Tag: writing

Writing and Reading for Children and Teens

This is a quick post- (Believe me I will do my 3rd interview I just want to make sure it is well thought out and that my political opinions are explained adequately).

On Saturday I went to an awesome literary symposium put on by the Provo Library.  This was with my friend Emily Whitman who has been my BFF for 11 years.  With 2 kids and my busy work-life it is harder to get together than I would like, especially a full afternoon so Saturday was such a treat.

We got to meet Haven Kimmel who wrote the wonderful memoir A Girl Named Zippy- a book which holds a special place in my heart because it is about growing up in Indiana.  I have never met an author that I admire and it was so interesting to hear her perspective.  She seemed a little melancholy over the recent changes in the publishing industry and said:

“I’m not sure how to continue in an art form that has changed so much that I no longer know how to perform it.”

But she was also very funny and there was a spirited debate over the advent of ebooks.  In her mind they lessened the archival nature of a library, created a technological ‘upgrade’ need and excluded the poor/disadvantaged from the freedom provided by free books.  It was interesting to me because I purchased a kindle in August expecting to love it but I haven’t.  I rarely use it and prefer a real book that I can write notes in and arrows (I know you can do that in a kindle but I find it very tedious).

In fact, if anyone wants to buy a traditional 3G kindle I will give you a good deal (of course, they came out with the fire literally 2 weeks after my purchase!).

Anyway, the second session of the conference was on teen literature.  While it was interesting I disagreed with the attitude of the presenter.  She was a teacher in the public school system and to me she had a very defeatist attitude (she was a perky lady but still defeatist).

One of the first things she said was ‘It would be nice for my students to be reading more challenging books but at least they are reading’.  Then as she continued one of her main qualifications for a book being a good recommendation was that it was ‘really fast’.  I felt like she said that phrase 30 times in the hour. (Tell that to all the kids pouring through Harry Potter at 0ver 700 pages).

Her attitude annoyed me because I feel it is emblematic of a culture of compliance that we have in nurturing children and teenagers.  We could encourage them to do better, be more, but instead we are happy with the least modicum of effort.

I’m not saying every child has to read Foucault and Thoreau but let’s not assume they can’t.  Let’s see the greatest potential in all the people around us whether it is reading, dieting, learning, whatever. The greatest people in my life always saw my potential, the biggest disappointments failed to help nurture me (I still feel some resentment towards my high school choir teacher who stomped on my talent so hard I didn’t sing for 7 years in public after).

Once a child/teen is presented with reading options and they chose Diary of a Wimpy Kid, no problem.  At least they are reading something over nothing. (I have never read Wimpy kid but that was just the example the speaker used about what her high school senior kids are reading). I just want the options to be presented and to not assume they will immediately go for something less challenging.  I hated that assumption growing up.

It turns out there is quite a lively debate on this topic on the web spawned by an article in the New York Daily News by Alexander Nazaryan.

http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/2012/01/against-walter-dean-myers-and-the-dumbing-down-of-literature-those-kids-can-read-h

http://oinks.squeetus.com/2012/01/in-which-i-gamely-stick-out-my-tongue.html

I’m actually inclined to agree more with Nazaryan.  As mentioned above, this feeling comes from the way I felt as a child.  I hated being pandered too and treated like I was stupid because I was young.  I wanted nothing more than to be shown the respect I felt I deserved.  I wanted to be heard and taken seriously from a very young age.

One of my greatest goals if I am ever a parent is to let my children win an argument.  This might sound funny but I want them to know that they have the ability to think things through on their own and that Mother is not always right.  (Not every argument, but I want my kids to feel a freedom of expression and to learn to back up their thoughts as well as they can).

Basically my feeling on writing for children and teenagers is summed up best by Dr.  Seuss (a man who is about as creative as it gets, so proof my approach does not limit magic or youthfulness in kids):

I don’t write for children. I write for people.” Or, as he once told an interviewer, “I think I can communicate with kids because I don’t try to communicate with kids. Ninety percent of the children’s books patronize the child and say there’s a difference between you and me, so you listen to this story. I, for some reason or another, don’t do that. I treat the child as an equal.”

