Monday, October 29, 2018

Write & Read Human Stories and VOTE

Today I opened my memoir writing workshop at Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C., by saying something like, “I don’t want to discuss politics in this class, but I do want to acknowledge this weekend’s events. I will assume that we humans are concerned with the pain of our fellow humans. I am devastated and thought about cancelling class. But I remembered the importance of stories and each of us telling our stories the best we can.” 

Was this a political statement in a very political town? I really hope not. I would like to believe that people on both sides of the so-called aisle are grieving for the loss of life and freedoms.

I do not have the skills to promote world peace or even build houses, but I can help others to find the courage, words and resources to write their stories. I am honored that student writers, from high schoolers through retirees, have shared deeply personal stories that resonate with me and other readers. The writers have been affected by gun violence, war, rape, physical and mental abuse, illness and discrimination based on their religious, racial, sexual, gender, linguistic, or economic identity. As I read their stories, I understand them, our many worlds and myself better. 

How do we understand the depth of the loss of life this weekend? By reading stories about the victims as told by their loved ones. We can learn something about the Tree of Life Synagogue victims and the Louisville Kroger victims. And of course we can learn more about all humans suffering in so many similar and different circumstances.

In this increasingly troubling time, dedicate time to write and read. Buy a notebook from the grocery store like poet Sharon Olds and write. Go to the library: care for others and yourself by reading stories by humans similar and seemingly dissimilar from yourselves. 

Remember our losses. Celebrate our lives. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Dodge Poetry Festival

Melabee M. Miller's sketch of poet Gregory Orr talking with Krista Tippett
at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ (Oct. 20, 2018) 

I was happy to be able to travel to New Jersey to attend the bi-annual Dodge Poetry Festival this last Saturday with my mother, artist Melabee M. Miller and some friends. Sure, there was the fire that cut the festival short that day (!!), but no one was hurt and there was much poetry to enjoy before that.

We both particularly enjoyed hearing Gregory Orr talk with Krista Tippett in a recorded (and to be aired!) On Being podcast. He spoke mainly about grief and poetry. At one point he said something to the effect of, "Poetry can be an ordering principle for crisis." I really love this idea of poetry framing and reframing crisis or grief. Later he performed some of his pieces with the Parkington Sisters, which just gave his work new life and interpretation. I purchased and read Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved on the train ride back and look forward to returning to the book, it was so moving.

There was more, of course, but I'll leave you with Gregory Orr for today:

To be alive! Not just the carcass
But the spark.
That's crudely put, but ...

If we're not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Turning the Tables: Taking a Writing Workshop

I've been trying my hand at writing picture books and took a writing workshop with Mary Quattlebaum at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I learned a lot of new things, put words to things I might have known a little bit about and started to think about my projects with fresh eyes. That is all to say that I'm really glad that I took that class. I have a long and exciting to-do list with books to read, pieces to edit and more ideas to put into writing.

Mary is a wonderful teacher and writer. She was generous in presenting what she knows and answering questions, as well as offering feedback on our manuscripts. I encourage you to check out her books here on her website. My current favorite of hers is The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans

There is a lot of overlap between the genres (strong verbs! strong beginning! strong... everything!) But there is always more to learn and, perhaps most importantly, practice, practice and practice some more. I particularly liked what Mary said about revision, "It isn't about perfection, it is about intention."

And yes, dear students of mine, I felt all the nerves that you say that you feel before workshopping. It takes courage and a belief in the work to share it with strangers for feedback. Mary and my fellow students were just as gently challenging to our manuscripts as I hope we are to yours in my classes. 

This is all to say that I while I am busy teaching writing, I am also busy continuing to not only practice writing, but also try new genres. 

Memoir students, look out for my comparisons between memoir and picture books. In fact, tonight's homework is to read a picture book to a child and notice the narrative arc. 

You know what? Forget it. Tonight's homework is just to read and enjoy. If someone is nearby, even better if you can read aloud together. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Reading (Paper) Books

A picture the 5yrold took from a Plants Vs. Zombies book
As you might have guessed, I like books. Even though my career as a primarily online writing teacher takes place on the computer screen, or perhaps because of that, I prefer paper books. I like to hold the book in my hand, turn the pages, make notes, and even just carry it around. I like to look at the books on our bookshelves and think about the books I've read and the ones my family has read. 

Sure, I've read some books on the Kindle app on my phone, especially since they are easier to carry on vacation. I can't say that I really enjoyed reading the books like that. 

Our child likes to hold his books, rearrange them on the shelves, sometimes put them out on the table to "play library" and make recommendations to us. The best part recently has been when he takes "grown-up" books off the shelf and looks at them. For a while, he was pulling down comic books and looking at them. Last week he noticed that we have cookbooks with pictures and recipes we could try. Sometimes he notices the art books and flips through the pages. 

Having physical books around make a difference for us and our child. In the New York Times Article, "Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves," Teddy Wayne writes, "Were I a teenager in 2015, I may not have found “Lovely Rita” or acquired an early taste at all for the Liverpudlian lads. The albums stacked up next to the record player, in plain sight for years, would be invisible MP3s on a computer or phone that I didn’t own. Their proximal existence could have been altogether unknown to me." Replace the albums for books and this is what we hope to offer to our child.

We read regularly to our child, sometimes choosing the books for him and mostly letting him choose the books. Since he's five, it is hard to model reading, at least serious reading, in such a way that he can watch us read. But he clearly likes his books and we enjoy reading with him. Sometimes we can read a page or two of our own books together. One day we'll be able to read much more. 

His favorite series right now is Plants Vs. Zombies. I honestly find them hard to read and follow, but he loves them. He'll look at the pages himself, ask us to read them, and then he takes pictures of the pages, acts them out and draws some of the characters and new scenes. Since we're in the camp that any reading is good reading, we encourage this by taking the these books out of the library.

If you're looking for recommendations, you might follow me on Goodreads or visit your local, independent bookstore or library. A Mighty Girl has great kids' books recommendations and Common Sense Media is also helpful. 

Do you read paper or e-books? Share your thoughts in the comments section. 

More on reading paper books and keeping books at home: 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

ICYI: The Birthday Tradition That Costs Nothing, But Means Everything

Thanks to Scary Mommy for publishing my piece, "The Birthday Tradition That Costs Nothing, But Means Everything." For five years now, we've been keeping a birthday letter throughout the year for our son. We write down not only the places we go and the things we do, but also funny things he says, what he's interested in and more.

Click through to read the whole piece.