Thursday, August 31, 2017

How I Wrote When I Was Twelve

I didn't think about publication or readers. I had never been rejected; although, I did get the occasional Meh response from a teacher on a writing assignment.

But the Meh responses didn't bug me.

I wrote when I had a funny idea or sad one, when I had something important I wanted to remember, when I'd read a good book and wished I could keep the story and the characters going.

I didn't worry about what type of writing I did. I wrote short stories and novels. I wrote a play. A comic strip. Essays and poems. I even wrote songs. And taped myself singing them.

I kept a journal. I typed on a typewriter. I hand-wrote in notebooks or on loose-leaf paper. I illustrated my stories. I drew my own book covers. I didn't care that I wasn't good at drawing.

Most of the stories I never finished. A few of the stories, I revised. Over and over. But it never felt like work.

If I didn't feel like writing one day, or for a week, or for a month, I just... didn't. And when I pulled out my typewriter to write another story, I didn't wonder if I'd lost my ability.

When I was twelve, I wrote for myself.

And it was my favorite thing to do in the world.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Writing, Embarrassing Moments in Middle School, and Adorable Bulldogs: An Interview with Jennifer Maschari

One of the nicest things to come out of a writing retreat is the friends you make.

Several years ago at the Highlights Foundation retreat center in Boyd's Mill, Pennsylvania, I hit it off with middle grade author Jennifer Maschari. It turns out that Jen's from Ohio-- and lives only fifteen minutes away from me. Since then I've read her books and become a fan. Her latest novel, Things That Surprise you, is wonderful. Jen's got the gift for tunneling into the mind of the middle school kid and for crafting tightly woven, clever stories with heart.

Also, one of my favorite things: all of her books have a dog character!

I'm so pleased to have her on the blog today:


Jody: Give me your elevator pitch for Things That Surprise You. 

Jen: Well, it's about soon-to-be-sixth grader Emily Murphy who uses the advice from self-help CDs to try to solve her friend and family problems.

Jody: I loved Emily from the very first page. Her obsession with a book series starring a magical unicorn. Her confession that she always peeks at the ending of a book before reading it. She doesn't like to be surprised.

Jen: No, she does not!

Jody: And then she's got all of these family and friend issues to deal with-- her older sister who is struggling with an eating disorder and a best friend who seem to be growing up faster than she is and pulling away. Where'd you get the idea for a book like this? Or I guess I'm asking how you do it-- go back into the middle school mind.

Jen: I have a lot of memories of my middle school years and also teach middle school. I often joke that I've never left it. I remember how hard those years were for me...

Jody: Do you ever think you'll write for other age groups? In other genres?

Jen: I don't know. I love writing middle grade. First, I think the kids reading it are the greatest. They are SO enthusiastic about books. I love doing school visits and hearing their ideas and thoughts and questions. Second, my voice seems to work well in middle grade. I love to read middle grade books, too. I could see myself writing chapter books or picture books. Chapter book characters are so memorable.

Jen: You and I have compared notes on our writing processes before and I know you see yourself as a slower writer. How long did it take you to write Things That Surprise You?

Jen: About about a year or so.

Jody: That's not too bad. A lot of revising?

Jen: Oh, yes. I did this one massive revision (based on my editor's very smart and kind advice) in which I rewrote the entire story except for twelve pages. There were subsequent revisions after that, but that major revision helped find the heart of the story.

Jody: That is an extensive revision. Did you have a similar process with your first book, The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price?

Jen: No. And I wish my book-writing process was the same for every book because then I would know what to expect! For Charlie Price, I wrote slowly and pretty much in order - from beginning to end. For Things That Surprise You, I wrote the second draft very quickly and skipped around from one scene to the other. One thing that stays the same between books, though, is that I make a list of scenes that I want to hit. This helps me form the shape of the story in my mind.

Jody: I do this kind of thing with index cards. I don't know how other writers can keep all of the scenes straight without keeping track in some way.

I have to tell you that your launch party for Charlie Price was one of the coolest and cleverest parties I've ever attended. I still remember the balloons and cupcakes and gift baskets. Any special plans for Things That Surprise You?

Jen: Thank you Jody! I had so much fun planning that launch party. Sadly, the bookstore where I held my launch for Charlie Price is now closed. Also, the day my new book comes out is the day before school starts (it's going to be a busy week!) So instead of just one launch, I'm going to do a couple of different events at some local bookstores over several weeks. Of course, I still plan on having balloons (unicorn themed!) and cupcakes.

