Monday, October 31, 2011

Digging Around for Inspiration.

     Boo to you, fellow authors, on this day that salutes the scary, weird and (if you have kids) the post trick-or-treat-candy-sugar-rush.  I am probably the least qualified person to write this post, because I am not a fan of the weird, scary and (and I really don't need the candy.)

    However, there is one Halloween-associated icon that I enjoy. In fact, I find them inspirational (hence the awful punned post title, which I hope you will not take literally.)

    I love cemetaries.  Graveyards.  Tombstone towns.

    When I was a seven or eight, my teenage cousin, was told to "entertain" me.  She didn't want to entertain me; she wanted to see her boyfriend.  So she decided to use a little revulsion therapy.  She told me she was taking me to one of her favorite places.  I adored my cousin, and would have followed her anywhere. Her "favorite place" turned out to be the town cemetary, two blocks away.  If her plan had been to scare me into going home, she failed miserably.

    I fell in love with cemetaries.  That day is still one of my favorite memories of my cousin and me. (And yes, she really did, and still does, love cemetaries)

    Why would a seven-year-old like a cemetary?

     This was an old-fashioned cemetary, with a mix of tombstones, funeral statuary and mausoleums. Thanks to a mother who was phobic about funerals, I had never attended one, or been any closer to a cemetary than the back seat of the car as we passed one on the road.  So this was what happened to people's bodies after they were dead! (My Sunday School teacher had told us what happened to their souls, but was not inclined to dwell on what happened to their physical bodies.)

     What drew me was not so much the ghoulish aspect ("I am standing on dead people") but the memorial markers themselves. In the older sections, the polished granite, worn marble, moss-covered
crosses, tablets, angels, and lambs each told the story of a life, if you took the time to think about it.  Even back then I was fascinated by real stories about real people. Just reading the old- fashioned names--Narcissa, Hiram, Magda, Josiah---brought these people to life in my seven-year-old imagination.  Sunbonnets, long beards, mothers, farmers. Some of this didn't take a great deal of imagination since often the many children the mother had born were buried along side her, their names simply added to the list on her obelisk.

     I peeked in the grated doors of the mausoleums and wondered about people who were so rich and important they could rest in their own tiny marble house after they were dead. I especially wondered about the ones that had windows (who was looking at what?) But mostly I wondered about their stories.

   That first cemetary was in a tiny farming town in southern Illinois, a town in which my teenage cousin had lived most of her life. She could tell me the stories of most of these people, or at least of their present day ancestors.  To me, the child of a father who was transferred seemingly every other year, the idea that you not only were acquainted with you neighbors, but that they had stories. . . this was simply beyond comprehension. I remember going home from that graveyard (which I remember as being at the edge of the town, surrounded by corn fields) and scribbling down everything my cousin had told me, plus a few things she hadn' mind had taken that first plunge from fact to fiction.

   I was hooked.

     I have visited a lot of graveyards since then.  On a high school trip to Paris, a bunch of us traipsed around Pere Lachaise, looking not for Oscar Wilde or Moliere, but the then recently-deceased Jim Morrison's grafitti-and-beer-bottle-covered resting place. I've done the New Orleans cemetary tour, featuring the grave of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. (I suspect that those creepy offerings of chicken bones and rosaries, might be refreshed every so often by the people who run the cemetary tours.) In fact, one of my must sees, anywhere I go, is the oldest cemetary. Often these are only accessible by "guided tour" where you are "guided" to the most famous person interred. Me, I am usually more interested by the "nobody" buried across the way from the Famous Person.

    I could go and on about the unexpected detours I have taken to accomodate my love of old burial places and the stories I have gathered, or imagined there. In the south where I live, you find old graveyards in the most unexpected places.  The south respects history and the dead, and does not disturb it, even in the name of progress. Around the corner from my house, a fancy-fenced, family graveyard from the 1790's is surrounded on three sides by brand-new housing developments. (I do have to wonder about having a "graveyard view" from your bedroom window, as these folks doubtless do.) There is another, a few humble headstones, across the street from my daughter's skating rink, adjacent to a fire station, set back in a stand of Georgia pine.

     I realize my habit isn't everyone's cup of tea. My husband and daughter think I am morbid and weird. I don't think so at all. Maybe because I am not focusing on the death of these people that I don't know, but their lives...what they might have been, what they become in the creative crock-pot of my mind. My mind goes into overdrive. Who were these people? What were their stories? Not having these answers, I often invent them for myself.

     Sometimes they wind up in my books. In fact, my current work-in-progress comes directly from two weeks I spent with my father doing genealogy research a couple of years ago. Anyone who is interested in genealogy knows how much of that involves cemetary snooping for tombstone information.  After two weeks, some of those long-dead folks tugged at my imagination, begging me to tell their stories, even if it was one that I made up.

    I promised them I would.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

There is still time to enter the current Teaching Authors Blog Giveaway of The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth.  To enter, click


Friday, October 28, 2011

The Trick to Getting Published

Yesterday, something reminded me of this poem I wrote long ago. I couldn't find a copy on my computer, but I found a printed one in my rejections file and updated it a bit. (It's still true!)

The Trick to Getting Published

The other day, I had a thought, a topic to explore
that some enlightened editor would surely pay me for.
I found my tattered notebook, quickly filled a page or two
with details, every nuance, every angle to pursue,
fetched a cup of coffee and considered with delight:
the object of this effort is to write.

