Friday, August 18, 2017

My Earliest Writing

Happy Poetry Friday! Today I share a poem I wrote when I was fourteen or fifteen. You'll also find a link to this week's Poetry Friday roundup at the end of this post.

Thanks to Esther, our current TeachingAuthors topic is "what we wrote when we were young." I enjoyed reading my fellow TAs posts so far and watching the book trailer Esther shared for Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids (Atheneum).

I've loved to read for as long as I can remember, but my interest in writing didn't begin until I was in sixth or seventh grade. That's when I started keeping a journal and writing poetry. Unfortunately, I saved only a few of those journal entries. In looking through them for this post, I discovered something I'd forgotten. My freshman year in high school, I did a reverse variation of Bobbi's practice of writing out her favorite books in longhand: I took my own hand-written journal entries and typed them out on my manual Smith-Corona typewriter. As I recall, I didn't have room in my schedule to take a typing class so I taught myself to type with the help of a library book, and I used my journal entries for typing practice. I suspect I didn't simply type those entries--I edited them too, and threw away the originals!

I do still have some of my handwritten poems, though, including my first published work. My seven-line poem "My Sanctuary" was included in Crystals in the Dark: An Anthology of Creative Writing from the Chicago Public Schools. I've shared the poem here before, but I've copied it again for those who may not have seen it:

                                 My Sanctuary
If I could find a place far away from the world and its sounds,
Distant from the din and clatter of civilization;

Far away from pollution, politics, and people,
Away from worry, death, sorrow, and pain;
The only place that I could think of where I would be
       undisturbed, tranquil, and at peace,
                                                             is within myself.

© Carmela A Martino. All Rights Reserved.

The thrill of seeing my writing--and my name!--in print inspired me to dream of being a professional writer. While still in high school, I had a few more poems published, and even an essay in a local newspaper. My senior year, I took a creative writing class and wrote my first short story.

When I got to college, though, I decided to major in something practical, something I knew would lead to a good job: Math and Computer Science. I did take a series of literature courses for fun, but I pretty much quit writing. I didn't return to it until many years later. If you want to read about that journey, see this post.

And for more about the authors featured in Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids see this article in Entertainment Weekly.

When you're done, don't forget to check out this week's Poetry Friday roundup at A Journey Through the Pages.

Remember to Write with JOY!

Monday, August 14, 2017


I’ve been eagerly waiting since February, when I first read in Publishers Weekly about OUR STORY BEGINS (Atheneum) and its most appropriate July 4, 2017 release, to share this book with our TeachingAuthors readers.

Today’s the day, with thanks to Bobbi and JoAnn who opened our TeachingAuthors series about our Story Beginnings in appreciation of all this inspiring book offers.

The book’s subtitle understandably drew me in:  Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, And Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote And Drew As Kids.
The book’s dedication by the collection’s editor, the award-winning children’s book author Elissa Brent Weissman, grabbed my heart: “To every kid with a story inside, and to all the grown-ups who give them a pencil and encourage them to begin.”
Twenty-six well-known authors and illustrators return to their childhoods to answer the questions hurled at them during School Visits.

Did you always want to write?
How old were you when you drew your first picture?
Was your teacher the one who told you you’d be famous?

Kwame Alexander.  Kathi Appelt, Marla Frazee, Gordon Korman, Thanhha Lai, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Linda Sue Park - just to mention a few, let their readers know: we were kids once, too, determined to tell our stories!
They share school photos, family album favorites, hand-written poems, typed chapter pages, sketches, diagrams, journal entries, marked-up essays, teacher responses, plus parent reactions, letters and momentos.

Each creator affirms every Young Writer and Illustrator via the SHOW-AND-TELL details of his or her first creative efforts.
And by celebrating the beginnings of what became a successful career, each storyteller celebrates the beginnings of every Young Writer and Illustrator - as well as -those Not-So-Much.

