Saturday, August 12, 2017

Summer Writing Day

Up at 7 a.m.: shower, coffee, kids packing up gear. Where are my water shoes? one asks. But you’re looking for that thing you wrote—the one you thought of last night, as you drifted off to sleep—but it’s an old thing. There’s surely a file, somewhere, but not on the current computer. Maybe on a flash drive? Where is that joke book I got at the little free library? I can’t find my water bottle. Everyone in the house is looking for something.

Gulp coffee, a shredded wheat biscuit. Wait, wasn’t it published somewhere, that thing you wrote? In some anthology? Root through drawers of journals and books while shouting at the kids that they 5 minutes left before their spaceship departs. Yes, here is the book, published in 2012. That means you sent someone a file at some point, right? Search through emails for the editor’s name. Yes, here’s the file, in an email from 2010. Save a copy of the file on current computer.

Are the kids ready? No, the kids aren’t ready. The kids are still eating shredded wheat and haven’t put on their sunscreen or their water shoes. Hurry, push them out the door, into the spaceship, which is really a minivan. They apply sunscreen and put on shoes as you drive “over the mountain,” as the locals say, into Avon and Canton and then Collinsville. There is really no mountain here at all—it’s a hill at best—but you’ve taken to calling it “the mountain” too because it’s the only one you’ve got. On the 10-mile drive listen to an audiobook—halfway there The Nest by Kenneth Oppel ends, and daughter puts in disc 1 of The Hobbit, which they’ve already heard because you’ve read them the entire Lord of the Rings. The kids comment that Rob Inglis has a better accent than you, can do voices better than you, and can sing better than you—but they prefer you anyway. Drop kids off at kayaking camp 5 minutes late. They’re the last ones there.

Drive to Panera to get a latte—but really to kill time until the Canton library opens. You’re outside the library doors when they’re unlocked, and you’re the first one in, moving quickly to your carrel, the one by the window, where you set up your computer. You wonder if the reference librarian wonders about you—the person who has spent exactly 2 hours and 20 minutes typing feverishly on a laptop every day for five days. You wonder if she remembers you from last summer when you did the same thing, 2 hours and 20 minutes a day X 5 days. You never set foot in this library except during kayak camp week.

You open all the files you’re working on. You read the file you found this morning only to discover that what you wrote 7 years ago isn’t what you thought it was. Only to discover that there are no shortcuts, that now you’ll simply have to write the thing you thought it was. The thing you should have written in the first place. But you can’t wish writing into the world. You have to put it down, word by word, like laying bricks. You can’t wish a brick wall into existence either.

As you work, you overhear every conversation that the reference librarian has with patrons. By the end of the week, you know about her son’s medical history, the films she’s watched recently, where to buy a good pie, the best program for learning Portuguese quickly, where to take a car that has an automatic window stuck halfway down, and the territorial robin that thinks her birdbath is its nest. You hear these conversations, but you still work.

The big thing you’re writing—whatever it is—has become shockingly long, which probably means it’s that thing that begins with a B, but you don’t normally call it that. It started out in April as an essay, but then by the time you sent it to your writing group in May it had ballooned beyond essay—nearly 25,000 words!—to become some kind of monstrous essayvella. Your writing group said things you didn’t really want to hear—that there were too many things going on, that it was more than one essay, that it could be fractured apart into 3 or 7 or 10 essays, or that maybe there was a way to bring it all together but it needed organization and more about x, y, z—and then you resisted this advice for two days but finally capitulated because they were right and you decided you were writing some kind of triptych—a thing with three parts—but now it’s broken itself into four, and it still isn’t finished.

Actually, it began the day after Trump was elected, when you started a new file that was full of pasted bits of things you found online with your own added incoherence. But the thing isn’t about Trump at all—his name is never even mentioned once—so how can that be the beginning?

Actually, it started 6 years ago when you wrote in the notebook you were carrying around with you back then: write an essay about dolls. And the thing you’re writing is about dolls—or it was—only it’s not anymore, not really, and your writing group told you so at the last meeting when you gave them 32,000 mostly new words, so how can that be the beginning?