I visited the library and checked the latest facts,
browsed my local bookstore for some current paperbacks,
logged onto the Internet and searched for writing tips,
joined in a discussion on the use of paperclips,
then briefly had a moment of incredible insight:
the point of this endeavor is to write.

Yesterday, I canned a dozen quarts of pickled beans,
continuously thinking of my target magazines.
I wiped my dusty monitor and took apart the mouse,
washed three loads of laundry, vacuumed the entire house.
Now I must admit the thing that’s caused me such a fright:
the trick to getting published is to write.

I rearranged my office, bought an ergonomic chair,
scoured the cupboards till I found the chocolates hidden there,
studied my Thesaurus in a search for hidden clues,
looked again for e-mail, checked the weather, watched the news,
racked my brains and thought about escape with all my might,
and now it’s time to buckle down and write.

I’ve invested in a program to keep track of my submissions,
learned about legalities and contracts and permissions,
listed editors who will accept what’s not exclusive,
outlined the procedure, but my goal is still elusive.
All this preparation, yet the end is not in sight.
Somehow I really must sit down and write.

I’ve packed the lunches, sent the kids off on their way to school,
practiced every exercise and studied every tool,
found recycled paper, matching envelopes to stuff,
called my sister for support, then said enough’s enough.
Now that my enthusiasm’s reached its utmost height,
It’s finally time to settle down and write.

Don't forget to enter our Teaching Authors Book Giveaway for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth! Read Esther's interview with author and annotator Leonard Marcus here.

This week's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Random Noodling. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A 50th Anniversary Q & A (and Giveaway!) with Leonard Marcus, Author of THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

Can it be, really and truly?  Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!

Reading aloud this beloved classic marked the first day of school for every fifth grade class I taught.
My students and I delighted in the story’s cleverness, embraced its “Ahah’s!” and worried so for its unlikely Hero, the oh, so clueless Milo motoring his way through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis.
Once grown and married, many of my students wrote to share how they in turn shared Milo’s tale with their children.

To celebrate this special occasion, tomorrow Thursday, October 25, Knopf releases THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.
But today, I’m celebrating by sharing my interview with the book’s author and annotator, Leonard Marcus.

I consider THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH a Twofer. There’s the original text, of course, which causes the reader to smile, guffaw and laugh out loud, not to mention marvel at and laud the extraordinarily delicious language. But then bordering that text is Leonard Marcus’ gracefully-written exposition, opening the door to the story’s Back Story – its who, what, when, where, how and why, as well as Norton Juster’s Back Story too. I promise you: you’ll smile, guffaw and laugh out loud a second time and heap even more praise once you see Juster’s original word lists, character write-ups and early drafts, Jules Feiffer’s original sketches and learn how these two friends brought Milo to the page.

So, pour yourself a cup o’something, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
Be sure to click on the YouTube link that follows the interview, to meet and learn more from Misters Marcus, Juster and Feiffer.                          
And, don’t forget to enter our TeachingAuthors Book Giveaway to win a free copy of THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH! Details appear at the end of this post.

(photo credit: Elena Seibert)
(1) Can you recall the When and Where of your first reading of Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH and your first impression?

I was 11 years old when The PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH was published in 1961, so I could have been one of its very first readers--but I wasn't. In fact, I did not read the book for the first time until I had begun to write about children's literature and was immersing myself in the "classics." I had enjoyed Lewis Carroll as a child and when I finally got to THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH a little bell rang and I realized PHANTOM was sort of the ALICE of our time: funny, smart, outrageous, and (just under the skin) mind-expandingly philosophical in just the same way.

(2) Your expansive annotation of this universally-beloved novel includes cultural and literary commentary, artistic context and background as well as your own insights about the novel. How in the world did you ever navigate a project you yourself describe as “of labyrinthine complexity?” Can you also give readers a sense of the project’s time-line, from idea and inspiration to completion?

I had met Norton Juster about six years ago at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. I was and am a founding trustee of the museum. Now retired, Norton was then one of the three partners in the architectural firm that designed the museum. We got to know each other at museum events. When I decided to do a book of conversations with funny writers for kids, he agreed to be one of the writers I interviewed. The day we taped our interview was the day I realized that Norton had way too many funny stories to tell about himself and way too many insights about art and life to possibly fit in a single interview in FUNNY BUSINESS. And that is when I realized that the fiftieth anniversary of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH was about three years off and that it might be interesting to write an annotated edition. I asked Norton if he liked that idea--and he did, and so did Knopf. The plan came together quickly after that. But then the real work began and I would say I spent about a year and a half researching and writing it.

(3) THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is beloved by millions of children, both current and former. What makes Milo’s adventures in the Lands Beyond a true childhood classic?

When readers meet Milo he's bored out of his mind, in large part because school and the world in general that adults have laid out for him does not make much sense to him. Most children can identify with that feeling. Then something magical happens to lift him out of his boredom. Every child wishes for that, and so can connect with Milo's story in its fantasy aspect too. Throughout the course of Milo's adventures, he faces tricky choices: who to befriend, who to beware of, which way to turn. And while all this is going on at the narrative level, amazing things are happening in the words and pictures--silly, inventive, slapstick, Marx Brothers-like nuttiness and brilliance. It all comes together in the realization that gradually sets in for Milo that meeting the world in an open, flexible, and essentially playful manner, with as few expectations and prejudgements as possible, is the best recipe for navigating a life riddled with uncertainties and surprises. Gradually, Milo comes to trust his ability to think his way through all the confusing times. By the end of his travels, he is anything but bored, and is able to find a world of interest in his own room. I think everyone wants to feel they can handle their "journey" just as Milo learns to do. It makes for a satisfying conclusion to a story that is also jam-packed with wildly-imagined characters and turns of language.

