Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Being the Moon...

Sometimes, being the youngest isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. 

Older siblings will disagree with me.  Whatever – the grass is always greener.  I was the youngest sibling for many years, (until my mom’s remarriage gave me a bouncing nine year-old stepbrother], and I remember all too well what it felt like. 

You get a bad rap for being too sensitive and a “crybaby” because you’re trying to fit in with older kids.  You don’t get to make mistakes or stupid jokes in private or with same-age friends who won’t sell you out.  Instead, you have a constant boss, critic, and informant with you – when they aren’t trying to get rid of you.  You always have to sit in the backseat of the car.  You are the last to get a say in what to do, and often overruled.  In fact, you often have to get to the point of frustration before you’re even heard since you have someone older often speaking for or over you.  It’s a little like being a second-class citizen with an extremely temperamental upper class. You have your best friends and worst enemies a wall away at all times, except when they’re leaving to go do something you’re too “little” to do yet.
You spend a lot of time watching your older brothers and sisters leave.  It leaves its own special mark.  Not only do you feel like you’re missing out, but you miss THEM.  You are a moon without its planet(s).  Your center of gravity is gone, leaving you aimless.

I see it being played out even now with my niece and two nephews.  Ben, the youngest, is a charming, witty, kind kid who loves nothing more than making sure everyone is happy - the kind of kid who doesn't like competition nearly as much as being a part of a team.  He sings while he eats his breakfast in the morning.  He gives drive-by hugs.  He looks up to his older brother and sister with admiration and frequently follows their lead just because he knows they’ll have good ideas and be a lot of fun.  He has friends of his own, but his most frequent partner-in-crime is his older brother, Dillon.

Ben has spent many a year watching his older brother and sister leave the nest and go do things that he’s been told he’s too little to do – trips, theatrical experiences, school – he’s watched them leap and bound away from him and come back with fabulous stories of things he was no part of. 

This year, his older sister will be starting high school, and his older brother will begin middle school.  Ben will be attending a school without one of his siblings somewhere in it for the very first time.  Worse, the bedroom in the basement was finally finished and his older sister moved down there.  The larger blow being that his older brother, with whom he shared a room all of his life, has now moved into her vacated bedroom, leaving Ben in the old room with an empty space that his brother used to occupy.  Yes, these are just examples of life moving on, progressing forward, growing up.  Yet, to be the youngest means you are never the planet, inhabited, exciting – you are always the moon.

Finally, this week, Ben got to be the planet.

He and his father went on a Cub Scout camping trip for four days this last weekend.  For the first time, Ben was the one to leave and go into the world, leaving his brother and sister behind.  He did it with great excitement combined with trepidation.  He knew he’d be safe, but to be out in the wide world without that constant stream of feedback, advice, and experience of his siblings is nothing to sneeze at. 

For four days, his older brother and sister found themselves without their moon, and that was the most telling of all.  His older brother became clingy to his older sister, both of them knocking around the house a little lost.  I took them to a couple of movies that I thought they could enjoy but Ben wouldn’t miss.  No lie, their reviews of each film centered on whether or not Ben would have enjoyed them. 

The day Ben was to return, both Adri and Dillon made it clear that we couldn’t leave the house, because, “Ben might come home early.”  When Ben finally arrived home, his brother and sister met him in the driveway, ready to carry his equipment inside for him.  They suddenly found purpose again, taking charge of getting his bags unpacked, his person checked for ticks, and planning the rest of their day around what he might like to do.   They couldn’t wait to find out about his trip and listen to his stories – they had a million questions for him.  They filled him in on the things at home that they thought he’d miss, and what he thought about each thing.  I watched them find a million different ways to touch him to make sure he really was there again.  His older sister even stopped in the middle of a parking lot just to hug him and tell him, “I really, really missed you, Ben.”

For once, they spent the day revolving around him, and while he’ll go back to being the moon again tomorrow, he has finally experienced what it is like to be the center of gravity.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Guiltless Pleasures & An Apology to Authors of Romantic Fiction

Because I am a middle school teacher, I've long restricted the majority of my writing to middle grade and young adult writing.  Don't get me wrong, I love the reading and writing of both of those categories of fiction.  But, to be honest, it's not where I do the majority of my pleasure reading.

Yeah, I know.  How do you have time to read other things when there are so many great YA and MG books out there that you could read and recommend to students, contemporary adult fiction books to read that are destined to become classics, and non-fiction and professional books that will push your thinking and reflection about the world and your teaching practice?

