Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Did My Class and I Rock NaNo?

QUICK NaNoWriMo Update for me and my four brave, brilliant 7th-graders:

Student 1 Wrote 18 pages of a brutal story that involved a broken home, an abusive father, and the hope found in a friend-who-could-maybe-be-more. This student read bits of her story to the other girls during lunch; they argued over who was their favorite character and pestered her to keep writing so they'd know what happened.
Then the student tore that story out of her book and started a new story.
Her guardian had read through it and didn't approve it. Her new story does not contain a broken home or an abusive father. All the favorite characters are gone.

Student 2 Wrote bits and scraps on backs and half-sheets for most of November. By the third week, she had about 6 pages all together. Organization knocked her out. So did setting--she didn't know how to write scenes about Washington D.C. when she'd never been there. We talked at length about writing herself into a corner. :) She picked up her pace during the last week by focusing on her characters, and she wrote about 9 more pages.

Student 3 Hated her story by the middle of the month. When I gave her permission to start over, she gleefully stomped on her old pages. She spent most of the fourth week glumly facing her new project, annoyed with how she kept ruining great ideas by writing boring set-up. This girl is an artist, so I showed her Maus--we had just finished a WWII-lit unit--and discussed graphic novels. What a bright face she had! It was like I had lifted a lead blanket off her shoulders.
She showed me pictures that she just worked on last night of a girl getting run over by a car. The student was glowing, proud of her bloody images and of grossing out Ms. Jessica. She's going to finish her story through December.

Student 4 Had 37 pages at the end of November and will write through December. She had started writing a horror story, but she realized she didn't need to embellish anything to tell a terrifying tale. She is writing her life story.
At first, she thought she had to modify it to keep it 'middle school appropriate.' I told her to be as honest as she wanted to be about what she's been through.

Me? I mean, does it really matter, compared to these girls? I think they're so cool, so brave, so fun, so strong. They inspire me. But, just to round it out--I wrote 18, 400 words. It was totally fun and diverting and sometimes awful and annoying. Like John Green says, NaNoWriMo gives a writer 1) discipline and 2) permission to suck. I think I picked up some discipline, and I definitely am all about being okay sucking.

So, YES, we absolutely rocked NaNoWriMo!

And now we're reading "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti and "Goblin Fruit" by Laini Taylor. Favorite. Unit. Ever. :)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Geeking Out Over Collaborations

My love for both John Green and M. T. Anderson has led me to another dated discovery:

The hot-hot-hot themed YA anthology!

Collections of short stories by rockin' authors are popping up all over, and again I'm late to the party. But that's okay! Late to a party equals awesome! (NOT early. NOT on time. These, to a party, are not so awesome. These are tragic and send a gal home by 8:30 in tears.)

FIRST anthology is Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales published by Candlewick in August 2004. I'm putting this first even though I have no real idea if it has a predecessor. If you know of another first, let me know! This cool collection came out with authors like Neil Gaiman, Celia Rees, Gregory Maguire, and of course, M. T. Anderson. (no. not obsessed.)

SECOND anthology is Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, published by Little, Brown in August 2009. Holly Black collected stories along with her friend and co-ComiCon attendee, Cecil Castellucci. Contributing authors include M. T. and John Green, natch, as well as Sara Zarr, Cassandra Clare, David Levithan, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Scott Westerfeld, Garth Nix, and Libba Bray.

Side-note: I ADORE 2009-LIBBA BRAY. I'm sure 2011-Libba Bray is just-as-if not-more adorable, but 2009-Libba Bray made this video promoting her Printz-winner, Going Bovine. Please watch, even if you never click on links. Three minutes of adorable in a cow costume.

I admit it: this is why I write. Not to write, but to write with friends like Libba who rock cow costumes in New York City. More on this thought in a second.

THIRD anthology is Zombies vs. Unicorns, collected again by Holly Black, this one published by Margaret K. McElderry Books in September 2010. This collection offers six stories pro-unicorns, and six stories pro-zombies. Contributing authors include Carrie Ryan, Maureen Johnson, Meg Cabot, and more fun from Cassandra Clare, Garth Nix, Scott Westerfeld, and Libba Bray.

John Green posted a vlog about this debate in 2007 and described unicorns as the "horned beasts of suck." Also, he questions, "What have unicorns ever accomplished? Providing transport for the Care Bears to and from the Forest of Feelings?" :)

LATEST collection is Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. This one came out by Candlewick in October 2011. It was put together by Kelly Link, but Holly Black still contributes, along with Corey Doctorow, M. T., Garth Nix, Cassandra Clare, and Libba Bray.

(Afterthought disclamier: This list of four books is, of course, in no way exhaustive and is as extensive as my Googling skills allow.)

