Monday, September 25, 2017

That Thing with Feathers

Carmela started us off with Two Things My Students Have Taught Me; Esther followed with My Storied Treasures Treasured Stories! April discussed 2 Poems, 2 Lessons Learned from Teaching .

What we know is that writing is hard, messy work. The business of writing is even harder, and messier.

We have heard all the clichés: Inspiration comes through perspiration. Quality comes through quantity.

“Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing dirt away from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”Amy Poehler

Rejection is the very nature of the business. Lord of the Flies by William Golding was rejected 20 times. Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle was rejected 26 times. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling was rejected 12 times.

Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before finally having one published.

And despite all the advice not to take rejection personal, it is personal. According to Rowling, one editor told her to keep her day job. Alice Vincent reports (here) that one of the 15 publishers who didn't think The Diary of Anne Frank was worth reading, offered his wisdom: "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."

Herman Melville's novel about the white whale was rejected by editor Peter J Bentley, stating "First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? ...While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?" 

Ironically, Richard Bentley of the same London publishing house offered him a contract in 1851. Moby Dick was published 18 months later, when Melville arranged at his own expense for the typesetting and plating of his book to speed up the process. Young, voluptuous maidens never made the final edit.

So what do writers who teach writing learn from our students?

Because students have that thing with feathers, eternal hope.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all –“ 
-- Emily Dickinson (For the complete poem, see Hope is a thing with feathers)

Students inspire us to keep trying.

Bobbi Miller
P.S. Photo by Pixabay

Friday, September 22, 2017

Tribute to Dad

"To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase ‘terrible beauty.’ Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body. It also makes me quite astonishingly calm at the thought of death: I know whom I would die to protect and I also understand that nobody but a lugubrious serf can possibly wish for a father who never goes away.”Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

Recently, our own Mary Ann Rodman lost her father. Our hearts go out to her and her family during this time of grief.

Roy F. Rodman lived such an amazingly interesting life. He served as a clerk with the FBI before joining the Navy in 1942. He was a cryptographer in the Signal Intelligence Service, where he met and married the love of his life, Frances C. Smith. They were married for 62 years. After the war, he worked as an FBI Special Agent for 37 years. He was one of the original FBI agents sent by President Johnson to investigate the "Mississippi Burning" case. After retiring from the FBI, he worked as Chief Investigator for the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance. O, the stories he could tell! For more information about his amazing life, see his obituary here.

We all know that life is short, no matter how many years we are given. And when we lose someone we love, it is infinity shocking to our very core. It is a sadness so profound, we feel we may never breathe again. Death is an ending, true enough, but it can also be a beginning, says Marc and Angel:

“… endings like these often seem ugly, they are necessary for beauty too – otherwise it’s impossible to appreciate someone or something, because they are unlimited. Limits illuminate beauty, and death is the definitive limit – a reminder that we need to be aware of this beautiful person, and appreciate this beautiful thing called life. Death is also a beginning, because while we have lost someone special, this ending, like the loss of any wonderful life situation, is a moment of reinvention. Although sad, their passing forces us to reinvent our lives, and in this reinvention is an opportunity to experience beauty in new, unseen ways and places. And finally, of course, death is an opportunity to celebrate a person’s life, and to be grateful for the beauty they showed us.” -- Marc and Angel

As teachers, we are often faced with students who have lost a loved one. As Samantha Darby suggests, “There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to helping children grieve, cope with, or process their feelings in difficult circumstances. Instead, you simply have to be there for them in any way possible—to listen to their stories, help maintain normalcy, and to be willing to talk to them about what’s happened in a way that makes sense to them.” Darby offers a list of books to help children cope with the loss of a parent here

With my father

by Kobayashi Issa

With my father
I would watch dawn
over green fields.

Photo by Pixabay

Our love to Mary Ann.

Bobbi Miller

Monday, September 18, 2017

Digging It, Out and About

Last week I made another trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon—for a graveside remembrance of sorts. 

As part of the research for my new book BURIED LIVES: THE ENSLAVED PEOPLE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MOUNT VERNON, I participated in the current archeological dig on the grounds of Mount Vernon.  It is taking place in the cemetery where some of Washington’s enslaved people are buried.  During the dig, they are not disturbing any remains.  The goal is to find out how many graves are on the site.  I am working on revisions on my book which will include my experience in the dig.    

This isn’t my first experience volunteering on an archeological dig.  This is my third time as an amateur archeologist.  Real archeology does not resemble an Indiana Jones event.  The real thing is back-breaking work.  Mostly it consists of shoveling, lifting heavy buckets of dirt, sifting…and then repeat.  But it is a thrill because you never know what will be in this bucket of dirt.