Finally, I think most teens are turned off of reading not because of difficult, boring books but because of the way those books are dissected in the classroom.    If kids were allowed to present their own point of view instead of over-analyzing character motivations and styles I think they wouldn’t be as turned off.  I think it is more a matter of approach than the material itself.

For Christmas I was debating about getting my 12 year old sister Pride and Prejudice, but I did and she was excited.  I could have gotten her Prom and Prejudice (as suggested by the speaker) but I had confidence to give her the real thing.  I think with a little digging we can see the literary potential of all of the people around us, especially the youth, and their life will be better for the faith we show in them.

It is also important to remember that you aren’t going to win with every suggestion.  They might even hate what you put out there for them to read but I think that is good.  Development of a critical eye and a well reasoned mind is part of the learning process.  I read Scarlet Letter as a teen and hated it, still do, but you can bet I can explain why I dislike it so much! I could then, I can now!

So, that’s my opinion on that.  What do you think?  How do you think we should approach reading for teens and children?  Are the classics still relevant and important to introduce or is just getting them reading enough?

(Nice what I think of as a quick post… 🙂 )

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Writing and Stories

Ok.  We are taking a break from my interviews for one second.  This is a topic I have wanted to address for some time.  I love writing and have always enjoyed creating stories (not as much as my sister but I still like it).   Growing up the advice to writers was always ‘tell what you know’ (think Jo March, Anne Shirley etc).  However, if this was the standard we would never have fantasy, magic or imagination (unless there is a mystical world out there I am unaware of).

Lately, I have heard a different vein of this old school writing advice.  Not only should you write what you know but that is the only thing you have a ‘right’ to write. If you venture away from your world than you are accused of stealing the voice of others.

For example, many have criticized Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, for telling a tale about black household workers in the 60s.  She even admits to being ‘nervous’ about it in an interview:

Q.  Were you nervous that some people might take affront that you, a white woman in 2008–and a Southern white woman at that–were writing in the voice of two African-American maids?

A.At first, I wasn’t nervous writing in the voice of Aibileen and Minny because I didn’t think anybody would ever read the story except me. I wrote it because I wanted to go back to that place with Demetrie. I wanted to hear her voice again.

But when other people started reading it, I was very worried about what I’d written and the line I’d crossed. And the truth is, I’m still nervous. I’ll never know what it really felt like to be in the shoes of those black women who worked in the white homes of the South during the 1960s and I hope that no one thinks I presume to know that. But I had to try. I wanted the story to be told. I hope I got some of it right.

I have also heard the same criticism of Sue Monk Kidd’s writing in The Secret Life of Bee’s.  In Utah some are mad at Stephanie Meyer for writing characters that do not uphold her Mormon faith.

I take issue with all of these arguments.  Are we really saying that Stockett can only write about Southern white women, that Stephanie Meyer can only write about Mormons, that Sue Monk Kidd can only tell stories of girls from small towns in Georgia?  (I don’t even like Meyer’s writing but I will defend it on this level).

Nobody enjoys a good memoir more than I do but I also love creativity and vision.  Who cares if a character may not be perfectly historically accurate?  If it works within the world of the story that’s all I care about.

These types of exclusions and criticisms are another example of how we preach diversity while becoming more isolating every moment.  We are no longer a melting pot of ideas and cultures but a scattering or clustering of those ideas.  Any break from cultural autonomy is seen as bigoted or an affront.   It makes it easier for most of us to stay in homogenous groups such as exemplified by Utah (where I live) or Portland (great book on this topic is The Big Sort by Bill Bishop).

Getting back to writing,  if a book is well written I shouldn’t even be thinking about the author and his or her story.  After all, when I’m reading Jane Eyre I’m not wondering how a clergyman’s daughter who didn’t marry until she was 30 could write such sexy, romantic prose? No, I’m enthralled with the story and then only after do I ask those questions.

To me it is sad that we are making authors ‘nervous’.  That we are forcing them to ask those questions and perhaps abandon a powerful story.   I like how Sue Monk Kidd describes her writing process:

“It took me a little over three years to complete the novel. The process of writing it was a constant balancing act between what writing teacher Leon Surmelian referred to as “measure and madness.” He suggested that writing fiction should be a blend of these two things. That struck me as exactly true. On one hand, I relied on some very meticulous “measures,” such as character studies, scene diagrams, layouts of the pink house and the honey house. I had a big notebook where I worked out the underlying structure of the book. I relied more heavily, however, on trying to conjure “madness,” which I think of as an inexplicable and infectious magic that somehow flows into the work.”

How can such madness and vision be tempered by thoughts of what is appropriate for them to write?  How about we just let them write and enjoy the results?  Maybe we would get better books if we encouraged true creative freedom.  That’s one thing I appreciated about The Book Thief is it has an unabashedly unique voice and perspective.   Nobody said, “Markus Zusak you are Australian, you can’t tell a story about WWII Germany” and thank goodness for that.  It is a perfect example of an author embracing the ‘madness’ and it working so thoroughly.

So, yes as Professor Bhaer says in Little Women “You must write from life, from the depths of your soul! “, or…maybe not?  Write whatever your soul tells you to write and even if it is a fairy story or about pygmies in Africa, it will become your story because you wrote it.  Look at Alexander McCall Smith.  He wrote about a spunky female detective in Botswana and he’s a stodgy old man from Scotland but it works.  There are so many examples.

All I’m asking is that we give people a little more room to breath outside of their life experience.  This doesn’t weaken any culture but adds a new voice and how can that be bad?

My Writing Prompt

My sister did this fun writing prompt on her blog:

Write something that includes all of the following words:

WHISPER

DREAM

and…get ready for this…

GOPHER

It can be one sentence, a few sentences or a short story.  Post it in the comments.

I think this could be awesome.  I would just love to hear what crazy ways people come up with to combine these three words.  If people actually do it  (go blog readers, go!), I will make it a regular feature.

Here’s mine:

It was nothing but a couple of words said in a scratchy whisper, but it was enough to make Katie Lou dive back behind the woodpile faster than a fleeing gopher.  She held her breath and hoped that they didn’t see her.  I must be dreaming, she thought.  I just have to be

—–

I love writing and I thought the challenge was fun.   This is the story I came up with.  It is silly and unedited but I enjoyed writing it.  What do you think?

Prompt

Some have described working in a newsroom as controlled chaos but I don’t know if that is accurate. It is more a collection of tedious details interrupted by spurts of insanity. As a girl I used to watch movies like His Girl Friday dream of cracking the big story (and ending up with Cary Grant never hurt the imagination).
Even through internships and my blissful days as an undergrad I maintained the illusion of the noble journalist. Now in my first year as a copy editor for WBGY Afternoon News in Boston I was filling my days with reading stories for the night’s broadcasts and switching ‘affect’ to ‘effect’.
The only bright spot in my day was when Tom, nicknamed the Gopher for his ability to find any file now matter how deep in boxes it was entombed, would lean over and whisper in my ear “Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page.” This is of course a quote from His Girl Friday. He would smile and I would blush. In our training I may have mentioned a few 200 times how much I loved this movie and how ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’. What a stupid thing to say! Who talks like that! Oh well. The truth is I was kind of flattered he remembered my references and maybe one of these days I’d have the guts to ask him over to watch it with me. We could talk, laugh…
Ok. Back to work. Sometimes I think Tom liked getting the gopher jobs because it allowed him to get away from our boss Cheryl who both had crush on Tom and made life miserable for him. I’m not sure how that is possible but she made it her daily objective. A first year employee wants to strike a careful balance between blending in so no one see’s your inexperience, but standing out just enough to get promoted. Tough to do when the boss is crushing on you!
“Cindy” my boss’s shrill voice yells out ‘do you understand the meaning of the word preposition”
Grumbling I think “Enough to know you just used one”.
“What’s that?” I reply.
“Your work is sloppy. Get it together. Without all of us working at 100%, A+ level, we will never be number 1 now will we?”
This is how Cheryl treated her employees like 5th graders in a school play. My prideful spirit wanted to yell out
“Maybe you could do your job better…jerk!”
But instead I nodded “of course. I will try to do better”.
“That’s the terrifimundo attitude!”
I roll my eyes and look longingly at Tom. Maybe I can learn to be a gopher?
“I have a story for you and Tom to work on” Cheryl says out of the blue.
“Really?” I can’t help but blurt out. It was a good thing I wasn’t drinking my morning soda or I might have sprayed all over her posh suit.
“Don’t get too excited. Our regular staff is overwhelmed with the election and we need someone to cover the senior center opening on 5th. Senator Neil is going to be making a speech so we need team coverage…Get on it”.
In spite of myself I give Cheryl a hug and bolt for the back room.
“Did you hear the news? We’ve got a story!!” I exclaimed to Tom.
Smiling he gave subdued ‘All right!’
“When do you want to get together to go over the details” I asked.
“How about Friday but what would you think to watching His Girl Friday first?” He smiles and gives me a wink.
“Sounds good ‘you great big bubble-headed baboon’”…

Journaling My Life

“Journal writing is a voyage to the interior” Christina Baldwin

A collection of my journals/diaries

In the last few weeks I have learned a lot about myself through a voyage into my journals.  Since I was 8 years old I have kept one fairly regularly.  (I tell people I was a blogger from an early age.)

My sister and I both grew up avid writers. This, despite the fact that neither of my parents have ever kept a journal.  I am not sure where we picked it up? I know reading The Diary of Anne Frank was a big influence as well as the stories about romantic writers such as Jo March in Little Women and Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.  I have also always loved letter writing (something my parents do not have any interest in either.)  From the earliest entries I have addressed my journal in letter form- beginning with ‘Dear Friend,’ and ending with some variation of ‘Love, Rachel’.

I must admit as I look at the ramblings of a young me it is hard to not feel nostalgic for the past.  In fact, a massive variety of emotions ensue upon opening each book.   Some of the experiences I recall vividly, such as the despair I felt at the passing of my beloved Grandpa  and cousin Lisa in 2001 within 2 weeks of each other. Other moments I’d forgotten about or remembered with a different slant. For instance, with each of my mother’s pregnancy I express feelings of fear and anxiety. (I recall this being a difficult time but I don’t remember being scared.)  On one such occasion after she had the baby I write I feel like  “a million blocks were taken off my shoulders” (October 7, 1996).

Several other themes stuck out to me as I read.  First is how often I talk about being tired, sore, exhausted, and worn out- even at the very young ages of 8 and 9.  How I wish I could reach out to the young me and give her the answers I now have?  I was probably experiencing a sugar high/low and didn’t know it!  Some people have doubted my story of struggling with weight from the age of 8-9.  Well, here’s a picture from 1990.

I still say a darn cute, if pudgy faced kid

This was a year later.  Don’t you just love the rockin fireplace background and the crimped hair!

From this young age I just kept gaining and could never figure out why

It also surprises me how much I thought about weight and how often I refer to getting in shape. For some reason, I have this picture of me as a mostly-confident kid, and I think in some ways I was, but obviously I had many moments of self-doubt, frustration and perhaps even self-loathing.

Many of the entries are predictable and probably full of the kind of details only interesting to me- grades in school, various friends over the years, squabbles with my family (some I hope the particular family members never read!) and other going’s-on in a young life.  One thing I’ve realized is that I was very independent growing up, but I was also in constant need of validation- validation from others that my choices were correct. Whether it was my taste of music, friends, books, movies, or activities I was almost never satisfied just to like something for my own fulfillment.  I’m not sure why this is but I recognize I still have some of this trait.  To a lesser extent,  but it’s still there.

The other lesson I take from reading these journals is my constant faith in the LDS Church, the Book of Mormon, God’s love  and in Christ’s sacrifice for my sins.  In years of chronicling my inner-most thoughts I do not have one entry expressing doubt or questioning.  I’m not saying I never did, but not in a dramatic, extended way.

October 21, 199o says (I have fixed the spelling but that is all), “I love the Lord and Jesus Christ and love it even more when you go to a place and have a great feeling and that place is the place where sins vanish.  In the stake center or church building when you are baptized and confirmed.”