So--I want to say how awesome I think this is--writers consistently publishing together.

I mean, I'm not saying that all these writers got together and wrote their stories in one big house, sharing coffee duties and pizza runs. However, clearly the community--as John said in his vlog--had been discussing the topics for months. I don't know, but I imagine that the books came out of those discussions. So community created art, rather than art bringing together a community.

I love that.

But, as an extension of that thought, why not gather together in a big house and write? Why can't we do that? Percy Shelley did, at Leigh Hunt's, with John Keats. Some writers used to write together. Some said--Shelley certainly said--they needed the companionship for inspiration. So I say YAY anthologies! YAY communities of writers collaborating and inspiring one another. I cannot WAIT to join you. I will totally take the first pizza run.

So my friends, who would you want in your big writers' house? Who would be in charge of meals? Who would you borrow toothpaste from? :) Who would you love to toss ideas around with over slices of pepperoni pizza?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am thankful for John Green

First, I have to say that I bought Paper Towns when it came out in 2008 and liked it.

And that was the extent of my experience with and appreciate for John Green.

AACCKK!! How foolish am I??? All these years I have missed out on the wit, the hilarity, the now-accumulated 904 video blogs that John and his brother have posted to one another! It's a travesty, and I can't allow it to happen to you, my friends; so I am spreading the good word of John Green and the Nerdfighters.

Second, I have to say that I found John Green's vlogs while Googling M. T. Anderson. Which brings me to my subpoint--M. T. Anderson is also a rock star, and I just thought he was an adorable bespectacled hipster. Nope. He's actually sort of everywhere, loved and lusted by everyone: many awesome ladies and gentlemen wish for him for Christmas and/or list him on their hot list, or get to interview him for SCBWI. Shannon Hale herself posts a hilarious interview with him, and so does Sean Beadoin. And Cynthia Leitich Smith. He's on the board of directors of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and particpated in the NCBLA's recent publication, The Exquisite Corpse Adventure. He keynoted this week's Assembly on Literature for Adolescents conference. So--woops! I'm just six years late to the M. T. party, and no, sub-sub-point, I am not obsessed.

So Tobin and John Green met years ago at a conference and broke into abandoned buildings together. John recorded their adventure for one of his vlogs. You can find it and the other 900 videos on youtube or on the Green brothers' site, www.nerdfighters.ning.com.

What are Nerdfighters? The Nerdfighters are nerds who fight--folks who use their inner awesome to decrease world suck. And we are legion! John just announced he has 1.1 million followers on Twitter. Isn't that incredible? A YA author with 1.1 million followers? Again: rock star.

John Green won the Printz award in 2006 for his first book, Looking for Alaska. His second book, An Abundance of Katherines, was a 2007 Printz honor book. Last year, he co-wrote a book called Will Grayson, Will Grayson with David Levithan; and in January, his latest book, The Fault in Our Stars, will be released! And he will be touring for it!! (Please come to Wisconsin! And bring Tobin with you!)

John and his brother Hank are hysterical and brilliant. Among their hundreds of videos, you can watch clips on John's top 5 zombie apocolypses, 31 great nerd jokes, the amazingness of Norbert Wiener, how tired John is of signing his first 150,000 copies of The Fault in Our Stars, and how it costs us 70 million dollars a year to subsidize the making of pennies. They talk about great literature, current events, Helen Hunt--just really relevant, beautiful stuff. I've logged in many, many non-NaNo hours this holiday week watching and laughing. Please join me!

Have you already fallen in love with the John? Do you have a favorite video of his to share? What literary rock stars do you follow?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rockin' Jan Brett Rolls to Green Bay!

Jan Brett is touring from Boston to Walla Walla, driving across the country in an enormous, illustrated bus! Clara and I passed the bus as we drove to Green Bay on Sunday, November 13. I cheered and clapped and waved, so happy to see it on Highway 172! Clara kept asking, "What's wrong, Mom? What's wrong?" I tried to explain that a beautiful artist and storyteller was near, and that brought Mom so much joy. :)

Jan Brett spoke to a crowded room at the Brown County Central Library last night at 5:00 p.m. She shared with us the inspiration for her newest book, Home for Christmas. She also told us about the tour that she and her husband took of Sweden, doing research for the illustrations in the book. Since a moose is a key character in the story, she took the time to actually draw the head of a moose for us.

All the while, she was sharing charming anecdotes, like how she met a friendly herd of moose, and how she got to kiss one on its big, blubbery nose.

She filled her half-hour presentation with encouragement for all the young writers and artists in the auditorium. She reminded everyone that just as our fingerprints are our own, so our stories are our own. We have unique vision and creativity, she said. It is important not to lose our vision as we grow so we can make both ourselves and others happy with our art.

I was in line for over two hours to meet Jan. She is, without question, a rock star. Her website states that she has over 37 million books in print. Her stories are rich, warm, and deep. I grew up with "The Mitten," and Clara is daily enchanted by "The Owl and the Pussycat." Which of her books did you grow up with? What are you reading to the children in your life?

I know we are all trying to be true to our visions; but on the drive home, I thought about all of our unique stories. Not the ones we make up, but the ones we are living. And I wondered, what artist would you choose to illustrate the story of your life?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Author Linda Godfrey brings DOGMAN to Neenah!

This is Godfrey's first sketch of Wisconsin's Beast of Bray Road.
You thought I was kidding, didn't you? :)

On Monday, November 7, five Academy students and I, along with our high school English teacher, visited the Neenah Public Library to hear Linda S. Godfrey speak about her newest book, Monsters of Wisconsin. Godfrey has published 12 other titles, including Weird Wisconsin, Haunted Wisconsin, The Michigan Dogman, and Mythical Creatures.

Here is another one of Godfrey's illustrations based on a witness's testimony.

Godfrey was a UW-Oshkosh grad working as a newspaper reporter 20 years ago when she first learned about a local legend of a 'werewolf' prowling around Elkhorn, WI. After learning that the area county patrol officer actually had a file labeled 'werewolf' in his desk to hold the many complaints and sightings he received, Godfrey decided to write the story. The story ran in her local paper, The Week, on December 31, 1991; it went national two weeks later!

And literally, she's been hunting monsters ever sincee.

Godfrey's hour-long presentation on Monday was packed with pictures, sketches, and statistics of the many beasts she has received reports on: Dogman, Pigmen, Bigfoots, and Dragons.

I had asked my students to go into the presentation looking for something they could use for their NaNos. Motivated by M. T. Anderson's passion for place, I was hoping we would hear about wonderfully creepy locations to emulate in our own settings, lending our stories color and personality.

And in a way, we did. What we learned was that many sightings were in normal places, like wide roads, bridges, and well-lit neighborhoods. For example, open Bray Road is a popular place for
Dogman sightings. The road is a most un-spookified stretch, surrounded by cornfields. Godfrey explained how cornfields themselves are the spooky places--they are, in fact, Creature Highways: snack-filled swaths of land that creatures can trek unseen.

Bray Road. How scary is that, right?

So we learned often the scariest things lurk in the shadows near the most normal-looking places.

When Godfrey learned that we were looking for stories to propel our own, she readily acknowledged that many other writers, particularly science fiction writers, read her books for the same reason. She explained that what especially attracts writers is that the creatures she learns about act so very, very differently from how our "normal" concept of creature acts. For example, in the hundreds of reports she has received from the United States and Canada about Dogmen, she has recieved ONE report of an injury caused by one. How interesting is that? A ferocious looking, man-hunting beast that snarls and lunges, that lurks and prowls, but that doesn't actually attack? That's peculiar, and it goes against our preconceived notions of werewolf.

Pretty fun stuff, but I'll be honest. (But I'll say it parentheses: I had to sleep with my light on the first night after the presentation. They were everywhere, I swear. The Dogmen were coming for me, and I couldn't do anything about it!)


Other sort of wonderfully obvious bits I picked up from Godfrey's excellent presentation were a) follow your passions, b) do your research, c) trust people, and d) be open to believing in the unbelievable.

Thanks so much to Melissa of NPL's Adult Programming to let us join the three dozen others for this event. And so much thanks to Linda S. Godfrey for coming and speaking. We had a wonderful time, and we have picked up great spooky stories to weave into our own tales.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

NaNoWriMo Check-in 1

Seven days of writing have passed. How’d I do?

Total word count: 7355

Total I should have if shooting for 1667 a day: 11669


I present to you four frank reasons I’m not stressing about being behind:


Kate DiCamillo!

My copy of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick came in, and I have a NEW literary crush to add to my list of crushes. Kate DiCamillo’s contribution to this collection is knock-you-in-the-teeth poignant and hilarious. Love, love, love the Kate! How can one be gloomy when Kate’s “The Third-Floor Bedroom” exists?


I found Elzabeth Fama’s blog last night (and commented on it ;)). She, a published author, speaks candidly of the pros and cons (and many more cons) of our yearly NaNo competition. I love her honesty. Her reminder that our goals this month are sort of ridiculous helps me laughingly accept that I may not make my goals—but the best goal is to write every day.

How haunting is Elizabeth's cover?


I’m writing. This, all by itself, is just lovely. This *poofs* stressful thoughts of more and now and hurry away.

