Sunday, April 29, 2018

Gems of the Past

By Charlotte Bennardo

If you haven't been paying attention, our theme this month is "Hidden Gems." For some, it's digging through old manuscripts looking for that shining idea, sentence, or character. For others, it's rereading favorite books to reconnect with a character or situation, or combing through used book/library sales, discovering a gem someone has left behind. Maybe it's finding wisdom in a new book.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Besides all those, I find gems in the past - my past. Whether we try to do it consciously or not, we authors put a bit of ourselves in each book we write; maybe not directly in the character, making them just like us, but in little ways, gems of our past find their way into the manuscript. One of my favorite memories, which acts as a happy trigger, is the smell of the ocean. A saltwater breeze conjures up my younger years, when either my parents took me to Jones Beach on Long Island, or I went to parties on Mattituck Beach in my high school years. That smell brings me instant joy and I've used that for a character in turmoil in a manuscript draft - the character breathes in the salty air slowly, savoring a moment of contentment.

Other 'gems' from my past which have found their way into my writing: my love of nature, seen all through the Evolution Revolution series about a squirrel named Jack fighting against construction machines and scientists to save his wood. My fanatical belief in recycling shows up in the Sirenz books, where the character Meg nags her counterpart Sharisse about being responsible for her share of recycling waste. And then there's Sharisse's love of sparklies like diamonds (ooooh, I love the sparklies!). In my sci fi novel draft, it's all about space and exploration. My dad worked in the space program, building the Lunar Evac Module (LEM), and passed down a love of science and space.

I'm not the only author who does this, mines memories for precious bits of 'brilliance' to make our stories sparkle. Twilight's Bella reads the same book over and over- Wuthering Heights. Do you want to bet that is was a favorite read for Stephanie Meyer? Sirenz co-author Natalie Zaman has a love of fashion, which was used for both characters Meg and Sharisse, but in different ways. Fellow writing colleague Audrey Vernick's book, The Kid from Diamond Street, reflects her love of baseball. I think it would be almost impossible for any author not to put part of themselves, even minutely, into their work.

Next time you read someone's novel or picture book, see if you can pick out the pieces of their lives and memories, hidden in the prose like a diamond in a cave wall, waiting to shine.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


I had just released my writing guide for kids (INVENT YOUR OWN SUPERHERO) when I came across this in the archives:

Super Susan is a heroine I created when I was about 8, judging by the handwriting of my initial notebook story. I had long forgotten all about her, but I absolutely fell in love with her all over again. And really, I couldn't come up with anything more timely: a superhero whose power is kindness!

I enjoyed Super Susan so much, I wrote and released a new story all about her--and even incorporated some of my 8-year-old artwork into the cover.

But the thing is, we've all got these gems in the archives. Maybe it's a character, or a passage. Maybe it's a surprise twist. Every single old piece of writing has some gold nugget buried in it.

I just think we get so discouraged with some of our older manuscripts that we start to think of them, at a certain point, as being complete and total junk. Maybe we write ourselves into a corner, or maybe we got a billion rejections for a particular project. But for some reason, we stop seeing this thing that had once given us so much joy as a limitless bucket of potential. Instead, we see it in a completely negative light.

But there are absolutely gems in those manuscripts. Sometimes, it just takes a little time, a little distance, in order to find them.

We've all got drawer manuscripts. Get yours out. Sift through it.

Find your gems.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Embodied Imagination by Dia Calhoun

Embodied Imagination is a term I recently heard while listening to an interview with Robert Bosnak, a Jungian Analyst. I went to his website and found this description:

Embodied Imagination® is a therapeutic and creative way of working with dreams, memories, physical symptoms of illness and creative ideas. Pioneered in the late 1970’s by Robert Bosnak (1948 - ), a Dutch Jungian analyst, Embodied Imagination® has developed over thirty years of practice, writing and teaching. It is practiced individually and in groups, in 7 countries of the world. In 2006 the International Society for Embodied Imagination® was formed.

I’m waiting for Bosnak’s book, Embodiment, to arrive via interlibrary loan, so I can learn more. But I’ve already begun turning over this idea of embodied imagination in my own free form way.

While I’ve always thought of the mind as the source of imagination, the idea that the body itself can be a holder of imagination, even a creator of imagination, is one I can grasp. That’s because I have recently come to understand that consciousness itself isn't simply located in the mind, but all throughout the body. Emotions certainly are embodied. I recently participated in a wonderful workshop at the Olympia Jung Society by Darcie Richardson, Ph. D., on Soma, Jung, and Nature: An Essential Exploration. Dr. Richardson showed images of nature and then had the participants work with “embodying” those images in their bodies through meditation, movement, and art.