Really?  I don't.  I read fast, but I'm not a machine.  At last count, I average just over 200 books a year that I finish.  Reading is my main form of entertainment.

Let's examine that statement: Reading is my main form of ENTERTAINMENT.

I read romance novels because they entertain me, divert me, give me a lovely emotional rush of fantasy happiness - kind of like eating great chocolate.  They serve the purpose of taking me away from my world of work completely like no other reading can.  I intentionally read books that I can munch like bonbons because they feel GOOD.

They say "write what you know" and "read to be a good writer" and "be familiar with your writing genre by reading it closely."  All of that is great advice, and if I'm honest with myself, I'm probably more of an expert about romantic fiction than I am about the other genres based on the sheer number of books that I've read!  But for so long I've avoided writing romantic fiction because I fell into the classic genre snobbery that so many widely-read folks do.

We denigrate the quality or value of the work because it IS so popular. We pooh-pooh the time spent writing romantic fiction because it is pure entertainment.  I poke fun at my massive collection of romance novels by calling them my "Cheesy Romance Novel Collection." I do those authors disservice by underselling the value of their hard work.  I know at least one author of romantic fiction, and she's an incredibly intelligent, talented, funny woman who happens to be a great storyteller.

I owe her, and the rest of those authors whose work I treasure but don't celebrate openly, an apology.

I'm sorry.  I was wrong.  My appreciation of your work goes much deeper than I show the world, and I engaged in the worst kind of snobbery.  Mea culpa.

Retrospective of
 "The Singing Butler"
by Jack Vettriano
Truthfully, I have a list of authors of romance novels and series that I consistently seek out because of the quality of their writing.  So, if I'm being honest with myself - what IS the value in the reading of what people consider literary cotton candy?  Here's the secret - it's not frippery, light and airy.  Sometimes, it serves the story for the writing to reflect lightness and humor and a happy ending, but there's no wrong in that.  I submit that tons of fiction use humor, lightness, and happy endings as a part of what makes them engaging to readers.  They are all keys to reader's escape.  While there are so many other reasons to read, isn't THAT what life-long readers use reading for to continue their reading journey.  No one reads Dostoevsky ALL the time. (Sorry, Fyodor!)

With that in mind, I have decided to table my other works in progress right now, and enjoy telling a romantic story.  I have at least as many ideas for romantic fiction as I do for all the other genres put together.  All my favorite romantic authors don't just use the tool of storytelling to get to a happy ending, they use their writing to evoke an emotional response in their readers.  They don't shy away from dramatic emotional moments in their writing.  They structure their writing to have exciting emotional twists and turns, and that's what I hope to do, too.

Am I going to be able to share this writing with my students like I would with my YA or MG pieces?  Maybe, maybe not.  Certainly, there will be parts of it that I will be able to share my struggles with, but others, not so much.  This could be said of so many genres, but I don't think I'm going to hide it.  I don't want to be a closet romantic any longer.  I don't want to hide my addiction to romance novels - I want to tell my own stories!

Vive la Romance!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Re-Framing Writing and Teaching - Anderson's 6th THING

I know I said I'd probably be waxing poetic about Jeff Anderson's chapter on FORM for a while longer, but after I spoke with you last the rest of the chapter seemed to fly by with lots of examples.  This, of course, left me free to dive into his 6th Thing Every Writer Needs to Know: FRAMES.

Frames?  Like...picture frames?  Glass frames?  Methods criminals use to scapegoat others for their crimes?

Not so much.

The frames that Anderson is discussing are beginnings and endings, leads and conclusions, the frame we set for our own writing that draws in the reader and leaves him or her feeling satisfied at the end.  I'm a killer lead-woman (also, a humble one), but I struggle making endings satisfactory.  Sure, I can spout a line or two for a short piece that are pithy, but most of my endings feel slapdash and vaguely unsatisfying, like poorly made sushi.  Specifically, the endings of my manuscripts, so far, have been...lacking.  *sigh*  This might be a function of my being a "fly by the seat of my pants" (hereafter known as a Pantser) rather than a Planner.  It also might be a function of my unwillingness to stop messing in the lives of my characters.  Either way, it's a big ole problem for me.

What strikes me again and again in Anderson's work is his strict methodology of creating lessons that force students to DISCOVER the points he's trying to make.  One of my weaknesses as a teacher, is that I often feel like I do WAY too much of the talking.  While I'm sure this is partly a function of my actor/director ego being overfed, it's also a function of not enough intention in my choice of methodology and my fear that time will become too much a factor.  The method of Anderson's of providing short sample and comparison/contrast texts for students to study, discuss, and analyze for the purpose of discovery forces us to slow down our teaching so that we may reach a depth and permanency of understanding and independence in students' learning.  It's forcing me to re-frame my teaching altogether.

One of the things that Anderson suggests for students in learning how to create strong, connected leads and conclusions is to collect and categorize them.  He shows us an example of having students choose books at random and use sentence strips to discover what is unique about them, then to categorize what makes them strong - what they tell and what they show that might draw a reader to keep going.  Then he has them decide a category of strength that the sentence falls into.  The students are the ones studying, discovering, and naming things for themselves - he's leading them to water, but they are the ones who name the river and discover how to do the drinking.

Today's TeachersWrite guest author is one of my personal favorites, Linda Urban, who came to our school a few years ago.  She's kind, funny, and delightful - just like her writing.  Her book, A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT, is a prime example of quirky, interesting characters, an original plotline, and strong beginnings and endings.  Her new book, THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING, is still bright, shiny and new - sitting in my TBR pile.  It's sneaking quickly to the top of the pile, though.

Urban urges us to use time as a weapon in our writing arsenal - letting it slow to emphasize a pivotal moment for a character.  Jo Knowles, in her Monday Morning Warmup, urges us to go one step further - and take "show, don't tell" to a greater degree - to look for ways to show the emotion of the moment without falling back on cliched phrases or the usual descriptors.

I chose to write a scene from my Work-In-Progress, a YA novel called The Rude Awakening of Marlon Grunt.  One night, unable to bear the loneliness he feels will be his lot in life, Marlon takes what he believes to be an overdose of painkillers, never expecting to wake up again.  Imagine his surprise when he does wake, with no one the wiser to his attempt, and in the wrong house.

The first thing Marlon knew for sure was the true meaning of the term "cottonmouth".  

Did people get cottonmouth in heaven?

His tongue was wrapped in sticky fur, and his teeth were coated in glue.  His arm reached for the glass of water he always kept on the nightstand, but it was too far away.  He turned over to reach with his other hand, but met only air on his express trip to the floor.  


But it wasn't the pain he'd expect if landing on the linoleum floor of the trailer.  The carpet currently mashed in his face smelled faintly of woodsmoke and carpet deodorizer - something flowery.  Marlon's fingers clenched in the cushy pile.  Is this what clouds felt like?

Someone, not his mother or grandmother, asked if he was all right, did he know his name?

The pit of Marlon's stomach lurched, and he heard his molars grind in his skull.  His eyelids unstuck from each other, and a wavy, blurry vision of a well-pedicured foot and the hem of a soft pink bathrobe.

Clouds should be that soft and pink.  

But living-room carpet is not clouds, and Marlon felt the hole inside himself reopen and all emptiness of before whoosh in fill it.  The hole drew him in, a drain sucking him into the fetal position.  

It hadn't worked.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fashioning Form with Perspective - Anderson's 5th THING

This week I’m digging into Jeff Anderson’s 5th Thing from 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  FORM is the fifth thing, and I’ll probably be spending at least one more week working through it.  It’s chock full of ways to approach this broad topic.  It starts by warning us that teaching form in writing is no excuse to give “fill-in-the-blank” forms for students to approach writing. (Ex: Your Intro sentence goes here. Your second sentence should explain your topic sentence more. Your third sentence should be some sort of evidence or quote from a text source.)  As much as I’d like to deny it, I’ve resorted to those extremes sometimes – at least with expository and argumentative writing. (Bad, Jessica! You go to your classroom and think about what you’ve done!)  Instead, Anderson wants us to look at form as a method of discovery for students to engage in understanding the different ways that writers make certain types of writing work.
He begins by talking about genres as forms of writing, which connects well with reading lessons, and he’s careful to recommend models that force students to discover that there is a lot of overlap in genres.  Why, even what we count among the different genres is disputed.
Next, he talks about perspective lending form to writing – focusing on mostly first and third – and how those perspectives can change the tone of a piece and what the PURPOSE of the author using them.  He shows how a narrowly focused narrative can be a way to engage readers in non-fiction, and how facts and history can make fiction into historical fiction.
The next section discusses purpose and audience openly, leading to MODES of writing.  He discusses the four modes of writing and how they can overlap: Description, Explanation, Narration, and Argumentation. 
The final section that I’m looking at today shows us how to help students discover the all-important EXPOSITORY TEXT STRUCTURES.  

I’m already making the poster.

            In TeachersWrite today, guest author Megan Miranda, asks us to use perspective in our writing as well.  Megan Miranda, author of YA mysteries FRACTURE and HYSTERIA, was one of the authors Anderson’s Bookshop brought to the area for a pre-publication event before FRACTURE was released.  I got to read an ARC of the book and meet Ms. Miranda there.  She was delightful, smart, and insightful, and that comes through in her writing too.
She asks us to consider WHO is telling the story as they tell it.  Example: The smell of gingerbread might be a lovely scent to me, evocative of Christmas, family, and good times.  To the character I’m writing, however, the scent of gingerbread might be a frightful, sickening thing, an odor that drags with it memories of family strife and grief. So, in describing the scene or narrating the story, the writer must always be watchful of the teller’s perspective.  I don’t have a WIP (work in progress) that I’m swimming in right now, so I chose to use the photo she provided to write my description from a character’s perspective – something different from what I would see and interpret as the writer.  The result is the following quickwrite.

By Jessica Wisniewski

Marcus couldn’t face the lifeboat even one more time.  The violently orange lifeboat was supposed to be a two-man vessel, but it was a lie.  Looking at it hurt his eyes almost as much as the glare of the sun off the gritty sand. The azure waters were no comfort. It was calm now, but he knew its depths hid monsters. Monsters that made the waves pitch and roil and steal your life. His oar was still where he’d dropped it last night when the storm had finally thrown the tiny orange boat onto the beach like the trash it was.  He wondered where Mom’s oar was now.  His mind skittered away from the thought like a cliff’s edge, but it was too late.  Marcus closed his eyes against the tardy sunlight, sank to the burning sand, and let the grief overwhelm him. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Gratitude Interlude - A Letter to A Stranger

While I'm delving into Anderson's Chapter Five over FORM in writing - it's very dense and something that I struggle with as a teacher, providing guidance, models, and suggestion without proscription.  I'm not in a place to connect it to my writing prompt today, so I won't try.

Instead, I'll go after today's TeachersWrite! prompt with gusto.  Today's guest author, Amy Ludwig VanderWater, (who has a terrific webpage for sharing Writer's Notebook ideas), reminded us all that gratitude has an important place in our life as writers.  It helps us reflect on life.  It also leads to interesting memoir. Her suggestion to write a letter of gratitude to someone anonymous was really creative.  Here's mine:

Dear Anonymous Rescuers -

Eleven years ago, you heard the pitiful, insistent, SOGGY meow coming from under your bushes and didn't ignore it.  Instead, you found a scared tiger-striped tomcat hiding from the evil water falling from he sky.  You took him in and called the Humane Society, who found that he'd been abandoned, defenseless, with no front claws.  After you dropped him off, they nursed him back to health and transferred him to the Chicago Area Cat Rescue, who took one look at his handsome red and grey fur and named him...Dino.  Yes, Dino.

This wasn't your fault, dear rescuers, but perhaps an oversight by the kind people from CACR who didn't know him very well.  Perhaps they saw how intelligent and charming he was and nicknamed him after Dean Martin?  No, I didn't think so either.  Obviously someone with a Flintstones fetish named him.  But worry not!  Our boy waited for nine whole months with that ridiculous name until I came searching for him.

When I met him, he was one amongst so many in that tiny room of cages at PetSmart, waiting for the right family to come along.  Two other people were there that day, cooing over kittens and fluffy fur, but I knew the real test - the true tell of who was meant to be mine - The Squirrel Call.  I stood at the center of the room and let loose the flurry of tongue clicks that had been the call for our family's cats for as long as I have lived.  While every cat (and human) there perked up their ears and looked, only Our Boy, Dino ANGUS, tried to get to me: pawing at the bars and rubbing himself frantically against them as if to say, "Here! I'm RIGHT HERE!"

I took him home that day, found out his proper name - how can you mistake a Scottish king for a purple dinosaur? - and introduced him to our catless home.  He promptly thanked me for the jailbreak and set about winning over my husband, who was not eager to welcome his very first pet to our home.  Within a week, Angus had staked his claim on my husband as HIS person.  He is polite and affectionate to me, but seeks the brotherhood of my husband's company over mine, given the choice.

In time, he accepted a second cat into his kingdom, Foxxy, who became my cat and the thorn in Angus's side.

Your kindness rescued her as well, from a life as a half-blind feral alley cat, and brought her to be the fluffy queen to his king.  

