Back in Lawrence, Kansas

We are back in Lawrence. Our vehicle has been unpacked, packed again with victuals, unpacked again. So I suppose we’re ready to roll.

Best things so far:

Everything in order

Adult children okay; some flourishing

Our wonderful mattress

The art on the walls

Space in the home

Swimming in a pool, pretending it’s the lake

Not as hot as it was reported to have been

Reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, wondering if I should be reading it in French because she is French and I am reading the English translation

Preparing for a Writers’ Conference in NYC; writing the PITCH for my memoir, Jewels That Speak

ETC.

Advertisements

Encouraging Writing for Eighth Graders

The National Council of Teachers of English holds a writing competition each year for eighth graders called the Promising Young Writers Program. The students have to write an Impromptu Theme under teacher’s supervision and submit a Best Writing Sample (poetry or prose), both not more than 10 pages in length.

Student participation is dependent on nomination by teachers; a selection committee is recommended, and nominees should show evidence of effective writing before they are chosen. The number of nominees is dependent on the average daily enrollment. For example, under 100–1 nominee; 500 or more–6 nominees.

As a coordinator of gifted ed. at West Junior High School in Lawrence, Kansas, with most of our programs open to all interested kids, I was uniquely positioned to assess students with interest and ability in writing. I took note of the seventh graders with such abilities and encouraged them to try out for the competition once they reached eighth grade.

The process of writing and revising on a subject that the students themselves selected was beneficial. They took time to think about their chosen topic. They created their piece for the Best Writing Sample. Thought about it some more; revised, and revised some more.

On the day of, they handed in their Best Writing Sample and sat for 75 minutes at the computer writing on the subject of this year’s Impromptu Theme.

Every year, my students were winners in the state of Kansas. I think the reason they were is that because I cared so much about it, it rubbed off on them. They internalized the success and became more confident about their writing ability. Word spread with these successes, and other kids wanted to try out. The importance of writing became more “in” at school.

Website as Forum

My very second blog was titled: SHOULD I BEGIN A WEBSITE? Not quite a year later, I will weigh in on this.

Yes!

But perhaps not for the obvious reasons, exactly.

The obvious reasons:You can advertise your work

  •  You can post a resume
  •  You can add in personal information to humanize your work
  •  You can illustrate your thoughts with photos
  •  You can blog, if you want
  •  You can publish from your site

Less obvious reasons:

  • You “think” people are reading what you express; so it’s a private/public discussion
  • YOU ARE NO LONGER ALONE IN A ROOM

What Am I Writing Now?

Here at our summer cabin in Wisconsin, where the morning hours are quiet and peaceful, I sit with my laptop and compose short stories that all deal—one way or another—with the trajectory of time on consciousness.

I came to the cabin with all my titles in a folder on my desktop. Things I had jotted down during the year when they popped into my head as I was completing my memoir.

In the wee hours, I study the list and see whether any energy resonates from the words to me, then back to the page. If something stirs in me, I start typing to see where it goes. If the story flows from the words in such a way that hours have passed and I think it’s only minutes, I am on to something.

Stories have unfolded from growth on stems to buds, to a little flowering in a way that seems right to me. In a week, I will gather up my flowering buds in my arms, carry them back to Lawrence, and lay them out in my study for examination.

This fall, I will change from a creator to an analytic technician, working with my stories to make the words more clear, to give them deeper meaning, working to have them resonate for a bigger audience than just myself.

Memoir Writing

Memoirs are a way of leaving a legacy behind. I always thought you had to be old, with a lifetime story to tell, but young people write them, especially famous young people, and sometimes these young people’s memoirs are very good.

Not expecting much from this season’s Open by Andre Agassi, I bought it for Paul–who loves tennis, and Andre Agassi–but also read it myself. Andre will be forty in April. It took him two years to write the book, so I consider late thirties young for memoir writing. Anyway, to my surprise, Open turned out to be a well-written book, with an authentic voice that rings true throughout the 385 pages. With only an eighth grade education that if it shone anywhere did so in English, but with expert help that Andre acknowledges, Open conveys a story that actually seems like it encompasses at least one lifetime.

We memoir writers–whatever our age–want desperately for our experiences to form a narrative, that drives a story worthy of being heard. Some of my beta readers have said, “Memoirs that get published are the memoirs of famous people; people want to know about their backgrounds and how they developed their careers. For the little people, it’s much harder to get a story out there. They have to ask the question, who would want to read it? What interest would their story hold for the general public?”

