Monday, June 30, 2014

Camran's Sister

The Indiana Writers Center’s annual summer program, "Building a Rainbow," is in full swing. I love driving down to St. Florian’s Youth Development Camp on Monday and Wednesday mornings, knowing I’m about to spend a couple of hours with a bunch of extraordinary kids—not to mention the firefighters who founded the summer camp and spend a whole lot of their off-time planning, fundraising and then actually being with the kids all day every day for six weeks.

I especially love sitting down with a kid who seems to be struggling for words and talking with him, asking him questions until something magic happens and, suddenly ,there's a torrent of them and he can’t write fast enough to get them down. This happened one day last week with a kind, thoughtful boy named Camran. He’s new to the camp this year (some attend from the time they’re six until they graduate from high school) and was feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. He couldn’t think of anything interesting to write, he told me, because he didn’t have an interesting life. After a few questions, he revealed that he’d lived with his sister in fifteen different houses since he was a baby.

“That sounds pretty darn interesting to me,” I said. “And your sister sounds amazing. Tell me about her.”

His face lit up in a huge smile and there came that torrent of words. Here they are.

My sister, Crystal, was always there for me. She chose to take care of me. She didn’t have to take care of me. She dropped out of college to take care of me. She made sure we had somewhere to stay every night. She made sure I ate before she ate. We lived in a couple different houses. We stayed with Andrea, who had a daughter. We played with her all the time. She made the kids happy. We stayed with a girl named Neisha. She had a big TV. She bought me a turtle. I named him Johnny Rico. Mama Buder let us stay with her a little bit. Then we moved to Mama JB’s when I was in kindergarten and we stayed there till I was seven. Mama JB had a daughter who had kids and the kids would always play with us. We played with their dogs, Bruce and Princess, too. Then my sister got a job at the police department. We got our own apartment. She also works part time at Warren High School and at the fireworks store in the summer. She is taking classes at college now.

My sister has black hair down to her shoulders. Her favorite shoes are Jordans. She likes to go hat shopping for baseball hats and other hats that look really cool. She likes jerseys, too. But she doesn’t get them for her, she gets them for me. My sister has a kind heart.

Well. That made my day.

And all over the room the same kind of thing was happening.  The success of our program is directly related to the number of instructors, interns and volunteers available to sit down one-on-one with kids and coax out their stories. Our interns are college students, many of whom are education majors who will soon have their own classrooms. One of our requirements for them is that they write the prompts we ask the kids to write and share them with the group.

Writing teachers should write what they ask their students to write, we believe. For the joy of it, but also to remember how intimidating the blank page can be.

The interns learn as much as the kids do—about teaching and life. As one intern so eloquently put it at the end of last year’s program:

"These children with their bold, simple statements, wild imaginations, and truthful declarations are truly inspiring creatures. Through their honest eyes and even more honest words I became inspired to be a better writer, a better educator, a better person. I allowed their fun personalities to affect my life for the better. I laughed along with them at their comic stories; my heart wept for them with each tear they cried while writing a meaningful piece; I read their words, full of desire to know more, to know every detail possible. I learned being sad and admitting to it is okay and I learned being happy five minutes later is a matter of pure strength. I now understand writing is better when laughing and joking and that no matter how loud or quiet the room, a child’s written voice will always be voluminous.”

 We are all writers, we tell the kids. We’re a community of writers. Writers need each other.

Which is true. I know I need them. Nothing makes me feel more right in the world than working with young writers who are just learning that they have stories to tell and discovering the power of words in the telling.

And by the way, our program still isn’t fully funded. If you’d like to help us meet the cost of this important work with young people, click here. We’d really appreciate it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Even the Wallpaper at Ragdale Makes Me Happy

I have this thing about houses. House angst, really, resulting from the misguided idea that in the perfect house life would always be happy. And the house I have always had in mind is an awfully lot like Ragdale: beautiful inside and out, cozy and spacious at the same time, full of color and light.

The thing is, I am always happy at Ragdale: the house itself (my temporary home in Room at the Top of the Stairs, the leggy geraniums blooming on the sun porch, the sunny blue and yellow kitchen), the magical, energetic silence of people at work all around me. Even the wallpaper makes me happy.

I’m half-convinced I would always be happy here, if I could just…stay.

But of course I know I can’t. And I love my real house, my real life. Into my second week here, I’m already feeling the tug of it calling me back.

Meanwhile, I am so grateful for this gift of time in which there’s nothing to do but writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing (and everything else under the sun) with people believe in the arts and are intensely engaged in making their own worlds with words or paint or musical notes or photographs in this beautiful place.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Talking about Writing X 2

I gave two writing talks yesterday. One to Mrs. Brown’s fifth graders at Allisonville school; the other to a group of library patrons in Thorntown, mostly senior citizens. I’ve visited to Mrs. Brown’s class every year for a while now. She does a book project with her students--turning them all into authors, and I go to give them writing tips. The books the students write are charming, with the typed copy pasted in, illustrations and—best—the author’s bio at the back. They are a whole lot of extra work for Mrs. Brown, which she does gladly. Her classroom is bursting with things to look at and think about. When she brings me up to date on what the kids are working on, I can tell she’s as curious and engaged as she wants them to be.

She is one of my heroes. She’s one of those teachers who should be cloned or, at the very least, given a place at the head of the table where the discussions about what schools should be are taking place. Or better yet, figure out how to clone her. Schools full of Mrs. Browns would get better all on their own.
But that’s a whole other topic. I want to write about my day of two writing talks.
I began by asking Mrs. Brown’s students, “What is the hardest thing about writing for you?”
Hands shot up.
Everything about writing is hard for me. I can’t think of anything interesting to write about. I have an idea for a story, but I when I try to write it down I can’t. Sometimes I get a story finished, but then when I type it up I think there isn’t enough, but I don’t know how to add more. Sometimes I get part of a story done, but I don’t know what happens next—so I stop. Sometimes I get off-topic. I keep stopping to fix the parts I think are wrong, but then I can’t get going again.
First, I say, “Writing is hard for writers, too. Writing is supposed to be hard. If it’s hard for you, you have something in common with all the great writers who ever lived. 

Then I tell them some things I’ve figured out about writing. 
Everybody has interesting stuff to write about, we have to learn how to trick our brains into finding it for us. 
Ideas aren’t words, so we have to learn how words work so that we can translate our ideas into stories. 
Writing gets easier (and way more fun) when you learn how your brain works and let it help you: part of it is made for picturing the story in your mind so that you can just write down what you see; part of it is made for fixing up the story and making it better once you get it written down. Let yourself stay in the part where the pictures are in the first part of writing. 
Nobody gets a story perfect the first time they write it. Writers re-think and revise. You can go back and look at what you’re written, look for words that you can make more like pictures. Avoid adjectives, use strong, visual nouns instead. Take out adverbs! For example, “walking slowly” might become strolling, sauntering, meandering, limping—depending on how the person is walking and what you want the reader to know. 
When you get stuck and can’t go on, ask yourself, “What if?” A good imagination is no more than the writer being willing to ask “What if?” until the right thing pops into her mind. 
Don’t worry about fixing things as you go along. Just write as fast as you can, write everything you can think of--then you can think about fixing them. 
It’s okay to go off-topic in the first part of writing. Sometimes what feels like being off-topic is just your brain having a better idea about what the story should be. Let it go, see what you’ve got. If the off-topic part doesn’t work in the end, take it out. 
If you worry too much about getting it right the first time, the pictures stop coming and you get stuck. 
Remember: writers revise. You can fix what needs to be fixed when you finish getting your story down on the page.
Mrs. Brown requires serious note-taking, so most of them were scribbling madly. I love that.
We did an exercise that helped them see something they remembered. Then they wrote, not worrying about anything but getting down the pictures they saw in their heads. Watching people of any age do this exercise makes me supremely happy. A particular kind of quiet falls, there’s the sound of pencils scratching. The kids are bent over their papers, each in his own little world.
When the timer went off, they looked a little stunned to be back in the classroom. “What did that writing that way feel like?” I asked. Different. Easy. My hand hurt. I couldn’t write fast enough. I didn’t get stuck. It felt…light. I wrote so much.
One boy never looked up at all. He just kept writing. And writing. He was still writing when the bell rang and it was time for me to leave.
A few hours later, I was on the interstate heading for the Thorntown Public Library, about twenty miles away from Indianapolis, where tseven library patrons showed up to talk about writing. We met in the young adult section of the old Carnegie Library, a cozy space. The whole library feels cozy. In fact, it’s so cozy, it has a lovely ginger cat in residence. Tober checked in on us now and then. He has his own blog, which you can read at

Speaking of people who should be cloned. I vote for Karen Niemeyer, librarian, and Christine Sterle. They’ve made the Thorntown Public Library a place where patrons feel at home. Everyone in the group knew each other; Karen and Christine knew them all by name. And Karen didn’t just get the program going and get back to work. She stayed and talked and wrote. Christine was working at the desk just outside the door to the YA room, but when the flow of check-outs slowed down, she wheeled her office chair into the room to join us. That made me smile.
Two very different places; two very different audiences. But the Thorntown group’s questions and concerns about writing were exactly the same as the fifth-graders’ had been. I talked about exactly the same things I’d talked about earlier in Mrs. Brown’s classroom. We did the same writing exercise. The older audience had exactly the same reaction.

I think (hope) each group of people left feeling that writing was more possible for them, feeling inspired to start (or finish) that story they’d been thinking about…now.

I know how I felt: full of energy, feeling really, really lucky to get to talk about writing two times in one day!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Our Vicarious Boyfriends

I was a junior in high school, sixteen. Not long after the Beatles first appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show," I stood at the front entrance to Morton High with my friend, Donna, the two of us discussing the cuteness quotient of John, Paul, George and Ringo. There was giddiness and screeching involved—what had already been tagged “Beatle Mania.” I thought Paul was the cutest. I hadn’t yet figured out that you could also have a crush on a boy because of his mind. 

It was the end of the school day; we were waiting for Donna's mom to pick us up. Classmates surged around us, carrying their books as kids did then: boys, at their sides; girls, hugged to their chests. It was cold. Everyone was bundled up in winter jackets, but girls couldn’t wear pants to school then, so their legs were bare. And God forbid, you should wear boots—no matter how severe the weather. Most girls wore white tennis shoes or flimsy Capezio flats, with nylons. 

I wore white tennis shoes and white wool crew socks. I couldn’t think wearing nylons. (I still can’t.) Which maybe, just possibly had something to do with why boys did not find me all that alluring. 

A while back, when I did a book signing in my hometown, a high school classmate appeared—a still- good-looking guy who had lived down the street from me. It was lovely to see him, so nice of him to come. I said, “I had a huge crush on you in high school.” He looked stricken, he stepped back. His hands went up, as if in defense.

“You were too smart,” he said.

He couldn’t get away from me fast enough.

The thing is, I was a good and earnest student in high school, smart enough, but nowhere near as smart as the smartest kids in our class. I was, however, intense. I mortified myself. I lived in a perpetual state of yearning. I yearned to be popular. I yearned for a boyfriend. I yearned to be known and accepted for who I was, though, looking back, it's clear I didn't even know who I was myself.

Mostly, I yearned to be writer--and I might have found a place for all that intensity and even some kindred spirits on the newspaper or yearbook staff, but I was too scared to take the required journalism class because I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. So that intensity was a loose cannon, exploding in weird, wrong times and places, never failing to make me feel worse about myself. Honestly, I wouldn’t have known what to do with a cool, handsome boyfriend should one have miraculously appeared to claim me.

Maybe, for some of us, the Beatles were vicarious boyfriends. Attainable boys were so…unsatisfying and, well, real. And it was perilous to have a crush on an unattainable boy. You didn’t dare talk about him, even to your girlfriends. You’d be teased mercilessly. Worse, what if the boy found out somehow? You would be ruined. You would want to curl up in a corner and die.

But you could go on and on and on about the Beatle of your choice like all infatuated people do about their beloveds, with no price—other than maybe boring everyone around you to tears. But people in love don’t realize they’re boring others. So who cared? And there was a Beatle for every girl. If you wanted a cute, charming boyfriend, Paul was the one for you. If you wanted a smart, witty boyfriend, John was the clear choice. Soulful: George. Just your basic guy, only…a Beatle: Ringo.

Knowing that the odds of even setting eyes on your beloved Beatle were about the same as said Beatle actually falling in love with you were pretty much zero, only made it all the more delicious. You could zone out, fantasizing. You could listen to “That Boy” over and over, knowing you could mend your Beatle’s heart if only he could find you—and wouldn’t you be a way better girlfriend, anyway? Or you could listen to “I Saw Her Standing There,” imagining you were the girl your particular Beatle was seeing that first time and knowing, in an instant, that he'd been looking for you all his life.

Ah, (safe) love.