Jody: I am relieved to hear there will be cupcakes! Speaking of launch parties, self-promotion can be tough for writers... how do you approach promotion? Any tips and tricks? Things you'd do again? Things you won't bother with this time around?

Jen: For middle grade, most of my promotion is concentrated on reaching out to teachers and librarians who are then able to buy the books for their own libraries and classrooms. One thing I did for Charlie that worked really well was a mailing targeted at school librarians and local public libraries. I included an information sheet about the book with some pull quotes from reviews, a synopsis, and a very short handwritten note. I think I sent this to about 250 schools. I mailed out some postcards, too. I enjoy receiving mail and sending mail so this was fun for me!

Jody: You have a website too, and I see you on social media.

Jen: Yes. I try to keep my website updated with events and book information and I do send out a newsletter but need to get better at sending it out more regularly.

Jody: You're busy! I know you're still teaching, and that's got to be hard, balancing a day job with a writing career. How do you it?

Jen: Not very well! I'm a person who needs to see a task through beginning to end, and I've found that when I have a bunch of tasks - teaching and writing and taking classes - that's not possible. I need to alternate working on several things. I'm working on putting myself on a schedule so I carve out that writing time, and I'm also learning (and reminding myself) that there's no perfect time to write.

Jody: What's up next for you? Can share any secrets about your current WIP?

Jen: I'm working on another contemporary middle grade. It's still in the very early stages so I don't want to say too much but the main character's name is Trina, and the story has another great dog. I also have a chapter book idea I'm playing with. It's a lot of fun and a bit lighter than my middle grade books.

Jody: Are you ready for the lightning round, Jen?

Jen: Yes!

--What's the best recent book you read?

I reread one of my very favorites: Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

--Non-writing-related hobby?

Hiking - I love being out in nature.

--TV show you've binge-watched?

Forensic Files (I seriously have seen almost all of them and there are a lot.)

--Most embarrassing thing that happened to you in middle school?

Oh goodness - a lot of embarrassing things! I feel like I've blocked most of them out. Supposedly, I fell up the steps in front of my classmates. At least, that's what someone wrote in our 8th grade memory book (which is maybe more embarrassing?!)

--And last, but certainly not least, will you share pictures of your dogs?

Of course! I have two English bulldogs: Hank and Oliver. They are such good boys.

Hank outside

Oliver outside

Want to know more about the lovely Jennifer Maschari and her awesome books and adorable dogs?

Twitter: @jenmaschari

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Who Are We?

A few weeks ago I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. It was my second visit. The first time was fifteen years ago.

I remembered it being an inspiring place.

A monument, in a sense, to the thousands of every day people who rose up during the struggle for civil rights. College kids who risked their lives to help black people register to vote in the South. Teenagers who sat at restaurant counters while enraged racist people dumped food over their heads and beat them. Preachers and rabbis linking arms and marching, singing We Shall Overcome.

Fifteen years ago I thought that what I saw in the museum was history.

If you go, you will see the remains of the fire-bombed bus, where once students rode for a voter registration drive. You will see the lunch counter, the stoic and courageous people hunched in front of the surrounding mob. You will see a brave kindergarten girl walking into a school escorted by soldiers.You will see statues of the sanitation men in Memphis who were on strike. Each statue holds a sign. I AM A MAN.

You will see the hotel room where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his last night on earth. He was in Memphis to speak in defense of those men. He was shot on the balcony outside the hotel.

Now the hotel is the Civil Rights Museum.

I walked out of the museum fifteen years ago feeling jubilant and inspired, charged with energy at what one person could do to effect change, and one more person, and one more-- ordinary every day people who had reached a breaking point, who would no longer stand for injustice, who marched to show that they had had enough and that they believed in the promise of America, that all men are created equal.

And that meant all Americans.

I went to the museum this time with my grown daughter and her boyfriend, and a friend of mine and her daughter. We are white people. I must mention this, even though I feel weird mentioning it-- it is something I have never felt the need to mention before. When I write about myself, when I write characters in stories, I picture whiteness. I do this because I have grown up in a country where the majority of the people are white. White is the default. By this I mean, that it is assumed

--by white people.

It is uncomfortable for me to write this. It was uncomfortable for me that day at the museum to be in a crowd, the majority of whom were not white people.