My idea that I’m fleshing out this November I had in February, but I didn’t get to it. I had too many shows to watch. :) Then in April, I heard editor Julie Scheina--one of two editors who brought us Beautiful Creatures--speak at an SCBWI luncheon. She enthusiastically shared one of her new books coming:

Jane, by April Lindner, is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre.

My story idea is a modern retelling, too! So I should have been writing in April! Retells are wanted by editors, she said! But I didn’t go for it. I had too many naps to take. I dipped into it a teensey bit, enough to say I was working on it, but that’s about it.

Our NaNo has me deep in my story each night. I’m loving the characters. I’m loving the places they take me. I’m loving the cashmere sweaters or silver nail polish I find them wearing. I’m writing, and it’s fun.


I am, let's repeat, doing a retelling. This makes my life easier, yes? I'd argue yes, absolutely, it does. In addition to my six pages of notes, I have the hundreds of pages of story to follow. So when Elizabeth Fama points out that October should be novel-planning month and we should create pages of detailed outline with dialogue notes—I mean, I do, right? I have the whole book in front of me. I read it again in October and wrote out character notes and plot points to emphasize, but . . . Come on. I think having an already-written-masterpiece in my hands takes some of stress away. :)

So that's my reports, my friends! How are you doing? Week 2, here we come! :)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Harris Burdick Lives!

Joy, Joy, so much Joy!

So, for Chris Van Allsburg fans, the nearly unthinkable has happened. New stories have been written for the collection of enigmatic illustrations in his 1984 book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Just released October 25th is AN AMAZING COLLECTION of 14 stories inspired by the original artwork. The list of contributing authors is stunning. Inside we will find works by

Sherman Alexie
Kate DiCamillo
Cory Doctorow
Stephen King
Lois Lowry
Gregory Maguire
Walter Dean Myers
M. T. Anderson
and more!

Check out this hilarious clip that shows some of the authors and the pictures they chose to write about.

Can you stand it? Are you running to the bookstore now? Wait! While you're there, check to see if Chris Van Allsburg is coming to talk about this new release. Because I discovered he and beautiful M. T. will be in Chicago on November 17. Check it out!

And cross your fingers that my lovely, giving, self-sacrificing, wonderful, gorgeous sister will help me drive down there to see them. (Talented, hilarious, kind, creative, generous sister. . . )

So my friends, whose story are you looking forward to reading the most? Which picture from the original are you the most curious about?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Author Steven Polansky Speaks at the Academy

I teach at an international academy in Northeast Wisconsin. Parents pop in often; we have moms who visit classes, dads who eat lunch with their daughters . . . imagine my surprise and delight learning that the attentive dad who joins his girl so very often in the cafeteria is Steven Polansky, author of Dating Miss Universe


The Bradbury Report

(Aw, man, trouble getting the cover to post . . . )

The first book is a collection of short stories that shows the failings of humanity with humor and grace. The second book is a novel that explores what it means to be human in 2071 when cloning is legal and "Copies" are used only for the aid of the "Original." Totally fascinating! And Steven totally needed to speak to our students! How is it possible we had not plundered all of his knowledge already? What riches to mine! :)

He graciously agreed to join us for an hour this week, kicking off our NaNo WriMo with an honest, in-depth discussion of the business of writing.

My hand flew as he spoke because quite literally every sentence he shared was either poignant or hilarious or ridiculously insightful or tremendously useful to us as writers. Ten pages of scrawl have been typed into four pages of notes. Here, I'd like to reproduce the gems I think will help us as we continue living our dreams as writers.

1. The world of publishing will be so changed in three years that in 2015, our students will know more about it than he. The institutions he knows--agents, editors, and printing companies--are being replaced, rendering all his years' experience in publishing obselete. (How fascinating and sobering is that?)

2. Consider the length of your novel. Length is gift we can offer our readers. He compared a small piece of writing to the passing glance of a beautiful face in mass-transit. One can fall in love in a moment like that, but the love doesn't linger. Contrast that passing glance with a deep, devoted marriage, and one will better comprehend the sense of knowing we experience reading a long novel. He said, leaving a world long lived in (he mentioned Harry Potter as a popular example), "The feeling is you are now transported back into your universe, and it is utterly transformed."

3. The life of a writer can be "the best of lives and the worst of lives." He confessed every morning starts the same. He faces his blank screen, and his inner critic tells him, 'Everything you've done before makes no difference. You have no idea how to do this next scene. You can't do it.' And it's awful. But then writes one sentence, and then two, then four, and he eventually forgets he can't do it

4. He gets his ideas for stories by keeping open. He watches and listens. He refuses to play the market research game, sniffing out what sells. Also, he refuses to keep a notebook to jot ideas into because 1) he'd never look at it, and 2) he'd forget what his notes meant if he did look at it. Instead, he just pays attention to those ideas that don't go away. If an idea stays in his head for three or four weeks, then he knows it's worth taking seriously. (Where do you get your ideas from?)

