Friday, October 12, 2018

Taking Myself "Back to School"

I've so enjoyed reading my fellow TeachingAuthors' posts about the various ways they continue to school themselves in the craft of writing. Bobby kicked us off by discussing a new book on craft she's studying while also re-reading a favorite classic. Esther shared about being inspired by a new collection of essays from fellow teacher Sharon Darrow. Mary Ann also turns to books for her re-education, not only craft books but new fiction, too. In contrast, Carla's ongoing education comes from talking to and working with other writers.

So what can I add to this discussion? Well, this fall, I went "back to school" by attending the SCBWI-Wisconsin 2018 Fall Retreat and Conference held in Green Lake, WI. I was invited to attend the conference as a presenter on a panel discussing "The Truth of Creating: Rejections, Waiting, Perseverance and Inner Critics." You can see the panel participants in the photo below.

Left to right: me (Carmela Martino), E.M. Kokie, Deanna Singh, Stef Wade,
Joanna Hinsey, and moderator Michelle Houts
But being a presenter didn't keep me from being a student, too. While I don't recall learning anything specifically about the craft of writing, I came away with insights into more productive ways to approach my writing process. For example, one of the breakout sessions I attended was "Come to the Page as You Are … Wired," presented by Genevieve Artel, a creativity coach. I reflected on the impact of what I learned from Genevieve in my latest Creativity Newsletter. If you're not a subscriber, below is the gist of what I said:

In the presentation, Genevieve talked about how understanding our personality type can help us improve our creative life. She notes in the session description:
". . .  every individual is uniquely wired with cognitive preferences, flow states, and strengths. Many of the frustrations we experience on our journey are the result of a perceived set of practices that go against our intrinsic nature." 
I rode to and from the conference with fellow Illinois author Cathy Velasco, who attended Genevieve's session, too. We were both intrigued by the presentation, and Cathy later sent me a link to this piece on The Myers-Briggs Types of 101 Famous Authors. (If you aren't familiar with Myers-Briggs, the article includes a brief explanation at the beginning.) There are lots of online quizzes to determine your Myers-Briggs type, but I've found the results to be inconsistent. That's why Genevieve recommends working with someone like her who's specifically trained to do personality profiles.

However, I have received a consistent result from all the quizzes I've taken regarding one of the Myers-Briggs traits: Introversion vs. Extraversion. The definitions of these words in Myers-Briggs terminology don't exactly match our everyday usage. (Which is why I'm using the Myers-Briggs spelling for Extravert and Extraversion.) For example, I am definitely an Introvert as defined by Myers-Briggs. That doesn't mean I dislike being in groups or public speaking. The fact is, I enjoy teaching and presenting. But I can only be "out in the world" for so long before I start to feel drained. To put this in Myers-Briggs terms, I draw energy from being alone rather than from being around others.

Even though I've known this about myself for a long time, I never thought about what my introversion means to my writing habits. Inspired by Genevieve's talk, I spent some time researching the topic and found a terrific website called Write with Personality by Andrea J. Wenger. On the site, Wegner provides helpful strategies for writers based on their Myers-Briggs personality type. For example, in this post, she emphasizes the importance of what she calls "Playing to Your Strengths." The post links to other articles on the site specifically for either introverted or extraverted writers. Wenger also notes:
"The 'right' techniques are the ones that work well for you, even if they don’t work at all for your coworker or critique partner."
At the SCBWI-Wisconsin conference, Genevieve shared an important tip for Introverts like me: we need to recognize our need to be alone and give ourselves permission to do so. But as Wegner points out here, too much alone time can cause introverted writers to "lose sight of their audience." She provides ideas for how to avoid that problem. Conversely, if you're an Extravert, it may help you to know this tidbit from Wegner; ". . . there are more extraverts in the U.S. population, but more introverts among writing instructors. If you’re an extravert, the natural writing process of introverts may not work well for you at all." I'm glad that even though I'm one of those introverted writing instructors, I always tell my students there is no one right approach to writing--you have to find what works for you.

I'm so glad I attended the Wisconsin retreat, and I look forward to continuing my education at future events. The next will be the ACFW Chicago one-day Write to Success Conference on Saturday, November 3, in Schaumburg, IL, which will feature topics of interest to both beginning writers and published authors. In addition to expanding my own education, I'll be presenting on the subject of "Turning Life into Fiction." If you're in the Chicago area, I invite you to join us. Even if you can't attend the conference, you're welcome to browse the free Book Expo that will follow!

See details here.
I'm also looking forward to attending the Windy City RWA retreat Feb. 22-23, 2019 in Naperville, IL. James Scott Bell will be presenting a full-day workshop on "Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.Registration is now open if you'd like to join us.

Don't forget to check out this week's Poetry Friday round-up hosted by former TeachingAuthor Laura Purdie Salas at Writing the World for Kids.

And remember to always Write with Joy!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Learning from Friends

In honor of the start of another school year, we TeachingAuthors have been writing about various ways we “school” ourselves.  As usual, my fellow TAs have written eloquent blogs on this topic in a wide variety of ways.   I’m taking a different direction.  One of the ways I believe we as writers continue to learn is to talk to other writers.   Most of our families don’t quite “get” what we do, or why we do it.  Sometimes I don’t understand it myself.   That is why developing friendships with other writers are critical.  They understand.   