This time when I saw the bombed out bus, the lunch counter, the angry mob, I still saw the heroes who rose up against oppression, of course, but I also saw the faces in the angry mob, the faces of the bombers, the shooters, the police officers with fire hoses.

We sat in the dark to watch a short film before we began our tour. When I say We, I mean my daughter and her boyfriend, my friend and her daughter, the only white people in the darkened room, and I mean the other members of the audience that day, who were black people.

The film began with people speaking about American history. One person after another adding a voice to tell the story, of slave ships, of human beings held in bondage, of families split apart, of beatings and murder, of a Civil War, of promises made and broken. One person after another, telling a story of lynchings and unjust laws, of segregation and humiliation. We, the voices said. We. This happened to us, they said, and we rose up.

When I say We, I mean, black Americans.

I am ashamed to say that this was an illumination for me. I have never sat in a room in America and known that when the word We was spoken, it did not include me. For the first time in my life as a fifty year old woman, I became Other.

It is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable feeling.

It is what American people who are not white feel like every damn day.

Not me! Not me! I wanted to tell the American people in the darkened room. I didn't DO this!! I don't believe in this! My ancestors weren't a part of it! Please, don't see me as Other! Please don't see me as the people holding the fire hoses. Don't see me as the smiling white faces in the crowd cheering a lynched man hanging from a tree.

There is an artist and writer named Bree Newsome, a black woman, who speaks about the Civil Rights Movement in America.

We don't know our own history, she says. And when she says, We, she means both black and white Americans. We don't know the worst of what we have done to each other. And we don't know the best.

White people held the fire hoses and screamed in rage at school children entering a school. White people beat protestors and bombed churches and met peaceful marchers on a bridge with guns.

White people risked their lives to help register black people to vote. White people linked arms with black people and marched across the bridge.

We must acknowledge all aspects of our history. And when I say We, I mean white people. I know it feels uncomfortable. I want this to be in the past. I want it to be history. I want to turn away from it. Defend myself. Say both sides...

I am asking you not to do that. And when I say You, I mean my white readers.

I am asking you to squirm with discomfort in the darkened room for a moment.

And then I am asking you to step out of the room with me and choose your side.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Random Thoughts on Food and Hemingway

I went to the grocery store today to buy some odds and ends for recipes I plan to make this week, and realized as I unpacked my bag that the Me of Twenty Years Ago would not have bought -- or possibly even recognized -- any of the items.

Okay, the honey, but that's about it.

(for the record, in addition to the honey: organic unsweetened soy milk,
flaxseed meal, vanilla bean, almond butter and raw cashews)

The Me of Twenty Years ago had never grown a garden or been to a farmer's market or visited a Whole Foods. (Did Whole Food exist?) I felt guilty about feeding my kids chicken nuggets and Kraft Mac and Cheese, but not so guilty that I quit feeding them chicken nuggets and Kraft Mac and Cheese. (In my defense, I also served them fruit occasionally and as soon as I heard about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup, I never let it into my house again, except in the form of Mrs. Butterworth's.)

What does all of this have to do with Hemingway? 

Nothing, except that I just finished reading his memoir A Moveable Feast, a book I'd somehow managed to skip reading over the years even though I like Hemingway's novels and when I was in Key West, I visited his house with all of the six-finger-pawed cats roaming around. 

Fun fact that I did not know until I read A Moveable Feast

it is not about food. 

Instead, it is about Hemingway's writing and social life in Paris in the 1920's, his adventures with his wife Hadley and his friendship with expatriate writers Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are nice nuggets of writing wisdom and lots of wine drinking and gossipy asides (Zelda Fitzgerald was crazy and F. Scott started drinking too early in the day and Hadley had to put up with having no indoor plumbing.) 

I don't think that Hemingway would recognize many of the items in my grocery bag either. 

But then he didn't watch the documentary my husband made me watch last week called What the Health. I am not recommending that you watch this movie unless you plan to seriously overhaul your diet. Let's just say that until I watched this movie I loved cheese. A lot. And now--

I am having a hard time loving cheese. 

Okay, I just looked at a few articles criticizing some of the statistics in What the Health and now I feel slightly better about my awful parenting food choices twenty years ago and my newly acquired horror of cheese. 

So tonight I will take a more balanced nutritional approach, something I will call Hemingwayterian:

It calls for a colorful plate of tofu and veggies.

And a large glass of wine.