I write about real people, so it is necessary for me to bond emotionally with them.  If I don’t care about them, neither will my readers.   So I felt I must go and join the dig in the cemetery at Mount Vernon.  And I did need to go.  For me.  For the book.  For the enslaved people I’ve written about and come to know. 

Carla Killough McClafferty

I'm using a trowel to uncover one of the grave shafts in the cemetery for the enslaved people of Mount Vernon.

I loved every minute of this experience.

The archeologists are finding a lot of Native American artifacts.  This 5000 year old arrowhead had just been uncovered!  Wow, what a treat to see this pulled from the ground.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2 Poems, 2 Lessons Learned From Teaching

Howdy, Campers and Happy Poetry Friday!  The link to PF is below.

Our topic, this orbit around Planet TeachingAuthors, is: Something I learned from teaching or from my students. 

Carmela started us off with Two Things My Students Have Taught Me; Esther followed with My Storied Treasures Treasured Stories! Now it's my turn; what I'm about to share echoes my first post on this blog in 2009. (For info on my up-coming UCLA Extension Writers' Program Picture Book Class, see below)

Two Lessons I've Learned From Teaching:

1) I am a snowflake. creative commons

I've been teaching in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program since 1999. When I was planning my first class, I was petrified. My mantra was: I am a snowflake. When they are in my class, they will learn my snowflakeness. When they take another class, they will learn that teacher's snowflakeness.

It helped.

by April Halprin Wayland

You take your seats
looking up
with puppy eyes

wanting me to be
the exact snowflake
you hoped for.

I explain how I drift,
I explain my six sides,
I explain my melting point.

If I am not what you wanted,
not what you expected,
not what you'd hoped for,

there's different snowflake
down the hall
named Bruce.

poem © 2017 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

 * * *
2) Wheels are good.

by April Halprin Wayland

 Years ago I learned to pack
 everything I need for the first day of class
 into a suitcase
 rather than that big plastic box I used to schlep.

 Wheels are so much easier.

 So last night I packed
 the roster,
 my updated syllabus,
 red, blue, green and black dry erase markers,
 clear mailing tape to stick quotations on the walls,
 the book I’ve read aloud in the first class for eleven years,
 and 25 copies of the “tell me about yourself” handout on lavender paper.

 My body is buzzing.
 I am slightly nauseous.
 This happens every year.
 There are no vaccination shots for it
 as I roll this suitcase into a new country

poem © 2017 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

My next class, Writing The Children's Picture Book begins October 3rd. (and if you can't take my on-site class, consider taking UCLA Extension Writers' Program online Picture Book class from author Terry Pierce.)
Thank you, Michelle, for your own poetry and for hosting Poetry Friday at
Today's Little Ditty,
and for promoting the U.N.'s International Day of Peace Day (September 21st)

posted by April Halprin Wayland (with help from Eli, who is also a snowflake)

Monday, September 11, 2017

My Storied Treasures’ Treasured Stories!


I am 100% certain: I learn as much if not more than do my students and writers with each class I teach and each coaching session I facilitate.
And I’m pretty sure I’m incalculably smarter, thanks to my storied treasures as I labeled them in my TeachingAuthors THANKU launch in 2011.

Like Carmela’s students, my students and writers remind me daily of the requisite hard work writing demands and the ultimate joy writing delivers.
Like my Newberry Library students whom I labeled new berries in my 2013 THANKU, they also feed me and juice my batteries.

This past year, courtesy of my students and writers,
I’ve been to Latvia, Mississippi, Detroit and Idaho (twice!),
traveled back in time to 1908, 1948, 1953 and 1967 (twice!),
hung with chipmunks, Scotties, warthogs, abandoned kittens, a heroic mosquito and an opera-loving Gila monster.
Their works-in-progress taught me about dyslexia, lambing, simple machines, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and jump rope jingles.
With each manuscript I learn something new – about a format, a genre or an element of narrative, a subject matter, a readership, a relevant book or author.
And if I’m lucky – and I usually am, I learn my writers’ Back Stories, their treasure, and where it resides in the story he or she is telling.

All of those gifted learning opportunities together REconfirm an important Truth: each of us has a story worth telling.


So what if a theme has already been spoken for?  So what if a plot or incident or time period or famous character already claims a book?
The New Baby. Moving Away. Desire for a Pet. Civil Rights.  The Holocaust.  Someone-or-Something lost, then found.
"There’s only one you,” I remind my students and writers, “with your head, your heart, your feelings, your experiences.  No one can tell your chosen story your way.”

Oh, how my storied treasures prove me right with their treasured stories again and again!

Here’s to your story and the treasure it holds!

Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, September 8, 2017

Two Things My Students Have Taught Me

Happy Poetry Friday! My link to this week's roundup is at the end of this post.

