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.