If consciousness and emotions exist throughout the entire body, why not imagination?

As an artist, both an author and more recently a sculptor, how can embodying imagination help me do better work? I remember reading that Charles Dickens acted out his characters’ actions and dialogue as part of his writing process. Actors do physical embodiment of imaginative characters. Writers are often encouraged to read their stories aloud—one step toward bringing the story out of the realms of the mind and into the body. Speaking it, hearing it, is a form of embodiment, a concrete bringing of the story into the world.

Having an extensive dance background, I've begun using movement to explore ideas, characters, emotions. This has been fascinating. When my body begins moving, my mind stops over-thinking. There's a more direct conduit between my unconscious (the gold mine) and my body. It’s like getting rid of the CEO (consciousness) who watches, evaluates, and criticizes every move before it comes into being. This movement process has helped me gain insights into my work I didn’t have before.

It can also help with giving your characters more physical reality in a piece of writing. For example, try something like this: If my character Perry Witherspoon was embodied in my hand, how would my hand move? Then move your hand. Perhaps you can give that same gesture to your character.

I’ve only begun to explore the possibilities of embodied imagination. I’ll keep you posted. So far, I like it.

Dia Calhoun explores the topic of imagination on the 23rd of each month.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Hidden Gems on My Bookshelf

Maybe some of you are like me.  You have fond memories of those days in elementary school when your teacher passed out the Scholastic Book Club Flyer.  Oh man, there was nothin' like it!  I poured over it, circling books I wanted, marking books I needed with a big fat star.  Then on the bus ride home, I thought about how much money I might have stashed in my sock drawer or how much change I might find in the junk drawer in the kitchen to add to whatever amount I'd be able squeeze out of my parents.

Then the painful part came when I had to make those final decisions, knowing that I most likely wouldn't have quite enough money to get every book on my wish list.

Some of those book club books became my very favorites.  And many of them I still have on my bookshelf.  They don't look shiny and new anymore like they did on that exciting day when my teacher would come in after lunch recess with that Scholastic book box in her hands. 

But it's these tattered, worn books that are my hidden gems.  The well-loved condition they are in is proof of their importance in my reading life growing up.  And now that I'm an author, and I look back at these beloved books, I realize that it's stories like these that, no doubt, built the foundation for my future life as a writer.  It makes me thankful for Scholastic Book Clubs, for my teachers who passed out the flyers every month and filled out the order forms, for my parents who dug deep in their purses and wallets to give me extra money for books, and for the authors who wrote the stories that, because I read them so much, became a part of me.
Maybe you have the same kinds of hidden gems on your bookshelves.  Or you have your own children who are busy buying and reading the books that will become their hidden gems.  Or you are a teacher or librarian guiding your students to enjoy books in such a way that they will consider them hidden gems.  Whatever the case may be, I hope my post today will remind all of us just how important these hidden gems can be.  For me, they created the foundation for becoming an author, but the real value of these hidden gems is that they create the foundation for different things in all of us.  And that foundation building begins when we provide young readers with a treasure trove of books so that they are able to discover, collect, and keep the ones that will become their hidden gems.

Happy Reading,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hidden Gems: Discovering Favorite Authors

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering through old bookstores, library sales, rummage sales. The old paperbacks and hardcovers call to me – what stories do they have to tell that I have not yet heard?

It’s true I often get recommendations of what book to read next, what’s selling hot, or what author might appeal to me. But it’s through these haphazard hobby searches that I’ve found some of my favorite hidden gems that are now on my bookshelves.

Maggie Stiefvater: A car-racing, dream-weaving, man-eating horse creator who also loves art, music, dogs and goats. What’s not to love about Maggie? She captured me with her novel, Shiver, that I stumbled across at a thrift store. But her grip was firmly around my heartstrings with The Scorpio Races. I read the novel every October (when the races are getting underway in the book). The world-building, vivid characters and heart-stopping race scenes make this one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Tawni O’Dell: I found a paperback copy of Back Roads at a college booksale in my early 20s. I read the book over the weekend, and quickly read her other works. Her novel, Fragile Beasts, is one of my favorites of all time. A tale about an elderly spitfire of a woman with a beloved retired riding bull; two orphaned teenage boys, a cat and an entirely eclectic sense of family throughout. I’ve read it no fewer than five times over the years.

