Monday, April 30, 2012

Who's Your Best Teacher?

This year Teacher Appreciation Week is May 7-11.  The 8th is Teacher Appreciation Day.  This blog appears a week early so that you’ll have some time to appreciate those teachers in your lives that have made an impact.  The blog is fairly straightforward as I list the teachers in my life who touched my life in some way and why.  Not all of used the classroom to teach me.  To use today’s jargon, I give a big Shout Out! to each of them.  The fact that I even remember the names of few is a testimony to the fact that they taught something that is still of some importance to me decades later.

Don Heilman, 5th and 6th grade teacher.  He was a good teacher, but more importantly he taught me how to forgive others.  How?  He forgave me for pulling a practical joke on the entire class when I moved everyone’s desk stuff (that was when we stored stuff in actual desks) up one desk so that when my classmates sat down they all had someone else’s belongings. 

Wanda DeBra – Geography teacher in high school.  She understood how to engage a class and almost tricked us into learning by having us create maps of the countries in our textbooks.  We understood where they were and why they were important by being little cartographers. 

Harriet Lynch – Latin Teacher all through high school.  She taught me Latin, which is a language I use daily in reading and writing.  She inspired me to take three more years of Latin in college.  By the way, it’s not a dead language at all.  The roots still exist.  But Mrs. Lynch was also someone who really cared about students even though that may have been lost on kids (and teachers) who didn’t like her assertive nature, or Latin.

Tim Moore – Coach, physical education in high school.  He believed that I could do and be anything and wasn’t afraid to tell me so.

Don Lynn – Science teacher in high school.  I got my first and only F from him and so I learned humility.

Rosella Reynolds – Typing teacher in high school.  She taught me to type.  Do you have any idea how important that is?  I type 110 words a minute, which is so much better than using the hunt and peck method.

Anneliese von Oettingen – My ballet teacher.  I only took ballet for a few years, but she taught me I could move gracefully and remember dance routines.  Because of her, I love and appreciate the dance culture.

Barbara Mossman – My childhood piano teacher.  I took weekly piano lessons from her for so long that I can’t remember the dates.  Because of her I adore classical piano music.  Her lessons also taught me graceful competition, poise in a public setting, and how to beat Allan Stubbs in a piano recital (okay, so I still need to work on that graceful competition thing).

Kay Sturm – My adult piano teacher and mentor.  I took weekly piano lessons from her for five years as an adult – just for fun.  But in that time I also learned how to accept other people’s fragility.

Colonel Undercoffer – The summer of my life teacher and father of my best friend.  He taught me how to ride a horse in a variety of ways.  Hunter style; trick riding; ring riding; Roman riding; trail riding.  He also taught me how to use a bow and arrow.  The badminton lessons didn’t work out as well.  These lessons were only for a summer in high school, but it was a summer I’ll always remember.

Mr. Blum – My first creative writing teacher.   He taught me that I could make up stories and write them down.

Bill Moore – A mentor for a few years.  He taught me how to forgive myself.

Sister Margo Cain – A cowoker.  She taught me that not everything has to be done by Friday.

Julia Hawgood – Another mentor for a few years.  She taught me that life isn’t fair and never will be.  But she followed it up with the lesson that I can learn to live it with joy, happiness and acceptance.

Melanie Faith – A recent writing instructor.  She’s been teaching me the art of writing short essays and fiction in an economy of words.  Much of my shorter work is publishable because she taught me how to get it up to speed for that.  She believes in my dream and that I’m able to reach it.  She’s a dream supporter.

Margo Dill – A recent writing instructor.  Not only has she taught me the use of social media, she’s also taught me tenacity where my novel writing is concerned. Somehow, even in periods of self-doubt after a terrible writing week, her comments and suggestions pull me through.  She also supports my dream because she believes writing is a viable life choice.  Although she never lies about the challenge of such a choice, she does so with a great sense of humor.

Colette Ledford – One of my younger sisters.  She taught me to be unafraid of motherhood and that it can be faced with laughter.  She taught me to “get over myself” when I took it too seriously.  And even now, when we’re adults, she can step in and gently slap me across the face (figuratively) so I’m not hysterical when I bite off more than anyone can possibly do in one day.  She continues to teach me that perfection is over rated.

