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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant story of Harriet the Spy drew cheers from some critics and groans from others. But the children took Harriet right to their hearts, and this book is now a best seller which seems destined for literary immortality.

So says the back flap cover of the dust jacket of my copy of Harriet the Spy. I impulse purchased it on Amazon a couple years ago remembering how much I had loved the book when I read it somewhere around age eleven.

harriet

I’m not sure where I first came across Harriet. Perhaps she arrived through a kids’ book club. Maybe I checked her out from the bookmobile that arrived in our subdivision every Saturday morning. But I recall being entranced by her. Harriet wore rolled up jeans and glasses and ran a spy route and wrote in her notebook her observations about the comings and goings and private discussions of the people she spied on. Outside under an open window, she listened to the Robinson family; from a rooftop skylight she peered down at Harrison Withers; sneaking into a dumbwaiter and pulling the ropes, she listened outside old Mrs. Plumber’s bedroom. I found it all fascinating. I wanted to be Harriet. I didn’t want to spy necessarily, but I did want to observe my world and I wanted to write.

“What are you writing?” Sport asked.

“I’m taking note on all those people who are sitting over there.”

“Why?”

“Aw, Sport”—Harriet was exasperated—“because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.”

After the book arrived from Amazon, I reread Harriet’s adventures. Looking through my adult eyes, the story came across as a bit weird. Really? Sneaking into someone’s dumbwaiter in order to listen to private conversations in the bedroom (well, yeah, the woman was an elderly woman alone and on her phone, but still!). Climbing onto a roof? Writing unkind things about your closest friends?

Looking at the book through an adult’s eyes, I suffered from what Ursula Nordstrom understood all too well—adults too often plastering children’s books with their own adult concerns and thus totally losing the beauty of imagination.

geniusI learned about Ursula Nordstrom by reading a book of her letters: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998). She was publisher and editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940 to 1973. She is considered the Maxwell Perkins of children’s publishing; in other words, as Perkins was willing to take a risk with an author, spot talent, and then coddle that author along by way of encouraging letters, Nordstrom did the same but with children’s books. If not for Nordstrom, we might never have seen books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur, and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Nordstrom believed in children. She believed that if she could get the books past the adults who buy them into the hands of children, the adults could learn from the children how to enjoy and understand what was being done in a truly creative work.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964. When Louise Fitzhugh arrived at the Harper & Row offices, she had a manuscript that was originally no more than the scribblings in Harriet’s notebook. Nordstrom’s senior editor, Charlotte Zolotow, wrote a report on the sample pages noting that they needed to bring Fitzhugh in to talk. Zolotow saw that it wasn’t yet a book, but it could be. Nordstrom wrote to her senior editor later, thankful that the two of them had “drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise” (304).

The book managed to garner accolades as well as criticism. Nordstrom is credited with answering mail and constantly being willing to stand up for her authors. Regarding a complaint letter about Harriet, she wrote:

I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind or mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people’s mail and listen to their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well . . . But you are all for vigor in children’s books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life. (229)

Nordstrom realized that it would sometimes take the force of her strong personality to help the publisher and the authors and then the librarians and teachers and parents read the books with a child’s eyes. To get rid of their “adult” concerns, open their imaginations, and enjoy what she called “vigorous” books. As she considered the sorry state of 1960s teen novels, she wrote, “The ‘rigid world of good and bad’ is infinitely easier to write about than the real world. Because the writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

As I reread Harriet the Spy, I fell into the trap. I found myself wondering if I’d have wanted my kids to read it. I saw the danger Harriet was putting herself in writing true observations, hurting her friends. But that was the very genius of Nordstrom—she realized that children liked books about kids who did bad things sometimes, who had to go to bed without supper, who weren’t perfect little angels.

charlotteWhile I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and Where the Wild Things Are to my children, it never occurred to me that somewhere along the line an author had to get an editor to understand that—yes—a talking spider is a really great idea! A spider! And a kid spying on the neighbors and writing down everything they do—also a great idea!

