Since retiring from full-time employment, I’ve been able to fulfill a lot of “wishing and hoping” dreams from those crazy, busy days of working and raising children. While I loved that time period, the demands and expectations didn’t leave much leisure for reading.

Things are different now. I still stay engaged with goings-on, but I manage to read a little something from a book or two or three every day. Books and articles teach, inspire, delight, and motivate me. Some take me to other countries and cultures and introduce me to a motley group of fascinating people.

Although I don’t need much encouragement to read, learning that good readers make good writers gives me even more incentive. I like to call it “research.” Quick example. Somewhere along the line, I learned that a reader should be able to read the first page of a novel and gain a sense of what’s going on, who the principal players are, where the action is taking place, and the general mood of the scene. I also learned never to begin a book or story with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Not that I’m planning to write a novel—just sayin’.

Here’s brief update on this week’s reading and listening (on Audible):

According to Pat Conroy, “Tell me a story” are the most powerful ones in the English language. Whether you’re a Conroy fan or not, you must agree that he’s one of the most popular Southern writers. Are you? I ask that because he must have figured something out that I (we?) haven’t.

I’ve been listening to him read My Reading Life and have enjoyed it immensely. One of the things I was reminded of is that a writer must be true to his own voice. Thomas Wolf was one of his role models, not Ernest Hemingway. A wordsmith, he drives some people crazy with his verbosity. Another thing I’ve learned is that a serious writer has to write every day, not just when the spirit moves him.

I’m reading Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, a man whose work I’ve come to respect. In this book, Kidder writes of Dr. Paul Farmer, a doctor whose adult life has been devoted to improving the lives of Haitians, even risking death in his dedication. From Kidder, I’ve learned about the abject poverty of the people who live there and of the efforts of people like Farmer and organizations like Partners in Health to help them.

Farmer soon learned that typhoid, TB, AIDS, diarrheal disorders, and malaria were rampant, and “mortality among infants and juveniles was ‘”horrific.”’ Doctor, writer, ethnographer, and fundraiser, Paul Farmer is an extraordinary human being, and I’m awed by his zeal in helping the people of Haiti. Just think, I’d never had heard of him if I hadn’t opened Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

I have a couple of books in the queue too. The one that’s risen quickly to the top is a memoir by S. Jane Gari, a member of SCWW (South Carolina Writers Workshop). I read a chapter of her new book, Losing the Dollhouse, in The Petigru Review a couple of years ago and was so moved by it that I sought her out just so that I could meet the person who wrote such an honest and incredible story.

I’m reading for pleasure, insight, understanding, and yes, even fun. And I’m calling it research. What’s on your reading list?

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Go Home, Miss Poe

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When an old friend discovered that I was thinking of writing a slim book about teaching, she sent me a text and the above picture.

Thought about you when I saw these hearts on the beach. The title of your new book for teachers should be It Is All About the Heart. I saw a presentation yesterday and they gave out rulers and talked about how we can retain more students if we just show we care more.

What advice would I include in a book for teachers, not a book that tells about the importance of curriculum planning and competency based instruction, but one that offers tips and suggestions for enjoying the profession? The first thing I’d probably say is that respect is a two-way street. Students are people too, and a haughty, arrogant attitude won’t work.

Here’s an old blog post that I’m thinking of including in a future book.

In one of my classes, we were discussing intelligence.  Is it more the product of nature or nurture? Are there things in the environment that can enhance intellectual abilities? If so, what are they? One of the bulleted items on power point was “Educational Experiences,” and when I asked the class to share something they thought might fit that description, I got several examples, none of which I was looking for.

I had expected the students to say standard things like reading to a child, taking him to a zoo, or engaging him in a two-way conversation. These students, however, interpreted educational experiences to be only those that took place inside of a school, specifically a classroom. I’m sorry to report that none of their examples were uplifting ones.

One young woman told of a teacher hitting her in the stomach with a ruler because she wouldn’t stop talking. Another shared how one of her teachers laughed at her when she couldn’t solve a math problem on the board, making her cry and instilling a lifelong fear of math and the teachers who teach it. Still another confessed that only now has he developed enough confidence to speak up in class IF called on. Otherwise, he keeps quiet.  His third grade teacher seemed to have selected him as her target for particularly scathing remarks that year.

Why don’t teachers like the ones who taught these students at an earlier time of their lives just pack their book bags and go home?????  There surely comes a moment when you know, “Uh oh, this is not for me,” and when that happens, walk out. Don’t wait for the bell to ring or the grading period to end. Just go. There are enough mean spirited people in the world without you adding to the problem.

My students’ comments reminded me of something I read in Same Kind of Different as Me.  Ron Hall, co-author and millionaire, gave an account of a shameful experience that occurred  when he and other schoolchildren had to bring urine samples to school for health screening purposes. He made the mistake of taking his sample to his teacher instead of to the school nurse.

The teacher, Miss Poe, marched the class to the playground and announced that little Ronnie wouldn’t be participating in recess. “Because he was stupid enough to bring his Dixie cup to the classroom instead of the nurse’s office, he will spend the next thirty minutes with his nose in a circle,” she said.

From the book: “Miss Poe then produced a fresh stick of chalk and scrawled on the redbrick school wall a circle approximately three inches above the spot where my nose would touch if I stood on flat feet. Humiliated, I slunk forward, hiked up on tiptoes, and stuck my nose on the wall….After fifteen minutes, my toes and calves cramped fiercely, and after twenty minutes, my tears washed the bottom half of Miss Poe’s circle right off the wall. With the strain of loathing peculiar to a child shamed, I hated Miss Poe for that. And as I grew older, I wished I could send her a message that I wasn’t stupid.”

Ron Hall is an exceptional person, smart and accomplished. He had the confidence and social skills to become a successful adult despite a crabby, bad-tempered teacher. Not all children are so fortunate. Go home, Miss Poe. We need teachers who care.

 

 

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Tell Me a Story

While walking this morning, I listened to Pat Conroy read My Reading Life on Audible. Part of today’s reading came from the chapter on Conroy’s high school English teacher and mentor, Gene Norris. The student and teacher began a lifelong friendship, and as his beloved friend lay dying in a hospital in Columbia, Conroy and Norris talked by phone each night. The conversations ended with Norris’ nightly request: “Tell me a story.”

 Over lunch today, I shared some gems from My Reading Life and then told my friend about a book I can’t stop thinking about.

 “Was it a good story?” she asked.

 “Yes, definitely,” and then after a moment, I added, “It was one good story after another.”

 She crossed her arms and leaned forward, giving me the go-ahead to continue.

 “The writing was compelling, but I don’t know exactly why. It was like the main character was talking right to me, and yet it was her granddaughter who wrote the book.”

 Here’s what I put about Maude on Amazon:

I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was that kept me turning the pages (sliding the screen of my Kindle) of this book, but whatever the X-factor was, it worked. I was drawn in by the first paragraph and kept reading until I’d read the author’s epilogue—twice.

 Maude is a biography/memoir of Maude Clayborn Connor Foley written by her granddaughter Donna Mabry. Although she never won any awards, garnered any accolades, or earned any degrees, Maude was a remarkable woman whose strength, determination, and hard work saw her through many vicissitudes of life.

 She outlived her two husbands and all but one of her five children; worked like the dickens from dawn to dusk and beyond to feed, clothe, and clean (even taking in boarders); was nearly killed more than once by her mother-in-law; left a hardscrabble existence in TN and went to Detroit, nearly starving along the way; struggled through the Depression and two world wars; tolerated a thankless, spoiled daughter-in-law who used her son; put up with a lazy husband and two sons who drank; and was on the scene when one of her daughters was unexpectedly killed late one night.