Markus Zusak: I discovered an interest in World War II as a kid in junior high who read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. That novel has always stuck with me. Having two grandfathers who served in WWII, my interest has long since continued. The Book Thief presented itself to me as a ragged hardback at a scholarship sale for the high school. I’ve read the novel twice, and it still makes me cry. Zusak has become one of my favorite authors.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hidden Gems: Epiphany Moments

Whatever book I'm reading, whether it's the shortest picture book or a sweeping epic novel, I always read for a certain moment, when the main character learns something about herself or her world, some truth about the human condition that allows her to go forward and face whatever needs to be faced. Often called "epiphany moments," these contain the hidden gems I read to discover.

Now, sometimes the "hidden gem" truths laid bare by a story are not hidden enough: we are rightly wary of stories that seem too clearly bent on teaching a lesson, preaching a sermon, proclaiming a message or a moral. And sometimes the "hidden gem" truths are not gem-like enough: they are trite bits of commonsense wisdom and truth that, on closer look, are neither wise nor true.

But sometimes I'm given such a piercing insight from a story that it takes my breath away. I have to run to my trusty little notebook and jot it down to save forever.

Here are two of my favorites from books I've read recently:

"You can't run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be." - Jason Reynolds, Ghost

"You make your choices or the world makes them for you." Jennifer Bertman, The Unbreakable Code

This year's Newbery medal winner, Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly, is absolutely stuffed with observations like:

"Sometimes life calls on you even when you don't raise your hand." 

And this one:

"Of all the questions you ever ask yourself in life, never ask, 'What's the point?' It's the worst question in the world." 

Sometimes as an author I've been reluctant to spell out "the big idea" in a story too explicitly, too bluntly and baldly, preferring to leave this to readers to distill in their own way. But looking through this list of "hidden gem" truths I so treasure, I'm starting to think there's lasting value in presenting these excavated gems lucidly for our readers so their jewel-like brilliance can shine forth in all their brightness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

In Which the Gem Finds Itself, by Sarah Dooley

My work in progress is a story told from the point of view of a child who can't read. I keep catching myself allowing her to read with ease -- a flyer for a contest, a post online from a friend, store hours -- and with each convenience I rewrite from her, I find myself more and more in awe of this kid I know.

I teach in a pilot program for kids who, for one reason or another, were not finding their academic needs met in their public schools. These are the kids who, when enrolled in a class of 30, shrink to their most basic academic merits, or lack thereof. "That one can't sit still." "That one won't speak up." "That one can't read." Not that I think their teachers ever thought of them this way -- there are wonderful teachers out there in public school who do their very best by each of those thirty, class period after class period -- but when you're tasked with the safety and education of children by multiples of ten, you rely on conveniences. You give an instruction and the group responds. You write directions on the board and the children read them.

This kid, she made it all the way through second grade not reading. Not only that, she made it all the way through second grade with no one realizing she couldn't read. Each of those conveniences I snatch from my main character, each time I have to think of a work-around, another way for information to reach my kid's brain so she can pursue her dreams and adventures -- I'm struck by the realization that this kid made it through three years of public school finding those work-arounds so fluently and so unassumingly that she looked for all the world like a kid who just read the directions off the board.

The brilliance of that child, the exhausting work she undertook, every day, to compensate for the lack of what I took for granted till I tried taking it away from an imaginary kid -- and she spent those three years feeling like a failure. It is a crime that a kid so smart, so creative, so determined to fulfill her potential no matter the conveniences denied her, should ever feel anything less than brilliant.

Today, I teach a class of five. My five gems, no longer hidden in a group of thirty. Each comes to me to learn not just to work around the boulder sitting in their path but to bust it into pieces wherever possible. We learn ways to compensate, but we also learn the skills that have seemed unattainable, chipping away at that boulder skill after skill until it is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and then we polish it till it shines. We find our gems, and here is hers:

Oh, my heavens, but she can write.

She does not write with a pen, but the stories she tells are rich with characters who have challenges to face, characters who work around their weaknesses to discover immense strengths. Her stories are crafted with the care of someone who has had to pay extra attention to spoken language and therefore has a stunning grasp of the nuances therein.

I hope to hold her book one day in my hands. I'll read it aloud.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Book Recommendation: FREEPLAY

The blog theme this month is Hidden Gems, and the first thing to come to mind for me on that topic was this relatively little-known book—FREEPLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. 

Nachmanovitch himself is a musician by trade, but the principles he explores apply to the creative process in general. “Finding the heart’s voice,” he says, “…is the adventure at the core of this book.” For me, it’s been one of the most theoretically and practically useful things I’ve ever read — when I first encountered it fifteen years ago and then again last year, when I came back to it and found it just as useful, all over again. 

One of the things I most like about this book is the value Nachmanovitch places on different kinds of playfulness, as well as the openness that comes with that quality—as in, an openness to spontaneous moments of creation. He refers to improvisation as “intuition in action,” and encourages artists to remember that feeling from childhood, where the only point of a given activity is the activity itself. 