5. It takes him three years to write a novel. He wished those of us trying to do it in a month the best of luck. :) Rather than blasting through a zero draft as most of us have (or are), he methodically focuses on each chapter, perfecting it and then completely leaving it. He sites Dickens as a model for this style of writing: when a chapter of Dickens' Great Expectations was printed in the paper, thousands of readers made the events in that chapter indelible. Dickens couldn't go back and change things. Steven showed us some eighty pages of notes for one chapter of his current novel. (Again, how fascinating is this? I have six pages of notes! For the whole thing!)

6. He left us with two final thoughts:

If you truly want to be a writer, you should write. And there is no substitute for writing.

If you truly want to be a writer, you should read. And there is no substitue for reading.

My heartfelt thanks to Steven Polansky for sharing his wit and wisdom with us. I very much hope he will join us again soon!

So my friends, what do you think of his writing process? In the dawn of NaNos, is it worth reconsidering our methods?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Dreamed of My NaNo Last Night

So a student came into class declaring, today. “Did you dream of your story, or did you dream of you writing the story?” I asked her.

“Of me writing,” she said.

What happiness! A small sprawl of seventh graders swarmed my classroom floor and wrote this morning. Today we NaNo WriMo-ers are living our dream of writing. What propels us from our ‘such stuffs’ into reality? Or, a stiffer metaphor, what shots of inspiration are you knocking back? Here are a few of mine:

1) A practical, hilarious list of NaNo preps on Lola Sharp’s fantastic blog. Do read it; you’ll be so glad to learn that others stock freezers, warn spouses of hygienic neglect, and of course, avoid all hosting responsibilities.

2) Laini Taylor’s recent post on Creating Your Life. It’s pasted beside my kitchen sink, so I can remind myself not to shrink my dreams while I’m cleaning Clara’s breakfast dishes.

3) My kitchen. This is where the magic will happen. One of Laini's Ladies smiles down amidst a flourish of mirrored butterflies. The script on the side of the purple-winged fairy quotes Rumi: "I am so happy, I cannot be contained by the world. I have blossomed so much, I am the envy of gardens." So mote it be. :)

4) M.T. Anderson’s talk at the National Book Festival last year. Quite a bit of his talk here is the same I heard last month; the Dogtown anecdote is missing because it was new and therefore had, as he said, the vigor of the unrehearsed. Watching this clip, you will be inspired by his glorious romance with geography. Also, you will learn he is hypoglycemic. Terribly, terribly important resource material.

4 1/2) M. T. Anderson's talk on Place from 2007. As mentioned in my earlier post, it’s by my mirror so I can memorize it while coiffing. I’m up to, “I would like to speak of Stow, Massachusetts.”

Okay, now I'm off! I have seven pages to write before my girl gets up in an hour. :) Wish me the best of luck; I'm sending all my best loves and laughs to you. Happiest of writing, Dreamers.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Love and Magic

We partied at school today, students and teachers alike. Of course I had to try to coil a bright blue wig around a couple of paint brushes, wear my new favorite wishbone, and go as Karou. :)

I hardly do her justice, right? But I had to try. I carried my signed copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone around the halls with me, sharing the good news of brilliant Laini Taylor to all who would hear. :)

Incidentally, the Queen of the Night there, beside me, is Becky, our science teacher. Becky is the smartest person I know. How can she be that adorable AND know everything about everything? It's not fair. Stars? She knows them. Volcanoes? Knows 'em. Fishes? Knows. Physics and spiders and electricity and turtle poop--she knows about it all. I love LOVE working across the hall from her. I hear the weirdest, most disturbing stuff through her open door, especially when gerbils die, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

And since I'm sharing things I love, I have to again say that I love M. T. Anderson. I read this speech he shared while accepting the Boston Globe/Horn Book award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and I've decided I'm going to memorize it. I'm hanging the speech beside my mirror so I can ingest its wisdom and vocabulary while curling my hair. That way, when he comes back, I can say so much more than, "Thank you for coming to Wisconsin." I can say things like "fatuous emotion," "vertiginously rapid," and "vernacular of Americana."

I also read this short piece about his telling a classmate about the color of dinosaurs, and I laughed so hard I cried.

And then I found this lovely, long interview from years ago. I learned others love the M. T., too, and also that he hates the word 'slacks' because it smells of thigh-sweat.