 Maude was a woman with a lot of pluck. Always praying for one thing or another (mainly her children, but also for patience and other virtues), Maude’s Holiness background remained important to her. At the end of her life, she found herself wondering about a lot of “what ifs.”

 Bottom line. Maude is a smoothly written story of a strong woman’s life as she navigates family and societal changes. She was not as important or influential as someone like, say Eleanor Roosevelt, but her biography is nonetheless a captivating one.

As I type this post, I keep thinking of how we all have stories. Our local writing group published an anthology of poems, stories, recipes based on our memories of family and special friends. At the end of the book, I added Elie Wiesel’s statement, “God made man because He loves stories.”

What’s your story? As Gene Norris said, “Tell me a story.”

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It’s Coming Along

 

Since this is supposed to be a reading and writing blog, it’s time to share a little something about what I’ve been reading and a little something about what I’ve been writing.

First, the reading. I totally buy into the adage that good readers make good writers, and I usually have at least two books going at any given time. Though it’s not always the case, one of the books is usually nonfiction and the other fiction. Right now my fiction choice is Maude by Donna Mabry. In truth, it’s a memoir that reads like historical fiction.

I’m spellbound by this novel, and I can’t figure out exactly why. I think it might have something to do with the author’s honesty and her unflinching look at life regardless of what the fates throw her way. Also fascinating to read are the historical events of the era based on Maude’s perspective. She tells of getting the right to vote and actually voting despite the strong discouragement of her husband.

Maude’s granddaughter wrote the book, but Maude’s voice tells the tale. She’s had very few happy moments in her life, and where I left off last night, the story looks like it’s about to get a lot more bleak. The Depression has hit, and with no money and no prospects, Maude and her husband head to Detroit in search of a better life. At first, Maude passionately declares that she will take in sewing to make enough money to save their house. But then, her husband reminds her that no one has money to pay her. Even the bank has closed.

Before I bought the book on Kindle, I read some of the reviews. Some were hateful, snide, and dismissive. Others were more positive and focused on Maude’s strength and perseverance. So far, I’m in the latter camp.

I’m also reading The Best American Spiritual Writing (2004) by Philip Zaleski (editor) and rereading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. The first book is one that I dip into whenever I need something soulful to ponder. This morning I read an article entitled “Judaism Beyond Words: Conclusion,” and was struck by these words about the problem of evil: “The central question is not why God hasn’t saved the world but why you haven’t.”

Blog experts advise staying within a 500-word limit per post, so it’s time to say a few words about writing. It’s coming along. As mentioned in an earlier post, my writing group agreed to begin submitting some tentative pieces for next year’s anthology, and yesterday we met to critique the recent submissions. My piece was “Spirit to Spirit, “ a story about the birth of one of my grandsons.

I knew I was in for a tough go of it when Doug gave me a look that said, “I hate to do this, but….” He said some nice things about the story, but he also pointed out some areas that needed tweaking: too many uses of was, not enough active voice, and some missing quotation marks. He did, however, like the use of dialogue, and so did a couple of other people. Somebody pronounced the story “compelling,” and another writer said it was powerful.

This afternoon, I’m feeling grateful for the ability to read. Reading continues to teach me so much about the world, people, animals, plants, religion, food preparation, health, philosophy, emotions, and even about myself. I’m also thankful for a group of writers and friends who hold me to a certain standard and won’t accept less than my best efforts.

 What’s your most current project in either reading or writing?

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Show, Don’t Tell

Becoming  part of a writing group was a smart choice. Since I joined the group about three (?) years ago, I’ve learned about going easy on to be verbs and passive voice. I now make a conscious effort to add variety to my word choice, and I’ve become more thick-skinned when others make suggestions and recommendations about my work. The latter was the toughest lesson of all. In fact, I haven’t mastered it yet despite working on it for decades.

In 1989, Prentice-Hall (now Pearson Prentice Hall) published my one and only textbook, Human Relations in Industry: People at Work (Jayne P. Crolley). It was an arduous process that seemed interminable at the time. There were occasions when I considered throwing in the towel (excuse the cliché please), but then I remembered what a book rep told me when first discussing the project. We were sitting in my little closet of an office, and after telling me about what a prospectus was and how to write one, he advised me not to get my hopes up.

“You have a good idea, and yeah, there’s a market for it, but well, there’s a lot of competition out there.”

“So are you saying to forget it?”

“No, no. Not at all. I’m saying that about one in ten would-be authors get a contract, and out of those, not all make it.”

“Make it? What does that mean?”

“Writing a text is hard work, and most people don’t realize what they’re getting into. As time goes by, I’d guess that over half just quit.”

“That won’t happen to me. If I commit to something, I’m in.”

I learned a few weeks later that I had the contract and soon began the laborious process of writing the fifteen chapters. When I received the first set of corrected proofs, my heart sank. Seriously. I remember staring in disbelief, discouragement, and downright anger at the editing marks and remarks on my precious work.

How dare they make comments about my verb tenses or pronoun antecedents?

I remembered the words of the book rep, swallowed hard, sat up straight, and went to work. If I wanted to publish the book, I had to do it their way—the right way. I was the one with the human relations expertise, but the editors were the ones with the writing knowledge. I got over my wounded pride, and together we went on to produce a text that had a good run. However, I vowed to never tackle such a mammoth project again.

Fast forward to my critique group where we mark all over other members’ work. We begin by saying something we like about the piece before proceeding to make what we perceive as helpful comments. If one person recommends a change, the writer is free to ignore it. However, if two or three members comment on a passage, a word, or mark of punctuation, then the writer, though she still has a choice, is more likely to take a second look.

What I’ve learned is that as humans, we all want validation. However, that’s not always how it works. If we want to be better writers, then we need to find people to help us achieve our goals, and sometimes that involves listening to some “stiff words.” Very little of what’s accomplished in this world is done without the help of others. We have to have thick skins and the willingness to learn and improve.

That said, I’m trying to work on a little something to submit for the group to critique at Thursday’s meeting. Sure, I’ll feel a little anxious when I press SEND, but if they don’t help me, who will? They’ve pushed me to work on “show, don’t tell,” and I hope they notice a little improvement.

What are you working on? What’s been your experience with critiques groups? 

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Christmas Cookies at Easter

In October, 2014 our local writers’ group published an anthology of stories, recipes, poems, and photographs. We love our book and what it represents. It’s a communal effort that pays homage to our collective past.

A little over a year ago as we bandied ideas back and forth, we knew we wanted to write something, but we weren’t sure what it would be. We wanted to honor our past, especially the people who had figured so largely in it. Should we model it on the Foxfire books? Should we interview senior citizens, including those we didn’t know, to learn more about yesteryears’s traditions?

The more we talked, the more frustrated and unfocused we became. Finally, we came to a consensus to just begin submitting stories and poems that centered around holiday traditions, especially Southern ones. But then, there was Vanessa, a writer who had come to America from Germany as part of an equestrian team and who had no holiday memories of the South. Like many of us, however, she loved her grandmother and had many fond memories of her.

When Vanessa suggested a story about baking Easter cookies with Oma, we all loved it. Because of this story, “Christmas Cookies at Easter,” we decided to broaden our contents to memories of anyone and any place and any time (not necessarily holidays) that had contributed to our psyches. In fact, we cast the net even farther and decided that the principal players didn’t even have to be related to us.

Writing, editing, and publishing the anthology was fun and rewarding but also demanding and labor intensive. We wanted to do another one this year, but at a recent meeting, someone wise finally said, “Let’s publish a book every other year.” I think everyone present exhaled a sigh of relief, not because we don’t want to do it but because we want to do it well. We’re all working on projects of our own that need attention, and the pressure to meet another publishing deadline by October would hurt both our individual and collective work.