I’ve had the blessing in my life of having a fellow writer in my local area.  Darcy Pattison is a nationally known author, writing teacher, and independent publisher.   Click here for Mims House Books.  We met for the first time many years ago when her first book came out (a picture book), and mine (an adult inspirational) was about to be released.  We got to know each other slowly through our local SCBWI chapter—which Darcy started in our state.   

I was beginning to write my first nonfiction book for young readers in those days.  I bought stacks and stacks of how-to books, which are still in my bookshelf.  I devoured books about character and setting and formatting manuscripts and on and on.  Learning all these things was necessary.  But at some point there comes a time in a writer’s life when you have learned enough about how to write and you need to actually do it.  The next step is what I call: Put your seat in a seat and work.   In some ways that is when your real education as a writer begins. 

As the friendship between Darcy and I grew over the years, so did each of our published books.  (Her list is far longer than mine!)  Our writing styles and the types of books we each write are very different but we have been able to help each other.   The main way I believe we help each other is not in the form of manuscript critique—although we do that for each other.  It is in the way we discuss our work—over countless cups of coffee, phone conversations, emails and texts.  We bounce ideas off each other.  We brainstorm together.  We discuss how to handle various situations that come up in publishing.  We support each other.  We are sad for each other when disappointments come.  And we rejoice with each other when good things happen.   

In the words of E. B. White in Charlotte’s Web:

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  Charlotte was both.”

My friend Darcy is both.  I look forward to a friendship that lasts for many more years as we learn from each other.  

I hope each writer who reads this blog will find a writing buddy-or maybe a whole group of friends to support them.   

Carla Killough McClafferty

Darcy Pattison and I with our books at the Arkansas Reading Association conference.  

CONGRATULATIONS TO COLLEEN K, the winner of our TA giveaway!! She will receive a copy of Great Morning! Poems for School Leaders and Read Aloudby Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong.  Enjoy the book Colleen K.     

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Re-visiting Old Friends (hint...they're books!)

 You remember the first week or so of each grade in elementary school was always "review time?"  Those easy A's for simply remembering the stuff you were supposed to have learned last year?  That's how I still think of fall, a time of review and re-assessment of my writing, before moving forward. This year, however, my work didn't need review so much as my mind needed a good jumpstart.

 My brain went on vacation sometime last spring, and I don't mean it was in a hammock somewhere in the Caribbeans, sipping Pina coladas. It's been jammed to the gills with more than usual day-to-day stuff, and the toxic mental environment of the country. My head felt like I'd eaten nothing but stale potato chips for months. Time to send the brain back to school...tuition free.

I've always secretly believed The Answer to Life is in books. I'm still looking for that particular book; it's out there somewhere. Meanwhile, there are my "old friends" books...the ones I return to over and over for their sane advice.

My number one go-to book is, and always will be, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Although I've never heard her speak, I can somehow hear her as I re-read my favorite parts marked with Post-It's and the occasional Cadbury bar wrapper.  She reminds me writers are full of self-doubt, no matter how successful. Each new project comes with a new set of fears. The writing never gets easier. First drafts always suck; that's what first drafts are for. I think of Anne as a kind of writer's therapist. And unlike my actual therapist, I haven't paid Anne anything since 1999 when I bought the book.

After Anne bolsters my spirit, I move on to What's Your Story:  A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer. Marion was one of my mentors in the Vermont College MFA program, and this was her textbook. Don't let the title fool you. It's anybody's guide to writing fiction, regardless of age. If there is such a thing as a blueprint for story building, this is it. Again, I hear Marion's voice on every page, because in this case, I actually know how she sounds!

Marion and I have totally different writing styles; hers' spare, minimalist, not one word more of
description or backstory than the story requires. My first drafts remind me of an ice cream concoction that Baskin Robbins once called "The Kitchen Sink": a Matterhorn of many ice cream flavors, sauces, nuts, sprinkles, assorted crunchy "things," topped off by a cloud of whipped cream and multiple cherries. Over and over as I edit my own work, I hear Marion's voice.  "Why is this...(character, scene, description, flashback) here? How does this move the story along?" In my critique groups, I have shortened this question to HDTMTSA. My fellow critiquers know they have wandered afield when they see that.

Lastly, my oldest "friend"  Julia Cameron. I've "known" her longer than the other two. We "met" when her book The Artist's Way came out in 1992, around the time I first began writing seriously.  Julia taught me how to shake up my creativity, and to stop thinking so hard.  I learned to observe more closely, use my mad eavesdropping "skills" for good not evil (!) and to find another creative outlet in addition to writing. I spent a lot of "artist dates" with my trusty old, pre-digital Canon camera.

Julia has spun the Artist's Way concept every which way she can into a multitude of books--for kids, for parents, for "older" people, for "transitioning" people (transitioning into becoming "older") and her latest...for dieters. Two of my favorite subjects in the same book--dieting and writing! The book boils down to a series of different kinds of journals for dieters. I hate diet journaling. And I've "regular" journaled my whole life. However, she came up with a new journal that helped vacuum out the toxic sludge that filled my brain...The Life Story Journal.