Dan Santat opens the collection by sharing his five-year-old self’s awe of Norman Rockwell.
R.J. Palacio elaborates on the horse images that filled her notebook’s pages.
Marla Frazee graciously offers up the words and pictures of her very first chapter book about June and John.
There’s Linda Sue Park's serious limerick, “Fog By The Ocean.”
And Gail Carson Levine’s Scribble Scrabble Club Adventurous Girls chapter.
And Tim Federle’s “Farewell Island Lake” Camp Diary written when he was 12.
Ashely Bryan, who began his career copying comics and art from magazines, closes the collection with his high school drawings and love.

Copyright considerations prevent me from reproducing the delicious original words and arts that marked the starts of the collection’s twenty-six contributors.
click here to see the trailer; click here to see photos and images for which the LA Times did receive permission.

The book’s last page begins with a post-it note:
The next story is yours.  How will it begin?
The editor provides a solid list of tips gleaned from the collection, from READ, READ, READ to DRAW, DRAW, DRAW to LISTEN TO STORIES to DAYDREAM, DOODLE AND LET YOUR IMAGINATION RUN WILD.
There’s even a dedicated space where the reader can place his photo.

ALL writers and illustrators start out on the same page, so to speak – i.e. determined to tell their stories.

The bounty of inspiration, insights and encouragement, not to mention heart and hope, makes OUR STORY BEGINS must-reading, especially for determined Young Writers.

Here’s to our stories and their beginnings!

Esther Hershenhorn

Please keep your story beginnings coming as each of my fellow bloggers shares hers.

Friday, August 11, 2017

When We Were Young

Today, I’m continuing the Teaching Authors series that Bobbi started on Monday about what we wrote when we were young. I especially appreciated this thought: “It is the  nature of reading that every story we’ve read stays with us, and its characters become a part of our lives.”

I grew up with six sisters, a mother who read us Dr. Seuss books and occasionally wrote rhyming poetry, and a father who built a huge blackboard on a kitchen wall where we big sisters taught our little sisters their letters and numbers.

My earliest known writing was on that yellowish double-lined paper we used in grade school back then. I wrote about walking my neighbor’s black cocker spaniel Zsa Zsa. As I remember, the story was enthusiastic and joyful. The dog, however, was mean. I was writing fiction. I wanted to bring that paper along on my school visits, but alas, I couldn’t find it.

In high school, I spent much of my time in the biology room. My friends and I took care of the plants and snakes and frogs at lunch time and after school. We went off to the Trees for Tomorrow conservation camp, marveled at the really truly dark, and brought back tiny trees to plant at home. One of the two I planted at our old house is still standing tall.

My sisters and I swooned over the Diary of Anais Nin. I wrote poetry back then, but alas, I didn’t save any. My sister Judy and another friend and I memorized a collection of poems by Joseph Pintauro called A Box of Sun. I couldn’t find any online to share, but I still remember.

In a college creative writing class, I wrote a poem about my sister Judy’s cats. Twenty years later, I was reading a rhyming picture book to our sons. I thought it might be fun to write a children’s book, and I remembered that poem, which I had saved in a file cabinet. When I dug it out, I was amazed to find a note from my instructor saying that it might make a good children’s book.

Cats on Judy 
Judy sleeps with cats on her bed.
One in her arms and one on her head.
She rather likes their company
Because they keep her warm, you see.
So she’s content to get her rest
With one on her stomach, one on her chest.
She cannot make them go away.
When she rolls over, so do they.
She thinks they’re really very sweet,
One on her back and one on her feet.
And so they dream the whole night through.
When Judy wakes up, the cats do, too.
And into the kitchen for breakfast she goes,
With one at her heels and one at her toes.

I sent it out to a number of editors, got some helpful feedback (in those days, they had time to respond), revised it, and sent it out again. After a year or so, that poem, expanded to fit a 32-page format, was accepted to become my first published book, Cats on Judy.