He also uses a travel analogy to talk about his subject when he says: 

“A walk, following your intuitive promptings, down the streets of a foreign city holds rewards far beyond a planned tour of the tried and tested. Such a walk is totally different from random drifting. Leaving your eyes and ears wide open, you allow your likes and dislikes, your conscious and unconscious desires and irritations, your irrational hunches, to guide you whenever there is a choice of turning right or left.  You cut a path through the city that is yours alone, which brings you face to face with surprises destined for you alone. You discover conversations and friendships, meetings with remarkable people. When you travel in this way you are free; there are no have-to’s and shoulds. You are structured at first only, perhaps, by the date of the plane departure. As the pattern of people and places unfolds, this trip, like an improvised piece of music, reveals its own inner structure and rhythm. Thus you set the stage for fateful encounters.”  

As writers and artists working for, with, and because of kids --- who are themselves experts at play, and whose sense of wonder is the gold standard -- we get the benefit of work that constantly reminds us to hold onto that quality. It’s one of the things that I love about what I do, and I’ve found no better reminder for it than in this dense (but worth it), fascinating, and thoughtful book. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hidden Treasures

This month, we at SMACK DAB are mining for hidden gems. We are digging for hidden treasures. Those are phrases, sentences, lines of creative beauty that seem to transcend the ordinary subject and verb construct to reveal the essence of what it means to be writer.

As you may know, I now teach for the Southern New Hampshire University MFA Online Creative Writing Program. This week we had a discussion on what does it mean to be a "professional" writer? Do you have to be published to call yourself a writer? Maybe it's not the published book that makes you a writer, but how you see the world. Maybe it's the connections you make as you explore this world. The language you use to explain those connections. The imagination that’s engaged to create this world, and all the characters who live within it, because you see beyond the ordinary and  the cursory. And in this creation, you discover what it means to be human. Not perfect. But human. With this in mind, o! I have found treasures indeed!

One hidden treasure I’ve found is teacher and author Bruce Black, who manages the wonderful Wordswimmer blog. His newest blog , This is How Writing Works, offers this wisdom: 

“You might think that writing starts with a blank sheet of paper, but it doesn't, not for me anyway, although that sheet of paper is foremost in my mind (not the paper itself so much as its blankness). I know, of course, that sheet of blank paper is waiting for my words to fill it, even though I’m not yet at my desk. But, even so, writing doesn't start with that blank sheet of paper.

It starts with fear.”

Another treasure is the incomparable Emma D. Dryden, and her blog , Our Stories, Ourselves, in which she offers Dumbledore wisdom on the stories we tell and the stories we live:

I appreciate and believe those who raise voices.
I appreciate this time to open eyes, open ears, open arms, and open heart.

Last week...this week...and the weeks after that, I will continue.
For this is what it means to live fully in the world.

((c) 2018 emma d dryden, drydenbks llc all rights reserved )

And speaking of a national treasure who is not so hidden, and in celebration of National Poetry Month, Lee Bennett Hopkins also celebrates his birthday with an amazing new collection: World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of all his anthology collections, this is – in my opinion – his most stunning, inspired by the Leonardo Da Vinci quote, "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen." As Lee explains on NPR, “… the whole book is really based on a form from the Greek called ekphrastic poetry, where poems are inspired by art. I assigned these varied paintings to 18 of the top children's poets in America who would then write their emotions toward the painting. Rather than describing the painting, it's what they feel.”

 The artists represented include Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer. A painted plaster fragment from Egypt 1390-1353 B.C inspired Irene Latham's "This Is the Hour.” An illustrated manuscript "Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" by al-Jazari inspired Naomi Shihab Nye’s “It’s All Magic.” Marilyn Singer’s “Paint Me”, inspired by Gustav Klimt's " Mada Primavesi, 1912-13," celebrates the painting’s defiant subject with the resolute phrase and title of the collection: “World, make way.”

In one of the more dramatic poems comes "Resistance," by Cynthia Cotten, inspired by The Horse Fair, painted by Rosa Bonheur.


He calls himself a handler,
this puny person
with his rope, his shouts,
his “I am your master”

Thinks he can subdue me,
stifle my spirit,
bend me
his will.

But no, I say,
I will not be broken,

Let others trot willingly
towards servitude,
towards mere

I choose life.
in the light of my
I will fight
until no fight

(©Cynthia Cotten 2018. All rights reserved)

The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur (French, Bordeaux 1822–1899 Thomery). Public Domain

What inspires you?

Bobbi Miller