But here’s the good news. With profits from Serving Up Memory, we’re going to host a writing workshop this fall, probably in October. Location, date, topics, food, speakers, and classes are under discussion. The only thing for certain is that we’re doing it. We know there are dozens, maybe hundreds, among us who have stories to tell, and we want to assist them in doing it. By assist, I mean motivate, cajole, and encourage.

We left our last evening meeting with an assignment to think about what we need to do to make the workshop a success. I just took a  first step and am asking anyone who’s reading this to give me/us some ideas about what you’d like to learn more about.

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It’s All About the Heart

Geez Louise. The more I learn about writing, the more overwhelmed I get. With rules like “Do this” and “Don’t do that,” a gal could get flabbergasted and frustrated before she gets started.

Here are a couple of so-called rules that I’m thinking about this afternoon.

Write something people want to read.

Make it interesting.

Write something people want to read. A few weeks ago I finished Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and her protagonist wrote books on bryology. That’s right, bryology, the study of mosses. Alma Whittaker, the heroine, was passionate about the variety and growth patterns of the many species of mosses, but she probably didn’t have that big a readership for her books. Did she care? Not really.

Make it interesting. I have no idea how interesting Alma’s bryology books were, but Liz Gilbert’s treatment of the obscure subject was fascinating. Not only do I find myself stopping to examine mosses on my daily walks, but occasionally I snap pictures of them too. Strong, slow-growing, and ever-evolving, mosses can teach us quite a bit. Slow and steady wins the race and all that.

After vacillating between a few ideas, I’ve decided to write a slim volume about teaching. Yesterday a friend asked point blank who would read such a book. Whether anyone reads it or not, I still feel compelled to write some basic guidelines gleaned from experience and interweave some stories, tips from colleagues and advice from students. Including the latter makes perfect sense to me since that’s the audience teachers are trying to reach.

I’m going to write something teachers will want to read, something unlike education textbooks with a lot of dry dogma. While much of what I include might be the “same old/same old,” I hope to infuse it with vivacity and evoke interest. There are plenty of texts that promise to help in identifying opportunities for utilizing instructional technology, elicit peer feedback, and adopt active learning strategies in the classroom, but they need more heart.

I want to write a book that people will want to read, one with a heart.

Earlier today, one of my friends sent me a picture of a heart drawn in the sand. Getting her text with the accompanying photo was the perfect motivator. Plus, her message encompassed what my friends were saying between the lines yesterday. Whether working in recruitment, admissions, academic advisement, retention, or instruction, genuine concern and caring are important elements to success.

Here’s her message. “Thought about you when I saw this heart on the beach. The title of your new book for teachers should be It’s All About the Heart. I saw a presentation yesterday, and they gave out rulers and talked about how we can retain more students if we just show we care more.”

She gets it. I’ve already texted her back asking for the name of the presenter(s) so that I can request some information.

Everyone reading this has had a few teachers. In your opinion, what’s a piece of advice you wish they all knew and practiced? Does caring about students matter? Does knowing that a teacher cares about your success influence your motivation?

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Dancing and Singing

I love my writing group. That is to say, I love learning and growing, and the members of the group continue to help me do just that. Actually, we all help each other. Even the best writers in the group admit that they need fresh eyes on their work to catch grammatical errors, find holes in the story, and recommend a different sentence structure.

We all bring different skills to the table. Mindy can ferret out the to be verbs better than anyone in the group. Martha sometimes questions our word choice. Once I used minx to describe a mischievous little girl, and she gently suggested that I look it up. I’m glad I took her advice because the child in question was impish and playful, not impudent or flirtatious.

Yesterday’s meeting was no different; it too brought out our individual writing and critiquing abilities. Unbeknownst to her, one writer had used “it” twelve times in a two short pages. Another had written of eating some delicious cannoli, but she hadn’t described it or told us what made it so delicious. We wanted to know more.