(4) Your previously-published books – including DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM, MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE, GOLDEN LEGACY and AWAKENED BY THE MOON, evince exhaustive research, impeccable scholarship as well as a singular knowledge of the body of children’s literature, its history, its making. What were the challenges of annotating a children's classic?

I wanted this book to be a lot of fun to read. An annotated edition, especially one that takes off from such a funny original work, should serve up its scholarship with double scoops of ice cream. So I looked for quirky items to investigate, such as the "history of the letter W," which Norton references in passing in the section about Dictionopolis. It turns out that the letter W does have a history. One of the best things I discovered about that history is that linguists have long considered the W an "unreliable" letter, in part because its name offers no clue as to the sound it stands for.

I'm fundamentally interested in how children's books mirror our culture, and how that mirror image changes over time. When Norton wrote PHANTOM in 1960/61, the American highway system had just undergone a colossal expansion. So, it wasn't by chance that Milo got to the magic Lands Beyond by car. It was also a time when many Americans were fleeing the nation's once-great cities for the suburbs, and I realized that Norton had snuck some of his most deeply held beliefs as a student of urban planning into PHANTOM--his ideas about what made city life worthwhile and what made it turn dystopic--and it was great to have the chance to point that all out.

I had fun delving into the etymologies of some of the outlandish words Norton himself had had fun using in his manuscript--finding out for instance that it was John Milton who coined "pandaemonium," in PARADISE LOST, as a name for the place where Satan and his henchmen live. It was also interesting that Norton used all these big words at a time of "controlled vocabularies" in school texts. In assuming that young readers could handle such a rich brew of language, Norton was challenging the educational establishment's expectations at the same time that he was challenging children to think beyond their own expectations.

(5) What discovery about the book, the creators and/or their creative process surprised you most?

At Indiana University's Lilly Library, where Norton Juster's papers are stored, I was surprised to find the many pages of word lists he had compiled as warm-up exercises for writing the book. There were endless lists of idiomatic expressions, words that sounded offbeat for one reason or another, character lists, lists of paradoxical and ambiguous situations, and so on. It struck me that these lists were like the straw that the Miller's daughter turns to gold in "Rumpelstiltskin." How could such a tour de force of literary hilarity have come out of these folders-full of mundane lists? I think that list-making must have been a calming activity for Norton, who is a person of incredible energy and drive. It must have helped him to prepare for the really big and disorderly leap that was the actual writing.

(6) While working on the annotations, what made you laugh the most, the hardest, and still makes you laugh today?

Jules Feiffer, whom I also had the pleasure of getting to know as I worked on this book, told me that he had not wanted to draw the soldiers who go into battle in PHANTOM on horseback, as the text specifies. He didn't mind drawing the soldiers, but he did not like drawing horses, he said. And he didn't feel he was good at drawing horses. So he asked Norton if it would all right with him if the soldiers rode into battle on the backs of cats instead. When Norton said "Definitely not!" Jules grudgingly drew a bare-bones outline of a single horse, then cleverly gave the suggestion of more horses behind it with the addition of just a few extra lines. The really funny thing about all this is that when I took a good look at the drawing I suddenly noticed that Jules had drawn four soldiers but only three horses. He and Norton, who were friends and neighbors during the time of their collaboration, were always teasing and fooling and one-upping each other. It all fueled the humor and creativity of PHANTOM.

(7) Who is your favorite PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH character and why?

I like--and envy slightly--Milo because as a 10-or-11- year-old I wanted a battery-operated car just like the one he has in the story. I also wanted a dog back then, and Milo of course gets to be friends with Tock. Jules Feiffer makes Milo look like such a featherweight that when I look at the drawings I always feel that he might be about to blow away in the next wind. Somehow, though, he keeps forging ahead anyway, and I think that that is what I like best about Milo: his sturdiness and resilience against crazy odds. But I would still like to have a car like his too, and maybe a tollbooth.

Thanks to Leonard Marcus, for sharing the above.

Click here to learn even more about THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, its creators and annotator.

And, now, as promised, here are the instructions for entering our Book Giveaway Contest. (It's especially easy so all can enter.)

To enter our drawing for an autographed copy of THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, post a comment giving us your real name and sharing “where you were – or not! – in 1961 when Milo’s tale was published." Be sure to include an email address (formatted like: teachingauthors at gmail dot com) or a link to an email address. We're also announcing a new option for entering our giveaways: Instead of posting a comment, you can email your comment to teachingauthors at gmail dot com with "Contest" in the subject line. Entry Deadline is Friday, November 4, 11 pm (CST). You must have a U.S. mailing address to win. The winner will be determined using the random number generator at, and announced on November 7.

Good Luck!

Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cliches 'R Us

My English 101 students have been working very hard this semester.  I was quite pleased when the latest round of peer reviews noted that nearly everyone wanted 'more illustrations' and 'more detailed illustrations.' 

We have been working particularly hard on 'showing.'  (In expository writing, of course, this is a harder lesson to digest than in fiction, since careful telling is most certainly required in key spots.)