That’s when I decided to get serious about writing for children.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Reflections on the Teche. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Monday, August 7, 2017

Oliver Twists

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, before the first Enterprise took flight, before the TARDIS was stolen, there lived a sickly child.


And, as it turns out, this sickly child read a lot and wrote a lot.

Way back then, I lived in the wild, wild west on the front range of Colorado. Colorado Springs was small then, full of open spaces. The public library was way, way on the other side of town. There were no bookstores. The only library available to me was my school library. I checked out every book I could read. By fourth grade, my favorite authors were already Mark Twain, Jack London, Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And if I wanted to have my very own copy of a book, so I didn’t have to return it, I copied the book.

One of the first and favorite books I copied was Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. You may remember, Charles Dickens wrote the story in part to expose the hypocrisy and cruel treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London. Dickens blended a grim realism with satire to describe the effects of industrialization, creating a story of an innocent child trapped in a life with no hope. What better story to entertain a sickly child!
Frontispiece and title page, first edition 1838
Illustration and design by George Cruikshank

He introduces his character by assigning an impersonal pronoun to the character, one without identity, calling the babe ‘it’, predicting its doom:

“For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country…” - Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

But the baby survived, earning the right to life as well as a name, Oliver:

“... There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.” – Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Little did I know that it was a good thing, to write by hand. Scientists now know that cursive writing is an important tool for cognitive development. It teaches the brain to be efficient, helps to develop critical thinking skills and refines motor control. In fact, children who learn cursive tend to learn how to read faster, generate more ideas and retain more information. When I was copying Oliver Twist in the fourth grade, I paid more attention to the details of the story. I experienced the characters on a deeper level because the very act of writing them out engaged all my senses. I had to pay attention to the words, how they were ordered, and how they were used. And, of course, I experienced the linear logic of the plot.

One of my favorite characters in Oliver Twist was Jack Dawkins, otherwise known as the Artful Dodger. The snub-nosed, flat-browed, common faced pickpocket and leader of the gang of child criminals. He was not without heart, however.

George Cruikshank original engraving of the Artful Dodger (centre), here introducing Oliver (right) to Fagin (left)

It is the  nature of reading that every story we’ve read stays with us, and its characters become a part of our lives. We are the product of all the stories read and lived. Even as we become characters in each other’s story. These stories settle within us, blend with our experiences – for why else could we become so attached to these characters, unless we see them as friends– and work their magic on us. They engage, and encourage, and guide.

And, when we least expect it, especially as one becomes a writer, such persistent characters ooze to the surface in some form found in our own works. Many light years down the road, when I read about the history of San Francisco, about the plight of the poor and that gallery of characters that walked those cobbled streets along the Barbary Coast, it was no accident that I envisioned Oliver Twist meets the wild, wild west.

My character became Jack London, in honor of my old friends, and not by coincidence:
“Jack of all trades, Lady Jane had called her. Pickpocket, escape artist, and a bold little rascal. A kid after her own heart, said Lady Jane. Lady Jane named Jack after one of her favorite towns, London. Jack London, that was her name. And this den was her home.

“She was by everyone’s accounts ordinary. Not small, not tall, not too thin. Not so clever as some but not near as dull as others. All except for her eyes. They were a pale, bright blue. They seemed like ghost eyes. Old sailors said she had the evil eye, saying she brought nothing but bad luck to everyone she knew. Get away with those buggery eyes, they warn her, or they’d take a switch to her backside.

“Despite being so common, she carried herself with the dash of one standing six feet tall. She wore a man’s coat over her tattered dress, one that nearly touched her boot heels. She had turned the cuffs back so she could use her hands, and stuff them comfortably into the large pockets.”
 Still a work in progress, Jack London has yet to find a home. As she skips away, down the road, tipping her bowler, she sings out to me, “ Once a villain, you’re a villain to the end!”

And I call out: “And you, Jack London, you’re my friend! To the end!”

What favorite reads did you have as a child? How did they influence your life?

By the way, Teaching Authors did a series on writing longhand versus typing. You might be interested in Carmela Martino’s discussion here.

You might be interested to see more:

Why Writing by Hand Could Make You Smarter”, by William Klemm. Psychology Today. March 14, 2013.

Julia Cameron Live, "Morning Pages: why by hand?. The Artist’s Way." October 4, 2012

Bobbi Miller

P.S. Photographs are public domain, posted on Wikipedia

Friday, August 4, 2017

7 Ideas From My Messy Desk

Howdy, Campers~ Happy Poetry Friday! My poem and the link to PF are below.

We at TeachingAuthors are easing our way back into blogging after a lovely summer s-t-r-e-t-c-h. Ahhhhh.

Our round-robin topic is The View From Our Desks.
Bobbi started us out from her new home, which she and her cat, Comma, are just moving into. She posted a poem aptly titled, The View From the Window by R.S. Thomas; Carmela's view is itinerant, beginning with her Creativity Camp, followed up with conference presentations (Carmela deserves a vacation!); Esther gave us stunning out-the-window views from her Chicago office; JoAnn is spending the summer writing poetry in her outside office, and Carla shares the long view: both the view from her office window...and also what she's thinking as she edits her upcoming book.

I've titled this post, "7 Ideas From My Messy Desk" because I've read that including numbers in a blog title attracts attention. (For you, dear readers, there really are seven ideas at the end.)

You and I know we can prove anything with sources from the internet, (which is why I use to check who actually said a quote, among other things)...and (surprise!) I've found a post which cites several studies indicating that a messy desk actually spurs creativity. Just the kind of study I love! desk is messy--or at least the side table is. I was going to clean up my office up for you...but why pretend?

I try to keep my desk itself clear, but on my side table you'll see:
  • the aftermath of our annual block party (I want to print up new signs for next year before I put them away); 
  • books I'm going through for my revised Writing Picture Books for Children class this fall; 
  • two books my father loved by Tagore, which he discovered in India during WWII that I've been meaning to read for decades; 
  • my handout, "Social Change Through Every Day Actions" from my presentation at the International Literacy Association's conference in Orlando two weeks ago; 
  • a pile of 50-year-old letters from my father; 
  • books and notes from my trips to New Zealand and Japan this spring;
  • a bunch of nearly unreadable ideas jotted down in the middle of the night.
Not neat. But an office I would have died for when I was a teenager.
Here are two poems on today's topic:

by April Halprin Wayland

If you come by
I'll clean it up
but if you don't
I won't.

by April Halprin Wayland

My desk's a sorcerer's printing press,
a paper field
of don't-forgets.

Memos piled in mountain peaks.
Scrawled ideas
in ancient Greek.

Each brilliant message?
Lost in space.
Possibly a sign of grace. 

poems (c) April Halprin Wayland 2017. all rights reserved.

Do you ever write notes to yourself at night...brilliant ideas that are sure to rock the literary world...and when you wake up, they're either utterly incomprehensible, absurd or worse, ho-hum? Here's seven from the last few weeks:

  1. Never say no to a rubber band; 
  2. "I'm not shouting!" she shouts; 
  3. a friend wrote to me: "so glad the conf was good and...that you had fun at the Penguin dinner. (which sounds like the start of a poem)"; 
  4. per Nancy Bo Flood: Some languages have no tenses; so they can't talk about the past or future; 
  5. Two kids: one named Smoke, one named Mirrors;
  6. from A.Word.A.Day: "Natalie came home from school excited and worried, announcing, “Laura was hit by the school bus and had a conclusion!”;
  7. Mr. Tongue Goes to the Unemployment Office (I have no idea what I was thinking, but I'm still laughing!)

I'd love to read ideas you've jotted down late at night!

Thank you, Donna, at Mainely Write for hosting Poetry Friday today!

 posted with the help of Monkey (can you find him in the picture of my office, above?) and Eli, who is pictured in his uncluttered corner office: