Saturday, December 31, 2011

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

There are two kinds of people in the world, and I continue to have a blast writing about them. Looking back, I find that 2011 has been like most years — filled with strains and disappointments, hard work and constant struggle, dotted here and there with the occasional bit of good news and a delicious belly laugh or two. It was a year that both crawled and flew by, and I find my sense of time has morphed into a sense of vertigo.

After years of waiting for life to "get better", I think I've finally figured out that it just gets different. Changes come, some welcome, some un.

Catherine Wallace, a frequent speaker at OCWW, my writers' workshop, once explained that the best way to provide feedback to a writer is to ignore less than perfect writing and concentrate on the parts that shimmer. Her idea is that by pointing out what works best, the writer will return to the mental place that produced the good writing and use that to revise and improve the rest.

I don't know that I believe this is always the best method of critiquing a piece of writing, but do I think it is an excellent way to review the outgoing year. By leaving the negative in the past (where it belongs), and dwelling on the parts of 2011 that shimmered, I hope to be able to bring those sparkly bits forward with me into the New Year to make it a better one.

For me, writing is almost always the best part of my year. I learned a lot in 2011 and have many (too many!) projects in the works. Each effort inspired me to become more creative, more open to making connections. As the year progressed, my sense of what is possible seemed to explode. Thanks to people like literary agent April Eberhardt, I began to believe that the changes in publishing were not death throes, but growing pains. Changes and more changes, some wanted, some un. But with change comes opportunity, if you choose to see it that way.

So here are a few of the writing treasures from 2011 that I plan to carry with me to improve my efforts in 2012:

January — Helped launch my client's website for her new business, Where Are We Going. It has been thrilling to work with Karen Gray-Keeler as she has transformed her passion and avocation into a business. Her energy and creativity are infectious.

February 18 — 14,239 people stopped by to read about Isaac and Molly on the Mike&Ollie blog. I started this blog during National Novel Writing Month 2010 to jump start my memoir about raising 24-weeker premature twins. The blog was picked as Freshly Pressed by WordPress and got more than 40,000 hits in five days. The feedback I got was amazing. Now all I need to do is finish the memoir.

June — Designed and wrote the content for a WordPress-based website for a client, micro mosaic jewelry designer Wendy Gray Raven. Trained her and her daughter how to manage the site and developed a strategy for the blog, connecting her website to her Etsy shop. Becoming more expert in the tools available on WordPress.

March 15 — My first post went up on the Garanimals Blog. Now, once a week, I get to write about pets and animals for an audience of moms, working with an incredible group of bloggers and the amazing Amy Zimmerman. Who knew that being a Reluctant Pet Store Owner would lead to such a great opportunity.

May — Proved that relationships built on the Internet can transform into real-life friendships deeper and more important than most people think possible. It's a reinvention of old-fashioned pen pals with the added advantage of instant gratification. Here's a shout out to my girls: Victoria Flynn, Christi Craig, Julie Jeffs and Rebecca Rasmussen. Great writers, fantastic women.

May 12 — Presented at the annual meeting of Fraternity Communications Association on how to improve print communications for membership-based organizations, and critiqued back issues of many of the group's magazines.

June — Taught a creative writing camp with eight young writers aged 7-11 through the Evanston Arts Camp, thanks to Angela Allyn. Their enthusiasm and curiosity inspired my own writing in unexpected ways and I'm looking forward to the sequel in 2012. (Registration is open now for the Writers' Workshop, pg. 5, camp #922213C2)

June 2 — Ran the first of several social networking workshops, this one on Facebook for beginners. Email me for information on upcoming workshops or to set up a private session.

September 19 — migrated The Animal Store Blog over to WordPress in preparation for the launch of the new website (coming very soon). Found a new voice for the blog, Ernie the Giant Gourami, who has lived at the store since before Kenn bought it 20 years ago. I am understanding more and more that writing is all about voice.

November — "won" NaNoWriMo for the second year in a row (see my winner's badge to the right) by pushing out 50,000 words in a first draft of a new novel. I continue to learn the lesson that you cannot, should not, must not write and edit at the same time.

December — Named as a regular contributor to the Write It Sideways blog. Starting in January through June, I'll be posting twice a month about my favorite subject — writing. Along the way to this assignment, I contributed three guest posts to this great writing website: Hearing Voices? Maybe You're a Writer, How to Bring Your Characters into Focus, Writers Write — Creativity Is a State of Mind. Thanks to Suzannah for this exciting opportunity to expand the writing conversation.

These are just a few of the high points for me. I have more projects in the pipeline that promise to make 2012 a year that truly shimmers. I look forward to sharing it with you, and hope your new year shimmers as well. Look for the third annual Two Kinds of People Guest Post Contest to be announced soon. Thank you for reading. Please leave a comment about one or two of the glittering moments from 2011 that you plan to carry with you into 2012.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Books-A-Plenty (I Hope)

12/31/11 Update — In case you hadn't already guessed, we did not win again this year. I still think this is a great contest and will probably participate again next year. Congratulations to winner Jennifer Miller of Where the Best Books Are. I'm green with envy, but happy to have found this great blog about children's books. You should check it out.

There are two kinds of people in the world — those who write blog posts that could win big prizes, and those who comment on blog posts and could also win big prizes.

This holiday season, I'm teaming up again with Chronicle Books for their 2nd Annual Happy Haul-idays Giveaway. I could win, you could win, and a charity of my choice could win.

That's win-win-win.

Win #1
First I get to make a wish list of Chronicle Books up to $500 dollars in value. I've sorted my list (sort of):

Animal and/or Picture Books
Amazing Animals: Parrots $5.99
Creepy Creatures: Scorpions $4.99
Creature — by Andrew Zuckerman $60.00
Creature ABC — by Andrew Zuckerman $19.99
Dog is a Dog — by Stephan Shaskan $14.99
Duck! Rabbit! – by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld $16.99
Happy Hamster — by Mathijs van der Paauw $9.95
The Lonesome Puppy — by Yoshitomo Nara $17.99
Press Here — by Hervè Tullet $14.99
Walk the Dog — A Parade of Pooches from A-Z by Bob Barner $9.99
What Puppies Do Best — by Laura Numeroff $14.99

Word and/or Writing Books
Creative, Inc. — The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business by Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelert Cho $16.95
L is for Lollygag — Quirky Words for the Clever Tongue $12.99
No Plot? No Problem! A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days — by Chris Baty $14.95
Show and Tell — Exploring the Fine Art of Children's Book Illustration by Dilys Evans $24.99
You're a Genius All the Time — Belief and Technique for Modern Prose by Jack Kerouac $12.95
You Know You're a Writer When … — by Adair Lara $9.95
The Writer's Toolbox — Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the "Write" Side of Your Brain by Jamie Cat Callan $24.95
Writer's Workshop in a Book — The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction — edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez $14.95
A Zeal of Zebras — An Alphabet of Collective Nouns by Woop $17.99

Fiction and One Nonfiction
The Doorbells of Florence: Fictional Stories and Photographs — by Andrew Losowsky $18.95
How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend — by Gary Ghislain $16.99
Milk & Cookies — 89 Heirloom Recipes from Milk & Cookies Bakery $24.95
Murder al Fresco — A Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley Mystery by Nadia Gordon $12.95
This is My Best —Great Writers Share Their Favorite Works edited by Kathy Kiernan and Retha Powers $16.95

Not Books
Creature Floor Puzzles — by Andrew Zuckerman $24.95
Eric Carle Decorative Prints — by Eric Carle $24.95
See the World With Chronicle Books Tote Bag $2.99
Typewriter Eco-Journal $10.95

Win #2
Like my list? Leave a comment, because if I win, you could win all these books too. (Make it a good one, because I get to pick the winning commenter.)

Win #3
If my blog post is chosen the winner, the Chronicle Books will also donate $500 worth of books to the charity of my choice. I choose The Mighty Twig, which was founded during city budget cuts by the volunteers of the Evanston (Illinois) Public Library Friends. Here's what they do:

"What is The Mighty Twig? Smaller than a branch, (but mighty) the Twig provides children and adults with books, internet, computers, storytime and a community space. A small but wonderful library collection circulates in a new way, on the honor system: No cards, no fines, no fees, no fooling! Where else does The Twig take books? We provide donated books to community centers, coffee shops, and schools throughout Evanston. "

If you don't like my list, write your own blog post with your own list or check out other bloggers' lists (find out how here.) The contest ends 12/2/11. Be sure to leave info in your comment on how I can contact you when and if we win. Good luck.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Look in Thy Heart, and Write

"Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: 
 'Fool!' said my muse to me, 'look in thy heart, and write.'" 
 — Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

There are two kinds of people: those who celebrate literature and those who take it for granted.

November abounds with opportunities to celebrate the craft of writing and the joy of literature. My 2KoP readers may think I haven't been doing much writing, but that's not the case. I simply haven't been writing here. It's all good, and I'll be sharing more soon.

Last November, I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I had no idea what I was doing and, in fact, decided to work on a memoir instead of a novel (making me a NaNo Rebel — not bad for my first time out). And I won. What did I win? Well, nothing. Oh, I got that nifty little badge in my sidebar that says I'm a 2010 NaNoWriMo winner. I made some cool, supportive writing friends. And I have an excellent start to my memoir. Just a start.

I've signed up for NaNo 2012 and am well on my way with a new project — a mystery. Why am I starting something new instead of working on last year's project? Well, that's a complicated question, but thanks for asking. The short answer is, that's not the NaNo deal. NaNo participants agree to start a brand new project on November 1 and commit to writing at least 50,000 words in 30 days. Is there a NaNo enforcement department that will hold you to that commitment? No. But here's what I think.

Writer-types like me tend to do better when under deadline. Given gobs of time, we fret and agonize over word choice and characterization and plot twists and … nothing gets done except the fretting. Committing to NaNo is an opportunity to turn off that inner editor (or agonizer) and just get the words out. You see, there are many, many steps to the writing process, and each one requires a different set of skills:
  • generating ideas
  • getting down the bones
  • rewriting
  • revising
  • starting over
  • rewriting
  • revising
  • revising
  • agonizing
  • polishing
  • getting critiques
  • crying
  • putting it in a drawer for a while
  • looking at it again with fresh eyes
And that's just the first step. NaNo is the perfect time to execute bullet point #2 (getting down the bones). Just getting your ideas out on the page fast, without trying to make it perfect, can be a huge creative rush. There is plenty of time to agonize about how terrible it is when you reread and rewrite in December.

For picture book writers, November is also PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), where you commit to generating one picture book idea every day, for a total of 30. Some people believe that discovering the idea is the hardest part of writing, but think about having 30 ideas to work from at the end of the month. Nobody said they all have to be good.

For those writers who feel too constrained by the "rules" of NaNoWriMo or PiBoIdMo, founder Kamy Wicoff has issued a much broader challenges called SheWriMo, where the big idea is to make a daily writing commitment (your choice) and sticking to it. That's a little too squishy for me, but I appreciate the concept.

My friend Mary Beth recently commented on my Facebook post about my NaNo progress: "I know that your numbers stand for words. And just 'cause I'm feeling kind of left out because I do not have a novel in me, whenever I see your number count, I'm going to write a number."

I haven't figured out what her numbers mean yet, but I have figured out that maybe November is just a great month for goal setting. Even if you're not a writer, I hope you're a reader. Maybe you could take this month to set a daily reading goal.

Here's one more opportunity to celebrate: November is also Picture Book Month. I'm a big believer in the importance of picture books and read alouds, both for children and adults. If you're with me, you can become a picture book ambassador. Check out the website for daily posts from different authors about why picture books are important to them. Whatever you do this month, I hope it includes a celebration of words.

Photo credit: WASTEBASKET © Lksstock |

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Do Something Subversive: Read

"Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but, unlike charity, it should end there."
Clare Booth Luce (1903 - 1987)
 editor, playwright, politician, journalist, and diplomat 

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who ban books and those who fight censorship.

It's shocking to me (although perhaps it shouldn't be, given the current conservative political climate) that we are observing Banned Books Week, not as a look back at past folly, but as a raging contemporary debate. Who decides what books we are allowed to read and who should decide are ongoing questions. Spearheaded by the the American Library Association (ALA), "Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment."

Book Bans and Challenges, 2007-2011
Between Gutenberg's big improvement to the printing press in 1452 and the arrival of the Internet, the basic process of producing and storing the written word remained relatively unchanged. But that world is changing fast now, almost daily.

There are those who believe the Internet will be the savior of written history, preserving great (and not so great) words in the electronic cloud forever. I'm not so sure. When I think about how vulnerable I feel when the power goes out for even just a few hours, I don't trust that virtual books are the answer. Anyone remember when Kindle deleted e-books from customers' devices? Book banning seems like it could become a pretty simple process in the hands of those who control parts of the Internet.

But whether we e-read or hold actual books in our hot little hands, being able to choose our own reading material is essential to the free and open exchange of ideas in a democracy.

I'm always bemused by the jumble of titles that make the list of banned and challenged books. The American Library Association's Top 100 most banned/challenged list of the last decade includes some fascinating juxtapositions, like Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey (#13) and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (#5). That same list includes at least seven of my own Top 100 books (at least so far):

Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling (#1)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (#14)
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (#21)
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (#74)
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (#76)
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle (#90)
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume (#99)

(I also really liked 11 Points list of 11 Most Ironically Banned Books of All Time.)

What can you do to protest book banning?

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Junk is Better than Your Junk

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who garage sale and those who don't. And, of course, the subset of those who do—buyers and sellers.

I've been to a few garage sales in my day, mostly with my mom, who loves them. I know I've bought things at garage sales, but I couldn't tell you what. I've also hosted a handful of sales. 

As I've mentioned, I'm a keeper, but every once in a while things reach critical mass and I feel the urge to purge. Last summer, my sister-in-law and I cleaned out my mother-in-law's home of more than 40 years. Forty years represents a lot of stuff, and for much of that time she lived alone. We have six people here—six times as much stuff. And we've only lived here 13 years. I can't imagine what it will be like 27 years from now. Yikes.

So, I planned a garage sale, mostly to get rid of outgrown toys and games. This proved much harder than I expected, since it turns out that my middle boy is a keeper, too, and even more sentimental than I am. Getting him to part with anything was next to impossible.

Me: "You haven't played with any of this in years."

Boy #2: "I just like to look at it. I like knowing it's here."

I see a horder in the making. On the other hand, he started high school this week and he has never been good at transitions. Perhaps my timing was off.

In any case, I sorted and tagged and set out our used stuff for three days. I ran an ad. I Facebooked and Twittered. I posted on Craig's list. We put out signs. And the weather was good — maybe too good; we had very few customers.

I netted about $200.

Given the amount of time I spent getting ready, plus three days managing the sale, plus the cleanup and donation of leftovers, plus the loss-time due to the inevitable sinus infection (I'm allergic to dust, so digging through basements and closets is not a healthy plan), I figure I made about 3¢ an hour.

But it's not about the money (good thing). I hate that we don't fix things anymore, we just throw them out. I have always marveled at my mom's stories of her WWII childhood, where they reused everything—even tinfoil and rubber bands (I still can't bring myself to toss out a rubber band, but I have no particular affinity for used foil). In this disposable world, there is something really satisfying about watching an old item find a new home, maybe even a better one with someone who will love and use it more than I ever did. A garage sale is recycling in the best sense.

Here are a few things I learned:
  • next time, I'm holding my sale on Friday from 9-5 and Saturday from 9-noon. That's it.
  • the stuff you think will sell never does; the stuff you think won't, will.
  • once it goes into the garage sale, never let it back in the house. Arrange for a charity to pick up the dregs.
  • grandmothers are the best customers for toys. They love to treat their grandchildren, but don't always know what they want. Garage sale games and toys make them look like a hero for pennies on the dollar. 
  • kids love a bargain, and I loved watching them plow through my bargain box (25¢ each, or 7 for a $1), choosing which treasures they couldn't live without. That's a lot of joy for a buck.
  • price to sell. If your junk is worth so much, then why are you getting rid of it?
  • garage sales are boring without a steady flow of customers, but I did get to meet our new neighbors, so that's a plus.
I'm sure I'll have another garage sale some day (after Boy #2 moves out of the house and takes his stuff with him, every last lego piece and stuffed animal). In the meantime, check out Batman's garage sale. Guess even superheroes need a little fast cash.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beyond Borders

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who will remember Borders as the book giant that failed, and those who will remember the flagship store in Ann Arbor as the coolest indie bookstore ever.

Tom and Louis Borders opened their used bookshop on State Street in Ann Arbor in 1971. My parents moved us to Ann Arbor from a big Detroit suburb in 1974. I was not-quite-14 years old, full of teen angst exacerbated by the move, and completely miserable in my new home town.

I was lonely (14 is a sucky time for girls to have to move; don't do it to your child) and bitter. My old school was 6th-8th grade and I had made all my friends there. My new school was 7th-9th grade (due to an overcrowded high school) and I couldn't beg or bribe my way into the cliques. All my friends were going to high school and I was stuck in a fourth year of junior high, a fate worse than death. I may, with a little more therapy, find a way to forgive my parents.

To me, the only decent thing about Ann Arbor back then (I think of them as the Wonderless Years) was free bus transportation for students. I started exploring a bit and discovered three great things on State Street:

The State Theater — a grand old dowager that had seen better days, but let students in for a buck and showed late-night movies. I'll never forget getting the beejeezus scared out of me when I went to see Sissy Spacek in Carrie at midnight with my uncle, who was just a few years older than I.

Wazoo Records — may still be one of the coolest record stores in the world (Stylus Magazine thought so in 2007), though I haven't been there in years. Those were vinyl days, and Wazoo was where I bought my copy of Janis Joplin's Pearl and my very first Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash records. Everything about Wazoo was cool in the hippie counterculture kind of way that I had missed by being born 10 years too late. I started my record collection there, which recently brought $300 into the family coffers, despite being used and abused to the point of being barely audible.

The original Borders — hunched right next to the State Theater and across from Wazoo, and was cool in a whole different kind of way. It felt more Nor Cal than midwest, all laid back and intellectual, just this side of pretentious. Since before I could read, stories had transported me beyond the mundane limits of late century midwest suburbia. Borders was an oasis, a calm, reader-centric environment with benches everywhere and a few comfy chairs that invited to you sit and read. Don't yawn. Back then, that was truly innovative. Other bookstores were crammed with shelves and snarky staff who looked down their noses and dared you to crack one of their new spines without paying for it first. Our Borders hired smart college students and book lovers of all ages who knew a thing or two, and were happy to share their recommendations or help you find the perfect gift. And Borders even had refreshments. You could (and I did) practically live there.

Though I continued to prefer the grownup Borders to Barnes & Noble, and feel plenty guilty about my Amazon binges, the Borders I will mourn hasn't really existed since it moved down the block to what they came to call "Store No. 1" on Liberty. Maybe that's what ultimately led to Borders' downfall— rewriting history and kind of forgetting what the real Store Number 1 was all about.

Do you remember the real Borders? If not, what do you think this failure means, if anything, to book lovers everywhere? Click here to comment.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teach a Man to Fish

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
— Chinese Proverb

There are two kinds of people in the world, facilitators and enablers.

The verbs facilitate and enable are synonyms, both generally meaning to make it easier for someone to do something. The noun forms, however, have taken on opposite connotations. A facilitator is a someone who helps a person or organization find a solution to a problem, while an enabler has come to mean a person who makes it possible for someone to continue with bad or destructive behavior.

A good boss knows how to be a facilitator — to help employees learn, grow and move forward. Most of us have experienced supervisors who are more concerned with their own success than that of their subordinates, a short-sighted vision at best. Effective leaders learn to delegate, support and encourage all team members.

I'm good at the supporting and encouraging part of this equation, but I think I fail as a delegator. I don't know if it's a lack of trust or my own control issues that get in the way of delegating, but I have never really learned to let go.

Good teachers also know the difference between facilitating and enabling. A teacher can talk and talk and talk, but most students need, in one way or another, to figure things out themselves. In this NY Times post, students were asked who were their best teachers and why. Over and over, responses included teachers who had high expectations and who encouraged independent thinking and learning.

But perhaps the arena where the difference between facilitation and enabling is seen most clearly is parenting. If you are a parent, you know that it is usually easier to do something yourself than to let your children to do it. Just think back to the last time your young child "helped" you fold the laundry or cook dinner or shovel the walk. If you're like me, your fingers itched and you had to swallow your offer of: "Here, let me do it." But that kind of restraint is essential for effective parenting, because we all know children who have been "over-enabled"; they're called brats.

Each child has different expectations of what constitutes parental help. My daughter has always been an "I'll-do-it-myself" kind of kid. I can't count the hours wasted when I butted in trying to help her, only to have her rip off her tights (for example) and begin again. "I do it myself" was practically her theme song. Despite sticking my nose in many times where it didn't belong, her innate independence has turned her into a highly motivated, successful young adult. She can be snappish, but she gets things done, and I think the art of delegation is going to take her a long time to master.

Her twin brother, on the other hand, has always welcomed any and all help. These babies were born at 24 weeks, and the boy's size and development lagged far behind his sister's for many years. There were things he could do and things he couldn't, but he was, and is an easy-going, lovely human being, graciously accepting any favor, large or small. I have never once heard him say "Let me do it myself."

When the twins were four, I learned about something called "assumed disability", which often goes hand in hand with an actual disability. With assumed disability, we assume that because someone cannot do one thing, they cannot do something else. From the beginning, my son had two loving, willing females to take care of him, and it took me a long time to figure out we weren't doing him any favors. One day, I heard myself ask the girl to go get her shoes and put them on; then I asked her to get his shoes so I could help him put them on. The bell finally rung and that poor boy's life has never been the same.

But the line between facilitating and enabling a child (especially one with disabilities) is a tricky one, serpentining across the sands of childhood, moving and changing while you're not looking. What is facilitating one day is enabling the next, and staying on top of that moving line takes constant vigilance.

I wish I had been better. I wish I had devoted more time, been stricter and demanded more. I wish I had worried less about his happiness and more about his independence. (Notice that I say this with perfect 20-20 hindsight.) Now the line between facilitating and enabling is a dotted one, and I'm not at all sure how to help him make the right connections. I feel lost, hamstrung by his age, the law and my own expectations.

Don't get me wrong. I've taught him many of the skills necessary for independent living: he does his own laundry, is a pretty decent cook and can get around on public transportation. But his ability to think things through from start to finish or to anticipate are impaired. Is it possible to teach common sense?

I know (hope, believe) that if he could find his passion, the independence would follow. But can you facilitate passion? Can you even enable it? I don't think so. This is just one of those things he's going to have to do himself. And I'm going to have to learn to let him.

How have you been facilitated, or how have you been a facilitator? Or tell us your tale about enabling instead. Just click here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who go to summer camp and those who don't.

In a camp experience that keeps on giving, my husband and his brother frequently talk about the summer they went away to sleepover camp. They say they hated it. Their mother claims they loved it. They argue about it regularly at family holiday meals.

My own children went to over-night camp sponsored by our local Y. The camp is in Michigan and they all loved it, starting the summer after third grade until we ran out of money and could no longer afford to send them. (Once again, the youngest child gets ripped off, with only two years of camp under his belt. Sadly, we won't be able to afford his therapy bills, either.)

One year when I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to go away for two weeks to Camp Metamora in Michigan with my Girl Scout troop. Unfortunately, I announced this to my parents the day before the final payment was due in full. I don't remember how much it was, but from the look on my mom's face, it must have been astronomical.

Ever-practical, my mother said that, while she appreciated my desire to go away to summer camp, it was a big expense that we had not planned for. If they allowed me to go to sleep-away camp, the rest of the family would have to give up any form of summer vacation and that wouldn't be fair. I pouted. "But," she said, "If you really want to go, you can start saving up your money now for next summer and if you can save up half, Daddy and I will pay the other half." I wish I had that kind of parental discipline with my kids.

Camp Metamora never happened, but not because I couldn't save up the money. All my friends who went that year hated it. It rained, it was cold, the food was bad, there were bugs. They hated it.

While my more well-to-do friends suffered through overnight camp, I went to a Girl Scout day camp that involved a 40-minute bus ride each way. I don't remember where it was, but I do remember that we rode past a big cemetery and all lifted our feet off the floor of the bus when we passed so the dead souls couldn't get us. The girls were from in and around the greater Detroit-metropolitan area and all were new to me.

I loved that camp. I remember one girl in particular, Judy Martin, was very nice, and her mom was one of the leaders. We made s'mores and god's eyes and lanyards. We played Red Rover and sang camp songs. We hiked and played on the playground. But the best part of day camp for me was the bus ride.

A tiny African American girl sat on the seat across from me the first day. I later found out that her name was Selena McGee, but for the first three days she just stared at me. I had very blond hair at the time, and when she finally got up the courage to talk, she asked if my hair was made of real gold and if she could touch it. From that day on, Selena spent all our time on the bus playing with my hair — brushing it, styling it and, long before Bo Derek, putting it in corn rows. It was like have my own personal stylist aboard a mobile beauty parlor.

This year, for the first time, I'm teaching a creative writing camp for 7-11 year olds through our city's Cultural Arts Program. It's an afternoon-only day camp and I have eight campers, all girls. In the grown up writing world, this would be called a writing retreat and it would cost a fortune.

Just like my childhood day camp, we play games, sing songs, and make crafts. Only the games we play are improv or story-based games; and the crafts we do include making our own journals, decorating book bags, and writing letters with feather quills. We also write poems, pick a word of the day, and take weekly walking field trips to the library and beach. My brother calls it Geek Camp. I call it a blast. The camp combines all my favorite things — writing, teaching, books and kids (who go home at the end of the day).

I remind my writers, as we head to the library or beach or playground, to use all their five senses. When we get back, we try to write down five sensory details that we noticed along the way. We talk about what it means to be a writer:
  • writers write
  • writers support each other
  • writers ask questions
  • writers pay attention to details
  • writers read
Each time I remind my campers of these writerly attributes, I remind myself, too. We work on our long stories in a "Stinky First Draft" spiral binder (with a tip of the hat to Anne Lamott), because writers write. When one of us shares her writing, we give three Likes and a Wish:

"I like the main character's name."
"I like the detail of the fluffy pillow right in the middle of her bed."
"I like that I could almost smell her birthday cake baking."
"I wish I knew more about her two best friends."

We use this method of critiquing because writers support each other. We choose a word of the day that is new to most of us, because writers ask questions. We note our delicious details in our journals, because writers pay attention. 

And each day, I read aloud to them, because writers read. On Friday, we finished our first read aloud, called A Beginning, a Muddle and an End by Avi, a book full of plays on words and serious ideas about the writing process. I hadn't read this book in a long time, and was delighted to rediscover one of my favorite bits of writerly advice. Edward the Ant tells his would-be author friend that if he wants to attract readers, then he shouldn't write writing, he should write reading. Brilliant. I wish I had written it.

Below is a silly Dr. Demento animation of Allan Sherman's camp classic, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. After you watch it, click here and leave a comment about your own camp experiences.

Photo credit: roasting marshmallows by jenny.nash712 via a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Strength in Numbers

Welcome to the SheWrites Blogger Ball!
"You can have anything you want if you want it desperately enough. You must want it with an inner exuberance that erupts through the skin and joins the energy that created the world." 
Sheila Graham, writer/performer (1904-1988)

There are two kinds of people in the world: the isolationists and the joiners. This comes pretty close to the crux of my whole Two Kinds of People philosophy. I spent close to 25 years as an isolationist, waiting for the world to discover the greatness of me. Never happened.

In my late twenties, I dibbled and dabbled, taking a class here and there, but still not really becoming part of a community. It wasn't until my twins were born and a neighbor dragged me to a Mothers of Multiples (MOMs) meeting that I finally understood the idea of strength in numbers, in shared experiences and common ground. 

My own mom was never much of a joiner, and I believe my early aversion came from a sense that groups that you had to join were all about exclusion, not inclusion. That can certainly be true. Even in my little MOMs group, if you didn't have more than one baby at a time, you couldn't be part of the group, which is too bad, because I learned most of the good things I know about how to be a parent from that group. 

But joining doesn't have to be about exclusion — it can be about creating and belonging to a community. In thinking about how I changed my joining tune, I turned (as I usually do) to the dictionary and found my perfect definition of community in the online version of the MacMillan Dictionary (definition #4): "the feeling that you belong to a group and that this is a good thing."

It is a good thing to belong. Since I figured that out, I have started a book club, been PTA president, and become a member of the board of a long-running writers' workshop, just to name a few groups. And now … now there is the Internet. Geography is no longer the delimiter in defining community. We can create virtual communities.

There are those (my Dad) who think we've come to far. There are those who doubt the veracity of an online community — isolationists who see the Interwebs as nothing more than a playground for perverts and procrastinators. Not true.

The online writing community, in particular, is one of the most vital. Just spend 15 minutes lurking at #yalitchat on Twitter and you'll discover a worldwide group of adults passionate about the creation of literature for young adults. Or follow #amwriting or #kidlitchat or #author.

Now I'm going to tell you my little story about how virtual became reality. About two years ago, I stumbled upon something called I was fairly new to Facebook and brand new to Twitter and trying to figure out the whole social networking scene, which seemed vast and uninviting, harder to crack than even the tightest PTA cliques (you know who you are).

I signed up for SheWrites. I joined a group called Chicago Area Writers. Nothing. Then I joined, on a whim, a group called Mother Writers. The group's "owner", E. Victoria Flynn, reached out to me in welcome. We swapped some info and she became one of my first Twitter followers. On my first "Follow Friday", she sent a shout out to her Twitter pals inviting them to follow me and suddenly I was in.

I've "met" hundreds (probably thousands) of people on Twitter and now have more than 900 followers of my own, but there's a kind of core group that has developed and we've become friends on SheWrites and Facebook, as well as on Twitter. If you're confused by all this tech talk, don't worry; I'm getting the the real part. Over time, my crew has been very supportive of each other's writing efforts and one of us, the beautiful and talented Rebecca Rasmussen has seen her first novel, The Bird Sisters, through to publication. We were all so excited. Really.

Then we heard that she was going on a book tour, just like a real author. And then we heard that she was coming to The Book Stall, a fabulous, still independent, still open book store in Winnetka, IL. And we hatched a plot. Our group would meet at for cocktails and dinner or whatever and go together to hear Rebecca read from her new novel. We would travel from around the midwest: Victoria (of Penny Jar) from Madison; Christi (of Writing Under Pressure) from Milwaukee; Julie (of Beginning a Life at 50) from Nashville; and our celebrity author (of The Bird Sisters Blog) from St. Louis.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans and good intentions and all that. It usually doesn't work out. Except when it does. Like this time. Maybe it was because we didn't have to do it, that everyone would have understood if the thing fell apart. But I think it's because we stopped lurking and joined in. We created a real community. It started out virtually and transformed each of us quite literally. I can't wait for our next book launch. Wonder which of us it will be?

At The Bookstall, from left — Rebecca Rasmussen, Julie Jeffs,
E. Victoria Flynn and Christi Craig. (Where am I? Taking the
picture, of course.)
I'd been planning this post for some time, but the writing of it was prompted by the She Writer Blogger Ball Re-Re-Redux, another opportunity to meet and greet and join. Click on the little bookshelf image at the top of this post and join in the fun of a blog hop. No membership dues required, although your comments are always appreciated (here and on the other blogs you visit). 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mogul Diamond Readers

There are two kinds of people in the world: fast readers and slow readers.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was more specific (and more critical) in his assessment of readership:

"Readers may be divided into four classes:
  1. Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied.
  2. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
  3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
  4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also."
I tend to agree less with Coleridge and more with one of the speakers in my writers' workshop who said that writers do only half the work; readers complete it. Each time a book is read by someone new, or even when it is reread, it is rewritten.

I don't remember not knowing how to read. In fact, once I broke the code, it seemed impossible not to read or try to decode a series of letters organized in the shape of a word. I do remember the enormous pleasure I got from reading as child. I devoured books (not quickly, I'm one of the s-l-o-w readers), but in great gulps. I remember reading straight through the Little House books in third grade, then moving on to other, more treacly series like the Bobbsey Twins and Sue Barton Student Nurse, just because there were so many of them. I read every biography of every famous female I could find. I lived and breathed the lives of the March sisters, furious when I finished the last Louisa May Alcott book in our school library.

By middle school, I had moved on to adult literature (there was little by way of Young Adult [YA] material back then, though I vividly remember A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mr. and Mrs. BoJo Jones (later, a truly awful movie of the week starring Desi Arnaz, Jr.) and Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (a "true diary" as fraught with controversy as James Frey's Million Little Pieces). Back then, the thing I loved most about books is that I could scan them for every little mention of the topic most on my mind — sex — without having to ask any adults. I remember sneaking into the stacks of the public library and reading the Angelique books by Sergeanne Golon, a tawdry historical series set in 17th Century France.

In high school, I was steeped in Chaucer and Fitzgerald, and began a life-long love affair with John Irving. My family was big in car trips and reading took me all over the world while our station wagon traversed practically every square inch of the state of Michigan and most of US east of the Mississippi.

But by college, I ran out of time for fiction. I had so much school-related reading to do, and read it all so slowly, that I just couldn't squeeze in much extracurricular fiction (except for a brief tour through Harlequin romances my sophomore year, which I still regret, but those bubblegum books took even a pokey reader like me less time time to read than it took for my gum ball to lose its flavor). Rediscovering the joys of fiction after graduation was a gift.

I have one son who reads as fast as an Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduate. He literally reads whole pages in a glance — it's remarkable. My middle son claims to hate reading. Last year, he told me he was a "bad" reader. When I asked what he meant, he said he's a bad reader because he reads one word a time. I assured him that I've always read one word at a time and consider myself a very good reader. He wasn't convinced. When his English teacher told me at the beginning of the year that my son had the highest reading score in his grade, I told the boy to get over his reading phobia and embrace his word-for-word technique.

Like my son, though, I always assumed my slow reading was a liability, until I read Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. In addition to having perhaps the best name ever for a writer, Prose is also a critic and teacher, and advocates what she calls "close reading" — reading at the word level, the sentence level and the paragraph level. Suddenly, I discovered that I had been a brilliant reader all along. (For a nice 2KoP review by Wilson Knut of Reading Like a Writer, click here.)

As life has gotten busier, as I have buried myself in all the reading I must to do for parenting and work, I find that I don't indulge in fiction the way I should. I read all the time, but mostly on line these days. Like golf, fiction just takes too long, or so I tell myself. The other day I began to prepare to teach a four-week creative writing camp by making a poster board about writing. "Writers write" said rule #1. "Writers read" said rule #2. "Hypocrite" was what I wanted to write in my little teacher bio.

To avoid having to condemn myself in my summer camp bio, I started and finished the book I've been wanting to read for months. The leisurely pace and beautiful language of the writing encouraged me to read the way I read best — word-for-word, one word at a time. I read for long stretches every day until I was just about 25 pages short of the end, when I did what I always do with books I love … I set it aside, not wanting the story to end, not wanting to lose my connection with the characters. I hate the end of a good book, which may be the real reason I read as slowly as a do.

I hope you will let me give you the gift of recommending this book for your summer reading list: The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen. Be one of Coleridge's rare and valuable mogul diamond readers. Savor the words. Rasmussen has imbued The Bird Sisters with everything that makes for good storytelling: love and betrayal, longing and despair, devotion and sacrifice. And tornadoes, both real and metaphorical:

"After her father returned, wild-eyed and windblown, Twiss ran to him, but not as quickly as she could have. It was as if he had inadvertently told her something essential about himself, a secret she would have to keep forever: You can't count on me."
— Chapter 4, The Bird Sisters
In my next post, I'll tell you about getting to know author Rebecca Rasmussen. In the meantime, let me know if and when you read The Bird Sisters. Or take a minute now and tell us how you read, fast or slow or somewhere in between. And please share your best recommendation of what should be on our summer reading lists. Just click here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Death in the (Soap) Family

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who know Tad and Erica, and those who, when they figure out that you are talking about characters from the ABC soap opera All My Children, roll their eyes and walk away.

I first saw All My Children (AMC) was when I was 10 years old and went to my friend Chrissy's house in Grosse Pointe for lunch. Chrissy was the youngest of three children. I think her dad was a big shot for J.L. Hudson's department store. I never met her older siblings, who were already grown (or at least away at college). I don't remember ever meeting her parents. But I do remember that she had a live-in maid who wore a uniform, took care of Chrissy and made fried chicken for lunch, which was the only thing Chrissy would eat. While we ate, this lovely caretaker ironed in the kitchen. "Hush, now, I'm watching my story," she would say. "Erica's coming on."

