You Snooze, You Lose

waking up whiteI recently started reading Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. This book was recommended during an incredible VCFA WCYA lecture by Tom Birdseye called “Fish Talks Water,” which discussed white privilege and the importance of understanding the water you swim in, including its systemic racism. I highly recommend the lecture and the book, both of which bravely share personal stories and pose challenging questions.

Here’s an example of one question from Waking Up White, which resonated with me:

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values, and unspoken beliefs . . . Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system.

The family slogan that sums up the beliefs I was raised with:

You Snooze, You Lose.

Literally, this slogan meant if you slept in and missed breakfast, no food would be saved for you. It extended to apply to showing up late to any meal or family gathering. No one would wait for you, and if the food ran out, too bad.

From this one slogan, I can list five core values that raised several hard-working generations of German-American Catholics.

  1. Be responsible for yourself.
  2. Be on time and considerate of others.
  3. Hard work will earn you what you need and / or want.
  4. No one else is going to give you a handout.
  5. If you’re lazy, you deserve the consequences.

These are all values I hope to instill in my daughter. They helped shape me into the person I am today. Yet, as I look back at my life, I can now see the unspoken caveats to this family slogan as well.

  1. There is no acknowledgement of the possibility that you could work your very hardest and still fail due to factors outside of your control or a rigged system. And if you do fail, a horrible realization follows: you might be deserving of that failure and its consequences.

This lesson was a tough one to learn as I faced a divorce I couldn’t fix no matter how hard I tried.

  1. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that one person cannot really see or understand how hard someone else is working or what unique challenges he may face. Judging someone as lazy and deserving of his situation because of a perceived failure is not only unfair, it may in fact be racist.

This lesson is one I still struggle with. Empathy is the answer, and an understanding that not everyone has the same goals, the same challenges, or the same approach to problem solving as I do.

  1. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that not everyone begins life on a level playing field. A college education, for example, might be an assumed expectation in one family and an impossible dream in another family.

This issue is the one that feels too big for any one person to conquer alone. Systemic racism cannot be erased without a systemic change in beliefs and behavior.

The first half of the challenge is being aware of these negative biases that were silently passed down to me along with the very positive values this slogan was intended to produce. The second, and exponentially larger, challenge is what to do about it. That’s the one I’m still working on.

 

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Talking Slower and Thinking Deeper

My twelfth packet of MFA homework was due earlier this week. For once it was submitted without any all-nighters, drama, or emotional meltdowns. I had plenty of time to do the quantity and quality of work I knew I had in me, and that is a priceless gift.

Does that mean I made the right choice to become a full time student? My husband says yes. He tells me I am literally talking slower these days, a sign of how very wound up and stressed out Super Jen had been. What I’ve noticed is that I’ve been thinking deeper in my critical thesis, my creative pages, and – a brave new frontier – poetry.

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Here’s the honest truth: my education glossed over poetry so quickly that I really knew nothing about it. There’s a language associated with poetry that can really intimidate those who aren’t fluid in it, causing them to veer far away. My wise advisor suggested A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver. Among many other things, it covers two basic aspects of the poetry vocabulary.

Sounds:

Most of us are aware of vowels and consonants. But did you know that consonants can be divided into semivowels and mutes? That semivowels can be further divided into liquids and aspirates? Memorizing the terminology isn’t as important as knowing how these different letter sounds can be used as tools in poetry and other creative writing. The way these sounds feel as you speak them can impact how the reader feels during a particular sentence.

Beyond the letter sounds themselves, there are sound devices. Onomatopoeia (words that sound like the noise they define) and alliteration (repetition of the first sound of words) are the two I’d heard of before. There are many, many others writers can utilize to create mood and emotional resonance.

The Line:

The basic unit of poetry is the foot. Every line can be divided into feet, which can be further divided into syllables. Depending on the number and stress of the syllables in a foot, it might be an iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, or spondee. Those names felt like gibberish to me until I saw examples of poems with the stresses and feet marked, and then attempted to mark them in my own writing. Iambs are the most common rhythm for a poem, and any of the others can be used to change the feeling of the line.

Depending on the number of feet in a line, the line could be considered monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, and octameter. These names were more intuitive for me because they follow mathematic conventions. I was intrigued to learn iambic pentameter is the line a person can comfortable say in one breath. Anything longer leaves your reader feeling breathless.

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Once I learned the basics of the language of poetry, my advisor suggested The Aspiring Poet’s Journal by Bernard Friot. I’m not sure if this book is still in print, but I had no trouble tracking down a used copy, and it was worth the hunt. This book contains 365 writing prompts, one per page, with space to write and doodle. The pages are illustrated with inspiring art, quotes, and poems. An aspiring poet could immerse herself with a year of poetry self-study.

I’m not sure yet if that’s a journey I’m about to embark on. Let’s dip our toes in with the writing prompt from Day 1:

Let’s start by writing. That’s right –

Write your first poem of the year using

The following words:

Write – first – poem – year.

If you need a nudge, read the bottom

Of the page.

 

You can write a “list poem” beginning

With one of these phrases:

In one year . . .

I will give you . . .

A poem for . . .

Posted in Creativity, Jennifer, MFA, Poetry, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing, Writing Excercise | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Rebirth

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(Photos by Matt Hussung)

Solar Eclipse fascination escalated to total frenzy in the days leading up to August 21. Who had solar glasses? Were they off the right list? Which schools would watch the eclipse? Would my home be in the totality zone? What did the weatherman have to say about cloud cover?

