is a collection of short stories based on O'Brien's experience as a soldier in Vietnam. I'd read a couple of the stories in anthologies over the years, but this past week I've been able to really read and enjoy the whole book.
When I thought about this month's theme and about this book it occurred to me how as writers we can choose to share our experiences with others as another way of paying it forward. To tell the truth about important things can be a real service. Some readers may be hearing your truth for the first time and learn from it. Some may share the author's experiences or sentiments and have their feelings and ideas validated.
Not all of us are writing books as important or searing as The Things They Carried, but these other stories we write, humor and fantasy and fun stories, also pay it forward. We share things that made us laugh and helped us escape to fantastical places, and there are many readers out there who need just that as well.
So writers, remember during this holiday season, your stories are gifts to many. Gifts that can stimulate, challenge, strengthen, and validate as well as amuse, relax, and enlighten.
Welcome. Gather round the fire, friends. I would like to
share the opening lyrics to one of my favorite camp songs from my youth,
written by Kurt Kaiser:
It only takes a spark to get a fire
And soon all those around,
can warm up in its glowing.
Fire image from: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net
The song is called PASS IT ON. It is a song of faith and, to
me, this small phrase perfectly embodies the pay it forward concept. Taken
literally, what can be more comforting to a group of people than a roaring fire
on a cold late fall day? Taken figuratively, what can be more compelling to a
person than being a spark that helps ignite a positive fire in and for others? This
month, I went on a search for other pass
it on inspiring messages and here’s what I found:
What do we live for if not to make
life less difficult for each other?
The time is always right
to do what is right.
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Three things in life are important:
The first is to be kind.
The second is to be kind.
And the third is to be kind.
Happiness is a by-product of an
effort to make someone else happy.
–Gretta Brooker Palmer
Be kind, for everyone you meet is
fighting a hard battle.
Kindness in words creates confidence.
Kindness in thinking creates
Kindness in giving creates love.
If I can keep one
heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain.
We cannot live only for ourselves. A
thousand fibers connect us with our fellow man.
And I was delighted to discover this sweet Little Willie
poem from Henry Burton, where I will end my quest for today.
PASS IT ON by Henry Burton
Have you had a kindness shown?
Pass it on!
‘Twas not given for thee alone,
Pass it on!
Let it travel down the years,
Let it wipe another’s tears,
Till in Heaven the deed appears –
Pass it on!
Pass it on. It’s simple. It’s for everyone, everywhere, in
every time. It only takes a spark…
Wissinger is the author of GONE FISHING: A Novel in Verse, THIS OLD BAND, and the
forthcoming THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO GOBBLED A SKINK. She spends part of every
day on the look out for ways to pass it on, some days she's more successful than others. Occasionally it’s through a grand
poetry interaction with an enthusiastic group of students or a festive meal prepared for family and friends. More often, it
arrives in the form of opening a door for someone else, adding to the red bucket whenever the Salvation Army bell ringers are near, or smiling when nobody
With the exception of the PASS
IT ON lyrics by Kurt Kaiser, which I know by heart, all other excerpts are
from: The Book of Positive Quotations, Compiled and arranged by John Cook,
Fairview Press, Minneapolis, 1993