So who would want to read my story? Well, women crave stories about the complex relationships within their families. Some want to know about personal healing, and how to actualize themselves under difficult circumstances. Many women are interested in the meaning of jewels. As they read about the meaning of my jewels, they are thinking about the meaning of theirs. And, … and then my upbringing was unusual. The household names of Tiffany and Freud are part of my legacy. I have been affected by these legacies. People are interested in personal stories that have to do with those names. “And men,” I can hear my beta readers coaching me: “Don’t forget men.” Oh yes, I think, that’s true, women want to hear about personal experiences with men: why this relationship didn’t work, and that one did. They learn something. I know I do, especially when those experiences are written about convincingly and well. It’s like what I was saying about jewels, my stories make people think of their stories, or the other way around. Readers become privy to my secrets, while they think of theirs.

Highlights of a Trip to Madeline Island

Last week, my husband Paul and I put our camping gear into the SUV, kayaks on top, bicycles at the rear, and drove northwest toward the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior.

On the way there, we stopped to hike the Franklin Nature Trail in Eagle River, Wisconsin. This was a short hike, along a 1-1/4 mile loop. It includes a walk over “gently rolling terrain through northern hardwood, pine, and hemlock forest, and includes an overlook on Butternut Lake, a visit to a bog, and one short hill climb.”

My favorite parts were: the cathedral of hemlocks, which made me feel that I was in a naturally spiritual place; the trees—large, old, majestic, offering sanctuary for hundred of years to people and animals; the forest bog with its cushiony mat of sphagnum moss, so soft and green; and Butternut Lake, with a tree shoreline, one boat way off in the distance, and calm, sparkling water—an invitation to swim, which I did.

Too late to catch the ferry in Bayfield to Madeline Island, we camped at Saxon Harbor. Happily we were the only people at the campsite. A doe and two fawns visited us in the morning, alert, curious, but—for a full five minutes—unafraid.

We made it to Bayfield by late morning and took the ferry across the North Channel to Madeline Island. It only takes twenty minutes.

Reading the Madeline Island brochure on the ferry ride, we were struck by the words “When ice forms, some students cross by windsled to attend school in Bayfield until the ice road is passable by automobiles.” Truly, they can trust the ice as a road on the way to school? Wow!

Madeline Island, we found, is very flat, perfect for biking. Tourists, like us, are not inundated with other vacationers. It has a quiet, understated feel. So whether you walk around La Pointe, eat a breakfast bite or an ice-cream cone at Grandpa’s, enjoy a pub chowder (Lake Superior trout) and steamed mussels in a white wine cream sauce at the Pub Restaurant and Wine Bar—a more upscale dining experience, bike along Big Bay Road, or swim or kayak in Big Bay, you experience the island simply, in a refreshing, uncluttered way.

On our return, we stopped in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest to hike to Morgan Falls and St. Peter’s Dome. They are both located on the western end of the Penokee Range. In a pleasant walk through the forest, you arrive at the falls before you know it (1.2 miles round trip). Considerable rainfall preceded our arrival, so the falls cascaded with great force down the canyon walls, a thrilling sight.

We washed our faces in the cool, clear water and set off on the gradually climbing trail for St. Peter’s Dome, a red granite formation (elevation 1,565 feet; 3.6 miles round trip). The topography varies on the way up: the easy trail becomes narrower as you encounter steeper slopes, then more rocky, finally more gentle. The overlook is worth the climb. The sun was out. The air was very still. We stood in a peaceful stance gazing over the tree line for a view of Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands. Some clouds cast shadows on the tops of the trees, preventing the view we sought, but replaced it with fascinating figures that changed their shapes as the clouds moved.

We headed back down the trail, filled to the brim with a quiet happiness that nature had given us with just a little effort on our part.

Teaching Kids to Connect to Art

My webmaster suggested that I write some blogs about the teaching of writing as it connects to art, since this is a subject that has interested me for many years, a subject that I concentrated on as a teacher of kids: kids who were gifted; kids who were “average”; as well as some with dual exceptionalities, such as gifted and having Asperger’s syndrome.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art many years ago, I attended a workshop called Writing through Art. We teachers sat on little stools with pads on our laps and took down notes about what we saw and felt in a painting or sculpture before us; then we learned how to take our own words and compose poetry or prose with them.

I took the ideas from this workshop back to the classroom and experimented with them. Over the years, I had great success with the method. I found that any kid could write a good poem.

Here’s one example of how it works:

I blew up Roy DeCarava’s photographs from The Sweet Flypaper of Life, not showing the accompanying narrative by Langston Hughes. These are very engaging portraits of black people living in Harlem: an old woman standing tall and proud against a wrought iron fence, a young family on a Sunday outing at the Hudson River, mischievous boys letting water out of a fire hydrant on a scorching summer day, a girl dressed up all in white for a confirmation, crossing a dirty empty city lot.