With Labor Day behind us and a new school year started, I'm kicking off a TeachingAuthors series on "something I learned from my students (or from teaching)." Today I share not one, but two things my students have taught me.

1. Writing is Hard!

This lesson came from an adult student and I've quoted it in other blog posts. For so many years, I thought my writing struggles were due to my own inadequacies, not the demands of the craft. Now I realize this is an important lesson for two main reasons:
  • It's true. Writing IS hard. We can get stalled in so many ways, from figuring out what happens next in the plot to trying to decide how our main character looks/talks/walks to researching what flowers would be blooming during the time and place of the story. But "hard" doesn't mean "impossible." If we're persistent, we can succeed. 
  • Admitting this truth helps me let go of self-criticism. When I take longer than planned to finish a project, it's not because I'm stupid or lazy or a bad writer. It's simply because writing is work.
In researching what other writers have to say on the subject, I came across an article in Psychology Today by Dennis Palumbo, an author and former screenwriter who happens to also be a psychotherapist. In "Breaking News: Writing is Hard!" Palumbo says:
"the reality is that telling a good story with intelligence, emotional truth and narrative complexity is hard. Really, really hard."
The fact that writing is hard work is what leads many of us to procrastinate. As Jeff Goins says in his article "Writing Is Hard (Or Is It?)":
The difficulty of writing has nothing to do with pen and paper, monitor and keyboard. It has to do with heart and soul and the mind behind the words.
That’s the real hard part of writing, the part that will experience all kinds of internal resistance: convincing yourself that no excuse is good enough to not write.
I've discussed here before, though, how the best way to eliminate excuses is to focus on the joy of the process. Which brings me to the second lesson I've learned from my students.

2. Writing is Fun!

This phrase has been uttered numerous times by the young writers in my summer writing camps. And it's one of the reasons I keep teaching those camps--I need to keep hearing it! How are young writers able to focus on the fun? I think it's because they're simply trying to tell a story for their own enjoyment. They aren't burdened by needing to please anyone else.

So, there's the paradox: Writing IS hard, but it can be fun, too.
This image came up when I searched Pixabay for "Children Writing" 😊
My students have taught me that we can choose to focus on the joy of the process. And, as I've written before, that's the real key to productivity. I even created an image to help remind me:

I'm so glad to be the one kicking off this topic because the reminder to focus on joy comes at the perfect time for me. Just this week, I recommitted to making time for some "fun" writing (as opposed to the freelance work I do to pay the bills). I can hardly wait to get back to it.

Don't forget, this week's Poetry Friday roundup is at Matt Forrest's Radio, Rhythm, & Rhyme.

And when you go back to the hard work of writing, remember to:
Write with JOY!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Harriet the Spy and Me

I was lucky enough to the musical Hamilton a couple of weeks ago. (No, we didn't win the lottery; it was my Christmas-birthday-Mother's Day-and possibly next Christmas present.)  I found myself describing it as a transformative experience. It totally changed my idea of a Broadway musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda's show was unlike anything theater I'd ever seen,and I've seen a lot of theater.

This got me thinking; is there a literary equivalent to Hamilton in my life? Is there a book that turned my concept of children's literature on it's head? More importantly, was it a book I read as a child? 

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
I bought this hardcover edition with my 1st adult paycheck.

When it was published in 1964, children's books portrayed a perfect world. Or as I thought of it, a "TV World." I called it "TV World, because my mother once said, "TV shows are Hollywood's idea of what the world is like. It's all phony." 

Well, of course no one I knew lived in an enormous house like Dennis the Menace, or kept a horse like Mr. Ed in their backyard. None of the mothers in my neighborhood walked around the house in pearls and heels and pristine dresses with crinoline petticoats. But secretly, I thought Mom was wrong. Those big houses and horses and Donna Reed-mothers had to be somewhere.  Maybe in the next town over, the one with a country club!
Those are apples dangling from the waist!

That was the world of children's books as well.  In the books I read, all families had a mom and dad, except for the occasional book where a parent had died (no one was ever divorced or just took off.)  Children could be disobedient or mildly rebellious, but in the end, the main character always discovered mother/father did know best. Parents were all wise, all-knowing. 

Ten-year-old me had a vastly different opinion of the adult
Me, at 10 and Mom
world. I found nothing wrong with eavesdropping and outright snooping on my parents secrets. They were so close-mouthed, that I didn't learn I had a brother who died at birth when I was 4, until I was 12. I didn't even know she was pregnant. (She spent the whole eight months on bedrest.)

I was the kid who butted into adult conversations. I hated being told that "children should be seen and not heard." And lots of times I knew the adults were at best, misinformed or at worst, just plain stupid.