Students have struggled, as is typical, with avoiding cliches.  We read George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," which they did not appreciate, but which I loved even more than I did the first time I read it. 

Finally, I found this video to impress upon my students the mind-numbing effect of the cliche.

Of course we writers do not have the benefits of music, videos, or near-nakedness on which to hang our cliches in order to make them even modestly more effective. 

Since we are writing cause and effect essays this week, we also discussed this lyric as a cause and effect statement and decided that it was, in fact, impossible to support adequately.  "What Doesn't Kill Me May Possibly Make Me Stronger" may be more factually accurate, but it somehow lacks the same flair.

I am, of course, writing this on a sleepy Monday morning and hoping for the best from this week for us all! --Jeanne Marie

Friday, October 21, 2011

THANKUs! Poetry Friday! And National Day On Writing!

Howdy, Campers!
I'm having the final word, I'm wagging the tail on TeachingAuthors' topic of the National Day on Writing, which was Wednesday, October 20th.
My very smart mother-in-law always said, "It's not your's your birthMONTH."  I believe I speak for all six of us at TeachingAuthors: it's not National DAY on Writing but National LIFETIME on Writing!  (I'd like to quibble about why they chose to use the word "on" rather than "of"...i.e, National Day OF Writing.  I'd like to, but I won't.  Not today, at least.)
Ah...writing.  Mary Ann wrote a brilliant piece on actual pen-and-paper letter-writing. I agree with her--there are some things that demand paper and stamps, like thank you letters.
If you don't know what to say in a thank you letter, why not write a thanku?  I love, love, LOVE Esther Hershenhorn's invention of the thanku.
It's tougher to write a thanku than you'd think.  It's a haiku with a built-in topic, right?  Just three measly lines.  HOW HARD COULD IT BE?  I thought I'd pull one out of the nearby dog dish in five minutes.

by April Halprin Wayland~
When you whistle, I
come. You smell divine—not as
good as dirt, but close.
by April Halprin Wayland
I love licking your

hand.  It tastes great!  Not as good
as cat poop, but close.
Esther already explained how to write 'em and then encouraged you to write your own and post them at the National Day on Writing.
It never hurts to repeat a lesson--it's all about practice.  It took me four years of taking classes from Myra Cohn Livingston--four years of practice--before I understood and could hear poetic meter.

So...let's write more thankus--haikus that thank someone.  Then share yours with the person you are thanking.  Or with a child.  Or maybe, with a stray blogger...or six. (If I can show you THOSE can certainly show us yours!  And now that I think of it, neither of those are real thank you notes except for the titles.  Okay.  So, show us yours!)

Remember to write with joy!  And happy...
Poetry Friday is sponsored today by my close, personal, 
Jama Rattigan at her fabulous food/words/poetry/photography blog, Jama's Alphabet Soup.

poems and drawing (c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

National Day on Writing: Hoping for the Unexpected

If you're one of our regular followers, you know we're currently featuring a series of posts in honor of the Third Annual National Day on Writing, which will be celebrated here in the United States tomorrow, October 20. Here's an excerpt from the official website explaining why the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) founded this event:
"In light of the significance of writing in our national life, to draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing we engage in, and to help writers from all walks of life recognize how important writing is to their lives, NCTE established October 20 as The National Day on Writing."
Last year, when I posted on the actual day of the Second Annual National Day on Writing, I blogged on the topic of "Why I Write." My answer then had to do with having an inner calling to write, as Padgett Powell says, "in the closet of my soul." But that's not the only reason I write. The April 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, included a quote from former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins that captures another of my reasons. Collins says:
"The hope for the unexpected is so essential to my process. I wouldn't start a poem if I already knew the ending. The pen is not just a recording device; it can also be an instrument of discovery."
I share Collins' "hope for the unexpected." For me, writing, especially fiction writing, is an adventure. I never know where a story will lead me. But I always learn something in the process. Even when I've plotted out a story and know the ending, I often encounter surprises along the way. And when I'm struggling with a piece and don't know where it's going, hoping for the unexpected is what keeps me at it.

After this post goes live, I plan to also publish it to the National Gallery of Writing. I encourage all of you readers out there to also celebrate by submitting a piece of your own writing. If you need help finding a topic, see the Writing Workout below. And if you're looking for other ways to celebrate tomorrow, visit NCTE's page on getting involved in the celebration.

Speaking of celebrations, I'd like to acknowledge a couple of milestones here on our blog: Welcome to our 400th Google follower: Soma Mohapatra! She happened to join us the day after our 400th post, which was Jeanne Marie's kick-off of this series about the National Day on Writing. A HUGE THANK YOU today to all our readers!      

Writing Workout:
In Honor of the National Day on Writing  

For this Writing Workout, you will create something to contribute to the National Gallery of Writing. The gallery accepts all sorts of submissions, including "electronic presentations, blog posts, documentary clips, poetry readings, 'how to' directions, short stories, memos, audio and video clips."

Need a topic? Here are four ideas for you:
  1. Read Jeanne Marie's post about her young daughter's love of writing, and then write your own blog post (aka "essay") on the topic "Why I Write."
  2. Read Esther's post on writing a "thanku," and JoAnn's response, then write your own "thanku."
  3. Read Mary Ann's post about how she misses receiving handwritten letters. Then write a handwritten letter (or if your handwriting is as bad as mine, type and print the letter, then sign it) to someone you've fallen out of touch with. Be sure to send it the low-tech way, via snail mail.
  4. Reflect on the above quote from Billy Collins, then write about a time when your own writing has led to "the unexpected."
When you're done, submit your piece to the National Gallery of Writing, then come back and share a comment here about your experience.