The Life Story Journal is not for publication, writing practice or even especially for generating writing ideas. I've fictionalized my own life and family in nearly everyone of my books. In doing so, I have sometimes forgotten what "the real story" is. Julia's idea is to go back as far as you can remember...and write down everything you can remember. For someone my age whose first memories start at age 3, that's pretty intimidating...and laborious. I also never write anything in sequence. So I've picked random years to write about. Not in any sort of prose...just images, flashes of events, people, descriptions....whatever flotsam and jetsam I find attached to 1957 or 64 or 2001. By consciously not looking for story ideas, they come easily from this no-strings attached method of recounting memory.  Lots of junk there too...but lots of good stuff, too.
1963--What do I remember? I'm the one in the maroon dress.

Lastly, I read something new and challenging after a summer of reading adult fiction (which I rarely do) that all seemed alike to me, and formulaic children's stories. My choice, the latest book by an actual friend. An Na was in the Vermont College program the same time as I, so I was privileged to hear early version of her Printz Award winner, A Step from Heaven.  Her style is so precise, her stories could've been written with a diamond pen....chiseled on to glass, each word exactly right.  She is not a prolific writer, so when I learned her new book would arrive March 2018, I pre-ordered for my Kindle...and promptly forgot it was there. (I have an ungodly amount of stuff on my Kindle).

I believe The Space Between Breaths will become a classic for the 21st century. The book is short, the premise seems simple. Grace, a high school senior, has never given up hope that her missing schizophrenic mother will some day come home.  Her remote researcher father is consumed with finding a cure for this disease.

That's where the simple part ends...somewhere around page three.  An Na takes the use of the unreliable narrator to a new level...or does she? Who is the narrator? Is there more than one? Where are we in time? Is it now, the past or a flashback dodging in and out of the present? I suspect that there are as many perceptions of what happens as there are readers. I have gone back and back, and with each reading, I find more subtle hints that all is not as it appears. How did I miss these the first time? Why?  Because the author fools us into thinking this is a straightforward teen-missing-mom story until it is too late...the reader is already invested in Grace when we also begin to question her.

So having visited old friends for counsel, inspiration and's back to work I go.

School is in!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Learning from The Best: The Worlds and Words of Sharon Darrow

When it’s time for this TeachingAuthor to retool, I often return to my friend, Sharon Darrow, one of my earliest fellow writers and SCBWI kin, to bask in the wisdom she’s gleaned from a lifetime of writing and teaching.

Lucky me that this time around, Sharon could share not only herself but her newest book, WORLDS WITHIN WORDS (Pudding Hill Press, 2018), a compilation of her lectures presented during twenty-five years of teaching in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Sharon believes, as do I, that “one’s writing and one’s life each impinge upon and transform the other.”
Both the book and Sharon heartfully enlightened and inspired me so I could keep on keepin’ on, teaching, coaching and even writing.  Part III – THE TEACHING WRITER, proved especially insightful.

Many here in my home state of Illinois know Sharon as not only the founder of our SCBWI Chapter in the late 80’s but as an inspiring teacher and award-winning author. She helped found the VCFA Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, serving in every capacity the past 20 years from graduate assistant to program director to faculty chair. She retired this past January.  VCFA’S Darrow Lectures honor all Sharon’s contributed to the words and worlds of her students. She’s also an alumna of VCFA’s MFA in Writing program, graduating in 1996.

Sharon’s books include the picture books OLD THUNDER AND MISS RANEY (DK Inc) and THROUGH THE TEMPESTS DARK AND WILD - THE STORY OF MARY SHELLEY (Candlewick). Her Candlewick YA titles include TRASH and THE PAINTERS OF LEXIEVILLE. Sharon is also a published poet, contributing to Lee Bennett Hopkins’ HOME TO ME: POEMS ACROSS AMERICA and numerous anthologies.

I loved sharing Sharon this past July with my Vermont Manuscript Workshop writers.  All of us sat spell-bound, taking in her words with our ears and hearts so we could connect with our stories and readers.

The blurbs on the back of WORLDS WITHIN WORDS say it all.  Louise Hawes writes that Sharon’s teaching changes lives.  William Alexander refers to her as “a mentor straight out of myth and folktale.” Carrie Jones shares that Sharon “reaches into a student’s soul and helps to make it sing.”

Sharon truly leads, worthy of a poem, in fact, in our current Book Giveaway of Sylvia Vardell’s and Janet Wong’s GREAT MORNING! – POEMS FOR SCHOOL LEADERS TO READ ALOUD (Pomelo Books).

But see for yourself as you read through Sharon’s answers to my questions below and come to know my go-to TeachingAuthor.

Thank you, Sharon, for your acts of YOU-ness! (I stole those words from a Calypso greeting card!)
I’ve longed to attend VCFA…and now I have, vicariously, at least, via your newest book.

And happy word-making and world-building to all!

Oh, and don’t forget to enter our Book Giveaway of Sylvia Vardell’s and Janet Wong’s GREAT MORNING! – Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (Pomelo Books). Click here for more information.

Esther Hershenhorn

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

So, how exactly did your teaching inform your writing?