What does cannoli look like? Taste like? Does it have a filling? What makes it so special? Is it sort of like a cream puff? We unanimously agreed that she needed to prepare some for our next meeting. That way, we can help her with just the right adjectives to describe this sweet confection.

One gifted fiction writer had written two potential chapters for a future book, and although we all admired the dialogue and the “show, don’t tell aspect, no one liked the protagonist. A group member suggested ways to make her more likeable  “Put in a scene with her being nice to a dog or cat,” she said. With a few helpful hints, the writer soon created some ideas to make the chapters less gloomy and the heroine more appealing.

Me? What do I have to offer? Yesterday I revised a couple of sentences in order to make the phrases more parallel. I also pointed out the perils of using a semicolon when a comma is sufficient. I’m no “Grammar Girl,” but as far as I know, there are only two times to use semicolons: to separate closely related independent clauses and to separate phrases in a series that have commas within them. I don’t know that much about story arcs so my contributions in that area are limited.

Just like everyone else, I also offer positive reinforcement and encouragement. We genuinely respect one another’s (should that be each other’s?) work and are prompt in saying what we like. Yesterday we critiqued the last chapter in a family memoir, and we all admired the way in which the author made the principal players come alive. We could just see the matriarch of the family dancing and singing and laughing while on a trip to Switzerland.

It’s doubtful that anyone in the group will read this post. But if someone did, he or she would point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. And isn’t that what we all need if we are to improve? I might not always like what I hear, but every single time someone has critiqued my work, I’ve learned something.

What about you? Are you part of a writing group? If so, How has it helped you?

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Using Strong Verbs

Does it bother me that no one reads and comments on my blog? Yes and no. Of course, I’d love it if they did. It would make me ecstatically happy if I had some followers who regular left comments, but at the same time, that would put more pressure on me to blog more regularly with some good stuff.

And then there’s that reciprocity thing. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You comment on my blog, and I’ll comment on yours. That’s time consuming, Folks. It’s easy to get lost in Blogland, reading and pondering and commenting. In the meantime, writing on personal projects takes a back seat.

So why do I make the effort to maintain my blogs?  Blogging gives me practice. It gives me a chance to experiment with words and phrasing and ideas. I keep hoping that if I post often enough, especially if I incorporate something I’ve learned about writing, I’ll eventually improve.

A friend nearing retirement plans to write when he retires. Notice that I said “write” and not “write more.” Although he’s an avid reader, he doesn’t write at all now. He thinks writing is something a person can do—or not—and that instruction and critiquing is not necessary.

While I agree that some people have more of what Howard Gardner refers to as linguistic intelligence, I also think that innate ability of any kind needs development. People with kinesthetic intelligence need to practice tennis, golf, baseball, or any other sport every day in order to stay at the top of their game. I read that the Rockettes practice six hours a day. Six hours a day!

I’ve been a teacher for nearly forty years, but before they let me loose in a classroom, there were certain criteria that I had to meet. Have you ever heard the expression that while there may be some luck in getting a job, there’s no luck in keeping one? To continue teaching, I had to keep learning, sometimes by trial and error, and other times by modeling, instruction, and evaluation by supervisors.

When I retired and began writing more diligently, I quickly realized that I needed to learn and practice and learn and practice some more. One day it occurred to me that the folks who are serious about the craft pursue it just as earnestly as they do their other careers/professions. Why did it take me so long to gain that insight?

 My writing group continues to be extremely helpful in helping me improve my writing. If not for them, I’d be repeating words, overusing passive voice, and going overboard with “to be” verbs. Because of the group members, I’ve learned to show, not tell; kill the darlings (slash all unnecessary words); use strong verbs like glowered instead of looked at; and pay attention to dialogue.

So I hope blogging is helping me improve as a writer. And I hope my friend will read some of the books on writing that I’ve suggested to him and that he finds a writing group. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be blogging soon.

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So Many Rules!

So Many Rules!.

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