Somehow Nordstrom and her team got it.

I’m thankful that Nordstrom and Zolotow did indeed help Fitzhugh create Harriet. Harriet became my friend. She got herself into scrapes but learned how to deal with them. She was herself—willing to be different from everyone else. I think that’s what I saw in her as I sat reading this book on a quiet evening baby-sitting my sleeping baby sister. Harriet made it okay to be alone, to be observant, to want to write.

Children’s literature is a special breed that takes special people to navigate it. It needs adult writers and editors who have enough of a child’s mind to be able to see the possibilities. To know that a talking spider can save a pig’s life. To know that a talking mouse can be born to human parents. To know that a little bespeckled girl with a notebook might just inspire another little bespeckled girl to become a writer.

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The things we carry tell a lot about us.

In my Writer’s Craft class, we studied the value of details in our stories — you know, those little words or tiny descriptions that can make a whole story turn and give a complete description without having to say much at all.

To illustrate how this can work, we read part of the first story of Tim O’Brien’s work, The Things They Carried. This essay collection details some of O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. Published in 1990, twenty years after O’Brien returned from the war, the story still resonates with its gritty realism. Such a story could only be written by someone who lived it.

The titular essay describes the various soldiers in the 23rd Infantry Division with vivid descriptions mostly of — you guessed it — what each soldier was carrying. From these lengthy paragraph descriptions, my students and I could detail on the board the job each soldier had within the unit, what he cared about, and even a bit about what he was like (the things carried could be something like “fear”). Here’s just a taste:

obrien

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

This first essay gives a brilliant picture of this group of men, together by necessity, bound to one another, trying to do the tasks assigned and stay alive.

So my students did a writing exercise. I asked them to dig into their backpacks or purses or pockets or wallets and list everything they were carrying. Then they did some free writing. My challenge to them was to write a couple of paragraphs describing what the things they were carrying revealed about them.

There’s the girl who was lugging around in her backpack papers that she didn’t even need (and she couldn’t remember what class they were from). There’s the girl with the detailed calendar. There’s the guy with the extra pens and the other who probably needs to bum writing implements. Almost all of them were carrying books (one read Shakespeare constantly!). The students carried pictures or other items that brought back memories.

I looked in my purse. First, it’s way too big, but I like a big purse when I need to carry extra — you know — stuff. I have a big make-up bag with extras of all the basics after one day a couple years ago when I arrived at school and had forgotten to put on any make-up! I vowed that would never ever happen again! I have a notebook like what I tell my students to carry so that they can write down brilliant ideas when they strike. It’s pretty much bereft of brilliant ideas, although I do use it to jot down names of books I want to read.

In other words, I’m carrying things I hope not to need (extra make-up) and things I hope to need (a place to write down brilliant ideas).

I have a wallet and three sets of business cards and too many pens. I like to be prepared. I have my datebook because I don’t have nor want a smart phone. I like to have lists and organization and for that I need my datebook.

My bag tells me a lot about myself. My students learned a lot about themselves by looking at what they carried. We talked about using such details for the characters in their fiction–how can what the character carries be part of the description of him or her?

So, what’s in your wallet? What do the things you carry say about who you are and what you care about?

 

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The students in my “Building Your Author Platform” class have been busy. We spent the first couple weeks of this class figuring out who we are as writers and who we need to be out there online. They thought about what they write, their interests in both reading and writing, where they want to take their writing, and who they want to meet out there and add to their “tribes.” I have a couple of students who write psychological horror/thrillers, several who write fantasy/sci-fi, a Star Wars fanatic, some YA writers, a student who doesn’t want to write but wants to promote books (bless her!), a scientific writer (she even has a moth of the month you can learn about!), and a couple who are also just multi-talented and still figuring it all out.