The words that appeared most often in the comment section of my report cards were "opinionated" "non-conforming" and "inappropriately precocious." Fortunately, my parents blew off the teachers' observations. They completely agreed with them....and so what? As long as I wasn't arsonist or flunking classes, my personality was none of the teacher's business.

I do not know how Harriet the Spy, which raised all kind of controversy when it was published, wound up in the Jackson, Mississippi public library and into my hot little hands. Maybe Jackson in 1964 was too preoccupied with keeping the libraries segregated and those pesky civil rights workers up North "where they belong" to scrutinize what was on the shelves of the children's section. I'm glad they didn't.  Meeting Harriet M. Welsch was my transformative moment.

The book started predictably. The main character's life was in no way like mine. Harriet lived in New York City brownstone, which according to what I knew of NYC automatically made her a rich kid. She had a nanny and went to a private school. Check and check. Rich kid.

But then Harriet fell off the Leave It to Beaver path.  She liked to spy on people. I liked to spy on people, and nobody ever told her not to. I was a master of listening through heating vents, and drinking glasses pressed to walls. Harriet was opinionated and let people know it. Me? See report card comments above.  Harriet and I both wore pants and sweatshirts and sneakers outside of school in an era when girls had three categories of clothes--dress up dresses. school dresses and play dresses.  No pants. Ever.  Harriet wanted to be a writer.  I wanted to be a writer. Harriet's best friend was a boy, Sport. My best friends were usually boys.  
My role-model, Harriet M. Welsch

But most of all, Harriet perceived most adults (with the exception of her beloved nanny, Ole Golly) as stupid. So did I! Adult Me would've said that most adults are clueless as to what children think and want. Ten-year-old me just thought they dumb as rocks. I lived in an age when children were not supposed to have independent ideas or question anything, once we got past those pesky "whys?" of toddlerhood. 

I read gleefully as Harriet observes all the "dumb grown-ups" and a number of her equally "dumb" classmates.  She logs her "observations" in her notebook.  A notebook that eventually falls into the wrong hands. (At this point, 5th grade Me decided to give all the people in MY journals  pseudonyms.)  Harriet suddenly finds herself with no friends,and in constant trouble at school.  Even worse, her parents confiscate her new notebook.  Total agony for a writer!   What would happen to Harriet? How can she even think without a notebook to hold her thoughts?

As the end of the book approached, I read slower and slower because I dreaded the inevitable ending. Harriet would realize the dumb adults and students weren't "finks" (a word I learned from her and still use today).  They were right and she was wrong. Grown-ups were always right. They're grown-ups.

That's not how it ended. Ole Golly tells Harriet that although she knows Harriet will not like it, if someone reads her notebook and is offended, Harriet will have to "1) apologize and 2)lie.  Otherwise you are going to lose a friend."

Harriet apologizes to her closest friends. They accept. (She does not apologize to the fink classmates, because they are still finks.) Harriet and her pals walk off into the sunset, still friends.  Hey, what? The book is over? Doesn't Harriet realize her parents and teachers and all the other adults know better than her? No!  The only adult she respects at the beginning of the book is Ole Golly, and in the end, is still the only one she respects. Did the author mean...that...sometimes adults aren't right? Really? It's OK to think that? Well, YAY!!!

That was a transformative moment for me.  Maybe Harriet didn't live in a 1200 square foot ranch house and go to  public school like I did, but by golly, she thought like me! And that was OK.  Real people (and Harriet was nothing but real to me) didn't live in TV World.  (OK, so Mom was right about that one.)They weren't perfect. Or if they had problems, they weren't neatly solved by the last chapter. 

Real life was messy. 

It was only after I became a children's librarian that I realizes that Harriet the Spy was banned in some places. The claim was that it "taught" children to "lie, spy, back talk and curse." Sure I did all those things. I did them before I read Harriet the Spy and I did them afterwards. Sure, my parents didn't like it. (Neither did Harriet's parents). But I did them because I was a normal kid. Not some adult writer's idea of a model child. In fact, when I first read the book, I was convinced that Louise Fitzhugh was a kid writer. She couldn't be that much older than me. I was shocked to learn she was 37! That was almost as old as my mom! How could someone so ancient remember so well what children thought and felt and said?

Fitzhugh's work never patronized her readers, or pussy footed around a "difficult" situation. She understood her readers and talked to them, not at them.  

Being able to access the child you were at five or eleven or fifteen is the secret to good writing for kids. Louise Fitzhugh (and Harriet) taught me to never forget my inner child (although they didn't call it that when I was eleven.)  I never have.

Suddenly, I have an urge for a tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwich. (If you've read the book, you know what I mean.)

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman