Celebrating the Beauty of Communication

This is the blog I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog this week.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately so I’ve decided to share it with you.

Recently, there were two occasions when I was reminded of the beauty of communication. Thanksgiving this year took place at my grandson’s home. It was exceptionally special because it was his son Aiden’s, first. At almost 3 months old, Aiden was at the stage where a baby recognizes that somehow those who comprise his world communicate with sounds. He was beginning to test this out as all babies his age do. His hands waved, his legs kicked, his head bobbed, and his mouth contorted. Finally, he was rewarded with a very quiet and brief, “Ohh”. His smile assured me he was well pleased with his success.

The second occasion, took place at my son-in-law’s parents’ home. His niece was visiting from Texas. Both she and her husband are deaf and have been since birth. Their two adorable children are not hearing impaired. When it was time for them to leave, his niece told her four year old to get ready. Callia, typical for a four year old, did not want to leave. A five-minute negotiation with her mother with verbal pleading accompanied with signing thoroughly entertained me. Her hands moved in rhythm with the nuances of her voice.   Her engaging efforts did not win her argument although I’m sure in the future she will be gaining points in a courtroom.

Both of these observations of connecting people through words brought to my mind the beauty of communicating. Aiden has just begun his excursion into language. He will develop a vocabulary larger than any other in his lifetime in the next two years. Then he’ll go to school where he’ll find a whole new world of linking thoughts through the written word. Callia already has the ability to share ideas not only to the hearing world with her voice but the non-hearing world with her hands. When she begins to write, she will have an exciting new way to persuade others to her point of view.

Thinking about this highlighted an awareness, once again, of how lucky we are to be able to communicate in so many ways. As writers, we have been given the additional joy of sharing our thoughts and feelings with others through the written word. When asked on the Indiana Writers’ Consortium member survey what were my goals in writing, it was easy to answer because of where my thoughts have been. I want my written words to touch the hearts and souls of those who read them. Emily Neville in It’s like this, cat showed young teens that it’s okay as a 14 year-old to cry over a stray cat. Barbara Park in Mick Harte Was Here let her young readers share Phoebe’s tears when her anger over her brother’s death finally allowed her to cry. I want my writing to be able to unite people by evoking universal emotions.

I’m not there yet. Maybe I don’t have that novel or even a short story that does that yet. Where can I start?

It’s the Christmas/ Hanukkah season. This is a time when we decide to contact friends and families with joyous greetings. Now, I’m not too good with this. Long time friends know I function on a 5 year Christmas card cycle. I buy them every year but usually get them out once in a half-decade. I find the nicest cards that have a lovely sentiment but somehow they never seem right for everyone. Maybe there is a problem because at some point we decided to let Hallmark express our feelings about and to people. When did we decide give up our opportunity to write a deeply felt sentiment to a corporation?

Okay, they have lovely pictures and do a nice job of it. But recently, I’ve gone one step lower in missing an opportunity to use the written word to express how much someone means to me by sending a mass or singular Christmas or birthday message on Facebook. Maybe Christmas is the perfect time to write a personal note the will evoke memories or emotions in the reader.

Don’t be mistaken. I’m not talking about those Christmas letters. As a young single mother, I hated those. After reading them, I’d feel like a failure because my children were not in every sport invented, played all instruments in an orchestra, or were ready to win a Rhodes Scholarship. The only feeling those evoked in me was nausea.

I could take a minute to script a brief sentence or two that would warm the heart of the receiver. Maybe on Sandy’s card I could say, “I miss you most this time of year when I remember how we shoveled out a croquet field in four feet of snow.” Or say to my cousin, Mary, “I’m reminded in this season of love how much you mean to me. You held me up when I left my sister’s funeral, standing and talking to me until I could stand on my own.”

Maybe these notes aren’t the novels I want to write that will touch a soul. But it’s a start. It will be enough for me to celebrate the season with the beauty of communication.

 

 

 

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When Words Have to Die

One of the most difficult tasks we have as writers is editing our work.  When you are developing your writing skills, as a fledgling or accomplished writer, almost any article, book, or lecture on writing emphasizes the need to “cut”.  Here are some examples:

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Dr. Seuss

“If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”                                                 Ernest Hemingway

“Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”           Mark Twain

“There’s a great power in words, if you don’t hitch too many of them together.”                                                                                          Josh Billings

And a favorite of mine is a story Stephen King relates in On Writing. As a young writer, he worked for John Gould, American humorist, essayist, columnist, and author.  A piece of advice that Gould gave King was, “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” That is a question I carry with me as I’m writing and editing, “Is this part of the story?”

But it is harder than you think.  After struggling to get our “brilliant” ideas into our story, we are convinced that every word is germane to a successful read.  That is until we run it by our critique group, editor, agent, whatever and then the dreaded, “you should cut this out…” remark slaps us into reality. The “edit out” dagger pierces our sensitive little writer’s heart and we are sure it isn’t possible to cut those brilliantly scribed pieces. But if we’re smart, we listen.

I think the process is so difficult because those words may be some of the best writing we’ve done. The imagery is beyond lovely, the character is stoic, the humor is perfect so how can we cut it out? Well, it may be all that but as Mr. Gould advised, they are not the story.

For me, I sweep all of those pieces I think are so brilliantly done into a little junk folder rather than the grave.  I pull them out occasionally and see if I’m writing anything where they may be part of the story. I don’t kill them off, I just put them to rest and hope that some day, they’ll find a home.

Don’t Lose the Creativity

I’m disappointed in this year’s P.O.P.P. entries. Not in the children, not in the schools or teachers, but what is happening in education.  We are not attending to the need to encourage and develop creativity in our students.

Katherine and I saw it when we went to the schools. Teachers who accompanied their classes to our mini pep rally for the most part were disinterested in what we were saying.  Most of the teachers’ faces told us they were passive, somewhere else, not with us. Most likely their minds were grappling with the day to day challenges of their chosen career:

“How will my students be ready for the high stakes tests?”

“I have all that paper work to fill out that has to be in tomorrow.”

“Do I have the forms completed that are due today?”

‘What is the “contest” I don’t have time to do what I have to do now.”

The teachers weren’t enthusiastic. They may not have even heard us. How could the children get excited? Parents and teachers are the elementary student’s primary models.

We told the children that their teachers would have them reading and writing a lot of poetry during November. That was our contract. The teachers were to be our partners in exposing the children to a genre that provides a vehicle for sharing feelings and humor among other things; a vehicle for developing creativity.  I don’t believe that happened. The selection we have this year could have been achieved if we went to a park, gave kids a pencil and paper, and asked them to write a poem.

I’ve written before about the negative effects that I observed happening during the end of my career.  No Child Left Behind and the emphasis placed on high stakes testing, primarily in literacy and math, were having an opposite effect on a well rounded education. While not the intent, creativity was being shoved to the back of the class.  I’m curious how the new “STEM” movement will impact creativity. I’m all for STEM but science, technology, engineering, and math will not thrive without giving our students ample opportunities to use their imaginations and expand their creativity.   Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.”*  If you can’t dream it, you’ll never look for it.

Since the time of the early Greek Philosophers, we have known the importance of a well rounded education. Attention was equally paid to math, science, humanities, physical education. But look at the funding and time devoted to all these areas in your local school, are all of those areas provided for in an equitable manner? My guess is no.

The idea that attention to the arts has to diminish higher achievement and scores in literacy (basically reading and writing) and math is silly. Throughout my career as a science teacher, I was privileged to be able to engage in teaching the way I felt my students needed. Our studies mainly focused on project based curricula.  Time and again, I saw students who were marginal performers in terms of tests in math, reading, and writing delve into the projects.  They were reading and doing calculations for a purpose in the project. I didn’t have to drill them to death on how to take a test or the basics of the math and reading. They found out that reading, math, geographical understandings, and historical contexts were necessary tools for understanding their project problem. And you know what? Their scores began to rise on tests used to determine achievement. They created models and posters, they wrote brochures and poems, they engaged in constructive argumentation. They proposed solutions to problems.

I had a 7th grade student who used Legos ™ to build  a model vehicle for Martian explorations for a competition my kids were involved with (he won a trip to Space Camp). Less than a year later, I was reading a popular science magazine. A brief article described  a vehicle that was being developed for Martian explorations – the Martian Rover. It was eerily similar in design to what he had developed.

Students were discovering that there were skills and knowledge required to open up doors of understanding to their world. They didn’t HAVE TO LEARN, they NEEDED TO LEARN. There’s a difference.

My plea is let teachers teach. Allow them to use their energy on what’s important – their students. Release them from extraneous paper work and  duties. Let them rediscover how exciting and effective it can be when their students create.

 

* Calaprice, Alice (collector and editor) 1996. Quotable Einstein. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Characters

When I read a book, if it is a good one, I fall in love with the characters. We all do. We even begin to care about the bad guys. When the book ends, I don’t want to leave those folks I’ve gotten to know through the author’s ability to bring them to life.

Now that I’m being a better “good girl” writer and actually writing on a daily basis,  I’m realizing that I get the same pleasure from my characters who develop along with the story.

I’ve always felt guilty because I don’t do character studies, at least  not in an organized way. I don’t have a card file with descriptions of characters and locales. I don’t have character sheets and even on my Scrivener, I’m not using the character sheet template.  (Dear Nuns of my elementary and high school lives would recall that I also was terrible with completing outlines for my writing.) I’ve come to realize, however, that there is a file box tucked somewhere in my grey matter. As a great observer of people, risking being arrested as a stalker, I can watch people for hours. In a restaurant, I eagerly try to hear their conversations. Watching people while at the beach, I note the variety of shapes, sizes, etc. of their physique and the bathing gear they use to enhance (or not) those physiques. Looking at two people having a conversation that I can’t hear, I make up stories in my mind of what is going on based on body language. So, it’s not that I don’t pay attention to character traits, I just don’t do what many how to write sources suggest I do with developing a character study.

I find that my characters develop with the story. When I begin a story, I have a situation or general plot in mind. Kind of like backwards design in teaching, I know where I want to be at the end of the story. I have a general idea of who the main characters are, but many of the details emerge as they travel through the storyline. Minor characters are even less defined as we begin our adventure together. An example follows:

Currently I’m working on a fiction story about Queen Guenever (of Camelot) when she was a young girl. In the story an unlikely friendship develops between her and Emma who is the complete opposite in position, manner, dress, and certainly grace. The story could be called historical fiction but I’m afraid it isn’t quite. To begin with, it’s hard to gather actual facts on the Arthurian period that in itself seems to be mostly fiction. Also, the time of the story would be at the very beginning of the middle ages. I find very little information of that time, or at least information that would make my story more interesting. For example, castles weren’t what I was lead to believe as I read and watched all those books, plays (I loved “Camelot”), and movies. They were more like earthen and wooden rather than huge and stone structures. So, for the sake of my story, I’ve pushed Guenever and Emma into the middle/later periods of the Middle Ages.

Anyway, back to my point. I wanted a very minor character to be Guenever’s teacher. In truth, she probably wouldn’t have had one but my story needed her to have one. There are many choices for a character like that: old, wise, young, handsome, brilliant, snobbish. Other than being a male, he had very little definition in my mind. I began by going to my reference sheets (which I can conveniently store on my Scrivener) that contain first and sur names that would be common during the middle ages. I spent a good half an hour or more playing around with various combinations. I finally landed on one that screamed to me, “I am that teacher character.” The name?  It’s Umfrey Urry.  Isn’t that delicious? It was a name that could thoroughly confuse Emma and immediately shaped his looks and manner for me. As I introduced him to the story, he came alive, in his snobbish dead-pan way. He makes Gurenever, Emma, and myself laugh – behind his back, of course.

I will continue to seek out advice about how to write from as many sources as I have time to find. What I’m learning, though, is that there is no cookie cutter “how to write”. Our approach to writing has to be the one that works for us. I can try the suggestions I come across but in the end I have to find the ones that work for me. As you know, my current mentor is Stephen King through his book, On Writing. I was pleased to read his take on character development and especially resonated with this statement, “For me, what happens to characters as the story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along…” That works for me.

I’m not a published writer, at least not in the way that some folks I’ve met in writing groups consider “published”. I’ve been called a “hobby writer” which is okay. I have a number of educational works that were published and a chapter in a book. I have my fiction work in group publications like Hoosier Horizons and the Edge of the Prairie. That’s it. But I am a committed writer. As I wrote about in a previous blog, I write because I can. I write because I enjoy the adventures my characters and I experience. I write because I love my characters.