Actually, it began in childhood when you tried to write a novel about a crazy doll collector named Mrs. Buckett and when you began to document the events of your life for some inscrutable future, driven by a need to make notes for some unknown but necessary story TBD, TBA. Only you had no idea why you were writing, or what was important, or how it would all come together. For example, did you really need to write down that on November 3, 1984, you learned to play “Cadet Boogie” on the accordion and you got a new pen and you went to the library and you went to the New York Pizzeria and your brother ate all the pepperoni off the pizza and you took a shower and washed your hair and your bangs need to be cut? Probably not. You had no idea what you were doing, or why, so how can that be the beginning?

You still don’t know what you’re doing, or why, but in that 2 hours and 20 minutes you write the part that you thought maybe you had already written, 7 years ago, and then you pick the kids up from kayak camp, and you drive them back over the mountain. They are wet and tired and hungry, but Rob Inglis’s commanding voice speaking of Bilbo Baggins keeps them captivated. At home they’ll need to be fed, but they’re old enough to forage, so they do. You have no idea what they eat. Mostly bread? Leftovers? One of them—the one that eats cherries—is spitting pits in the backyard. The other one is slicing a pear. They are fine, so you will write a little more. There’s just a little more you want to do.

You write at a desk in the living room, because you have no study, no room of your own, so the kids move about the house around you, and you occasionally field their questions. Do you want to play Mexican Train with me? Yes, but later. Do we have any more naan bread in the downstairs freezer? Not sure, go check. Where’s that book about solar eclipses? Check the bedside table. The daughter cocoons herself in the hammock out back to read, and the son works on the custom shoe rack he’s building for his room, which means that he gets out the Deep River blue paint that he picked out at Home Depot to paint it with, which means that he covers himself in Deep River blue paint, but he is outside and happy, so you can get work done.

I think we’ve run out of frozen peas. OK, put them on the list. Can you tell if this water bottle has BPA in it? Let me take a look. Can you open this jar of yeast? Probably. Will you have time to read to us later? Wouldn’t you prefer Rob Inglis? No, we prefer you! Yes, we’ll read before bed.

You check in on your online class. The students are writing beautiful essays about blended families and trees and racism and religion and elderly parents and sex and addiction and childhood. You read a couple of their pieces, post comments. Then check your email. What are the details about a reading you’re planning this fall? You respond. Will you write a letter of recommendation for a former student applying to Ph.D. programs? You will. Check Facebook. Will you review an essay written by a non-native speaker of English? You can’t, no time. Sorry. You have a deadline: in 3 weeks, you head back to the classroom. There’s never enough time for all of it—all of the demands and requests.

You take a break to play Mexican Train, then Five Crowns with the kids. One of them is making bread, so he runs off to punch down his dough. The other says she needs to do her 30 minutes of algebra for the day. Start a load of laundry. Assign a few chores: take out the trash, clean the counter, sweep the stairs, fold the dish towels. Go back to your computer, work another half hour.

You’ve been doing this for over a dozen years now, and you’re no longer a special snowflake when it comes to getting work done. You no longer need a secluded room, perfect quiet, a cup of tea with a matching saucer, a good frame of mind. You know now that the room of your own is in your head, and the time to write is now. In the summer the room of your own is the Canton library during kayak camp and the Wethersfield library during writing camp and poolside during swim team practice and the bleachers during softball practice and Panera and the patio in the backyard and the living room and in bed at night with the laptop propped up on your knees. If you wait for the perfect time or perfect place, you will wait for years. You will wait until the house is clean and the stuff all organized, put away in tidy labeled bins, and the laundry and dishes are done and the counters are spotless. You will wait until your kids grow up and leave home. You will wait until you can stop working other jobs. You will wait until you are dead.

You finish one little bit, and then it’s time to think about dinner. What’s for dinner? Never mind, daughter has made dinner. Son has made fresh bread. Husband joins you for a family meal, another round of Mexican Train.