They then built their websites to go along with the sort of “brand” they’re creating of themselves. Then, following principles of literary citizenship, we’ve talked about how the best way to “network” is not to “network” per se but to simply to be interested in what other people are doing. They’re writing charming notes each week to someone they admire. They’re following and commenting on one another’s blogs and blogs of writers they admire and want to add to their tribe. They’re tweeting (and tweeting and tweeting and tweeting . . .).

I love it when a student stops by my office to say, “My tweet just got ‘favorited’ by my favorite author!” and they begin to realize that reaching out simply means a tweet, a retweet, or a kind comment on a blog. I want them to understand that, once they leave this college cocoon where they’re surrounded by likeminded writers who understand them, they will be out in the bigger world where, chances are, fewer people “get” them as writers. They will need that online “tribe” that continues to discuss the various virtues of the new Star Wars trailer or the plot line of the latest Brandon Sanderson book or whether their own character in the latest story is speaking in a believable way (“Let me just read you this . . .”). The tribe is a place where they can continue to join the conversation about things that matter to them.

Your platform--where is it taking you? How's the view?

Your platform–where is it taking you? How’s the view?

I tell them that they will need to attend a writers conference — hopefully once a year — to get recharged and reinvigorated. They will need to continue to buy and read books (that doesn’t seem to be an issue with this group).

This past week we also listened to the pitches of those students who have books in the works. I wanted them to both practice writing proposals and pitching those proposals to agents. Half the class is in that position, so the other half acted as agents and I gave the authors five minutes to sit down in front of an agent, give their book’s synopsis, and be calm and professional all at the same time. It was great practice for that opportunity they will have sooner or later to actually pitch that finished book.

Platform building isn’t all about me, myself, and I — which I think is why many people are scared of it. No, platform building is about building a network of likeminded folks both in your physical world and online — caring about them, sharing their work and their words, joining the conversation, and rejoicing with the successes that happen in the group. Then, one day, when success comes knocking on my students’ doors (as I have no doubt it will), they have a group ready to celebrate with them.

One board at a time. Reach out to your favorite authors in your genre. Thank them for something. Comment on their blog posts. Share your work and your thoughts on your own blog. Take your time, because it will take time. But the time to start is now–even if you don’t have a book to sell. Just go out there and join the conversation. You have something important to say.

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I tried an experiment in one of my writing classes this past week. We’re talking about the power of words and learning to, as Francine Prose writes in her book Reading Like a Writer, “put every word on trial for its life.”

We looked at the words used (and not used) in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.” (They were amazed to realize that the word “Nazi” is nowhere in the story, even though that’s what it’s about and they knew that’s what it’s about, even without that word and many others one might expect.) We studied the descriptions of place and people in Guy de Maupassant’s, “The Piece of String.” We watched how Flannery O’Connor chose words and led us along in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Then I read them some quotes from one of my recent favorite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Here are some of the beautiful, lyrical lines:

When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if torn from a package.

All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.book thief

That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

<a scene of the Nazis burning books> The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

The cold was climbing out of the ground.

Snow was shivering outside.

The window opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.

I love how Zusak uses words, putting them together in surprising ways to make descriptions that are exact and yet so unusual and unexpected. It’s that very unexpectedness that delights me.

So we did an exercise in class. I gave students four small pieces of paper. On each paper they were to write a word — two papers would have adjectives, two papers would have nouns. Any adjective, any noun. I gathered the papers into two piles, shuffled them, and then each student chose one adjective and one noun and had to find a way to use them together in a sentence.

We got “chilling sun” and “soft children” and “shiny dream.” And the students wrote amazing new sentences, allowing these unusual pairs to work together.

In a weekly journal post, one of my students wrote, “I liked the adjective and noun game. Combinations like chilling sun made me think about the ways I described things throughout the week. Instead of relying on easy, conventional descriptions, I searched for different, more unusual word pairings that still made sense.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are some of the most lyrical, surprising, and unexpected sentences you’re read — and where did you read them?

