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