The evening is theirs: a walk around the neighborhood, a book before bed. Tonight, it’s The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. Daughter knits a scarf and son sketches while you read. Before lights out, you do your nightly writing, the three of you together. You’re in your third year of writing every night with the kids. What happened today? they always ask, so you review the day for them. And then you write—just five lines—but it’s something. Will you ever need to know that you listened to The Hobbit on audiobook and your son painted his shoe rack Deep River blue and you made small baby steps of progress on the thing that you still stubbornly call an essay? Probably not. But in case you do, there’s a record.

In bed, laptop on knees, you read over the new parts of the thing. You allow yourself to peek at your current word count—74,039—so it probably really is that B-word, but you will keep deluding yourself and calling it your essay, because an essay seems containable, possible, something you could finish, something with an end, something you could conceivably write in a season. Or two. Or a year. It’s already so long, but you begin to wonder if you need even more about x, even though x was supposed to be a different thing, a new writing project altogether. Just as the writing expands to fill all corners of your life, the thing seems to be expanding to encompass everything. This thing—this non-essay, this B-word, this memoir-y thing—is starting to be about everything, because in a life everything is connected to everything else. How do you declare: this is related to that, but not that? How do you draw the lines between projects, create the demarcations between one B-word and another? How much of this thing do you keep, and how much do you take out and put away for later? This is what you will think about, as you drift toward sleep. Maybe it began four months ago, or nine, or six years ago, or thirty, and maybe you’ll never know when and where it began, but you will keep working on this thing, you will keep kneading and shaping it until you figure out what it is. You will see it through to the end. Tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or the day after that. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Flower for Ms. Rossi

May, 2016

It’s Wednesday of teacher appreciation week at my kids’ elementary school, which means that we’re in a scramble to find a flower. This happens every year. Wednesday is “bring your teacher a flower day,” and we’re never prepared.

We’ve got all the other days down—bring a handmade card on Monday, wear your teacher’s favorite color on Tuesday, give your teacher a homemade meal on Thursday (luckily, the room parents coordinate this one), show your talent on Friday—but flower day always catches us off guard.

The idea is that each child will bring a flower, creating a lovely bouquet for the teacher to decorate her classroom and then take home with her.

But first of all, we don’t just have flowers lying around the house. And second, I’m not a fan of cut flowers.

One year, I rushed off the grocery store late on Tuesday night to get flowers—and ended up bringing home two large potted roses, which the kids hauled into school the next day and presented to their astonished teachers. Another year, we made paper flowers, because, as I told the kids, they will last longer than cut flowers (and we do happen to have a lot of paper around the house).

But now, as night is falling and bedtime approaching on Tuesday, we’re out of ideas. We do have tulips growing in the backyard, so the kids briefly entertain the idea of digging up a couple of tulip bulbs and sticking them in pots, but digging in the dark doesn’t appeal to me. Besides, there isn’t much time.

Then I spot my daughter’s amaryllis sitting in a pot by her window. She’s carefully hand pollinated the plant and collected its papery seeds in a small box. I have an idea.

“What if we give your teachers not a flower, per se, but the promise of a flower?” I suggest.

We do a quick online search for instructions on sprouting amaryllis seeds. It doesn’t sound that hard. The kids place a handful of the seeds in small packets and write notes.

Here is the beginning of your bouquet of the future. These are amaryllis seeds from my plant at home. To begin your bouquet, follow these steps.

The kids put their notes and seed packets into envelopes. My son writes, “Mrs. O’s flower” on his. “A bouquet for those with patience,” my daughter writes.

“I like it that my flower has never been a part of the class bouquet,” she tells me. “I like to be different.”


After the kids have gone off on the bus, I scan through Facebook postings and see a couple from Ms. Rossi, my old high school teacher. She’s posted a photograph of her teaching contract with the following item checked:

I hereby retire from my position effective at the end of the current 2015-16 school year.

In a separate post, she’s written the following:

So, I have a favor to ask of the past students who are my FB friends. I would love to have you send me a note telling me when and where I taught you, anything memorable about that time, what you did after high school, and what you are doing now. I think I will create a project for myself and compile all the notes in a scrapbook. Thanks!

Ms. Rossi has been my Facebook friend since 2010, but I haven’t seen her in person since I graduated from high school over twenty years ago. She’s about the age of my mother, her daughter is about my age, and her grandsons are about the age of my kids. So I often see pictures of her grandsons playing baseball in California, and she sometimes comments on status updates about my kids in Connecticut. That’s been the extent of our communication for the past few years. I moved away from my California hometown sixteen years ago and haven’t set foot in my high school for even longer.

And yet, as I read over her post, I know immediately that I have to contribute to her project. If anyone deserves a flower during teacher appreciation week, it’s Ms. Rossi.

When I first walked into my honors world history class as a freshman, I was met by a demanding, intimidating teacher. Though small in stature, Ms. Rossi was stern and formidable, her presence immense. Her standards were high, impeccable. With two decades of teaching experience under her belt, she knew how to command a classroom. She wore her long salt-and-pepper hair in tight curls, and her black piercing eyes bore into me with disapproval.

I try to imagine how I first appeared to Ms. Rossi: sullen, quiet, defiant, disenchanted, slinking in and out of the room, avoiding her, avoiding school, avoiding everything. I came to class smelling of cigarettes, wearing heavy metal band t-shirts, acid-washed jeans, and a long black trench coat—when I came to class at all. I was terrified to face her wrath after missing assignments, missing class. Whereas most of my teachers seemed to quickly give up on me, Ms. Rossi’s simmering anger with me only increased.

I didn’t like Ms. Rossi, not at all. And I had the feeling that she didn’t like me.

It wasn’t that I was incapable of doing the work. It was that I was lost, adrift, unable to see my way out of the prison that my large, public high school seemed to be.

In Ms. Rossi’s class, I turned in nearly flawless work—or no work at all.

“Wow! A very nice job! Good use of vocabulary, well developed!” Ms. Rossi wrote on a paper about Chinese paragons that I completed in October of my freshman year. “Whoa! Learn to limit yourself!” she wrote on a lengthy paper I turned in the following month about Japanese peasants in the 1600s. Both papers earned perfect scores. (And yes, I still have those papers, as well as others.)

When I did the work, I earned high scores. When I didn’t do work, I got zeroes. And more and more, as my freshman year wore on, I didn’t do the work. And I didn’t go to class.

I had a biology teacher who asked me to tell him stories of my exploits, and so I would tell him about cutting class to smoke in the bathroom and jumping over the fence to get off campus, to get as far away as possible from the revolving series of deadening classes that seemed to have nothing to do with the adolescent turmoil that was consuming me from within. The fact that a couple thousand teenagers were all locked up together for eight hours a day and marched from room to room every fifty minutes seemed unbearably inhumane to me. High school was containment, prison. I told my biology teacher stories of stealing liquor and getting drunk and running away from home. He gave me an undeserved D in honors biology, either for my storytelling abilities, or out of sheer pity.

Ms. Rossi didn’t award pity grades, and she would have been disgusted by my stories, if I ever dared tell them to her. In her class, you performed, or you failed. And I was failing. It was likely Ms. Rossi would soon be gone from my life for good. And that was just fine. I never wanted to see her—or my high school—again.


There’s more to the story about the amaryllis plant.

A year and a half ago, my daughter performed in a children’s production of High School Musical, Jr. When I arrived at the performance, I realized I was just about the only parent not holding a lavish bouquet of flowers to hand to my child at the conclusion of the show.

I still had about half an hour before the curtain went up, so I dashed to a nearby grocery store where I agonized over the cut flower options. I picked up a bouquet, put it back, picked up another bouquet, then put that one back—until I was nearly out of time. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy cut flowers, but I didn’t want to return to the theater empty handed.

None of the potted plants looked appealing—they were all too large or withered or ferny. And that’s when I found a burlap sack that contained, according to the affixed tag, an amaryllis bulb and dirt.

We already had an amaryllis growing at home—my son’s birth flower that was given to me right after he was born—and I knew my daughter would like to have her own. So I grabbed the burlap sack and headed for the checkout line.

The cashier paused to look at my singular purchase.

“My mother has an amaryllis that she keeps by the woodstove all winter,” he told me. “It makes the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen.”

“How old is it?” I asked. The man was older than me, and I could only guess that his mother was elderly.

“Oh, maybe forty years?” he said. “Maybe more?”

“Same bulb?” I asked.

“Same exact bulb,” he told me. “Who knows—this one could last just as long. Or even longer.”

Feeling more confident with my purchase, I headed back to the theater. Only now, there were even more beaming, proud parents holding even more ostentatious bouquets clutched in their laps.

My burlap sack was clearly out of place. I pushed it far under my chair where no one could see it.

After the show, I sheepishly presented it to my daughter, explaining that it would be an amaryllis flower—eventually—but for now it was a bulb and some dirt.

She beamed.

Another parent came up to her to praise her performance. “What do you have there?” the mom asked, eyeing the burlap sack.

“My mom gave me a sack of dirt!” she exclaimed, her smile stretching practically ear to ear. “Isn’t that awesome?”

At home, she planted the bulb in a pot and carefully tended to it.

Four months later, the amaryllis bloomed, just in time for her birthday.

“I’m glad I had to wait this long to get my flower,” she told me.


By the end of my freshman year, I stopped attending school altogether. A long, rough summer followed. In August, my mother took me back to Russia, still the Soviet Union then. It was her native land and my birthplace. And it was a place where the most basic tasks—like getting food or medical care—were inordinately difficult. We stood in long lines for meat and mayonnaise. My grandmother’s hands shook uncontrollably from Parkinson’s, and my grandfather had a bad heart. My ennui and sullenness began to evaporate. High school went from being the source of all torment in my life to an inconvenience. There were other struggles, I saw, that were much more real and significant.

Still, I didn’t want to go back to school. There were meetings with my guidance counselor. At fifteen, I was too young to drop out. Wasn’t there anything I wanted to do? my parents and counselor asked me. I didn’t have to take honors classes, I didn’t have to be in the International Baccalaureate program, but I had to go back to school.

Yes, I told them. There was one thing I wanted to do: write for the school newspaper. Writing: that was the only thing I wanted to do, the only thing I would go back for. And I didn’t want to write papers and essays for mere grades; I wanted to write pieces that would be published. I wanted to do the kind of writing that mattered.

But there was one glitch: Ms. Rossi was the newspaper advisor. And she let in students at her discretion. I would have to approach her and ask to join the newspaper staff.

After my dismal performance freshman year, I was certain that she would turn me down, certain that this one thing that I wanted to do, this one thing that mattered, would be shut off to me. And I would remain lost.

I came to her classroom during the lunch period. She was sitting at her desk, and I remember standing there, looking down at her, mumbling something about wanting to write for the newspaper. I remember her dark eyes boring into me for a long time as she considered her answer. She asked me if I was sure. She stressed the importance of attendance and hard work and making deadlines. Newspaper was a team effort, and newspaper deadlines were even more important than deadlines for class assignments. Yes, I told her, I knew that. This was precisely what I wanted: important deadlines, a sense that I was doing something meaningful. I didn't say all of this, though. I remember mostly nodding, agreeing with all of her warnings and admonitions.

I don’t think she believed I would live up to her high expectations, but she was willing to give me a chance. Even though I had failed utterly, she gave me that one additional chance.

And that was all I needed. I went back to school. I took adult education classes after school to make up for the classes I had failed the year before. I did my work diligently, but I poured my passion into writing for the newspaper.

Ms. Rossi demanded good work, and I produced it. Her praise was hard to come by, but I earned it, one story at a time. And she was different in newspaper class—more relaxed, funnier, at ease among that cohort of students who chose to be there, who wrote because they loved to write.

I composed my articles at home on an electric typewriter, banging out draft after draft, until they were as perfect as I could make them—for Ms. Rossi. I still have them all, yellowed newspaper clippings inserted into protective sleeves in a thick binder. I wrote stories about foreign exchange students, profiles of teachers, opinion pieces, and long articles about my experiences in the Soviet Union.

I wrote my best work in high school for Ms. Rossi.

I never came to love high school. I never even liked it. But newspaper was the one thing that kept me going. It made everything else worthwhile. It was the one thing I was good at.

And Ms. Rossi was the one teacher who consistently inspired me to do my best.

Sometimes, one is enough.

Towards the end of my high school career, Ms. Rossi wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf for a scholarship that I was applying for. I didn’t get the scholarship, but I got something even better: a copy of the letter that she wrote. It was the first letter a teacher had ever written for me and given to me.

I still have it, the paper beginning to yellow.

If this letter is supposed to impress, it should be written by someone with a gift for writing: Lisa Renfro. In my twenty-five years of secondary teaching, I have encountered few students as talented as Lisa.

I first met Lisa four years ago when she was a freshman in my Honors World History class. School was not a priority for her at that time and I feared she was just another bright student with no goals. When she applied to the North Star, our school newspaper, I was surprised. I indicated that perfect attendance and “time on task” would be important and I would not hesitate to drop her from the staff if she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) produce. Lisa assured me that she wanted to join the staff and she wanted to write.

And write she did! From the beginning, Lisa’s articles were virtually error-free, but there was more than technical perfection. Lisa could take an ordinary topic and create a story; from an ordinary story she created poetry. Lisa’s articles were always marked by warmth, heart, and humor.

She goes on to describe my contributions for each of the three years that I was involved with the newspaper. Towards the end of the letter, she writes:

Though I can’t take any of the credit, I will certainly share the pride. Writing is truly her gift; don’t be surprised to hear of her in years to come.

She deserves more credit than she probably ever imagined.

When Ms. Rossi was my teacher, she was in the middle of her teaching career. She had already been teaching for twenty years, I was her student for four, and then she taught for another twenty-three. Forty-seven years in all. I have no doubt that many other students will take up her request to write stories of her influence on their lives. Many of these students are high achievers, honors and International Baccalaureate students who excelled all four years of high school.

It is a testament to Ms. Rossi that she was able to shepherd those who knew their way as well as those who nearly lost it. When I now find myself looking at one of my own students who seems to be lost, I often think of Ms. Rossi. I remind myself that one teacher can make a difference.


In the afternoon, the kids come home from school with news about their flowers.

Mrs. O said the amaryllis seeds were perfect because their class is about to start a unit on soil and plants. Mrs. A appreciated her “bouquet for those with patience” and said it was very clever.

My daughter, who will be leaving elementary school forever in a month, likes the idea that some part of her will stay behind with Mrs. A.

In their notes about how to sprout the amaryllis seeds, the kids explained to their teachers that the tiny bulbs will take years to mature. Both of my kids will be done with elementary school before the flowers ever bloom. My daughter’s note concludes:

In four or five years (when I am in high school!) the bulbs will be big enough to bloom, and your bouquet will finally be complete!

At home, she cups the seeds in her hands, feeling for the tiny bumps within the papery husks. There is much work to be done quietly in the dark, underground. She imagines the bulb’s burgeoning, the plant’s narrow leaves slicing upward, and finally, years from now, the slow unfurling of its magnificent petals on Mrs. A’s desk, opening for a new group of fifth graders.

It only seems fitting that the flower will be so long in coming.


Looking at Ms. Rossi’s Facebook photos, I see that her hair is all gray now, and she no longer wears it permed in those severe, tightly wound curls. It’s wavy, relaxed, and there’s a softness to her face. She is less formidable. Or maybe the change is entirely in my perception, and not in her. Really, in many ways, she is little changed. I would recognize her in a heartbeat.

The rest of my answer to Ms. Rossi’s prompt will be brief: Once I got to college, once I left the prison of high school behind, I learned to love school. In fact, I stayed in school for over a decade, earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and then a Ph.D. Actually, I’m still in school—but now as a teacher.

And I am also a writer. And still, when I write, I often write for Ms. Rossi, or what she represents for me: a reader with the highest standards who expects dedication and hard work, who believes—against all evidence to the contrary—that I can succeed, who brings out my best, who cares about the one thing that matters, the one thing that can make all the difference, the one thing that is enough.

So, this is my final assignment for Ms. Rossi, turned in nearly 27 years after I first walked into her classroom.

This is my flower for my teacher.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Xylotheque Reviews

Xylotheque has been out for a little over a year now. I've collected a number of reviews of the book with links below.
  • Brenda Miller wrote a beautiful lyric essay/review at the Los Angeles Review of Books ("Pregnant Pauses: Yelizaveta P. Renfro’s Lyric Essays").
  • Lenore Myka contributed a review to Colorado State University's Center for Literary Publishing (home of the Colorado Review).
  • Gwendolyn Edward wrote a review for American Microreviews & Interviews.
  • BK Loren reviewed the book for Orion (link to pdf here).
  • Susan Wittig Albert wrote a review for Story Circle Book Reviews.
  • Maggie Trapp recently reviewed the book for ("Taproot~Writing a Life of Trees").
And here's a recent interview about the book at Story Circle.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sarton Memoir Award

I'm thrilled to share this news: Xylotheque was recently awarded the Sarton Memoir Award from Story Circle Network! Here's a photo of the nifty award that arrived in the mail last week.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Writing the First Chapter

The assignment: to write the first chapter of The Great Connecticut Caper, a serialized storybook that would be created by twelve different writers and twelve different illustrators living in Connecticut.

The target audience: children in grades four through seven.

The premise: Gillette Castle is going missing!

The challenge: to create an engaging, fast-paced opening chapter that would introduce sympathetic characters and lay out some basic plot elements. And to do it in under 650 words.

The process: The first step was research. We made a family trip to Gillette Castle in East Haddam where we learned about William Gillette, the eccentric actor who brought Sherlock Holmes to life on the stage and who designed his twenty-four room mansion to resemble the ruin of a medieval castle. We toured the home, looking at hidden passageways and the surveillance system based on strategically placed mirrors, and we wandered the grounds, admiring his personal railroad track as well as his woods and views of the Connecticut River.

But we weren’t done yet. On another weekend, we took a ride on the Essex Steam Train and the Becky Thatcher Riverboat, learning about the Connecticut River, getting a different vantage point of Gillette Castle from the water, and discovering more about William Gillette.

As a writer, I often start projects with research. And as a parent, I often take my kids along. But this assignment was different. I am primarily a writer of books for adults, and this project was writing for children. Luckily, I had my own kids to consult.

So after the research stage, I had a long brainstorming session with my fourth grader (with the first grader listening in and offering occasional advice). We discussed what makes a good story and interesting characters. We talked about mystery books for children. We tossed around ideas for the story and possible character names. The fourth grader taught me how to make a character map, and she created several for possible characters. The first grader made one as well.

We agreed early on that the protagonists should be children, and that there should be two of them—a boy and a girl. (We discussed Ron Roy’s and Mary Pope Osborne’s books as examples.) The names and character traits of the boy and girl kept changing, but we finally settled on Thomas and Li-Ming. And during a long walk through our neighborhood, the fourth grader and I discussed different possible openings. Should the protagonists be touring the castle? Should they be on a riverboat cruise? What other characters should be introduced? What should happen at the end of the chapter?

There would be a cliffhanger, we decided, so readers would want to tune in for the following installment. And we needed to create openings for other writers to build the story—characters who could be further developed, situations that could be interpreted in more than one way.

Finally, once we had hashed out everything, I wrote the chapter. The first draft came in at over 900 words. So then I cut, and I cut some more. And finally, when the chapter was just under 650 words, I read it to my kids. They loved it. But they also had a few suggestions. I revised. I read it again.

It was a process of learning together. I shared what I knew about storytelling with my kids, and they shared what they knew with me.

The outcome: See for yourself here where the first chapter was posted on January 4. And please check back every two weeks as more chapters go live. I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here. And so are my kids.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Photo/Text 10: Shadows

When the low-hanging winter sun paints us gold and persimmon hues with its lukewarm laving, I look not so much at things as at their stretched taffy shadows. Reading them like tea leaves, it is not the future nor the past that I seek, because I am imbued always in these other times, in these not-nows; they are like cataracts upon my eyes, the future and the past, clouding my vision. So what I read in the shadows is something much more fleeting and inscrutable, something that eludes my gaze: the slippery present, not distorted but rather enhanced as shadow, the clarity jarring and pure, showing me the outlines of the desert, of where I am and who I am today, right now, this moment. Distilled into shadow, I stand and look upon myself at the setting of another year.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Xylotheque: "Soviet Trees"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. The photo accompanying this post was taken in Riverside when I was twelve, shortly before the events described in the essay. “Soviet Trees” first appeared in Parcel in 2011.

