Friday, June 29, 2018

Permission to Imagine

 I teach creative writing to kids. You'd think I am surrounded by junior Weltys and
Me, one happy camper!
Hemingways. I am, most of the time.

A couple of years ago, I got a call from a total stranger who heard I tutored. I do occasionally mentor high school students with Important Writing Projects--college essays, a fantasy novel they are self-publishing, a contest entry. A call from a dad about his 8th grade son was not a surprise.

His request was.

"Can you tutor my son in creativity?" he asked.

My hearing isn't what it used to be, especially over the phone. I asked him to repeat what he'd said. He did.

He wanted me to teach his son "to be creative."

I am not a phone person. I have a hard time making myself understood if I can't see who I'm talking to. The dad, son and I made an appointment "to discuss" at Starbucks.

When I first moved to my North Atlanta suburb 17 years ago, I joked that I was really living in Lake Wobegon--"Where all the children are above average." Every kid was either in the Talented-and-Gifted Program, or a prodigy in some other field. I had never seen such a cut-throat bunch of students and parents. I'm not talking high school juniors, aiming for Harvard Early Admission; these were fourth graders.
The Carriage House-Young Writers HQ

Now here I was at Starbucks with a dad insisting I "teach" his son creativity. Cautiously, I asked what he expected from "creativity lessons."

"He must be able to write an excellent college essay. His grammar and form are very good, but he has no ideas. Very dull. I don't understand. He is an A students, but no imagination." Dad spoke rapidly, thrumming his fingers on the table, obviously annoyed with my stupid questions. "He is going to be Ivy League."

I sipped my soy latte, trying to figure out a nice way to say it was a little early to obsess over Ivy League admission, and that you can't "teach" creativity.

I asked if his son liked to read. No, he did not. He was "too busy" to read. Busy with what?
Extracurricular science classes, violin lessons, learning a FOURTH language.

"He sounds busy all right," I agreed. "But what does he do in his free time? Does he like to read?"

I thought Dad was going to pound the table, so I grabbed my latte. "Free time? There is no free time. He must work at subjects that will get him into an Ivy League college."

The dad called to the boy who had been banished to a corner table.  He was the most arrogant 14-year-old I have ever met. He had always excelled at everything...until he hit the wall with his lack of creativity. I could tell he thought that since he wasn't creative, it must not be very important.When the son started interviewing me as to my credentials, that was it. I told Dad I didn't think his son and I would work well together. And got the heck out of Starbucks.

I chalked that up to one of those weird things that happen sometimes. I spent a few moments regretting that an intelligent boy had never had the chance to be creative, and therefore dismissed it as unimportant. Then I forgot about Dad-and-Son.

Until Young Writer's Camp the following summer. Since I have to get know my students in the first hour of a one week camp, I have question cards with the basics--name, age, last school attended. Then the not so usual--how many books have you read for fun in the last school year? What's your favorite book? My last question is"What is the most important thing I need to know about you?" I started asking this after I had a hearing impaired camper, and no one thought to tell me.

 I get goofy answers ("I love Minecraft. Can I just do that on my phone?) or heartbreaking ("My best friend died last month and I am really sad.").                                      
Sssh! Writers at work.

For the last three years, at least one student every session writes "I have no imagination"--or some variation of that.

That floored me. I subscribe to Pablo Picasso's philosophy. "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." I substitute "writer" for "artist" and "once he grows up" to "once he leaves middle school."  These kids are 10 and11.

Why on earth would any child that young think they had no imagination?

"How do you know this?" I ask, and get the same answer every time. "My teacher said so." Or, "My parents say so."

How depressing. A fourth grader who believed himself incapable of original thought

As I talked to these campers, a profile emerged. They were incredibly over scheduled, starting in toddlerhood. When I asked what they did for fun, they gave me a blank look. Free time? Fun? Something that did not involve winning and losing? This was a new concept for them.

Up a tree, imagining.
Enriching children's lives with extracurricular activities can be a good thing. My own Young Writer's Camp falls in that category...the difference being there are no awards or winners at camp. The reward is having fun and using your imagination to do and be whatever you want.

Imagining takes time. Time that appears "unproductive" to a task-oriented parent or teacher. Even adult writers have a hard time explaining to others (OK, spouses) that lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling with Beethoven's 9th blasting is "writing." Characters are living and dying in my head, to a Beethoven soundtrack. They have to live in my head awhile before they make it to the page.

As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone. An only child with chronic respiratory infections. I missed so many school days through fourth grade, that by today's attendance policies, I would still be in second grade. Home alone, I read, drew, wrote and imagined whole towns full of people, all of which resembled Mayberry. If you've ever read Harriet the Spy, it was a lot like her game of Town.

Any number of authors have had long spells of illness when they had to entertain themselves with books and their own minds. I am not recommending chronic illness as a way of nurturing creativity. What I am advocating is down time. Time to stare at ants on the side walk, gaze at the shapes of clouds, invent imaginary friends and pets. Time to slop around with paints without a teacher's direction, to put on music and make up your own dance without worrying about posture or precision. It's not about perfection; it's about the freedom to create. The freedom to fail without repercussions or shaming.

Take my own daughter (please! Rim shot!) She too is an only child who spent a lot of time alone.  Like me, she learned to entertain herself with crayons and paper. In school, her artwork did not win praise because she "did not produce representational images." In other words, she preferred colors and shapes to drawing a horse or a house. She just stared down her teacher and continued to draw her own way.

Her artistic epiphany came on a day when I was trying to finish book edits. Desperate for quiet, and an activity that didn't require my supervision, I gave her a bag of ancient disposable cameras. By the end of the week, she had used them all up. This was at my parent's house, and when we went home, I saw no reason to drag the cameras with us. I mean, she was five. I wasn't going to waste money developing pictures that were probably shots of her feet or the ceiling.
From one of the disposable cameras. Lily's grandmother.

Weeks later, a package arrived from my parents. Mom, ever-the-doting grandmother, had developed the pictures. And...hey, these pictures were good. They were carefully composed, centered, and focused. One roll was nothing but shots of my mother's antique collection, one vase, one statue, on piece of porcelain at a time, like an auction catalog. Another roll I had watched her shoot...walking around the yard, snapping pictures of the ground. Or so I thought. These were pictures of dead leaves and roots, with interesting shadows and shades of brown. Beautiful. There were closeups of household items--a doormat, an electric fan. How did a five-year-old, whose teachers had labeled as "lacking in artistic skill" learn to do that?
Lily's 1st award winner. 3rd grade

I still don't know.  She continued to photograph, first with my old school Nikon, (which she still prefers) and finally her own digital Canon. As a result of a bored five-year-old messing around with disposable cameras, was that at high school graduation, her portfolio was recognized as one of 10 "AP Photography Profiles of Merit" from across the country.

Is she the next Ansel Adams? No. She's an education major in college. But she has a love of photography, something that gives her the satisfaction of creating. She has a photographers eye. She had the time to explore the world through her lens. Even though at the same time she fell in love with figure skating (another creative outlet) she always had time for her camera, taking it with her to classes and competitions.

Do I expect any of my writing campers to become the next JK Rowling or John Grisham? That would be great, but I don't expect it. I expect them to explore their imaginations and have fun. I hope that some will continue to write. I know they do, because they return year after year for the advanced camps.

I've been a public school librarian and I know the strong and weak points of American education. The one thing the most curriculum lack is the one thing that cannot be tested or taught, but without which, all other subjects are just words on a page.

Imagination. We have scheduled imagination out of our kids' lives. This summer, as you scurry around, trying to keep your kids busy, schedule a little time to do nothing. Give them the chance, as my mom used to say, to use their heads for something besides a hat rack.

Have a great summer everyone. Now I need to go prepare for my returning advanced camp writers.  I can't wait!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Something in a Summer's Day

A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon—
A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
Transcending ecstasy.

(Excerpt from Emily Dickinson, A Something in a Summer’s Day)

What are you doing these summer’s days? I find it's the perfect time to catch up on my reading. With this in mind, I recently read our own Carmela A. Martino’s Playing By Heart.

I love historical fiction, especially those stories that focus on the feminine experience. We are all familiar with Laurel Ulrich’s statement, well-behaved women seldom make history. The sentiment underscored the invisibility of women in history. Not long ago, Jo Eberhardt wrote  about her surprising discovery when, after counting the books in her personal library, she found that only a mere 27 per cent of her books had female protagonists, despite “her conscious intention for a 50/50 split.” Further researching female protagonists in other media, she found that over 70 percent of lead characters in popular movies were male. And even in those movies that feature female protagonists (Divergent, Hunger Games, Twilight), male characters speak more than female protagonists, and thus still dominate the story. 

Megan Leigh suggests that  among many stories claiming to have strong female characters, one overriding issue seems to be distinguishing between strong and weak, and passive and active characters. A female who is caring, vulnerable, even emotional tends to be considered a weak character. Yet, a strong female who is aggressive, abrasive, even with difficulty connecting emotionally, is considered negative. Both types are flat, negating their own flawed, complex humanity. In contrast, male characters are often allowed to play the full emotive spectrum. Says Leigh, in too many stories, the strong female protagonist is considered “special,” the exception or chosen one. If only one woman is ever shown to be capable and complex, and is presented as the exception, the “very framing of the narrative in a way that has men writing off most females as incapable, is an issue unto itself.” 

What about our favorite TV shows that feature strong female protagonists that dare to tackle male-dominated jobs? These include super smart spies, corporate lawyers, political leaders, even homicide detectives. And don't forget about the growing trend in super heroes and wonder women.  Despite the implied power positions, these jobs are often in the background. Their story-lines are often dominated by the unhappy state of their private life. Despite being labeled as capable, they are often rescued by their male counterparts. While their male counterparts are dressed in practical clothing that allows them to run, jump, and maneuver themselves effectively, the female protagonist tends to wear form-fitting clothes, with shirts buttoned down suggestively, and high-fashioned heels. Even their boots have heels. Meanwhile, those who weld their power are considered manipulative, shrill, even overly cold and emotionally disconnected, and usually it is because they are unhappy without a man in their life. I could go on, but you get my point. 

It would seem, according to Tasha Robinson, that “strong female characters – someone with her own identity, agenda and story purpose – has become more of a marketing term than a meaningful goal.” 

Sometimes it is not always about the outrageous or the rebellious. Sometimes it’s about doing the unexpected. While the feminine hero may follow a similar path as her male counterpart, the language, the ordeals and even the symbols are uniquely her own. They neither seek domination over another or ascendance into elitist power. 

Choices are made when life no longer fits into her definition. 

This is why I love Carmela's new book.

“The day I decided to take my fate into my own hands began like any other.” So states Emilia Salvani, who is destined by birth order as second born to become a nun. Gifted with musical genius, she struggles to find a way to earn the respect of the maestro, and find a way to avoid a life in the convent.

Set during 18th century Milan, Italy, the story follows two sisters who navigate a strict Catholic social construct. Her older sister, Maria, is a gifted linguist. While her father hopes to secure a noble marriage, Maria longs to join the convent and help the poor. 

Carmela’s attention to detail in her luscious imagery as she builds this eighteenth century city is captivating. Her characters are fully-realized, complex beings, making choices and facing consequences as they strive to make a life of their own. Carmela includes an author’s note, detailing the lives of the two sisters who inspired this story. 

This is a thoroughly engrossing, lyrical novel. It's perfect reading for a summer day in the garden.

Happy summer reading!

Bobbi Miller

Friday, June 15, 2018

Out-and-About at Chicago's Printers Row Lit Fest!

If it’s the second weekend in June in my hometown of Chicago, I’m thinking BOOKS – new, used and antiquarian, for readers old and young, and AUTHORS aplenty and anything LITERARY.
In other words, the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Lit Fest!
Five city blocks long, utilizing the nearby Jones College Prep High School and the Harold Washington Public Library, this book lovers’ fest draws crowds by the thousands.

Once gain, I loved it all – from exploring the books of academic presses and small independent local publishers to bumping into friends and students and fellow writers to discovering a first edition of Sydney Taylor’s ALL OF A KIND FAMILY.

But I especially loved facilitating my annual “So, You Want to Write A Children’s Book?!” panel in which I both introduced and lauded 5 Chicago-area debut children’s book creators who just happened to be my SCBWI-Illinois kin.

Meet, from left to right, boasting their AUTHOR badges:

picture book author Lisa Katzenberger (TRICERATOPS WOULD NOT MAKE A GOOD NINJA, Capstone), picture book author as well as publisher Christine Mapondera-Talley (MAKANAKA'S WORLD, Global Kids House), YA author Amelia Brunskill (THE WINDOW, Delacorte Press), illustrator Jacqueline Alcantara (THE FIELD, North South Books), and in front, middle grade author Jessica Puller (CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE, Disney Hyperion).

They generously shared their Back Stories, their journeys, their smarts and their books with a room full of folks eager to write for children.

All agreed: committing to realizing their dream is what made the difference.
Whether it meant participating in the 12 x 12 Challenge, launching your only publishing company, applying for and winning a WeNeedDiverseBooks mentorship, studying at Chicago’s Story Studio or turning your play into a novel with help from NaNoWriMo and the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writers Studio.
Each author also earnestly recommended connecting with like-minded, like-hearted children’s book creators, especially via classes and SCBWI.

My next Out-and-About in Chicago? 

Stopping by this beautiful new statue of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Chicago-based black poet honored with a statue and memorial in a Chicago public park.  Unveiled last Thursday, June 7, on Brooks’ Birthday, the installation sits at the North Kenwood Park at 46th and South Greenwood Avenue that carries her name. There’s also a replica representing the poet’s porch, as well as a path of stones, each engraved with lines from her poems.