Much later as a high school student I said, “I’m so grateful for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  He is my comforter and my best friend and I love him dearly.  It’s hard for me to comprehend what He did for all of us but I am grateful that he did.  I was once asked ‘ who in history I would like to meet’…My answer was decidedly sure.  I’d meet Jesus.  There is no one who has done more for me.” (April 2, 1999).

I love this photo. I was a senior in high school. I loved getting studio shots because they were rare and somehow I felt they made me look thin

I could give many more examples, but suffice it to say I am grateful for my faith and the grounding, comforting influence it has been throughout my life.  I think I would have been a lonely fat little girl/teen without it.

On a funny note, almost every angry, venting entry  has something to do with not wanting to work.  There is a hilarious diatribe about gardening (to this day I still detest gardening above all other chores):

Sept 4, 1995, “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself.  I wish my mother took this more to heart. Want- a garden, Way- have kids do all the work, Profit- a bunch of food you can buy in the store and is moldy anyway.”

Another entry from 1993 puts it more bluntly. (I was disappointed on this day because we were supposed to go boating but it was cold so we ended up working instead.  Also, a friend was supposed to come over but couldn’t. ):

“I finished cleaning my room.  When I grow up I am never going to make my kids do work.”  There are a lot of other examples-  my poor parents! Somehow they taught me to become a workaholic? (Well, my mission taught me that, but they helped!)

this is another one from my senior photos that I've always loved. One of the best photos ever taken of me.

I just wanted to share one more entry from June 1, 2000:

“Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me? I seem to see the world through different color glasses than everyone else.  In some ways I suppose that I am more well-liked for my peculiar nature but I still wonder why I have it? Well, I suppose I will never know and if years from now, dear friend, I am reading this and have figured the answer out, I ask only that I share that knowledge with friends and family who will most likely find it most interesting as I am sure they have long been wondering what makes me tick”

Sorry friends and family…I’m still working on the answer to that question! Thanks for putting up with me anyway.

Writing Class

One of my chief enjoyments of this blog has been the weekly opportunity it gives me to hone my writing skills.  I still have a long way to go but I’ve seen a lot of improvement over the last two years of blogging (crazy that it has been going on that long!).  Naturally I also worked on my writing during my years of schooling writing papers and other presentations.  As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, writing and reading have not always been easy for me.  Growing up I was late at both skills and felt behind until college where something clicked inside my brain and writing/reading became a joy.  I have been a journal writer from a young age (which helped prepare me for blogging) and it is amazing to look at the difference between writing at 17 years old and 19.  It feels like 10 years difference not 2.

The one area I have never worked much on is fiction.  I took a poetry class in college but nothing in creative writing or fiction.   This is surprising because I’ve often day-dreamed about writing the next great American novel.  So many of the characters I loved growing up were writers (Joe March, Anne Shirley etc) and it always seemed like something exciting and fulfilling.

As I have also mentioned I am not traveling much this summer- just a reunion and a trip to CA to visit Megan.  I am doing this to save money so if it feels right I can make a down payment on a condo next year.  (I am missing Hawaii so much!  I will definitely go next year.  Maybe even for my 30th birthday- anyone want to come along?  It’s January 23rd).  Anyway, with more time this summer I thought it would be fun to take a creative writing class.  It is through the UVU Continuing Education department and only cost $60 for a 6 week course.  This Tuesday we had week 3 lessons on plot, subplots and more.  Our teacher is named Sharon Jarvis- a local LDS author that has published 8 books.

I’ve learned a lot through the course and am glad I registered; however, the greatest benefit is it has gotten me writing.  Tuesday I read the introduction to my book to the class and got a lot of positive feedback.  Driving up to the reunion I read the first 2 chapters to my mom, Madi and Grandpa and they really liked it too.  This has been encouraging to say the least.  The book I am writing is a chick-lit type book that is loosely based on my experiences quitting my old job.  I have switched things around and added a romance but the core person is basically me.  Right now I’ve even given the character my name.  I just can’ t think of a better name.

I am writing for fun and  am not going to publish my book; Nevertheless,  I am greatly enjoying writing it.  Once I have more completed I will post it and get feedback.