I think that it started the other way around with my writing informing my teaching. From my teachers, I developed some quite strong opinions about the process of writing and hoped to pass my knowledge on to my students. Over the course of time, I had students who proved that not all my notions held across the board and they sometimes found ways to do amazing things in their work that “broke the rules,” if there are such things. So I’ve grown in my understanding of what can and “should” be done in my own prose style, and even more in my poetry. I’ve always been a voice-based writer and have trusted that, but seeing the various ways my students at VCFA came at their work has given me more confidence in finding other ways into my imagination. I’m still not a writer who begins with a sense of structure, and that slows my work down considerably because at some point I have to retrace my steps and go back to work on that. Some of my students were incredible at structure and in conceptualizing story arc. I learned from them and, in turn, challenged them to build up characterization and voice. From my point of view, we have all grown and learned from each other and I owe them many thanks.

Who were a few of your teachers/mentors/TeachingAuthors and how are you different for the way they viewed story, writing and the writer’s life?

 I began studying with Fred Shafer after hearing him speak at Off-Campus Writers in early 1989. I joined his short story workshop and then his novel workshop. I owe so much to him, not just in my writing, but also in my teaching. I didn’t realize then that I was learning to teach as well as to write from him, but I was. I also learned much from other Chicago area teachers, such as Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Sharon Solwitz at The Writers.
I entered VCFA’s MFA in Writing in 1994 before the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults was started. I worked with the amazing Bret Lott (fiction) and the equally amazing David Wojahn (poetry), as well as having workshops with other fine poets and fiction writers on the faculty.
My first agent was Jim Roginsky, who taught me so very much about writing for children, and my first editors were Melanie Kroupa and Mary Lee Donovan, both of whom taught me and guided me into the children’s book world. I am so grateful for them.
Many years attending and participating in SCBWI events and listening to authors, editors, and agents gave me a good grounding in writing for children and young adults. Plus, the years of critique groups of my peers—what would I have done without those writer friends as guides and support? I don’t even want to think about it.
After I received my MFA, I taught at Colombia College Chicago, which has a wonderful history of guest authors and poets, most of whom were very different from those of my MFA program. I learned to stretch my writing there. Also, my poetry students were great teachers for me. I loved their openness, excitement, and joy/angst rhythms in their work and student lives.
In addition, I’ve spent 20 years listening to lectures at VCFA by some of the field’s finest authors and teachers, too many to list here, but I am so grateful for the experience of being on faculty and thus still being able to be a student for so many years.

All of these teachers gave me models for the writing life. They took themselves seriously and me seriously, which enabled me to believe in myself as a writer—and later, as a teacher. They viewed story as almost a sacred calling, not just making things up, but making the Self real through story. They taught me that story is not about facts, but about truth, the inner life of things and characters, that can illuminate and guide the reader—and the writer—to become better and stronger people.

It’s often said the teacher learns more than the student.  What have your students taught you?

They have taught be so much! They have surprised me and stymied me and delighted me. I love the books they have published that I was privileged to see at early stages. I’m so proud of them. I’m heartened by their courage and perseverance, their willingness to work hard, to learn, to experiment, to revise, and revise, and revise. They have taught me that it is never too late and to never give up. My VCFA students will always be my guiding lights.

Can you please share a bit about your current writing projects?

For the first nine months of this year, I worked on revisions of a YA novel and a Middle-grade novel, both of which had been long in the works. Now, I’m turning my attention to another YA novel, one of three I’ve begun. I think the energy right now is for the science fiction project, though the realistic MG and YA mystery are still intriguing me. I also never seem to tire of tinkering with picture books and writing poetry.
It was fun and challenging to bring together the essays and exercises in Worlds within Words: Writing and the Writing Life and to publish it through IngramSpark under my own publishing imprint of Pudding Hill Press. Once I learned the process, I decided to bring out paperback and ebook editions of my first novel, The Painters of Lexieville, which had gone out of print. I’m sold on the idea of authors bringing out new editions of their out-of-print titles once the rights have reverted to them. I love that Painters is once again readily available.

Finally, once a teacher, always a teacher – what are you up to now?  Whose lives are you currently changing via your teaching?

This year, 2018, is the first year since 1997 that I didn’t have Vermont College of Fine Arts’ students’ writing to critique, so I’ve done less work with adult writers and more with young people.
At the International School of Curitiba, Brazil, I spent a week working with all ages, from pre-school through high school. I’ve always written my stories as they presented themselves to my imagination, whether picture books, poetry, or novels, and I’ve often wondered if I should have tried to concentrate in one area, age, or style. The week in Brazil made me glad I didn’t because I had books published that all ages could enjoy—even adults, with the new writing book.
I also taught two weeks for the Vermont Governor’s Institute on the Arts at Castleton University. The students ranged from 14 to 17 and I worked with poets and prose writers, as well as a few who were interested in producing cartoons and graphic novels. I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was young, so this delighted me.
Next year, I will be teaching and critiquing adults again at the 2019 SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference in Naperville, IL, the Oak Park SCBWI Network and at Off-Campus Writers in Winnetka, IL.

Friday, September 14, 2018

This Magnificent Madness

“One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Last time I wrote about my ongoing search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft. And to that end, I told you about a new discovery, Donald Maass’ book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

In my quest, I returned this week to an old favorite, a steady, inspirational read by Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (Michael Wiese Productions, 1992)

While the book explores the monomyth, made famous by Joseph Campbell, and its impact in the storytelling process, Vogler expands the myth to include the writer herself. Every storyteller bends this archetypal pattern to her own purpose or the needs of her culture. That’s why the hero has a thousand faces, states Vogler. But at the heart of the story is always a journey.

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
The hero’s journey, you may remember, is found in all sorts of storytelling, most especially in adolescent and young adult. The profound truth of adolescence is the separation from parent, the search for uniqueness and the triumphant integrating into wholeness – the return to being. You can see how this hero’s journey is mapped out in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

Writers go on a similar journey, states Vogler. In fact, as he states, “The hero’s journey and the writer’s journey are one and the same.”

Most writers I know received their call to adventure at a young age. George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer by the time he was five. Neil Gaiman also discovered his love of story at a young age, describing himself as “a feral child who was raised in libraries.” J.K. Rowling wrote her first story at age six, a book about a rabbit with measles. Raised by her grandparents, Lucy Maud Montgomery battled a debilitating sense of loneliness by creating imaginary friends, Katie Maurice and Lucy Gray, who lived in a fairy room behind a bookcase.

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Writing is certainly hard work, “a perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one soul.” It is a fearsome process, no matter how many books one has under their belts. Sue Grafton, author of the wildly popular Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series, once stated, “Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.” The mighty Stephen King noted, “I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing – that it won’t come up for me, or I won’t be able to finish it.” Even the mythic J.R.R. Tolkien said, as the first book of his iconic series was published, “It is written in my life-blood…I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.”

So why write, we ask ourselves? We go through all this agony!

Says Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world.”

Vogler shows that anyone – new as well as established writers – who sets out to write a story encounters all the trials and tribulations, joys and rewards of the hero’s journey.

A writer encounters her trickster, taking shape as computer problems, doctor appointments, family responsibilities, and time management issues, and other “enemies of the status quo" that also bring perspective on the process.

A writer meets the grumpy threshold guardian in the form of our inner and relentless judgments of our work. The tension rises as we face the searing remarks of a reviewer, a copyeditor, an agent, or an editor. And finally, we cross the Rubicon. We are published. But the journey is just beginning, as we “fully enter the mysterious, exciting Special World” of a published writer. The ordeals become all the more exhausting as we face deadlines and revisions and more rejections. As we build our platforms and speak – holy moly! – to readers. And our beloveds go out of print, and favorite editors retire, and face the rise of the internet dragons.

Along the way, if we are lucky, we meet our sidekicks, our Dr. Watson, our Clara Oswald, our Hermione Granger. Our Samwise Gamgee. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we meet our Dumbledore or our Gandolf the Wise wielding his magic purple crayon, who gives advice, who tells us to keep going, just keep swimming. Don’t give up.

Take hope, states Vogler, “for writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural…We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended.”

“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

--Bobbi Miller

Just a reminder about our wonderful giveaway, a chance to win your a copy of GREAT MORNING! ~ Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (Pomelo Books), by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong, and includes a poem by our very own April. See more information on her post here.

Friday, September 7, 2018

GREAT MORNING: Great Poems & Great GiveAway!

Howdy, Campers! Happy Poetry Friday!
(See below to enter our give-away, read my poem and get the PF link) 

Put on your thinking caps today, Campers, because at the end of this post I'm going to ask you to send us one topic you would have wanted to hear over the announcement system when you were in school.

Why? Because today we're talking about Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell's, GREAT MORNING! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (Pomelo Press)

One of the best reviews I read about this book is on Good Reads:

"There's so much to celebrate in this new anthology, I wish I could put a copy on the desk of every administrator with whom I have a connection...Poems that follow the arc of the life of a school year... If you know Vardell and Wong's books; you know you want this book. If you want to boost literacy and poetry appreciation...while introducing your young readers to the poets they may read in school, this is your book." ~ Paul Hankins

I'm proud to say one of my poems is in this marvelous resource. When Janet and Sylvia asked me to write a poem for this anthology, I was thinkin' canned food drive, school book know--something wonderful. Something hopeful. Something that would make me look vaguely like a saint, maybe.

On Sat, Apr 7, 2018, 3:42 PM Janet Wong wrote:
We like your “School Book Drive” poem but we have a lot of poems highlighting book-related things already . . . and we wonder if you’d be willing to tackle one of these topics that we need someone to cover:


Why...yes. Of course I'll write a poem about...lice, I replied. I'd to! 

Soon, I was bitten by the research bug, and discovered there's a national conversation going on about lice. A lice controversy. Did you know that?  

In fact, here's my email about it:
On Tue, Apr 10, 2018 at 7:38 PM, April Halprin Wayland wrote:

​Dear Sylvia and Janet,
In this week's lice research, I came across an interesting controversy​...

 Here are some quotes from that link:
"Lice are not particularly contagious, they hurt basically no one, and they’re not a public health risk. Lice don’t actually matter. It’s high time that squeamish parents and school administrators stop acting like they do."
“It’s not that easy to get lice!” Carolyn Duff, the president of the National Association of School Nurses exclaimed. “They don’t fly. They don’t jump. They can barely crawl through your scalp. They can only spread through head to head contact, and children in schools don’t usually have head-to-head contact.”
“Head lice are a fact of life. It happens. It’s not a health issue, really,” said Marian Harmon, the school health bureau chief for Arlington County’s public health division. light of the fact that more schools are actively not checking for head lice and don't banish kids who have them, I realized that I needed to write a poem that would work both for schools that are introducing their lice-checking program and schools that would simply like to reassure kids that if they get lice it's not their fault and there's nothing to be afraid of, essentially. 

Here's one of of those attempts:


I itch, I scratch—did I do something bad?
My head feels like a launching pad!       
We're head lice, we love heads and hair    
come dine with us, it's nice up here          
(oh, don't forget to bring the salt)                
and heavens, no—it's not your fault!

And that's the story behind just one poem in this marvelous, not-to-be-missed resource!

So, Campers, to enter our drawing for a chance to win your very own copy of GREAT MORNING! ~ Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (Pomelo Books), by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong, use the Rafflecopter widget below. You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options.

If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY's blog post below or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page. If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today!  In your comment, tell us: what is one topic you would have wanted to hear tucked into a poem on the announcement system when you were in school?

(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)

Email subscribers: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA THE WIDGET BELOW. The giveaway ends August 3 and is open to U.S. residents only.

P.S. If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address.

Book Give Away: 9/7 until 9/20/18:a Rafflecopter giveaway

This week's poetry roundup is hosted Carol Varsalona at Beyond Literacy Link. Thank you, Carol! one topic you would have wanted to hear on the announcement system when you were in school. (And if you write a poem about it, send it and you'll get bonus points!)

Thank you for reading all the way to the end.

posted with pride by Eli with a little help from April Halprin Wayland.
Eli Wayland

Friday, August 31, 2018

My Summer in Pictures

     I'm wrapping up our TeachingAuthors' series on how (and if) the seasons affect our writing. This has been an unusual summer for me. For the first time in years, I didn't teach a summer camp for ages 9-12. I definitely missed working with young writers and hope I'll have the opportunity to get back to it next year.

Instead, I've spent much of this summer either working on a freelance editing project or promoting my published books. We don't talk much about promotion here. Perhaps we should. (If that's a topic you'd like us to address, let us know in the comments.)

I hadn't planned on doing book promotion this summer. But after Playing by Heart was honored with several awards, I realized spreading the news might draw some much-needed attention to the book. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you've probably seen these images:

Playing by Heart won the 2018 Catholic Arts and Letters Award (CALA) for Children's/YA Fiction
Playing by Heart took Third Place in Books for Teens & Young Adults Category of the
2018 Catholic Press Association Book Awards

Playing by Heart is a finalist in the Young Adult Category of the
2018 American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) Carol Awards.
The winner will be announced in September.

In between promotion and editing, I did find time for some fun, including going on a Troll Hunt at the Morton Arboretum (with my husband John, whom you can see in the photo standing beside Joe the Guardian)

and visiting butterflies at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

As summer winds down, I hope to finish my freelance editing job and squeeze in some writing time before I start teaching again in October. If you're in the Chicago area, you can find info regarding my College of DuPage class on "Finding Your Writer's Voice" on my website.

This week's Poetry Friday round up is hosted by Robyn Hood Black at Life on the Deckled Edge.

Don't forget to always Write with Joy!

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Seasons of My Books

It is my turn to blog about how the season affects my writing.  The seasons of the year don’t change my writing schedule.  When I’m working on a book I keep plowing onward Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.  

But I do have different seasons of writing that has nothing to do with the calendar.  I write long nonfiction books that are deeply researched. Each one takes years to research and write.  And in a lot of ways, each book goes through four seasons.  

I’ve written about my upcoming book in the blog space quite a few times.  But just like a mother (and grandmother) I never tire of talking about my “baby” AKA, my new book.  Oh and did I mention that new baby’s name is 



This book, like all my others, goes through all four seasons before it bursts forth as a fully developed book.  

It goes something like this: 


Spring is when a new idea pushes its way to the top.  For Buried Lives, that idea was five years ago.  Yes, five.  The idea for this book was fresh and green and exciting.  I wondered if the idea for this book would take hold and grow. There was so much I needed to consider. Could this idea work?  Would it work?  Was there enough primary source material to make it work?   Spring is the time for possibilities.  

Summer is when the idea has taken root.  The idea turned into a book proposal.  The proposal turned into a contract.  The contract turned into finding a way to make this book actually work.  This is when seed which sprouted in the spring, takes root.  The more I work on the book the deeper the roots go.  For Buried Lives, the long hot days of summer lasted a very long time. It is a complex, difficult topic. Many days I watered the text of this book with tears.  

Fall is when the idea has been fully executed.  I turned in the completed manuscript.  Then the harvesting begins.  Like my Daddy cut rice during the days of harvest on our farm, editing and revision is about cut, cut, cut.  Then revise, revise, revise.  Editor after editor, reader after reader suggested changes.  This is when my “baby” book starts to walk, then run. Every edit makes it better. Finally, the last edits are done. (Just this week the very, very last edits were done on Buried Lives.)  The harvest is over and the result is a book that is as good as I can possibly make it.  


Winter is when the book is finished.  My editor and I are elated and exhausted.  The book is delivered to the printer.  It is a time of reflection because I know that soon people will read the words I’ve written and rewritten.  I hope reviewers, teachers and readers will like my “baby” and I hope that no one is mean to my darling in a nasty review.  Yet, I know I’ve done all I can do.  Soon I will send my book out into the world to stand alone.  