Jenny Stephancin – My youngest sister.  She taught me to look at myself objectively when I do a self-assessment.  She may not even know that except that we’re both so much alike it’s as if I’m looking in a mirror.  She has taught me that sometimes good enough is just that – good enough.  And that dog hair is an acceptable condition in my house.

Scott Cassell - My brother.  Dedication is his middle name and he has taught me that.

Winnie Renner – My aunt who passed of breast cancer long ago.  She taught me that I’m ornery and to accept it.  She also taught me that my family is my family and no matter what, they’ll be there for me.  She believed that someday I would figure that out.

Jean Cassell – My mother.  At first she taught me how to be the hostess with the mostest because I have no instinctive talents in that direction.  Then I learned to be my own person because of her.  I don’t know if that was her intention, but she taught it and I’m glad of it.

Sarah Coffey - My stepdaughter.  She teaches me the art of sacrifice, which she does each day in supporting her family.

Chris Helscher – My son.  He is in the process of teaching me balance.  I don’t know how he learned it because it wasn’t from me.  But he did.  As I watch him be balanced I try like crazy to emulate it.  I may never fully learn it, but I appreciate it and will continue to attempt it.

There are more teachers in my life, but these are the ones that come to mind today.  Who are some of yours and why?

You have finished reading Who's Your Best Teacher.  Please consider leaving a comment.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

When You're Pretty, Do You Have a Brain?

Who Gets to Decide What's Pretty?

Scott Westerfeld successfully explores the societal ideal of beauty in his thought-provoking futuristic novel, Uglies, which is the first book in a series (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras). In brief, Tally Youngblood is nearly 16 and has been waiting her entire life to be "pretty." She, like all individuals in the novel, are considered ugly, living apart from polite society, until their 16th birthday when an operation changes them into some acceptable, predetermined form of pretty. 

Told completely from Tally's point of view, we’re immersed into her thought process and watch it change when she meets Shay who has a completely different philosophy about prettiness, although it appears no one has a choice. As Tally reconsiders her entire point of view, we learn there is a consequence to changing your physical appearance. The word “shallow,” immediately leapt into my mind when I discovered the cost.

Although this can properly be labeled a young adult novel, adults may find it intriguing as well.

What meaning does beauty have and do we overvalue it? Do we make mistakes about labels of pretty and ugly? Do these translate into our perspectives about fatness or thinness? What about red hair or blonde hair? Short or tall? Do these ideas split our society into two groups, as the novel suggests?

The questions Tally has in her life are ones we start asking ourselves while reading the novel. So while the plot is engaging and entertaining, filled with tension and conflict, it is also Westerfeld’s commentary on a slice of our culture.

The book does leave me with a bigger question. Can common sense overcome Madison Avenue? What do you think?

You have finished reading “When You’re Pretty, Do You Have a Brain?” Please consider leaving a comment.

Friday, April 13, 2012

An Interview with Melanie Faith, Flash Writer and Poetess

Melanie Faith

      Today I'm delighted to post an interview I recently conducted with author Melanie Faith, who writes both flash fiction and poetry. I first met Melanie a little over a year ago and she was my online instructor. In that class she introduced me to writing flash and I loved it. So today she's going to share about writing those types of pieces.

      A little bit about Melanie: Melanie Faith holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. She has been a small town journalist and an ESL classroom teacher for international students. Currently, she enjoys teaching creative writing classes through WOW! online, as well as tutoring literature and writing at a private college prep high school, and freelance editing. Her writing most recently was published in Mason's Road (Winter 2012 issue) and Origami Poems Project. Her photos were published in Foliate Oak (May 2011 and forthcoming, March 2012), Epiphany Magazine (October 2011), Up The Staircase (Fall 2011), and Ray's Road Review (December 2011). Her poetry was a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Applewhite Poetry Prize, and an essay about editing poetry appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Writers’ Journal. An instructional writing article is forthcoming from the British Magazine, The New Writer (Spring 2012). In 2011, her poetry and essays was featured in Referential Magazine (July and June 2011), Tapestry (Delta State U., Spring 2011), and Front Range Review (U. of Montana, Spring 2011). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work won the 2009 Anne E. Sucher Poetry Prize for the Iguana Review.

      And now, the interview.  Enjoy!

     Thank you for talking with me today, Melanie, and for sharing your experiences and insights with my readers. You are very well read and certainly enjoy diverse writing styles. I, myself, really love reading and writing flash and note that this is an up and coming style of writing for young adults. But I see that there are two flash forms. Flash and micro flash. What's the difference between the two?  Flash fiction is a marvelous art form, relying on compression, imagery, and plot twists (what one may call zingers).  There is also a resonance in flash, because there’s little or no time for explication, multiple plots or subplots, or slow rising action—so each word carries extra weight (and sometimes reminds the readers of words not used).  There’s a precision and exploratory nature to writing and developing a good flash story—often involving careful editing for unnecessary details or wordy phrases as well as choosing words for the best connotations.  

The central difference between flash fiction and micro fiction is length.  While there is some debate about how long a flash should be as well as how long a micro flash should be, as the names suggest—flash fiction stories are longer (at a few hundred to a thousand words) and micro fictions are generally under 250 words (although I’ve often read much shorter micro flashes of between 25 and 100 words).  I just read and shared with students some excellent micro fictions of under 250 words each from a volume called Hint Fiction by Robert Swartwood. Micro fiction also tends to rely on suggestion much more than flash fiction.  For example, a flash story is more likely to more than one character and to develop the setting or central conflict much more than in a micro.  Other than length constrictions and fewer directly stated images, settings, and characters, flash fiction and micro fiction share far more than they differ.  J  

·          Sometimes when I read flash, I think there's a subtle link between it and poetry. Yet they are distinctly different. I know that you write a lot of poetry, but what inspired you to write and teach flash? I first became interested in flash fiction when I studied the genre in a grad school seminar. After grad school, I read through several excellent collections of flash fiction, including Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories and Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (which I’ve used as part of the courses I’ve taught).   Here was a genre which had the keen appreciation for imagery that poetry has while also the best features of fiction—strong characters, intriguing plot(s), focused dialogue. At the same time, flash fiction is super compressed and tends to have a quirky, twisting ending or a slightly surreal setting.  Each piece is like its own world, waiting for the reader to open the door to enter into the narrative’s room. J  I love the joy and challenge of sharing tips for writing students’ own flashes as well as appreciating the flash stories other authors have already penned.

·         I like your idea that flash can be likened to entering the narrative's room.  When you said that I imagined that flash is the room while longer pieces can be more like roaming through an entire house. Poetry can possibly be shorter still, such as looking into a very interesting closet in a room. So I see why you would be as interested in flash as you are in poetry. When did you start writing flash? I started writing flash fiction in grad school, six years ago.  While I have an MFA in creative writing, concentration in poetry, part of the program I attended involved taking seminars in other genres (including fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction) as well, which very much appealed to me.  I began my writing career, years and years before graduated school, as a fiction writer and still read quite a bit of fiction.  Flash appeals to me in that, as in poetry, so much narrative is accomplished in such a small space.

·         Flash always seems to have a title. How important is the title in flash writing? As flash fiction must be under 1,000 words (although many publications even suggest under 500 words for flash fiction submissions), there is very little space to spare. An excellent title can not only save space in the body of the story itself, but may also set up a setting, a key theme, or a central image.  It’s very important, as in other fiction, that the title not give away entirely the central mystery of the plot.

 That makes the title critically important, then. So how do you come up with a good one? Another great question! I was just discussing with a few friends last week how challenging crafting titles can be.  I usually wait until I’ve written most (if not all) of the first draft before creating titles. For my own flashes, I tend to highlight a key visual image or the central conflict in my flash titles.  For instance, I just wrote a 300 word flash a few weeks ago about a couple on tour who are escaping a soon-to-erupt tsunami.  That particular flash is entitled “Tsunami Morning.”  After noting the storm in the title, I was free not to take up space noting the storm directly again, while also pinpointing the central conflict from the get-go.  Sometimes, I will point to settings for titles, such as in another of my recent flashes I’ve called “The Home Place,” after a rich family’s garden a teenager is hired to landscape which the reader soon discovers should actually be his own land but (for various reasons) is not. 

 I'm going to have to re-think some of my own titles. In reading and writing a piece of flash, how much of it is realistic? While it depends upon each particular writer’s vision for her/his piece, I’d say that flash fiction stories tend to have more surrealistic and fanciful elements than more traditional short stories do, particularly with zinging endings.  On the other hand, much like in all other genres of fiction, flashes rely on realistic dialogue, characters who are undergoing life changes, strong and focused narration without extraneous tangents or images, and a central conflict.