Just passing the good word tonight--there's so much out there to love. Halloween, and amazing coworkers and characters and creators. What are you just loving tonight?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

M. T. Anderson Charms Sheboygan

Beautiful lake-side Sheboygan hosted its second annual Children’s Book Festival on October 14-16. I drove 90 minutes east on Saturday, October 15, to join 3 dozen teens and adults listen to Matthew Tobin Anderson speak on the mythology of American landscape.

We gathered at 1:00 at Sheboygan’s Mead Public Library. It’s a wide-windowed library, one clearly well-loved and well-funded. The third floor holds the children’s library as well as the Maas Teen Learning Center, a long conference-like room wrapped in aqua and cobalt blue. I studied the orange, green, and maize squares of the carpet while eavesdropping as a volunteer encouraged Anderson to order something to eat between sessions. He responded with gentle embarrassment, asking her often “Really?” and then joking of needing a filet mignon, medium-rare.

His voice, by the way, is as rich as James Spader’s. Think Steff in “Pretty in Pink.” Yet he’s funny and disarming. My god, it’s like he’s Duckie and Steff rolled into one—how’s a girl to learn anything when confronted with such a package? Especially when the package is wearing salmon-colored All Stars.

He began his 30-minute talk, and I did my best to pay attention. I was distracted by visions of my parents NOT having moved from Massachusetts when I was a baby. Then Anderson and I could have been next-door neighbors. We could have biked to the Carnegie-era brick library together and whispered among the pages of Conan the Barbarian, writing fake names in the yellowed check-out cards.

Clearly, I’m crushing on the M. T. Where is his fan page? I looked. Couldn’t find one. Seriously? No one is tracking his tours? What he had for lunch? (It was a ham sandwich.) Come on, cyber world. Start obsessing about quality, will you? There’s quality here, wearing pinkly-orange Chucks.

Okay—back to the conference room. Anderson began with a humble note that he’d had only one connection to Wisconsin—he had met our Butter Queen at a friend’s wedding. “I had expected her to be a greasier, more gelatinous creature,” he quipped, “but she was quite a lovely person.”

Landscape was his topic—our own rugged, revised American landscape. His devotion to landscape developed as a child reading adventure stories and histories that recorded folks doing on paper what largely is lost in the lives of the modern American: discovering vast, howling wildernesses. He was enraptured by the romance of geography and the mood of space.

How right and yet how surprising for me to consider America full of romance and mood. I fall into the spell—as he notes many writers do—of the magic of medieval Europe, of its henges and moors, its castles and lochs. But America is rich with its own witchery and lore. To that end, Anderson makes a point of collecting local ghost stories. Not only do they detail new, often private locations, but they poignantly display what he describes as the poetry of American emptiness—that loneliness that comes with night time walks in wide meadows and deep forests. The tellers of these tales, he says, are often more entertaining than the ghosts, themselves.

I have learned that author Linda Godfrey collected Wisconsin’s monster stories and is sharing them at the Neenah Library in a couple of weeks. My middle schoolers and I will be in the front row. How perfect an opportunity to experience local ghost stories with newly-opened minds. We will hear not only about UFO sightings and haunted locales, but we will hopefully see the landscape of our own state unfold ornately before us.

His presentation included layers of tales about a small settlement named Dog Town in Massachusetts. I suppose it would be rude for me to reproduce his notes, right? In brief, he showed pictures of the current location and told stories of the town from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The stories built up: what did happen, what happened in reaction to what happened, what happened on top of that, and then Anderson’s own jokey bits added on top of that—all of the area’s history of sadness, all of the magic of human involvement and connection, and all of the loneliness of the trees and boulders that carry centuries of secrets—these things together build landscape.

Landscape should be a more emotionally potent force in our stories than even our characters.

Now are we all in love? Because we should be. A Harvard-educated, National Book Award-winning author just shared brilliant stuff that will change our books forever, and he did it with generosity of spirit and maybe even a twinkle in his eye.

During Q & A time, an enthusiastic teen asked how in the world Anderson wrote in such varying voices. Particularly, Whales on Stilts contrasts with the sober tone of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Anderson revealed that he actually wrote those books simultaneously. Researching his 18th century story thrust him deep into that odd, stylized, gracious tone that referred to breeches, not pants, and required specific buckles on each shoe. Giving himself a holiday, he created the Pals in Peril series. Taking three or four weeks to write Whales on Stilts, he got his irreverence out, and he was ready to revisit Octavian’s sobriety.

His books were piled for purchase in the children’s library, and I picked up both Octavian Nothing and the latest Pals in Peril. I stood between a group of four teens, each holding a copy of Feed, and an area teacher carrying two or three plastic bags bulging with books. I thought it was fantastic how he so clearly delights readers of all ages.