Have a happy National Day on Writing tomorrow!
And happy writing every day!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Here's to the Pen and Postage Stamp

    Notice:  I wrote this last week, knowing I would be out of town over the weekend. How was I to know that Ben Stein would do a commentary on this very topic on CBS Sunday Morning this week?  It's the first time that Mr. Stein and I have been on the same page (pun intended) on a topic, although we didn't say exactly the same thing.  I just wanted to mention this in case you also are a fan of Sunday Morning.

    Now, on with the blog.

    I heard recently that the average American receives one piece of actual written mail every six weeks. Obviously, someone else is getting my one letter. My mailbox is filled with bills, junk mail and catalogs.

     This is opposed to my email box which is filled with messages from friends, relatives and former students( most of whom found me through Facebook), bills, spam and scams. Don't get me wrong. I am have reconnected with more old friends and students than I can count, to say nothing of dozens of cousins. This is all good, because I am a real phonophobe. I will do anything to avoid speaking on the phone. (I consider a cell phone an emergency tool, not a means of basic communication.) Before email, I would literally write notes to friends who lived in the same town, to avoid the phone. Now I can shoot off an email to my next door neighbor (or editors) without being thought weird.

   While I can keep up with a ton of people via email, I miss real, handwritten letters, even from people with horrible handwriting.  One of my earliest memories of my mother was of her sitting at the kitchen table, once a week, to "write letters to the family." Mom had seven siblings, a mother plus in-laws that expected a weekly letter (and vice versa). At our house, there was Wash Day, Ironing Day, Baking Day...and Letter Writing Day.

    Mom disliked writing, the way she disliked cooking, ironing and sewing. She think she wasn't very good at these things, but they were chores, and chores had to be done. She would write a first draft letter in pencil on cheap tablet paper. She would recopy them on her "good" linen stationary using a fountain pen. (I can still see the blue and yellow box that contained the jar of Scripto ink, that I was never ever allowed to touch.) She wrote so many letters on "writing day" that they didn't fit into our wall mounted mailbox for the mailman to collect. Writing day ended with a trip to the corner mailbox. (Remember them?)

    Opening the mailbox each day was like a surprise treasure chest. Long before I could read script, I recognized my grandfather's beautiful steelplate handwriting, the crabbed scrawl of my arthritic grandmothers. Best of all were the letters of my favorite aunt. She was the only one who typed, so I could actually read what my cousins were doing, as opposed to my mother giving me digest versions.

   Letter writing has a long history in my mother's family. Fortunately, my grandmother was something of a literary packrat and kept everything anyone ever wrote her. The family's letters from World War II formed the basis of Jimmy's Stars. We have her letter of acceptance to Vasser, the letters she wrote as a newlywed to her own grandmother.

    Slighly less highminded are the letters I saved from my college roommates and boyfriends that we wrote over summer vacations. Still, they are so evocative of a time and place in a way that emails are not (even though I do have a file of emails, 10 to 15 years old). The stationary (Holly Hobbie, Ziggy, the Peanuts paper my boyfriend and I favored, neon colored paper with neon colored ink that were almost impossible to read), the nicknames, the concerns, the just day-to-day-ness of what we wrote--"I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and thought of you"--no further elaboration!--speaks to me across time and brings that person back to me.

   Through all the years that rejection letters filled my mailbox in depressing number, I kept writing my books and stories. However, if I wanted to feel real satisfaction, I would write a a cousin, an
aunt, even my parents. (This was in the days before long distance calling plans.) For one thing, the return letter did not include the words "your work does not meet our needs at this time." A letter always met the recipient's need somehow.

   While I didn't draft letters the way my mother did, I do remember considering, pondering each word before I committed it to my Snoopy paper. Maybe that's the difference. It's easier and faster to write on a computer...without a lot of pondering. Perhaps we are the worse for it.

     There are still things that I feel I have to send by snail mail...condolences and thank yous, letters to children who write me, my very extra special friends and relatives.  And if I ever could find her snail mail address, I want to write to the teacher who made me want to be a teacher.

    So just for today, go Luddite; sit down and handwrite something to a friend, relative or teacher, put it in an envelope, stamp it and mail it. Yes, I know it takes more time. But you know what? Somewhere, someone is getting my "one-handwritten-letter-every-six-weeks." Possibly because I haven't written any lately.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, October 14, 2011

National Day on Writing, a Family Reunion, and a Thankyu

While we Teaching Authors discuss the NCTE’s National Day on Writing, I’m packing for an annual Weekend on Writing—the SCBWI-Wisconsin fall retreat—and also remembering last weekend’s wonderful family reunion in gorgeous Door County, Wisconsin.

As I thought about a topic for this post, I scanned the NCTE web site, which is full of helpful ideas (Do take a look!), and was reminded that “The act of writing generates ideas.” (See Writing is a tool for thinking.)

I loved Esther’s poetry form invention, the Thankyu, so I decided to try writing one for my cousins:

sharing stories, songs
faces glowing in firelight—
laughter echoes on

Okay, it's a work in progress, but I have to pick someone up from the airport, and her plane is early—can you imagine? Off to the retreat!

This week's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Fomagrams. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Celebrate October 20th the Write Way: Write a Thanku!

Once again, we six Teaching Authors join writers everywhere in celebrating NCTE’s October 20th National Day on Writing.

Which prompts this Teaching Author to invite writers of all ages to celebrate, too – by contributing an original piece of writing to NCTE’s digitally archived National Gallery of Writing.

You could try writing something easy, like, say, a Thank You note.
The writer of a Thank You note knows his audience; he knows the purpose of his words; writing in first person allows his voice to ring true.
Also noteworthy: according to a recent study at Kent State University, people who composed short letters of gratitude reported a significant increase in their overall happiness.

Or, you could try writing something short, like, say, a haiku.
The three-line poetic form is so very doable. The first line has 5 syllables, the second 7, the third 5. Together the three lines paint a picture often associated with nature, but not always
Bob Raczka wrote Guykus.
Andrew Clements wrote Dogkus.
Last April, the American Library Association created Twaikus, or twittered haikus.

Even better, though?  You could write something easy and short.
You could write an original Thanku!

(I know, I know: it’s not even Friday! I apologize sincerely to my fellow TeachingAuthors and stellar poets, April and JoAnn.)

Googling “gratitude-themed haikus that go by the name Thanku” revealed none exist…
’til now, that is.
And the Good News is: a heartfelt Thanku can make (at least) two people happy – the writer and the reader.

Here’s the Thanku I wrote for My Writers - those I teach, those I coach and those who visit our TeachingAuthors blog.

             My teacher’s heart kvells*
             like any Jewish Mother’s.
             Such storied treasures!

Why not try your hand at writing this original poetic form, then post your three appreciative lines at NCTE’s Gallery of Writing.

Happy National Day on Writing!

Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, October 10, 2011

The National Day on Writing: Why I Write

We Teaching Authors are kicking off a series of posts to celebrate The National Day on Writing on October 20th.

The event's official website includes a section of famous authors' testimnials on the subject of  "Why I Write."
Because we as teachers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to motivate our students to do the same, this is an important question for most of us.

My daughter is in first grade, and her class is starting a school newspaper (!).  The teacher recently had a guest photographer and journalist from our local paper talk to them about the process.  Everyone in Kate's class signed up to be either a photographer or a writer.  Kate said, "Most kids wanted to be photographers.  But I picked writer.  Because I love to write!"  But when asked why, the best she could articulate was, "Because it's fun!" 

Indeed, I have observed that the ability to write with some fluency has opened up new worlds for my daughter.  Our house is full of notes and signs and cards and lists -- favorite candies; things I like to do; things my roly poly needs if I keep him in a cup in my house.  Today my four-year-old went to school with a note taped to the front of his shirt.  I want to save every scrap of paper (I've been taking pictures of them) -- such a wonderful snapshot of this precious time in our lives. 

Kate decided the other day to start a science journal.  She was so eager to get home to work on it that she did not want to do anything else after school.  Here is an excerpt:

Of course you will note that her handwriting is atrocious, her spelling is poor, and she seems to have little idea as to where to put a period.  However, I really don't care. Reading this gave me such a clear idea of her hopes and dreams -- from little acorn to tree to tire swing. 

Writing helps us dream -- and dream big.  My daughter, as I have mentioned before, is a worrier.  When someone suggested that she journal about her worries, she was delighted.  Doing so has helped her crystallize her fears and even consider how she might make them go away. 

Writing can be therapeutic for us all.  When we are struggling with problems and we pour them out in a facebook or message board post, an email to a friend -- sometimes just "saying it" is all it takes to unburden ourselves and feel better.

Writing is like talking, only in some ways even better -- because we have the ability to edit, to say EXACTLY what we want the world to hear.  Having others read and respond is the natural and important culmination of the process, which is why a student newspaper or a mash-up or a blog is truly an awesome tool.

I was volunteering in my daughter's classroom the other day, and the teacher had each student make lists of their interests in order to generate writing ideas.  Every time they have an assignment, they look at the list.  (One student had a gem, claiming to be an expert at 'being bored.')  The teacher is working with them on enticing beginnings, interesting conclusions, and good supportive details in the middle -- in other words, exactly what I'm doing with my college students.  

Somewhere along the way, sadly, so many lose their passion.  I hope my daughter is not one of them.  I hope I'm not one of them.  Thanks to all of you for being part of the nurturing community that keeps us all going.    Happy writing to all!    --Jeanne Marie

Friday, October 7, 2011

Talkin' back to your first draft...and Happy Poetry Friday!

Howdy Campers and happy Poetry Friday! Today's poem and Writing Workout--a poetry prompt--are below.
Poetry Friday is hosted this week by Mary Ann Scheuer
over at Great Kid Books.  Thanks, Mary Ann!

Before we begin today's dance around the campfire, I have an exciting announcement: professor and author Sylvia Vardell and poet and author Janet Wong have done it again!  Just in time for Teen Read Week (Oct. 16-22 this year) they've edited another affordable and fabulous ebook anthology called P*Tag, this one for teens--which you can read even if you don't have an ereader!  
While the 30 poems in Poetry Tag Time,
their first anthology, are for young readers,
the 30 photo-illustrated poems in P*Tag,
their newest anthology, are for teens.

(Yes, I have poems in both anthologies--but that's not why I'm jumping up and down about these two books--they are brilliant and original and poetry tag is a game you can play with other poets and  your students!)