Your kindness has extended to rescuing other cats that have become part of our extended family, when my niece and nephews adopted the sister and brother, Buster and Heather, who now rule over their kingdom.  

Your willingness to stop and take the time to coax out a scared king from beneath the bushes, dripping with rain, makes you a hero.  I only regret that he had to suffer the slings and arrows of fortune before he met you.  Thank you - you brought my little Scottish king to our home.  For over ten years, he's been the best friend a family could have, and it is all due to your kindness.  You have brought love to our home, and that is a gift without price.



Monday, July 8, 2013

Sweet Memories - Anderson's 4th THING, Part 2

I've been away from things for a week, and I dove back into the second half of Anderson's fourth Thing Every Writer Needs to Know - DETAIL.  In this second part, he focuses on the different kinds of details writers can use, and when and how to tell when to use detail as a support for non-fiction writing.  He also discusses how focus narrows your writing, and detail expands it.

After writing today, I can see that I need to reign in my detail in some places, expand only slightly in others.  My big struggle as a writer has always been focus.  I'm planning to take the draft you see below and mark it up for where I need to focus on other senses and expand detail, and in others where I need to lose excessive detail (The Goldilocks Rule - Not too much, Not too Little, Just Right).  All suggestions are appreciated.  Feel free to leave them in the comments below.  No suggestion too big or too small.

Today's TeachersWrite! prompts had to do with sensory detail.  Guest author, Donna Gephart, prompted us to use a specific sense to add detail to our writing.  Start with the sense.

I started with two senses: Sight and Smell.  I had been driving past the local prison this weekend and noticed how the fencelines bordering the property had become overgrown with lush greenery, and one particular patch had a riot of viny flowers clinging to it, making this harsh place beautiful, if only in one spot.  The prompt from writer Jo Knowles this morning had to do with so much in life being ephemeral, focusing on the phrase: "You can't take it with you."

I combined the two, and freewrote this mini-story I'm calling Nectar.

by Jessica Wisniewski

You can’t take it with you.
Butch stroked the creamy petals of the honeysuckle vine.  They’d always looked like tiny superheroes to him, floating down to earth, capes breezing above them.  With a twist of his squared-off fingers, he plucked the blossom and brought its base to his cracked, feverish lips.  He expected the nectar of his youth, but this tiny droplet held none of the honey-sweetness he remembered from his childhood.  Another bitter disappointment, just like him.
He sank further against the sharp wire of the fence surrounding the grounds at Statesville Penitentiary, and tried to let the vines conceal his body.  Even if their honey didn’t taste as sweet, this honeysuckle still managed to sell itself to Butch with its fragrance.
As a child, he and Molly and Chris had spent hours in their fort, out of reach of angry fists and empty cupboards.  Chris, as the oldest, had scouted out the spot and made it their sanctuary.  South of the Anderson’s acres of corn, only a short run for stubbly little legs like Molly’s and his, but far enough to be out of sight and out of mind. 
There was a scraggly oak that had been struck by lightning and split in half before Butch had been born.  Only one side of the tree had survived the trauma, and the other half had peeled away and drooped like a comically half-peeled banana.  It was on this splintery curve that the honeysuckle had climbed, fed by the years of summer heat and field drainage.  It crept over the limb and hung itself, a thick green tent to shield the three disappearing childhoods in its cloying embrace.  They drank the blossoms and licked the stamens clean.
It was here that Chris told them stories in the sweet heavy air of July, the honey fragrance spiced with the green sugar of July corn.  It was here that they buried their treasures in an old tin cigar box with fancy drawings embedded on the lid like fine art.  It was here that Butch brought Molly to keep her safe when Chris was gone.  The smell and leaves of the honeysuckle vines would protect them into the fall when they finally had to make other plans.
Butch crushed the petals between his thick fingers, and let the vines protect him in their sweet tent one last time as he fed the ground with his lifeblood, and his troubles couldn’t follow.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Dentist's in the DETAILS - Anderson's 4th THING

Today's TeachersWrite! prompt worked with my reading in Anderson's 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  Hmmm...there may be universality present in both learning opportunities.  Makes sense when I think about it.  I'll just keep combining the experiences and see how far it takes me.
 Today's exercise took me to the dentist.  Yes, the dentist - don't worry, I'll get there from here.