This is M.T. Anderson NOT in Sheboygan. I have no pictures of him in Sheboygan because I was a bit too shy. But look at the socks. And read his books and website. And fall in love as you should and must.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Poetry Workshop with Ellen Kort

On Saturday, October 8, I was sitting with three dozen poets listening to the great, gentle Ellen Kort share her wisdom,

Kort was Wisconsin's first poet laureate serving 2000-2004, with Denise Sweet following her from 2004-2008. An interesting bit of dark triva: Governor Scott Walker terminated the position of poet laureate in February of this year, ending the term of our third laureate, Bruce Dethlefsen. Dethlefsen, along with the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission, is seeking to sustain the role through non-profit support.

We didn't meditate on politics together, however; we jumped right into poetry exercises. Kort's first admonishment for us was to Love Ourselves in our poems. "Don't beat yourself up," she said, "no matter where you are."

Our first task, then, was to write a poem called "Autobiography." Her challenge was for us, along with being kind with ourselves, to write as fast as we could without thinking about what came out.

We shared the resulting "spillings" as we felt moved. Part of mine reads,

I am not what you think I am.
Wide eyes suggest a cartoon-watching
cocoa-puff munching, mall-loving, hair-curling--
Okay, I do curl my hair. My spirit curls
iron, though, ripped
with muscles, reps upon reps I heave,
working out with weights of patience,
of self-sacrifice
of watching others,
and of listening.
I am leathered skin, long exposed
I am feet crusted with mud
I am callouses
and I am sweat running down a ropish neck
I am the creases between eyebrows when no guiding star is found,
and I am the start of a smile
as an evening breeze startles the wanderer
with its cooling hand.

Sharing our spillings brought the group close--some stumbled as they read their scribbles, others read strong, tight pieces that felt fully-formed.

We were all encouraged to start with spills. That's how most of Korts poems begin, she confided. She said she thinks to herself, "Oh, I should write about that," and she spills. What a good reminder for us future NaNoers, yes? Just spill.

Next, we were encouraged to think about where we are in our family. She read her poems "Seeing Is Believing" and "Drumming," and then"First Ties: The Father in the Mirror" by Bill Meissner. Here is a portion of Meissner's beautifully captured image:

Nothing to a tie, he said.
For those few seconds, his big arms were my arms--
I watched his thick fingers
working the tie,
each time a little
too short or too long.
He leaned his face alongside mine,
And I smelled a sharp scent of Old Spice, heard the hiss of sighs
through his nose, like a car tire losing air,
as he focused on the broad, wrinkled pillar
that would not tie.
Arms that hadn't surrounded me for years
now wrapped me like ribbons. I couldn't pull away
from the rough kiss of whiskers
against my smooth cheek.

The last exercise was the most difficult for me to participate in, but the most enjoyable to listen to. Kort read three poems, each personifying an abstract noun. She had Commitment wearing sensible shoes; Pleasure was underestimated--laughing too loud and drinking too much; and Imagination--oh, what was she like? I think she wore yellow.

We were asked to choose an abstract noun and personify it, and boy, my brain just shut down. I tried giving Truth an irridescent coat that winked new shades as one walked near him. I let Criticism feel tired, wearing sweatpants, looking expectantly out the window for someone who never comes. I couldn't make it work. But my classmates! They blew me away! Modesty wore sweeping skirts and never asked questions, but a silver toe ring and an emerald pendant flashed at a careful watcher. Curiosity was a three-year-old, sleeping nightly on a soft pillow of no judgment. Betrayal met a girlfriend for coffee, warmed her into confiding, and then stabbed her friend's back while hugging her goodbye. Certainty mowed his yard at right angles and wakes late at night but won't talk about it. Contradiction was that uncle--not the favorite one--who started fights at family dinners. They were so fantastic. How I wish we could get a compilation of those poems--a little keepsake from sharing a bright blue October morning with some gifted writers.

Some last words of wisdom that Kort shared were
Don't justify what you write to yourself or to others.
Do not whine about not having time or energy.
Do not repeat a line at the end in attempt to add weight or significance. Let the verbs and nouns you've used throughout the poem do that work.
And do not undercut a fine poem with a last line of humor. Good funny poems are a joy; but tacking a joke on the end of serious poem rarely works.

What a morning of wisdom! Thank you so much, Ellen Kort, for passing your knowledge and experience on to us. And thank you to the FVUUF for hosting the workshop. It was a truly inspiring morning.

I'll end with a poem by Ellen Kort.