And now to today's TeachingAuthors topic of the week.  After five terrific posts on First Drafts: Quieting the Internal Critic, it's my turn to wrap up this topic--for now.   Just so you know, my internal critic is going nuts right this very minute because I am writing something that someone is going to actually read.

Like JoAnn, I enjoy first drafts.  Mostly.  First drafts aren't promising anyone anything.  First drafts are splashing around, figuring stuff out. First drafts are swirling paint onto the page to see if I can convey what was dancing in my brain last night.
And like Jeanne Marie, I am good at starting and not so good at finishing.  So I guess one way I quiet the voices in my brain is by ...starting.  Promising nothing to anyone, pouring a little finger paint on the page and ...starting.  So, let me see if I can write the first draft of a poem about first drafts right now...

by April Halprin Wayland

Dearest unlicked cub,
darling crude outline,
raw unpolished stone,
clumsy, first design:
don't pick up the phone—
keep writing, we're not home.

Do you think you might need trimming? 
Do you think you may need bulk?
You're just stalled, you're not a slacker—
and I hate it when you sulk.
You're a great extra-word whacker!
Have some warm milk and a cracker.

We are pioneers in this story,
darling sapling, dear first draft,
in a river overflowing
you're a rough-hewn wooden raft.
Yes, it's dreadful, this not knowing... you know where we're going?
c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

My first step was to look up the term "first draft" in a thesaurus.  The results were rich, including the term unlicked cub which is odd and interesting, so I began with that. Then I wandered into a rhyme scheme: ABCBCC / DEFEFF / GHIHII (each letter stands for a new rhyming sound; slashes indicate a new stanza)--and I was off and...stumbling!

The phone rang while I was frowning into the computer screen and I did not answer it...(I did look at the caller ID), so I stuck that in; I got up to make a snack in the middle of writing it because I was scared that it was so bad, so I offered the poem a snack as well (I gave it milk and a cracker because I couldn't find many words to rhyme with "tortilla with peanut butter and honey.")

And then I wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote--twelve drafts so far.  
It's clearly not done yet. I think I'll delete the first stanza--it'll be stronger. I've just sent it to my friend, Bruce, who critiques my poems every day.  We'll see what suggestions he has.  

When my very smart husband came home, I moaned, "Why am I always so COMPLICATED?  Why can't I write a SIMPLE, CLEAN, SHORT poem?" 
"Did Carl Sandburg say that?  Did Robert Frost?" he asked.  
"Robert Frost wrote clear, clean poems," I whimpered. 
"How do you know what he did in private?" he said.
Sweet man.  Smart man.

So...what do you do in private?  Write poetry?  
Perfect--because it's time for a
Today we're writing Apostrophe Poems

I name things.  Do you?  My car is Mortimer, my bike is Neon Leon.  I talk to them, too.   When poets talk to things that can’t answer, they are writing in the voice called apostrophe. In the poem above I talked to my first draft.  Do you talk your pet?  Write an apostrophe poem to your snake or your bike or the toaster or the moon.  And it doesn’t have to rhyme!

Then, brave ones, send us your poems.  Reassure me that I'm not the only one who talks to inanimate objects!
And always, write with joy!

poem and drawing c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Becoming a "Finisher:" Using a Deadline to Silence the Inner Critic

Knowing I'd be one of the last TeachingAuthors to blog about first draft fears brought its own fears: would I have anything left to share that my brilliant co-bloggers hadn't already discussed? Jeanne Marie kicked off the series by sharing four specific ways she deals with her own tendency to be "a serial starter." Esther gave us a whole slew of ways to get to THE END, along with some inspiring quotes to tack up in our workspace. Joanne talked about her love of first drafts and her sneaky way of getting past her inner critic. And Mary Ann reminded us that first drafts are supposed to "stink." Having low expectations can be a great tool. :-)

I hope my co-bloogers' posts have already given you, our readers, encouragement and inspiration. However, I'm relieved to see that none of them shared one of my tricks for overcoming first draft fears:  A DEADLINE.

I've found that deadlines work best for me when there's some sort of associated accountability and/or consequences for not meeting them. One of the reasons I was so productive during my two years at Vermont College had to do with the monthly deadlines. I might never have finished Rosa, Sola without them. But out here in the real world, it's sometimes difficult to create deadlines with real sting. Fortunately for us novelists, there's a deadline-oriented opportunity just around the corner: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Every November, writers around the world take on the challenge of completing a 50,000-word first draft in 30 days. NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone; last year I heard some negative buzz about it, everything from "no one can write anything good that way" to "real writers don't need gimmicks." Despite the negative hype, there have been a number of NaNoWriMo success stories, including bestselling novels that started as NaNoWriMo projects. One of the most recent is the adult novel The Night Circus (Doubleday) by Erin Morgenstern. The book was released less than a month ago (on September 13), and according to the NaNoWriMo blog of September 28, it had already made it to the New York Times bestseller list. The Night Circus has also garnered an impressive list of starred reviews, (you can read excerpts of those reviews on the book's Indiebound page) and has sold foreign rights to over 30 countries.

Morgenstern talks a little about her NaNoWriMo experience in an interview at Writers Unboxed, saying:
"I started doing National Novel Writing Month in 2003. I failed miserably that first attempt but reached 50k in 30 days the next year, and it became a really good exercise for me — writing without stopping to be overly self-critical and having the magical pressure of a deadline."
I'm not surprised Morgenstern was helped by NaNoWriMo--it offers lots of structure, feedback, support, and accountability via a website, forums, and live events. However, since November is a bad time for me, I've never actually participated. Instead, I created my own pseudo-NaNoWriMo events, first with a group of my fellow writers, and then later on my own. I blogged about those activities here before. They were key to my finally finishing my young adult historical novel last month.

By the way, if you're a picture book writer, there are some comparable events for you, such as Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), which, like NaNoWriMo, takes place in November, and National Picture Book Writing Week (NaPiBoWriWee).

I don't have plans for any marathon writing sessions any time soon, but I continue to be inspired by weekly deadlines I set with my writing buddy. If you missed my post about that process, I encourage you to check it out here.

And be assured, this isn't our "final word" on the subject of silencing the inner critic. Last but not least, April will close out the topic on Friday. I'm looking forward to reading what she'll add to the discussion. If you have any tips to share, please post them as comments below or email them to us at: teachingauthors at gmail dot com.

Finally, I just found out that today is World Teacher's Day. Hurray for teachers everywhere!

Happy writing!

Monday, October 3, 2011

First Drafts Stink So Just Do It.

     One of my big "Ah ha" moments in my never-ending quest of "learning to write," was reading Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird.  I know I have invoked Bird by Bird many times in this blog, but I can't help it.  When I am discouraged, bogged-down, or, as I mentioned in my last post, just plain "done" (as opposed to "finished") I call on Anne to get me out of whatever funk I am in.  Whatever it is, she's been there and done that a zillion times. Anne is a right-to-the-point kind of writer who isn't afraid to use four letter words and a little political rhetoric to get her ideas across. I know this bothers some people, so I mention it in recommending her book. If you skip past those occasional references, Anne is my right-hand-in-print-writing-guru.
    Anne was the one who gave me "permission" to write lousy first drafts (Anne uses a somewhat different word than lousy.) First drafts are for getting down the story, getting to know your characters and setting. When I sit down to a first draft, I don't agonize over word choices, character names or other details that don't come to mind immediately. Whatever doesn't come to mind immediately, I leave out by typing in XXXX. When I am revising, it alerts me that I know something is missing here, and hopefully, I now know what it is. If I still don't know, I leave it in until I do know. If that XXX is still around in the final draft it's usually a sign that I didn't need whatever it was in the first place.
    Unlike Jo Ann, I hate writing first drafts. Sometimes I feel like Moses wandering in the wilderness. Very often there are huge holes in my plot (like Jeanne Marie, plotting is my weakness). Right now I am going to break Esther's very sensible rule about not talking about what you are writing (the more time you spend time talking about it, the less energy you have to write it.) However, I am pushing my fiction envelope and writing a verse novel. For the record, I am not writing a verse novel because I am a poet ( I most definitely am not) or because verse novels are hot stuff right now. I just think it is the best and possibly the only way I can write this particular story, which is in three voices and so intense and occasionally gruesome, that it is too heavy to write as straight prose.
     The best thing about writing this first draft is that the verse format works really well with my particular way of writing. I don't write in sequence. I don't start with chapter one and then proceed to chapters two, three, etc. When I sit down to write, I write whatever is clearest in my mind that day. When I go back to write again, maybe I will continue with that scene, character, episode (pick one) or it sparks a chapter that I know will come before or after what I have already written. I don't worry where it will come. I just write. Backward, forwards, occasionally upside down (kidding). The only consistent thing is that whatever I think is going to be the last chapter, never is.
      When I go back for revision (the part of writing I love) I put my work into a preliminary order, sometimes shuffling chapter positions, but always discovering where there is a hole, or where I need a transition. Sometimes I find characters hanging around the edges of the story, not pulling their load. (They are fired.)
      This might not work for anyone but me. (I am ADD, and not the most organized least not by organized person standards.) The point is to do what it takes to get out that first draft. This morning I've been writing a poem that I have no idea where it is going to fit in the book's trajectory. Maybe it will get the old heave ho in the final draft. But for right now, I feel pretty good about it. (I actually got the idea sitting in the skating rink parking lot last week, and wrote the notes for it on the deposit slips of my checkbook..I didn't have any paper.) I have also written on McDonald's napkins, air-sickness bags (empty ones) and of course, the writer's notebook I sometimes remember to carry with me. Right now I have two full notebooks, plus napkins, church bulletins, playbills and Wal-Mart receipts that I am transcribing into a first draft.
     I hate gathering all this stuff together (this is the first book I've ever written by hand first), but unless I want to lose some deathless piece of genius written on the back of a hockey schedule, I have to (excuse me Nike) just do it. 
    One more thing. Don't think too hard this first time around. Thinking turns into premature self-criticism which results in no drafts, first, second or final.
    Today I will remember to take my notebook to the skating rink.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Announcing the Winner of Our Planet Middle School Book Giveaway!

Congratulations to Sandy Brehl, the winner of our latest TeachingAuthors book giveaway! Sandy will receive an autographed copy of Nikki Grime's book Planet Middle School (hot off the press!)

Enjoy your prize, Sandy! Thanks again to Nikki (read her interview here), thanks to everyone who entered the contest and especially to those who gave us suggestions on what you'd like to see more of in this blog.We're always open to hear what our readers' favorite kinds of posts are ~

Watch for more book giveaways coming up! ... and now, read JoAnn's terrific post on first drafts and early risers...