For me the winter season of the book is when I clean my office and try to get the stacks of research in order and off of my desk.  Then I start working through a to-do list of things around the house I have ignored: cleaning closets, drawers and the garage.  (OK, I still haven’t gotten to the garage!)   Even as I’m relieved to be finished with my book, I start wondering what I should write next.  

During the winter season of my books, a glorious day arrives—like it’s Christmas Day.  A box of books lands on my front porch and I tear it open to see my baby nestled there in paper.   I revel in the sound of opening of a brand new book.   It is a happy day-beyond description really.  The publication date for Buried Lives is December 18, so I should get this happy day of books near the end of November or so.

Spring follows winter, even in the seasons of my books.  When spring comes, I’m ready for a new idea to push its way to the top.  

The front cover of Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington's Mount Vernon, published by Holiday House, release date December 18, 2018.

Carla Killough McClafferty

Friday, August 17, 2018

Something from Nothing

The calendar says the first day of fall is September 22, but we all know summer ends the first day of school. Here, that is August 6.  Right on schedule, the temperature ratcheted up to 95 plus. Kids at bus stops, melting into the sidewalk at 7 am? So wrong. So unseasonal. Like a street corner Santa in July.

Summer is pure pleasure for long as there is air conditioning. Summer brings out my latent optimism...partially because I am teaching Young Writer's Camps (pure joy), and partially because the skies are mostly sunny. The laid back schedule of summer allows me to indulge in a trip to someplace I've always wanted to go. Sort of like a bucket list, except I'm not organized enough to keep an actual list.

So this summer, we went to Watts.

Yep, that Watts.  The one that those of us of a certain age, watched burn in the riots of 1965.
My daughter, me and the Towers.
For me, Watts means the Watts Towers.  Somewhere in my childhood (maybe an article in Life magazine?) I learned about this magnificent yet quirky installation, built over the course of 34 years. Built by one Sam Rodia. Just Sam.  Nobody else.

There are whole volumes dedicated to the "meaning" and "form" of the Towers. Finding out about Sam Rodia, not so easy. Here is what we don't know about Sam: his real name (variously listed as Sam, Simon and Don; it changed with every census), his actual age(ditto),when he immigrated from Italy (he does not appear on any Ellis Island ship roster), what he did before 1921( from the records, he wandered up and down the West Coast, working as a day laborer, marrying and divorcing at least three women, with whom he had at least two children..that the state of California knew about.) Sam-Simon-Don was a recluse who wasn't much of a talker. Interviewed later in life, he would toss out whatever answer came to him first, forgetting what he'd said previously. Or maybe he just didn't care.

Here's what we know for sure. In 1921, when he was 42 (maybe),Sam bought a triangle-shaped lot at the end of a 107th street in Watts. Back then, Watts was a bedroom suburb of LA. surrounded by truck farms owned by Japanese families. Watts itself was a mixture of immigrant groups, eventually joined by African-Americans, seeking employment in the factories that were taking over the farm lands. Watts was a transportation hub for both rail shipping and the Red Line commuter trolleys that ran between Long Beach and Los Angeles. The railroads ran right along the northern edge of Sam's property.

After his day job in construction, Sam came home and began to build on his pie shaped bit of land. Sam, who had no training in design or architecture, was constructing something out of wire and rebar and discarded steel rails he picked up along the railroad beds.  Sam worked without welding or nails. Without scaffolding or plans. He used the railroad tracks to bend steel into the shape he needed. He worked on his own time, using his own money.

"What are you building, Sam?" the neighbors asked.

"I'm gonna build something big," he'd say.  The neighbors knew Sam well enough to not ask questions, so they just watched. They watched for 34 years as Sam built a mosaic wall around the whole property. Not a plain old wall, but one with a scalloped top.  Did the scallops represent sea waves, waves that would take him home to Italy?  Sam never said.

The walls and towers

Within those walls, Sam erected three towers, the tallest of which was 99 feet. Sam was only four foot ten, so the concrete enforced ribs of the towers were close together, as far apart as a man of his stature could reach. When the towers grew beyond his tallest ladder, he climbed the lower rungs of his tower, higher and higher, adding increasingly small layers until he judged the tower "big enough." He covered his metal skeleton with a thin shell of concrete. He ornamented every inch of the concrete with whatever he found in his neighborhood.

Here is what he used: Seashells, abalone and clam shells. Bits of mirror. Rocks, large and small. Remnants of linoleum and marble. Broken dishes and tiles, rejects from the local pottery factories. Glass bottles the neighborhood children brought him: green soda, blue Milk of Magnesia, brown beer bottles and Chlorox jugs. Glass telephone line insulators. . He embedded his "jewels" into the concrete when it reached the right consistency not too wet or the pieces would sink and be covered, nor too dry, lest the elements would not set firmly and fall off.

Sam worked without a safety belt. With his gas fitters pliers, he shaped the glass in the fire he kept going at the back of the property. He had a tile cutter. These were his only tools.