She didn't talk to him
for an entire day
lost herself in a book
to avoid looking at him
and when he asked why
she told him to leave her alone

He slammed the cupboard doors
flipped through the TV channels
looking for football wrestling
NASCAR He turned the volume up
hoping she'd come downstairs
so he could tell her
he was pissed really pissed

She took the dog for a walk
He fell asleep in the chair
She took a long hot bath
He smoked a cigarette
She made herself a salad
He friend a hamburger
They moved in and out
of the kitchen careful
not to brush against each other
She ate at the table a candle
burning in the center
He at in the living room
by the light of the television

And the anger was delicious

Saturday, October 1, 2011

When Wishes Come True

Here's what mine looks like:

On Tuesday, September 27, my sister Jen and I drove from Neenah, WI, to Chicago to hear Laini Taylor read from her newest book Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The trip could have taken 3 1/2 hours, but we did it in 5. :) One tricky exit and several wrong turns swooped us around Oakbrook Center until finally a tollbooth lady saved the day. Grace in a glass box, that's what she was, giving directions to two tired and hungry Wisconsites.

About a dozen folks gathered on the second floor of Barnes and Noble at 7. A beautiful blue-wigged bookseller passed out turquoise-feathered masks to those of us who blogged about books, and then she introduced Laini.

(And this is where I want to gush, but it's probably too much, too weird, too strong, so I'll put it in parentheses to lighten it up. But I absolutely felt like Amy from The Big Bang Theory. Socially inept Amy who girl-crushes on pretty Penny, and badgers her with titles of Bestie and BFF, wishing for sleepovers and hair-brushings. I absolutely wanted to share BFF necklaces with Laini and brush her pink hair. But, you know, I played it cool. Except for when my eyes were shining with I-love-you-so-much tears.) :)

Laini began by telling us where Daughter of Smoke and Bone originated. I think we may remember this, we followers, we familiar to the 'shiny new idea.' (Didn't we call it slutty, too? The delicious idea with that 'come hither' smile?) Hitting walls and grinding dry on a post-apocolyptic novel, Laini gave herself a day of free writing. A scene between a blue-haired daughter and her monster-dad bubbled up, and with it bubbled dozens of questions: Why did this monster raise a human girl? Why is he wearing a wishbone? And why is his shop filled with teeth?

She finished her original novel before returning to her blue-haired heroine. That original novel hasn't been touched since. Writing about Karou and Brimstone totally jazzed her, she shared; blooming their story brough tremendous wish fulfillment for her.We heard her read Akiva's attack on Karou--that important moment of his soulless eyes staring at Karou as she cocked her chin to the side in wonder--that breathless moment of a killer's hesitation.
And then she opened up the floor for questions. One woman asked about how art and illustration influenced her descriptive writing. Another commented on how hard writing a review about DoSaB is since the story is propelled by secrets and timed reveals. Laini talked about illustration for a while, mentioning (I hope these notes of mine are accurate!) not only her original graphic novel with Jim that led her to Prague for research but also a new 8-page graphic novel that Jim designed for the U.K. promotion of DoSaB. I wish they would make that available here! She also agreed that the book is hard to describe. The jacket summary took some serious work for everyone, she told us, to interest readers without giving away too much.

I asked abou Zuzana, my favorite character. ("Ooh cake. I'll take cake. But not pocket cake, because yuck.") Laini shared with us how Zuzana was important for levity and warmth--how stories without those moments of joy were a struggle for readers to return to. My sister Jen whispered "The Hunger Games," and I couldn't help but agree. Luckily, fans of Zuzana can look forward to seeing her again.

And then it was time for book signing and pictures.

And more gushings want to pour out here, and not even parenthetical ones, because it's just such a lovely moment to experience a wish coming true. How I've wished to meet Laini. Stopping short of rubbing my head onto hers, I've wanted to see how I could press some of her creativity and her energy into my own spirit. I've found so much inspiration in her blogs--how much more magic could she pass through smiles and eye-contact, laughs and eyebrow waggles and nods? And of course, words and wisdoms? I've thought of flying to Portland--maybe during CthuluCon?--and sitting at Slappycakes until she and Clementine come by.

But no need to lurk behind delicious pancakes. I've met the loveliest writer, and I've bottled up her magic. I'll mix her inspiration with a dash of my own courage and get back to my writing my own dark, beautiful stories.

When wishes come true, hearts burst with gratitude. My thanks to beautiful Jen for facing rush hour and wilty salads with me on our 12-hour adventure. I know you've fallen in love with Karou, too, and have reminisced your trip to Prague. I'm so glad you're a part of the fan club. :)

Thanks to the dads and grandma who made it possible for us moms to run away for a day. Thank you again, tollbooth worker, who guided us out of neverending I-94. And thank you, Laini, for your gorgeous, elsewhere stories and for sharing them with us in person, and in polka-dots.