 I know you've read a lot of flash and it would be hard to remember them all. What pieces have stayed with you the longest? Russell Edson’s piece, “Ape,” which is sometimes considered a prose poem and sometimes considered a flash, is searing and startling.  Since hearing it as part of a grad school seminar, I’ve never forgotten it, and I’ve shared it with both my high school students and my online students in a few courses.  Also, “My Date with Neanderthal Woman,” by David Galef, inspired me and cracked me up enough that I remembered it and included it into my flash fiction course handouts, to share with my students.

 In our lives all of us can point to teachers or people we admire and wish we could just keep around to give us advice, support us, and sometimes even encourage us when we feel stuck. In the world of flash writing, if you had to choose, which flash writer would you consider a mentor, even if you could never talk to the person? Great question!  Might as well just shoot straight to the tippy-top and site Hemingway’s “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” That story just phenomenally moves me every time I read it—with a one-two punch to the gut.  There’s tension, inherent in the grief. There’s that powerful symbolic image of the child’s shoes.  There’s a suggested narrative. There are at least two characters if not three—a parent or parents and the recently deceased child.  Without a doubt, Hemingway’s example is a masterpiece.  Still, there are many other flash authors who may not be quite as well-known outside of literary circles whose work impresses and inspires me, from Padgett Powell to Russell Edson, David Galef, and Etgar Keret.

You're been very generous in sharing the work of others in this interview, but what are your own current projects?  Thanks for asking. J   I’m quite excited to be in the midst of putting together a chapbook of my poems, tentatively entitled (for the moment, at least) To Waken is To Begin. Some of the poems are brand-new (written in the past three months) while others are favorites from the past four or five years.  It’s an amusing and ongoing process, noting how various narrative threads run through pieces written in vastly different time periods and literary influences.  The poetry chapbook, however, is just one of my projects in the works.  I have an article coming out with The New Writer, a British magazine for writers, in the Spring of 2012, and I’ll be teaching two more classes for WOW!, including a poetry writing seminar that kick-starts for National Poetry Month on Friday, April 13th as well as offering the fantastic Spark and Sizzle flash fiction writing course again, beginning on June 1st.  I’m also sending my own flash fictions to literary magazines and working on some other prose I’m pitching to magazines.  I like to keep several types of writing projects going at a time, submitting three submissions a month to editors’ desks so there is a batch of my work in circulation while I get back to work and writing new pieces. J

      Can you share a little of your current flash work with us?
Sure.  Here are the first two paragraphs of my (aforementioned) recent flash fiction, “The Home Place.”
     Knee-deep in the yarrow and sawgrass, I’m sweating it out on Old John Slade’s property. After school.  75 cents an hour. Bobby Slade cuts me a check every other Friday.
     “Avoid running that tiller into the slops, boy,” Bobby Slade warns, handing over the key on a frayed shoelace.  “You do and you’ll rue the day.”
      I'd like to read the rest of that. It looks like the kid and the slops may somehow collide and that can't be good, but maybe it might be. What is the hardest part of writing flash? For me, the most challenging part is compression. I love what Michael Wilson, author of Flash Writing: How to Write, Revise and Publish Stories Less than 1000 Words Long, writes: “It is far easier to write a long story, wasting words, wandering off on tangents, introducing interesting characters that have nothing to do with the main story. But flash fiction is coiled like a spring. There is no wasted energy in flash fiction.  Every word in your story counts and drives you toward the conclusion.” Here’s my general flash writing and editing process, especially for editing for compression of narrative: after the rough draft, I spend three or four drafts going through the work, with a fine-tooth comb so to speak, editing out unnecessary phrases, omitting images which don’t contribute to the tension as well as repetitions, and cutting down on wordy prepositional phrases.  Then, I print out a copy of the flash-in-progress, to read through the work offline.  It’s amazing how much a hard-copy can bring to light. After making notes on my hard copy, I go back into my computer draft and tinker a bit more.  I usually write between eight and ten drafts until I feel that the flash is ready to submit to literary journals, but the biggest challenge in the process is being terse enough for the word limit.
 Eight to ten drafts. That's a lot of dedication and determination. When you're working through those pieces, what do they teach you as you go along?  I love the exploratory nature of writing flashes. Generally, I receive a bolt out of the blue piece of dialogue or a character, and I’m off and writing a rough draft. Once, last September, I awoke from a nap to a line of dialogue from a single father trying to take care of his dog and his daughter amidst a washer overflowing, and I ran to my laptop in a mad dash (not brushing my hair or changing out of my pjs, and barely even putting on my glasses).  It was such fun meeting my characters on the page! J  I love that feeling and to hearing similar stories from my flash-writing students.  I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from writing a flash piece—at its best writing flashes is pure play, like a kid in a candy store (at least until the first draft is finished, then it’s editing time, which can be challenging but amusing in its own right).   
      I like the idea of meeting your characters on the page. Do you have any advice for flash writers and aspiring flash writers?  No matter what-- keep writing! J  Also, it can’t hurt to revisit your flash drafts and edit for compression and focus of imagery.  Cut down on prepositional phrases and unrelated phrases which might sound interesting but are unrelated to the actual conflict of the flash story.  