The photos were laid out on the floor. (I think there were 40 of them; I duplicated favorites.) Each student picked one he/she liked. Then, on a piece of paper with three headings—seeing words, action words, feeling words—the students studied their photographs and jotted down notes.

Man in a suit
Girl with a bow in her hair
Two boys in shorts

What’s the man doing?
Sitting on a log

What’s the girl doing?
Playing down by the water

What are the boys doing?
Sitting on handkerchiefs on the log

How are the different people feeling?

The man’s feeling proud of his family
The girl’s happy to be by the water
The boys feel good sitting next to their father

And how does the photograph make you feel?

The photograph makes me feel interested and joyful. It’s different from my life, but I’m glad they’re having a good time. I’m always happy by the water myself.

What words on your page interest you the most?

Girl with the bow in her hair

That’s a good title.
Start from there.

GIRL WITH A BOW IN HER HAIR

Girl with a bow in her hair
Plays down by the water
She doesn’t dare get her feet wet
Cause it’s Sunday

Her brothers sit stiff on handkerchiefs
Gazing at the black river
They are still, next to their proud father
On the old log
Having a quiet Sunday time

This technique works with any piece of art that interests kids, but they need choices with which to identify.

I’ve had success using the photographs from Charlotte’s Web and Stone Fox with younger kids because kids have such strong feelings about the characters in those books.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

In my second blog article, Three Steps to Creativity, I said about step 3, which relates to lesson 3:

The word DESIGN fascinates me. Like the Kindergartener building a fort, the designer joins his imagination and knowledge to create something for himself, but that others can see and use. “I designed an energy efficient city,” an eighth grader said. I designed the set for a play,” a ninth grader said. How can the designers ever forget how they have used their minds, if the process to get to product was so energizing, so thrilling? The designers also had to deal with ideas that did not work, before they came up with the ones that did. They learned to handle frustration because they were invested in “seeing” their product, and having others “see” it. Have you ever watched a kid build a structure from blocks only to knock it down, and start all over again?

Lesson 3: Understand your failures build your success.

After using all your energy and resources, take a break.

With my memoir, Jewels that Speak, I am now the writer (designer) struggling with questions of “ideas that might not work” to make sure they do work, “invested in seeing my product and having others ‘see’ it”.

Eventually, I’ll also get a break.

Competing Voices

Besides my own, which voices should I listen to as I rewrite my memoir? The New York editor gave me important things to consider in revision, Laurie Wagner Buyer told me what she liked about the memoir and offered editorial suggestions, an agent gave me a critique, my husband Paul weighs in over each draft, my adult children listen to snippets here and there and give me their thoughts, my cousin Dorothy listens over the phone. I have also been given feedback from my writing group at the lake, the two young KU MFA’s I mentioned in my blog Feast for Seven Women, and my friend Jo, who is the subject of my next blog.

Here’s my problem. They don’t all like the same things about the memoir. Some like the family stories from when I was a kid, some the famous relatives and their effect on me, some the depiction of jewels and their connection to people, still others my journey to find my way as an adult. The only thing they all agree on is this: there’s a wealth of information to draw on.

Why am I revising again? Because the book is not quite there yet.

And I know it.

The Meaning of Jewels in My Memoir, Jewels That Speak

In my blog, Revision X6?, I said I would talk a little about the meaning of jewels in my memoir. If I try to remember when I first began to make attachment to stones, it probably came from observing the mysterious luminous blue luster of my mother’s Georg Jensen moonstone ring from the time I was born.

My hands are short, my fingers a bit stubby, the kind you want to hide behind your back if someone stares at them too hard. My mother’s hands were elegant, her fingers long; they deserved to be looked at. As a very young child, when I was in close proximity to her, I liked to lie with my head on a pillow, my feet up in the air, my eyes on Mom, and play with her hands. The only ring she wore in those days was the moonstone, and like her hands, it was beautiful.

When I thought of different ways I could go about telling my story, I suddenly hit on the idea of revealing parts of my heritage through the personal and mystical meaning of jewels. That I care about jewel stones is something that anyone who knows me really well can concur. If I don’t ever wear a jewel stone I’ve been given, there is a definite reason for it. Jewels connect me to my past, my present, and future. They connect me to my father, my mother, my grandmothers, my famous great-grandfather (Louis Comfort Tiffany), and my even more famous great-great-grandfather (Charles Lewis Tiffany, the Tiffany of Tiffany and Co). Jewels remind me of the self I was in the past, and connect me to who I am today. Jewels gather meaning as time goes on.