By the way, my sister Megan has already finished a young adult book she is currently editing and a picture book for kids.  I admire her devotion to daily writing despite her busy life with 3 little girls.  You can read about her writing at http://megwrites.typepad.com/blog/.  Check it out.

I always wanted to be a writer like Jo March in Little Women

Elements of a Story in Our Lives

For my birthday my sister Megan got me A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.  I am about 50 pages into it and loving this book. It is a bit hard to describe but basically Miller is a writer who begins to feel that his life is boring that it is unworthy of a memoir (even though he had just published a memoir and was blocked on writing his newest one).  While feeling frustrated and blocked he gets an offer to write a screenplay and in his meeting with the other writers they mention that his character will need to be changed to make a better story.  This makes him wonder even more about what his life is all about and how much of a hand God has in the development of his story.

I am still reading but there was one part that I just had to share.  Donald goes to an intense story-writing conference where he hears 36 hours of lecture and is still confused about what makes a great story.  When packing up his bags he mentions his frustrations to his buddy who responds:

“A Story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it”, he said with remarkable assurance.

I looked at the definition for a second wondering at how simple it really was.  He was right.  A character who wants something  and overcomes conflict to get it is the basic structure of a good story.

“That’s it!,”  I said to him.  “That’s the essence of a story”

Realizing this truth he has a fascinating interaction with a friend of his.  This friend has a daughter who is starting to experiment in drugs and is dating a guy “who smelled like smoke and only answered questions with single words ”  (I love that description!).  After repeated grounding attempts nothing seemed to be working.  On a whim Donald tells his friend that his daughter is “living a terrible story”.

“What do you mean?” he asked

“I don’t know exactly, but she’s just not living a very good story.  She’s caught up in a bad one”

After that the two friends talked for a long time about living the right stories.  A couple of months later he ran into this friend and asked about the daughter.  ‘”She’s better” he said to me smiling. And when I asked why, he told me his family was living a better story”.    Basically the friend went online and looked for something different, better to be involved in- something that might catch his daughters eye.  In the search he found an organization that builds orphanages around the world.  He then called the organization and signed up for the service.

“So I went home and called a family meeting…I told them about this village and about the orphanage and all these terrible things  that could happen if these kids don’t get an orphanage.  Then I told them I agreed to build it”

My wife sat there looking at me like I’d lost my mind.  And my daughter, her eyes were as big as melons and she wasn’t happy.

He then goes on to explain that after getting over the initial shock the entire family became excited including his daughter.  She even wanted to use her website and blog to promote and fund raise for the orphanage.

“That’s incredible” I said   “You know what else, man?” “She broke up with her boyfriend last week.  She had his picture on her dresser and took it down and told me he said she was too fat. Can you believe that?  What a jerk.”

“But that is done now,” he said, shaking his head. ” No girl who plays the role of hero dates a guy who uses her.  She knows who she is.  She just forgot for a little while”

I have a quote on my wall that says “If at some point in your life you are not where you want to be it has no bearing on the future. You can always reinvent yourself”.  I don’t know who said that first but I think this is a very interesting idea.  Just like the girl in the story or the prodigal son from scripture, we can come to ourselves and think upon our ways; thereby, creating a new story, a better story, or certainly a more dynamic story.  Even if it is not a redemptive change, knowing that change is possible is so wonderful.  For example, if I am able to lose weight that would change my story- it may or may not make it substantially better but the chances are it will make it a longer story.  Another example that comes to my mind is the new story which was created when I quit my job at JWA.   I felt 100% authentic to what God wanted to me to do and what was consequently right for me.  As Donald says “And once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don’t have a choice.  Not living a better story would be like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die and its not natural to want to die.”  This is the best summary of how I feel now compared to how I felt in my old job.  I just wasn’t living the story I was meant to live- it wasn’t a bad story, just not the one for me.  I am so glad I had the guts to leap into the unknown and try something new.

On my mission I saw many people who started to tell a different story.  They experienced conversion and fairly quickly his or her life became a life with a “Mormon” story thrown into the mix.  I’d be curious to hear of moments in your life where a change in your story had a dramatic affect or a smaller but memorable one.