Sam worked and worked. For thirty four years. Then one day when he was 75 (or 73 or 78), he climbed off his tower and said, "I'm done." Some of the work wasn't finished, but Sam was. He sold the property to his neighbors for 200 dollars (they wanted to open a taco stand), packed his suitcase and moved to Martinez near San Francisco, where is sister lived. He lived in Martinez for the last ten years of his life, dying only a week before the Watts Riots.

He never saw the Towers again.

From across the street, the structures make a lovely multicolored whole, glass and tile sparkling in the sun. But closer, you can see the individual elements. Plate halves. Seven-Up and Canada Dry bottles. Rows of seashells. A patchwork of Arts-and-Crafts style tiles, the same pattern as some in the Smithsonian collection.

The Towers are currently under restoration, so the whole area was fenced off. I can only imagine what it would be like to wander the lot; there is a fish pond, a gazebo, the "ship of Marco Polo", the archway of Sam's house (the original burned in the late 50's after Sam had moved away) These pictures were taken by sticking my phone through the fence rails (probably illegal). I wondered at how Sam had created such an amazing work of art, using nothing but discards, and his own imagination and hard work. (You bet I'm coming back when those fences come down.)

My grandmother's bowl--yellow at the top right of arch
Then, on my way to the car, something ornamenting an archway caught my eye. Two bowl halves, decorated with daisies. That was my bowl! Or rather, it was my Grandmother Smith's Hull mixing bowl that had then been Mom's, then mine. And now here was its broken twin, gleaming on Sam's archway.

Sam did what we all do as writers (if on a somewhat grander scale). He took the detritus of every day life and fashioned it into a whole, unique entity, something whole Sam could've built. We take the odds and ends of our lives, and shape them into stories, without help, using only our imaginations and our gut feelings. We also work without a safety belt or net. We climb our story towers, working as far as we can reach, until something tells us we're done.
The bowl

Why do we do this?

Why did Sam build the Towers? Was he constructing his own little town? Was he building the "ship of Marco Polo",pointed toward Italy, to take him home? These were all things Rodia had told reporters over the years. Does it really matter? The one statement that Sam never varied from is good enough for me.

"I'm gonna build something big."

And so are we.

...And we have a winner!!!

We are pleased to announce that Geri G. is the winner of our giveaway of HP? Who's He? by Patricia Karwatowicz!

For more about Sam Rodia and The Watts Towers here are some wonderful children's books:

The Wonderful Towers of Watts by Patricia Zelver, Boyds Mills, 2005
Dream Something Big by Diana Hutts Aston, Dial, 2011

Friday, August 10, 2018

O! The Feels!

For these summer weeks, Teaching Authors are exploring how the summer season might affect our writing, work plans and/or schedule. Don't forget, we’re also offering readers the opportunity to win an autographed copy of Patricia Karwatowicz’s HP? WHO’S HE? Be sure to read the details on Carmela’s post.

Like Esther, I simply keep on keeping on. Or, echoing Dory’s wisdom, I Just Keep Swimming.

Besides beginning my third term teaching MFA grad students and learning all this new techno-stuff, I continue to search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft. And to that end, let me tell you about a new discovery, Donald Maass’ book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next. The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters. If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Maass explores these emotional modes of writing, and demonstrates how to “... use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones...

“Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.”

In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

With this in mind, Maass explores three primary paths that an author can use to create this emotional experience.

One. Report what characters are feeling, using language and images that evoke feeling. As we know, words can have multiple meanings. The denotative meaning is the explicit definition as listed in a dictionary. Childhood, for example, means the state of being a child. However, the emotional weight, or the expressiveness of language, comes from the connotative meaning. The connotation of the word impacts the tone and themes of the narrative. When Dorothy says "there's no place like home," she is referring to the emotional impact of her family. Because fiction is an emotional exchange, a writer chooses words to create a larger emotional impact. Maass calls this the inner mode, the telling of emotions.

Two. Imply the characters emotional – or inner – state through external action. Maass calls this the outer mode, the showing of emotions.

“Like billiard balls colliding … a character’s actions transfer an emotional impact to the reader, who feels it with equal force, and the reader caroms across the table.”

Three. Create an emotional dialogue between author and reader. Maass calls this the other mode, in which readers feel something that a character does not feel. The reader reacts, resists and sometimes succumbs, but  “…she can never escape the churn and flow of her own feelings.”

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, a character does not always understand her behavior. This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect. What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.” A character’s confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.

Human beings are complex, messy, flimsy, brave, heroic, cowardly and courageous and infinitely interesting. Emotions skim the surface and run deep, creating conflict and contradictions in the character’s life. When an author masters this emotional connection in her writing, it becomes the difference between a reader simply reading the story, and instead experiencing the story.

Or, that's my hope. I’m still working on it.

Story – whether in prose or verse – can do things, so Maass reminds us, that no other art form can. It engages the imagination on a deeper level. It stirs hearts and brings about change in a way that other art forms rarely achieve.

“Writing a novel is itself an emotional journey akin to falling in love, living together, hating each other, separating, reconciling, gaining perspective, accepting each other, and finally finding deep and abiding love. Writing fiction is like living…The emotional craft of fiction is a set of tools, yes, but more than anything it’s an instrument beyond the range of any book: the gracious gift of your own loving heart.”

What do you think?

-- Bobbi Miller