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That’s it–The Writer’s Craft. That’s the name of a required class in our Professional Writing department at Taylor University–a required class that I will be teaching for the first time this fall. I’m so excited to teach this class because we’re going to read great writing, unpack it, understand what makes it great, and learn what we can use to improve our own writing.

ProseThe class has traditionally used Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

I love this book because it gives examples of great writing in areas of words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. All of this is studied by way of what she calls “close reading,” taking the time to annotate a chosen text and study it carefully.

So I’m excited to bring to the students stories from John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and John Updike and Tim O’Brien and Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce and Anton Chekov, among others. I can’t wait to have my students do close reading of amazing writing, discuss it, learn from it, be inspired by it, use it.

I’m just a little thrilled to teach this class.

It is important that writers read “textbooks” about writing–and those textbooks are the great works that have stood the test of time. Prose (don’t you just love that the author’s name is “Prose”?) writes that these great works are “textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction” (3). What is it about this piece of writing that makes it great? that has stood the test of time? that makes it classic? She continues, “A masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly” (11).

We’re not going to look at the big picture–the why of the writing. Instead, we’re going to focus on the mechanics, the how. What words does the writer use? How are those words making this piece sing? What about sentence structure? Paragraphing? How is this dialogue telling us the story without telling us the story? (For the last one we’ll read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”)

In his wonderful little book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon talks about making sure we artists surround ourselves with other great artists (I talked about this book more in this post). He advises us to be collectors, collecting the things we love.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. My mom used to say to me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It used to drive me nuts. But now I know what she meant. Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by. (13-14)

Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.

The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work. (17)

So we’ve got our readings, our lesson plans, our pens, and our desire to collect and learn from the greats.

Can’t wait!

What great writers or particular pieces of writing have inspired you?

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When I signed on to teach at the college level–first as an adjunct and now as a full-time instructor–no one told me that every year in May I was going to experience the heart-throbbing pain of good-byes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve said a lot of good-byes in my life. I grew up as a military kid and we moved a lot, so good-byes were pretty standard fare. I went to high school in Bonn, Germany, at what was then Bonn American High School (Go Crusaders!). After our class of fifty-some students moved the tassel in 1976, we scattered all over the globe (literally–and I am using literally correctly).

Some of my fellow graduates. BAHS 1976. That's me second from the left. Our tassels were red, white, and blue to commemorate America's 200th birthday.

Some of my fellow graduates. BAHS 1976. That’s me second from the left. Our tassels were red, white, and blue to commemorate America’s 200th birthday. By the way, that’s the Rhine River behind us.

Then, after college, I said good-bye again to dear people who had been my roommates, my suitemates, fellow residence staff, professors, and friends.

Good-byes are never easy.

So no one warned me that now every year I would have to say good-bye to an entire group of students that I had come to love–literally. Students I had watched grow into great writers. Students I had talked to about their future dreams and plans. Students I had prayed for and with, cried with, laughed with. Students who, each year, taught me a little more about myself.

This evening we had a dinner to honor our seniors. Yesterday one of them asked that each of the profs in the department provide a letter to all of them, a “last lecture” of sorts. We wrote those letters, and she put them into a packet for each senior.

I thought long and hard about my letter. Writing should be easy, right? I’m a writer, right? But what do I say? What words of advice can I possibly give to these young people moving the tassel and scattering to the winds?

I told them to expect bittersweet. Graduation has been in their sights for years–but when it comes, it also means good-bye. And that’s hard. It means for the first time in four years they may not know where they will be come August. That can be frightening.

I told them to expect loneliness and confusion. Even if life is mapped out, even if there’s a job or grad program waiting and a wedding in the works, there will be times when they will miss the craziness that is dorm life. They’ll wonder if they’re making the right decisions. If they’re still job hunting and spouse hunting, at times the loneliness can be overwhelming.

But lest you think I’m Negative Nellie (or maybe just Realistic Rachel), let me assure you, I am all about the positive. I just want them to not think they’re alone when those feelings hit.PWR10

I also told them to keep the faith. Follow their path and stay close to the God who brought them this far and has a plan.

I told them to live this crazy adventure called life to the fullest.

I told them to keep writing and to expect rejection (yes, Realistic Rachel, it happens all the time) but to keep writing anyway.

I told them to stay in touch with one another and to continue to encourage one another in life and in writing.

I told them to find their tribes “out there” and to go to writing conferences just to remember what it’s like to be around a writing community.

I told them that they have a gift–the gift of words. Open it, enjoy it, share it, use it.

Good-bye, dear seniors. Thanks for being part of my life.

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If you’re like me and you’re a word lover, the IRS tax forms with all their lines and numbers send you into a panic attack. I get it. No matter what political persuasion you are or whether taxes bring you joyous refunds or difficult fees, filling out the dang forms can be a stressful endeavor.

If only you could get help—good help, help who knows what they’re talking about. If only there was a website that would answer your questions about your life as a writer and whether or not all of those expenses count on your tax returns (even if that long-sought-after royalty check has yet to arrive . . . or be promised).

Today, my friends, “if only” is here. I offer a helper whose passion is Tax Solutions for Writers (which also happens to be the name of his website). Gary Hensley was an accountant for his entire life, an IRS agent and auditor for part of it, and one of the guys who answered the phone for TurboTax if someone needed help.

He knows whereof he speaks. [Update: Gary Hensley passed away in 2018.]

Every year, our Professional Writing department at Taylor University invites Gary to talk to our students about acting like writers and filing their taxes as such. (In addition, you can catch Gary every year at numerous locations, including Midwest Writers Workshop where he is always one of our most popular speakers.) Or you can go to his website that has every question you can think of, and many you probably haven’t.

taxes

Here are just a few things I have learned from Gary about handling my tax returns.

(1) You don’t need to be an official “business” to be in business as a writer and to file a Schedule C for deductions. If you are busy writing (sending out articles, researching that novel, attending conferences to improve your skills), you are a writer and should treat yourself as a professional on your tax return.

(2) Purchase a $5 planner that you can carry with you. In it, document every single activity that you do that shows your activity as a writer. Write down what you did at your desk (your home office area) each day. Track the time you spent writing and what you did. This separates you as an active writer (even if you’re not published) from someone who is sitting around thinking he’d like to write a book someday. You are actively writing. That makes you a writer.

(3) Then use those daily slots to document writer expenses. Maybe you subscribed to a particular magazine or website to help you with information for an article or book. Maybe you attended a conference. Maybe you purchased books about the topic you’re writing about or simply to improve your writing skills. Then, of course, find a place to keep those matching receipts.

(4) In that diary, also keep track of mileage for writerly activities (not just miles, but write in the actual odometer readings to and from anything that had to do with your work—and write next to it the business/writerly purpose for your trip). Perhaps you drove to the library to do research. Maybe you drove to interview someone and purchased lunch for you both. Track the mileage to that writers conference.

(5) Get a separate bank account for your business that has a debit card attached. Again, you don’t need to be an official DBA or LLC or Ltd. or anything. But this particular bank account holds only the money that you earn as a writer (yes, even that $35 for the column you wrote), and it tracks anything you purchase for your business (printer paper, stamps, books, conferences). Maybe you don’t have income, or nothing really worthy to call that. Doesn’t matter. Get in the habit of separating out your writer life from the rest of your life. I know, you may need to lend yourself money back and forth in order to cover a business expense (like a conference—the $35 article won’t cover that), and Gary explains how to do that on his website. The point is to keep your writerly income and out-go separate from the rest of your household.taxes-2

All of this documentation will make it easier both when you go to fill out next year’s form and if you ever get audited. These expenses are deductible on the Schedule C, so you want to take advantage of them and you want them to be accurate.

I know. The forms are difficult, but it’s time to take hold of your writer self and claim your professional status. Check out Gary’s website for answers to other questions.

And go purchase that journal to track this year’s activities! (Oh, and write down the odometer reading before you go and when you get back!)

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