So, Anderson's 4th THING is DETAILS.  This is another chapter dense with information, but he starts from a place so many of us know, but have found difficult to apply in our own writing as much as we should.  You've heard the adage, "Show, don't tell", yes? Anderson takes us through this process step-by-step so that we can do the same with our students.  He even shows us, using a model, how re-creating this process as a writer requires students to use inferencing skills (Common Core, anyone?)  That's just the first section of the chapter, so you can imagine how much more there is yet to add.

Speaking of adding, (or deleting, as the case may be), within that section and in other sections of the chapter, Anderson has special cautions and examples for those of us who also tend to run off at the pen.  He makes great suggestions and shows terrific models for getting rid of too much detail.  This is a major problem for me as a writer.  I tend to get caught up in trying to describe every inch of a character or setting and lose the story.  I have trouble finding the balance between "show, don't tell" and "get to the point, already".

Due to the nature of today's TeachersWrite! prompt, I was invited to practice my freewriting skills to talk about a place that is special to me.  Due to the descriptive nature and the limited amount of comment space, I decided to keep it short.

I have two images embedded in my brain that can immediately bring my blood pressure down.  The first is the beach on St. Maarten that I've actually been to once.  That's nice, but sometimes too shiny an image if I'm looking for calm.  The second is a photographic poster from my dentist's office 15 years ago.  I've since moved and have a different dentist who has a television in the room, which is distracting, but not nearly as calming.  So, I still close my eyes and remember the poster that I used to fall into whenever the work going on in my mouth became too much to stay present for.

Here is a short poem, untitled, that describes that image to me.  This is approximately the same poster, with a few differences from original - like a photo of the same place by a different camera on a different day, but you'll get the idea.

Sometimes nature can dull the pain
A deep breath and I sink into the picture 
like the arms of a sympathetic mother
Beds and canopies of vibrant green
Embrace me, mute the harsh light, taste,
And sound of the dentist's work
Thick trunks, erect like ghostly soldiers,
Shrouded in the mist
Warring factions divided
By the sweetly crystal slip of water
Over a crumpled blanket of smoothed stones
Air tasting cool and ancient slows my heart
A deep breath and I sink further
Sometimes nature can steal you away from the pain

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Writerly Focus to Begin TeachersWrite! Summer Writing

Today was the first day of TeachersWrite! Writing Camp 2013!  I am PUMPED!  I've got my bug spray, and my swimsuit, and sunscreen, my face paint is ready for color wars, and lots and lots of string to make lanyards...what? No mosquitoes on the internet? Not really a sleepaway camp, you say?  No one actually goes anywhere?  Not even canoeing?


Well, anyway, I'm still awfully pumped to put my writer-hat back on again, and I look forward to all the fun things that the authors will have for us to do this summer.  If you don't know what it is, look at Kate Messner's webpage, and she'll explain it better than I ever could.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

I knoq, right?  Did you SEE the LIST OF YA and MG AUTHORS she has all lined up to offer us suggestions, advice, and feedback?  Did you see how many teachers have responded already to just the first prompt(s)?  Hey, in case you didn't catch it, there's two prompts on a Monday - one from Kate and one from author, Jo Knowles on her blog.  Yeah, Jo Knowles, author of one of my ALL-TIME FAVORITE middle grade books, See You At Harry's.  I'll admit to being an geek overachiever, and so I did both.

Kate's asked for what our writer's notebooks are like.  On reflection, I've been re-inventing tweaking the concept of a writer's notebook for my students every year for the last six years.  They evolve a lot little more every year when I try to figure out what they should include for organization purposes.  It's likely possible that I need to lighten up about this a little.  Perhaps less is more when it comes to sectioning off notebooks, but I HATE when I my students have to struggle to find what they're looking for in their own writing.  My own writer's notebooks have very little rhyme or reason, save The Red Moleskine - it has one definable section - the reading log.

This year will see my students with both a Reader's Notebook AND a Writer's Notebook.  I'm hoping that it will be easier for them to manage.  Here are mine:

Notebook 1: The Red Moleskine - For on the run ideas, reading log, and sudden observations.

Notebook 2: The Green Composition Notebook - This is a back-up notebook for Write Club (our school's faculty writing group) and a place where I keep lists of mentor texts and model pieces of my own writing specifically for my students to see.  There's something comforting and nostalgic and important about that blotchy cardboard cover and bound pages.  I always have one available.

Notebook 3: The Yellow Legal Pad.  I love these.  All my best writing (that doesn't happen on the computer) happens on those.  There's something inviting and less scary about a yellow page, rather than a scary blank white one.  I prefer the heavier weight of paper, and I paper clip things into it obsessively as a I write.  This is my main writing notebook for Write Club.  As you can see, the top page is a map of my memories that was created from a Write Club prompt.  It centers around my experiences during summers at my Grandma Thompson's house in Southern Illinois.