Speaking of which, thanks to Karen Edmisten* (The Blog with the Shockingly Clever Title) for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Happy Out-and-About-ing!

Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, June 8, 2018

Home, Home On The Blog - Or, For The Love Of A Blog

Howdy, Campers ~ and Happy Poetry Friday!  (My poem and a link to this week's host is below.)

We, at TeachingAuthors Central, are celebrating our ninth (9th!!!) blogiversary and feeling pretty darn grateful.

Carmela, our Chairwoman of the Blog, started the celebration back in April, writing about our origin story and previewing coming changes.

Still in a celebratory mood, we're each posting on the topic: What I Love About Being A TeachingAuthor. Mary Ann posted the wonderful Think Write Love--with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert, Carla writes her appreciation of sharing the real life issues of being an author, and Carmela posts her appreciation to you, our readers.

Now it's my turn.

When I was invited to join this blog, I remember thinking two things: 1) What's a blog? and 2) Why would anyone want to blog? But what I discovered is that I'd moved into an online home with five extraordinary roommates in an online galaxy (the Kidlitosphere) with an infinite number of generous souls. My village. My peeps.

So after nine years, what do I love about being a TeachingAuthor?

“The ache for home lives in all of us.
The safe place where we can go as we are
and not be questioned.” 

Why blog? Because for the writer in me, this blog is home.

* * * * * * * * * 
And now, for your listening pleasure, a poem (that mentions home):

by April Halprin Wayland
I have no rain inside my house,
no grass instead of rug,
no tiny living dinosaur,
no belching monster bug.
No piano-playing fish with wings,
no daffodils on skates,
no snowmen in my bottom drawer,
no unicycling kings.
But do I have
a waggish dog?
Oh, yes, I have
a dog.
So, there’s no end of wonders
nor subjects
for a poem
in our exciting, topsy-turvy, dog-invaded home.
poem (c)2018 April Halprin Wayland, who controls all rights.

(I  initially wrote that poem in 2012, when our doofus dog, Eli, was a puppy.)

May all your blogging bring you joy.

posted with affection by April Halprin Wayland with help from Eli

Friday, June 1, 2018

What I Love About Being a TeachingAuthor

     We're celebrating our Ninth Blogiversary with a series of posts sharing what we love about being a TeachingAuthor.

     I fear my comments may sound redundant, as I'm the next to last TA to address the topic. Like my fellow TAs, I love being part of this terrific team of award-winning authors who happen to also be writing teachers. It's amazing how close I feel to all the  TeachingAuthors even though most of them live far from me, in locations scattered across the country, and I have yet to meet one in person!

     What's surprises me even more, though, is how connected I feel to you, our readers. I did not foresee this when the initial TeachingAuthors team met to plan this blog and discuss who our target audience would be. We eventually decided we wanted to write about topics of interest to fellow writers--published and yet-to-be-published--and to those who teach writing. We hoped to share information that would be useful to both groups. To this day, that continues to be our goal.

     The part I didn't anticipate was how supportive, encouraging, and downright friendly our readers would be. Many of you comment regularly, and when I see your lovely profile photos in the comment box, I feel I'm reconnecting with a longtime friend. I initially proposed this blog as a way to be of service, and, as Esther says, "pay it forward," to fellow writers, writing students, and teachers. But often, I feel I get back more from you, dear readers, than I give.

     One of the posts that stands out in my mind was one I wrote back in 2014 called Holding on to Hope for Our "Unmarketable" Manuscripts. In that post, I shared about putting a young adult historical manuscript I'd poured my heart and soul into in the proverbial writer's drawer after being told it wasn't marketable enough. Not only did my fellow TAs post encouraging comments, but two readers, Linda Baie and Jan Godown Annino did, too. I was especially touched that Jan took the time to write a lengthy, lovely note in which she said: 
"I guess it's like a potter who creates a vase without a buyer ready to purchase, or a composer who hears music in her head & creates a score without knowing a symphony will perform her new piece." 
I don't think she even knew my novel's main character is a composer!

All the comments on my post lifted me up and made me feel embraced by a marvelous community.

Two and a half years later, in January, 2017, that same community celebrated with me when I announced that my YA historical had found its way out of the drawer and was in fact being published! And you've continued to cheer me on every step of the way, from the cover reveal through the book birthday.

It's that wonderful sense of community that is one of the things I love about being a TeachingAuthor. Thank you, dear readers.

     It's been a hectic week so I don't have a poem to share for Poetry Friday today, but I look forward to reading those in the roundup hosted by Buffy Silverman at Buffy's Blog.

As always, I encourage you to Write with Joy!