Excerpt from "Soviet Trees"

The girls crowd around you, studying your face, your hair, especially your clothes. They scrutinize the words Highland and Riverside printed in goldenrod letters on your royal-blue sweat shirt. What do they mean? Are they a brand name? The girls demand answers. They ask you to repeat the words again and again. You’ve been taken captive by these anthropologists in the guise of Soviet teenage girls. Like all anthropologists, they see you projected through themselves. They don’t understand why you would grow weary of saying the words—Highland, Riverside, Highland, Riverside—like some tired incantation. As far as you’re concerned, whatever significance the words carry has been eked out on the third or fourth repetition, and you want to tell them that the words are now nonsense on your tongue, that you yourself have forgotten what they mean. Highland. Riverside. For the girl-anthropologists the words are redolent of freshly manufactured goods, and of freedom and dollars. They stare at your sweat shirt as though it provides a window into America, all of it, in its unimaginable wealth.

There a few things you need to know. It’s the summer of 1987, and you’re in Kuybyshev, a city closed to foreigners. The girls are Young Pioneers, and this is still the Soviet Union—but actually, there’s no still about it. Remember that. It simply is, for you and the girls, for as long as you’ve been alive, and for as long as your parents have been alive. To say it is still the Soviet Union is like boarding the Titanic for her maiden voyage, looking out at her massive decks, and thinking, Someday, I’ll remember this as the time when the Titanic was still afloat. How could you believe, standing on the deck, that either of those colossal ships, the Titanic or the Soviet Union, would ever go down?

You’re only twelve—remember that, too—but you’ve been put in the oldest group, with girls who are mostly fourteen, because you’re tall and precocious. They keep asking about what kinds of things you own, how much stuff costs in America, what the stores are like, and how much money your family has. They want a full inventory of America, from top to bottom, from side to side, as though America is just a vast storage unit full of material goods. You don’t know where to begin, but you feel like a celebrity. For the first time in your life, you’re popular, the star attraction. You suddenly have so many friends you can’t remember their names. They crowd closer and closer, trying to lay their claims on you, trying to see what an American looks like. They comment on your American face, which leaves you stunned. Americans have always commented on your Russian face. It’s turning out you look like no one at all. It’s turning out that your amalgamation of Russian and American features has made you only uniquely yourself, unlike anyone else, which is the last thing you want. You’re twelve, remember. You want to shout—but I’m Russian like you!—though quite clearly, you’re not. Quite clearly, you don’t belong here. The hot heavy press of the girls in the cramped humid room renders you an exotic cornered animal whose fate lies in the hands of your captors. And quite clearly, they haven’t finished sizing you up yet. They haven’t yet decided what to make of you.

They demand to know, among other things, how you got here. To get into the camp you have to have a pass, and in order to get a pass, you have to have connections. You explain that your mother was able to get you a pass through her former college roommate, who is connected to the trade union. The girls seem dubious. This is a camp for future Soviets. It certainly is not a camp for American girls, even American girls who don’t believe they’re American, who think they’re Russian, which is the kind of American girl you are.

In your slightly awkward Russian, you tell your unlikely story: that your mother is Russian and your father American, that they met in graduate school in Leningrad, that you were born in Kuybyshev and lived there with your Russian grandparents and mother and aunt until you were three. And then you left with your mother to be with your American father in a fantastical place called Riverside, California. Yes, you’ve seen the Pacific Ocean. Yes, you have a river of sorts, but it’s puny—often just a dry riverbed—compared to the Volga,. Yes, that’s the unlikely kind of rivers you have in America. And you have unlikely trees—palm and navel orange and avocado and eucalyptus—and unlikely stores, too, where, yes, it’s true, you can buy just about anything you want, as long as you have money. Yes, Highland is the name of your school, but you don’t know why. You know the names for many things in America but don’t know why those are their names.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.