That was in 1970 and All My Children was a brand new show, still just a half-hour long. I was entranced by the adult content and have been watching ever since, sometimes every day, sometimes once a month. Every time my mother visits, she says: "Is that Erica woman still on?" My mom never watched the soaps.

Soap operas were around long before AMC debuted, and had their start on radio in 1930. The very first serialized drama, called Painted Dreams, was produced here in Chicago by WGN. They were called "soap operas" because many were sponsored by household cleaning products.

Over the years, I've been loyal to ABC soaps and an on-again-off-again fan of One Life to Live, Ryan's Hope (for it's entire 1975-1989 run) and General Hospital, especially during the whole Luke and Laura hoopla, which happened while I was in college. At the time, I lived in a group house on Church Street in Ann Arbor with seven other students, girls and guys, all of whom were GH fans. We would race home at 3:00 and crowd into someone's bedroom to watch.

But my heart belongs to All My Children, including all 12 (to date) of Erica Kane's marriages; Tad the Cad's many affairs (one with Liza and her mother); characters dying and coming back to life (repeatedly); casting changes (just how many Colbys have there been?); character name changes (anybody remember when Jake was Joey?); not to mention ghosts, prison breaks and epic backstabbing. The show broke a lot of television taboos: the first legal same-sex wedding, AIDS, abortion, rape, and a transgender character, to name a few. But the reason I watched AMC was because it was fun. That's all. Just plain fun.

The cast and I have been through a lot together: my lonely teenage years, months of bed rest during two of my pregnancies, piles of laundry, and time on the treadmill. I have never really "watched" my soaps so much as had them on to keep me company while I did other things. Along the way, I would get frustrated by the soap-opera mantra of constant turmoil. After their third marriage and finally getting pregnant together, couldn't Tad and Dixie have settled down into happily ever after? Not in soap world. And maybe not in real life, either.

After 40 years on the air, in a soap-opera-worthy plot twist, All My Children has been cancelled, as has One Life to Live. I'm crushed. I just can't imagine life without Pine Valley. And I'm not alone. Many people have suggested that Oprah should pick up the show on her OWN network. Brilliant idea. I know she's a fan and even had a guest spot on the show in the '80s. (Just FYI, I refuse to link to the ABC press release about the cancellations because I will not watch or support their replacement "reality" shows. I have enough reality in my life. Give me back my melodrama.)

Things I've learned from All My Children:
  • Even in the dead of winter, you should wear sleeveless dresses to look chic.
  • Happily ever after does not make good drama.
  • I wish, just once, I could deliver a full-face soap-opera slap.
  • In the world of soaps, death is a relative condition.
  • Every time I fret about how fast my children are growing up, I see a soap kid age 12 years in three months and I feel much better.
When my husband mocks me about AMC, I remind him that he was a devoted Dallas fan. Hey, just because it aired at night, doesn't mean it wasn't a soap. When things get crazy and my own life resembles a soap opera, there has been something very comforting about turning on the TV and finding familiar characters whose problems are always worse than mine.

Feel free to confess your contempt on the topic or your own soap-opera guilty pleasures here in a comment.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Long and Short of It

There are two kinds of people: Those who practice brevity as the soul of wit* and those who are windbags.

The title of this post (542 words – the post, not the title) is an English idiom that dates back to cir. 1500, and was originally written as "the schorte and the longe of it." According to page 1129 of my unabridged copy of the The Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2,386 pages requiring a magnifying glass to read), the phrase means: "the sum total, substance, upshot; also, to make a long story short."

Making a long story short is the credo of the Internet. Sometimes I think that's good, yet I struggle with the notion that we can reduce the complexities of the world to a soundbite. I am a storyteller. Those who read this blog regularly know I am not a victim of brevity. The joy of these essays for me is taking an idea, examining it from all sides (or at least two sides), discovering tangents and relationships, then weaving them together into a cohesive whole.

Don't get me wrong; I like the short form, too; I'm practically addicted to the 140 character pith of Twitter.

But are we bowing down to the notion that 21st Century Americans are incapable of following a sustained argument? Must we cater to ever-shortening attention spans, or does that just exacerbate the problem? It breaks my heart to hear my 14 year old say he doesn't like to read novels because they are too long. Too long for what?

On the other hand, as an editor I appreciate the beauty of a succinct sentence honed to its essence. It's a search and destroy mission where my crosshairs settle on extraneous "thats" and pointless "in order tos". Perhaps the best advice ever given to writers comes from Elmore Leonard: "When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip."

Ironically, it was at the hands of storyteller Janice Del Negro that I learned an important lesson about keeping things short and sweet. In a workshop exercise, she asked us to retell a well-known story in a Haiku (a three line poem, with 17 syllables — 5-7-5). I loved the prompt (see my example here), and learned even epic tales can be distilled to just a few words.

But should they be? Is luxurious language passĂ©? Or is there still time for the long, slow road of War and Peace (587,287 words), the grand scale of Gone With the Wind (423,575 words), or the symphony of multiple viewpoints in The Poisonwood Bible (177,679 words)?

I think — I hope — there is room for both. But then I remember the catastrophe that was the mullet (business in the front, party in the back), and I have my doubts.

FYI, that whole brevity being the soul of wit thing is actually part of a much longer sentence:

*Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?

— from Hamlet (32,241 words), by William Shakespeare

Your comments (short, long or somewhere in the middle) are always welcome.