      Thank you, Melanie, for taking the time to be with us today and giving us a broader understanding of flash and the process of writing it. I'll keep my fingers crossed about your current submissions. Also, congratulations on the publication of your latest book, To Waken is to Begin" set for publication in September 2012.


       Readers, please leave a comment about your favorite flash ideas or stories.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Are Time Worn Children's Classics Still the Best?

I’m one of those people who cringes when I find out a book a kid has to read in school is the same book I had to read when I was in school 40 years ago. My first response in today’s lingo is, “Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me?”

So, really, seriously, are you kidding me that we can’t find something more contemporary than A Separate Peace (John Knowles), Huckleberry Finn, (Mark Twain), or even the beloved Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)?

Now before you get angry and stop reading my blog, hear me out. Those books are great and I’m not truly knocking them. But here we are as a nation trying to get our kids to read. So why are they consistently restricted to books from that long ago? Is The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) worse than Lord of the Flies (William Golding)? Are school boards lazy in approving new things? Or scared? Or both? Maybe they don’t read themselves and using a time worn list is easier and perhaps safer.

So, I’ve said all this to recommend, oddly enough, a book that’s truly ancient by today’s standards. It’s The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler. A 1968 Newberry Award winner by E.L. Konigsburg, the plot is one you’ll recognize from your own childhood that continues forward today. It’s simple. Claudia decides to run away from home just long enough to teach her parents a lesson. She brings along her little brother, Jamie, because he’s a penny pincher and has money. The twist? Their destination and plan is to live inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which Claudia has cased better than any art thief.

I read the book in 2012 as an adult and was captivated. It has gone on the list of my all-time favorite children’s books. But my point is this. If a book isn’t relevant to today’s kids, they aren’t going to read it regardless of publication date. As parents, we’re more like bookies playing the odds, so we have to know what’s in the books. A book can be any genre and any age. But the odds of our children reading and enjoying books improve if they can see themselves in the shoes of the main character.

What’s your favorite kid’s book? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tough Topics for Children's Books

When I started writing for children one of the questions, or concerns I had was if I should have my characters kill people. Monsters are okay, but people? What about criminals? Maybe. But is any of it appropriate subject material? I ask these questions as if children don’t see and experience dreaded awfulness all around them. My internal conflict is somewhat comical and I do laugh at myself over it.

When I expressed my overall cognitive dissonance to a children’s writer that I highly respect, she said that children were capable of handling difficult subject matter and gave me some examples. Her wisdom caused me to reconsider my perspective and that enabled me to expand my point of view. Of course that’s always the mark of a good mentor/teacher.

Continuing to ponder the subject, I free floated over to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Now mind you, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I saw the movie, which I felt compressed the story line into an impossibly small space.

The plot is about nine-year-old Oskar Schell dealing in his own way with the aftermath of 9-11 in which his father died.  He believes his father has left him a key that may be a clue to finding the 6th Borough of New York, which has disappeared. Oskar, who is brilliant in his own way, sets about finding what the key opens, which he hopes reveals a secret message from his dad just for him. But because he is so highly intelligent, he also understands that his adventure is to really find more time with his father. More importantly his quest is to make sense of the 9-11 tragedy, which he’s desperate to do.

The book is excellent and I believe the author truly gives us a unique perspective on how at least one small child tries to explain the unexplainable. But as I cried through both the book and the squished up movie, I ask myself if this topic is one about which a children’s book should be written? I have no firm answer.

Children did deal, and continue to deal with 9-11 in real life, so why not in a book? Would you pick such a book off the shelf and have your fifth grader read it? Please leave a comment and tell me what you think.