a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Late Night Snack

Last night I broke the rule: I had a snack after 7pm. But, I am so glad I did. That simple act led to a reconnection with myself. You see, my snack involved the use of a small plastic bowl. Not just any bowl, but this Shirt Tales bowl.

I stood at the sink, rinsing the bowl out before placing it in the dishwasher. I paused to stare at that monkey at the bottom of the bowl. Now might be a good time to reveal that my husband and I do not have children. The monkey bowl belongs to me. In fact, that monkey bowl is somewhere around 25 years old. I have really had it that long, probably even longer since I think I used to eat out of it when I still used a rubber-coated spoon.

This is where I could have gone down a different road than where I actually wound up. I could have held that bowl and felt the weight of all those years. I could have focused on how distant I am from the little girl who was so eager to scrape the bottom of the bowl clean just to see the monkey at the bottom. I could have felt (eek!) old.

Instead of feeling the weight and the distance, holding that bowl in my hand made me feel connected to the me I used to be—the little me who used to rush through a meal for the shear joy of reaching the monkey. The me I have always been and will always be.

I thought about how every one of the moments I have lived through make up part of who I am. Because I am a reader, I often find my truest self on the pages of a book, articulated most eloquently through a character in a story.

So, to really wrap my head around this idea, I thought about how Sandra Cisneros describes, in her story “Eleven,” that when you are eleven, you are also ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one.

I also thought about the way Margo Rabb describes the moments of our lives building up like layers to shape who we are, in her book Cures for Heartbreak. She refers to peeling back layers to reveal important people who have shaped us along the way and remain part of who we are forever.

I also thought about Kathryn Lasky’s book Blood Secret and how the protagonist in that book is transported through time just be touching an object of importance in her family’s history.

That’s how powerful I felt my grip on that bowl was.

The bowl revealed that I am not just thirty-two, but I am thirty-one, thirty, twenty-nine…you get the idea.

The bowl was tucked somewhere in the layers of my life history. The bowl was my catalyst, propelling me through time and place to the yellow linoleum of a kitchen in the early 80s.

Standing on the hardwood floor of my kitchen last night, I placed the bowl in the dishwasher (top rack, just to be safe) and smiled about having reached the monkey at the bottom of the bowl once again.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Learning to Blog

I think the hardest part of blogging for me is letting people in. Blogging is a unique writing format because of its immediate connection to an unknown audience.

Today, a friend sent me the following message:

Ok so I am showing this to just you for right now....I am working on a blog for my son’s 5th birthday...It's kinda chronological right now but then I have topics I want to tackle in separate entries...I would love your first impressions. Hope all is well...

To understand what this means to me, it is important to know some of her back story. We have been friends since high school. She has one child and due to complications from his birth, she is unable to have any more children. She and her husband were part of an open adoption, but after almost a week with their new daughter, the parents reclaimed her.

I have been encouraging her to blog since ever since. She had been blogging about her adoption experience (which was even the way the birth parents originally located her). Being an English major with a knack for creative writing, her blog was especially enjoyable. When she stopped abruptly after losing the baby, I missed the glimpse into her thoughts and feelings that her blog allowed me.

Today, I read her new blog. It tells the story of her journey through the first five years of her son’s life and will continue the story of her journey through the next five and beyond.

Reading her story, I was overwhelmed. It just hit me how really awesome it is to have a friend who would let me into her head and her heart the way she did.

That got me thinking about blogging.

As a teacher of writing, I was interested in the way she chose episodes from the first 5 years of her son’s life to write about. I noticed the way each of the episodes has its own conclusion and yet is part of a greater whole—much like the chapters of a book. I appreciated the voice that came across in her written reflections.

As a friend, I focused on the way she wrote openly and honestly about some of the most difficult moments of her life.

As a blogger, I wanted to move people the way she moved me.

Up until now, my goal by blogging has been simply to push myself to write more and to become a more active participant in the amazing network created by The Two Writing Teachers that I had only watched from a distance for so long.

Now, I want to do more than write. I want to do more than participate. I want to let people in.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Letters About Literature Contest

Each year, I have my middle school language arts students participate in the Letters About Literature contest sponsored by Target Corporation and the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Each year, I am amazed by the results.

The contest calls for students to write to an author about a book that has impacted them in some way. Each year I require that every student write a letter, but it is up to the individual student whether or not they will enter the contest or even mail the letter to the author it addresses.

This year, I decided to preface the letters that were sent to authors with a small note from me:

Dear Author,

I am an 8th grade language arts teacher in Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Each year I invite my students to participate in the national Letters About Literature contest sponsored by Target Corporation and the Library of Congress. The contest requires students to write a letter to an author of a work of literature that has impacted them in some way. Students may choose any piece of literature they have read at any point for any reason. This letter is being sent to you because your work has touched the life of a middle school student. Although it is the result of an assignment, the thoughts expressed in the letter are authentic to an individual. Thank you for your time and for making my job so rewarding.

Amazingly, I think just knowing where the letter came from, influenced the response from authors. This year’s responses have been overwhelmingly positive.

Leslie Connor, author of Waiting for Normal, sent a hand-written thank you note to the student and to me. Susan Beth Pfeffer responded in e-mail to multiple students as well as sending me a thank you e-mail. Ni-Ni Simone requested to feature the student who wrote her a letter on her website. Neal Shusterman has posted the letter one of my students wrote to him as the first entry in a blog focused on fan feedback. Students have also received thoughtful responses from Ben Mikaelson and Sharon Draper, and a few even received personally signed notes from Nicholas Sparks.

The Letters About Literature contest is all about the power of words and about how great literature has the strength to move us. For my students, it has not only shown that they are able to be moved by something they’ve read, but that they are also capable of moving another human being to respond with the words they write.