The Pen:  I have, this last year, become a great fan of fountain pens.  Yes, they are messy.  Yes, they are sometimes a tad unreliable.  However, that being said, you can refill and reuse them again and again.  Those of you who have a favorite pen and love the weight of it in your hand as you write or annotate life, know how heartbreaking it is to have to throw away that old friend when it dries up.  A fountain pen stays a friend for a good long time.

Here is my response to the prompt from Jo Knowles.  You can probably infer the question/task from my answer:

Creating the World

This dovetails so neatly with the portion of 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson that I've just finished up today. Love that man. He is a gem! The 3rd "Thing" that writers need is FOCUS. Towards the end of the chapter, Anderson gives examples of having students summarize their point of view to make sure they've maintained focus throughout their piece.

A one-sentence summary of why I write?

Reading is to consume and understand the world around you, but writing is to create the world; and I wish not just to consume, but to create.

So, with that, I leave to read and write a bit more tonight!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sliding In and Out of Focus - Jeff Anderson's 3rd THING

     In case you didn't read the last post, I'm knee-deep in Jeff Anderson's 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know as a part of my quest to develop further in my practice as a teacher and a writer.  I'm finding his advice very helpful.  I neglected to write about his first THING, Motion, figuring that an entire blog post about it wasn't going to be very helpful in the long run. (I'm probably going to regret that later.)  In summary, he exhorts that writers must write every day, and that quality writing most often stems from a quantity of bad writing that the writer has done just to fill up that most frightening of abyss's - the blank page.
     The last post was about his second thing, Models, and it's really begun to take hold of my thinking and planning as a reader, writer, and teacher.  I find myself making lists of the texts he and other thought leaders have mentioned and even adding my own as I come across them.  Example, while at the library with the Niece and Littlest Nephew today, I made them practice hunting for specific books in the library by call number (I'm the evil-est aunt ever) by giving them a list of model texts and picture books I wanted to look at.  One of the books really stood out as a gem in my mind.  Rick Reilly, a national sports columnist and humorist for Sports Illustrated and various national publications, had a book of 100 of his columns published called Hate Mail From Cheerleaders.
     If you aren't familiar with Reilly's writing, this book is a simply wonderful introduction to his snarky, big-hearted voice.  The columns are short, but wonderfully engaging reading. Yes, his audience are sports fans, therefore, the majority of them have a sports theme.  But, what's wrong with that, I ask you?  He most often uses the vehicle of different sports, teams, events, or celebrities as vehicles to make larger points about life.  I teach sixth grade, and out of the seven that I read while at the library, I've already tagged for use four of them as short model texts.  Witness:  who wouldn't like to  learn how to describe characters with an opening like this?
"He was a UPS truck of a man, 6'4", maybe 250 pounds, 55 years old, with a chin you could use to crack open coconuts." (Reilly, p.112)
     I'm in love with Reilly's accessible voice and stories of events and people, big and small, but always full of heart and wisdom and humor.  Again, a GEM!
     Speaking of FOCUS, I should get some in this blog post, yes?
     Jeff Anderson's Third THING is FOCUS.  He talks about it in the most practical of terms, and gives some great ideas for helping students find ways to narrow the focus of their writing.  For narrowing the description or scope of a scene:  Write only about what you could see through a paper towel roll tube.  Answering questions about the audience and purpose of your writing can help you narrow it.  The demonstration of the "slice" of a story that you want to tell - using the analogy of a pizza.  The whole pizza is a big topic, like "My Best Friend", one slice of that pizza might be "Gayle's Menu of Laughs; From Silent Shaking to Raucous Guffaws".  He introduces ways to narrow the focus of non-fiction writing through Hayakawa's Ladder of Abstraction to simple vomiting words onto the page for five minutes around a general topic, picking one phrase from that and focusing a free-write on that phrase, lather, rinse, repeat until a sufficiently narrow focus is discovered.  He talks about maintaining your focus from lead to conclusion and finding threads or patterns to use as lenses to focus a series of writings.
     That's as far as I've gotten, and I'm not nearly done with this section yet.  It's dense with activity and suggestion and my brain is fairly bursting with ideas from the reading so far.  But how can I start putting it into practice to model it for my students?  Once again, Write Club to the rescue!
     This week, Write Club is electronic since many of us are out of town.  The prompt was sent out via email, and it's perfect for this post.  Another page from the ever-inspiring SARK was sent out and it is up to us to respond as we wish.  A rainbow-colored bouquet of circles/dots with short prompts in them (and outside them as well) was sent out, and we have been asked to choose one or a combination of them that inspires us and write.
     First, I narrowed the 25 topics down to several that I had general ideas for, the short list looked like this:
  • Lost
  • Imaginary Friend
  • Invented Life
  • Treeclimbing
  • Travel Moment
  • Grief Lesson
  • Clown Reunion
     I wrote a few brief lines down about each to see if an idea would jump out at me or if any of them would refuse to coalesce on the page.  Sure enough, Clown Reunion and Imaginary Friend refused to fully form into solid thoughts. Next, I chucked Grief Lesson because I'd just written about that same emotion in my last post about my grandmother's blue pitcher.  Treeclimbing was rejected for the same reason - the story was too close to that same area of my life.  I knew I needed to write something different - something not so childhood memoir, and more contemporary viewpoint/opinion.  For that reason, Travel Moment hit the road too.  I had Invented Life and Lost left.  I free wrote about both for a few minutes.  All my Lost ideas came down to personal memoir or were too fuzzy to pinpoint, but an interesting idea popped out of my free-write for Invented Life.  I had been writing about my life as a writer, when I started writing about karma and the life I felt I was owed.
     I took the phrase, "the life I am owed", and went to town on it.  Here's my first draft of this poisonous little piece:

A Blip In My Karma
by Jessica Wisniewski

     The rational part of me – the part that realizes karma and destiny are altogether lovely but frightening fairy tales used to scare us into behaving as adults – fades from existence after ten minutes in stopped traffic.  A hot day, a car full of melting groceries, an overripe bladder, and traffic-snarling road construction send the level-headed pragmatist on vacation, and invite all manner of crazy thoughts and conspiracy theories to roost in my mind and feed upon my growing ire.
     Perhaps it was fate intervening when I chose not to block an intersection that fed into our clogged vein, and instead waved the overlarge pickup truck to go ahead and enter the line ahead of me.  My act of charity earned no recognition from the driver of the pickup, but it did receive an angry horn BLAT from the car behind me.  I felt a tiny seed of resentment take root against that massive, double-wide, wide-bed, extended-cab gas-aholic monstrosity in front of me, now blocking my view.  The shadow head of the male driver talked animatedly to the curly shadow wife sitting next to him in the passenger seat.  Not even a wave for a thank-you?  The nerve.
     The license plate of the truck didn’t look like any license plate I’d ever seen before, and creeping a bit closer, I noticed that it was from the US Virgin Islands.  The Virgin Islands?  I’ve been to the Virgin Islands, and this Bubba Truck didn’t look as though it would fit on a single road I travelled on there, not to mention – what was it doing in ILLINOIS? Wouldn’t the driver have to have shipped the truck to the continental US from an island?  How much would that cost?  It sounded expensive. Psh.  Rich people.
Finally noticing the forest through the trees, I saw that they were vanity plates (OF COURSE!) that said KARMA.  Karma.  Really.  A tiny bumper sticker, practically lost on that sea of metal, intimated that the driver lived his live POSITIVELY.
     I was pretty positive that Mr. and Mrs. Karma in their Island-Hopping Bubbamobile had some karma coming to them, all right. The rational side of me fought to the surface of my bubbling anger and squeaked, “They are probably perfectly lovely people!”
     Shut up, you.  Get back where I stuffed you.  I’m in charge now, and in this newly minted universe where KARMA is more than just a vanity plate, I’ve decided that this tank in front of me will lead the way to my home where Mr. Bubba Karma will parachute gracefully out of the driver’s seat and offer to carry my dripping groceries inside.  Indeed, Mrs. Karma and I will have a lovely conversation while he lugs bag after bag up my steps to my kitchen door.  We’ll laugh and make a date to have coffee someday soon or come over for umbrella drinks by their pool.  Eventually, we’ll become the greatest of friends, and be invited to join their family at their estate in the Virgin Islands over the holidays. 
     Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Karma, Bubba and Rowena, the times we’ll have!  The laughter!  The inside jokes!  The fruity drinks! Your children will become like my own and our photo albums will be full of each others’ smiling faces.  Indeed, when the end of our lives come, we will look back at the rich lives we have lived in friendship and be amazed that we deserved such truckloads of blessings.  All because of one fateful traffic jam!
     Or not.