Not so many people were talking about the meaning of an eclipse. In may cultures, it’s a time of rebirth, a day to step into a new phase of your life.

Eclipse day was my first day as a full time writing student.

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No, I didn’t plan for those two events to coincide. After juggling family, work, school, and medical issues for a full year, I was forced to accept I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do at the same time. I’d worked so hard for my BS in Civil Engineering, MS in Structural Engineering, PE License, and SE License that of course it was a no brainer to give up writing to focus on the career I’d been working at for over fifteen years. Except I surprised everyone, including myself, by doing the opposite. I resigned from my day job to focus on finishing my VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adult.

The response to this announcement was more supportive than I expected. A co-worker even called me from his construction job to give me his encouraging advice:

(1) Not everyone has the ability to quit the day job to pursue a dream. Embrace the opportunity and enjoy it.

(2) Don’t worry about what other people think. No matter what happens, you’ll have no regrets because you gave your dream everything you had.

On my first day working at home, I took my laptop and my solar glasses outside to our patio to watch the solar eclipse. The stubborn clouds refused to cooperate. While I waited for my brief glimpse of the partial eclipse, I listened to the SCBWI Podcast interview with Kwame Alexander. His wise advice, which he credited to his mentor Nikki Giovanni, helped me step into this new phase of my life:

 

“Always say yes.”

Get over your fears and try anything.

 

“Dance naked on the floor.”

Take risks and be your true, authentic self.

 

How are you going to make a living doing that?

“I didn’t know how I would do it, but I knew it was possible.”

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Cleaning Up The Trailer Trash Stereotype

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SCAN0190car2Tomorrow I depart for my third residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts WCYA. The dreaded critical thesis semester is about to consume my life – except I’m not really dreading it. I’m a structural engineer. Critical analysis and technical writing don’t scare me. I’ve had my thesis topic in mind for months, and I wrote three exploratory critical essays last semester. My thoughts are already organized into charts and tables.

jen swingsTo prepare for this challenge, I decided to read all of the Critical Thesis Prize Winners over the summer break. VCFA WCYA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, so that’s a lot of prize winners. The engineer in me was thrilled to see some of those winners use table of contents, numbered outline sections, charts, tables, and appendices. The writer in me was wowed by the diversity and depth of topics covered. Then one critical thesis resonated with me so strongly my heart hummed.

“Reconsidering the Trailer Park: Confronting Stereotypes of Rural and Blue-Collar Culture in Young Adult Literature and the MFA Academy” by Monica Roe from Winter / Spring 2014.

I wish this critical thesis were available for the public to read. I’d skip this blog post and give you a direct link. If you’re a VCFA WCYA student or alumni, I highly recommend this critical thesis. For those of you who are not, let me quote the two paragraphs that really resonated with me:

“Ask anyone from a lower-SCAN0182socioeconomic rural upbringing and you’re likely to find that they’re no stranger to hearing jokes and slurs about their background, whether directly or in passing. Besides being prevalent in popular culture as a whole, this tendency is surprisingly accepted in higher socioeconomic urban or academic environments, where many people who would never dream of mocking someone on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, skin color or disability status seem to find nothing untoward in openly making fun of those who grew up in a trailer or who speak with a country accent.” (Roe 3)

“If not honestly acknowledged and addressed, this trend risks a huge disservice to rural and working-class readers of young adult literature by continuing to provide them with derogatory and incomplete portrayals of their culture and community while re-enforcing existing stereotyped views widely held by more socioeconomically privileged readerships.” (Roe 5)

Until I read this critical thesis, I had not considered myself to have a marginalized identity element I could use as lived experience in my writing. But I do. Jennifer Kay Loescher, S.E., jen motorcycleP.E. and VCFA WCYA MFA student began her life as Jenny, a little girl who lived in a rural trailer park. I didn’t realize that aspect of my upbringing was a marginalized identity element mocked by others until I was older and no longer lived there. The first teasing didn’t occur until high school, and I didn’t really understand the stereotype until I was in college, surrounded by people from higher socioeconomic status.

I would like to say this issue has been addressed and corrected in the writing community since this critical thesis was written, but unfortunately I experienced a hurtful situation, much like the ones described in Roe’s critical thesis, in a writing workshop earlier this year. One creative writing piece had used the “poor white trash” stereotype in a way that really triggered me. I debated what to do. I’m not the type of writer to go on theSCAN0074 attack in a workshop. How could I nicely point out that a hurtful stereotype had been used without ambushing the author?

Before I worked up the nerve to say anything, another writer brought up the same sentence I had underlined. For a moment I was relived. Someone else would point out the issue. I didn’t have to talk about my upbringing. My relief dissolved when that writer complimented the author on that character and the great humor in the “poor white trash” set-SCAN0185up. The entire workshop collectively laughed at a stereotype of a rural person of low socioeconomic status.

I debated whether to ever blog about this incident. I like and respect every writer who was in that workshop, including the author of that creative piece. All of them felt strongly about writing across identity elements and wouldfamily photo2 never stereotype based on race, gender, sexuality, mental or physical disability. I could tell they seriously had no idea that mocking someone for their low socioeconomic status and rural upbringing could be as hurtful to the reader as a racist remark. It also never occurred to them that a rural person of low socioeconomic status might be
among the writers in their workshop.

Don’t worry, I’m not changing my critical thesis topic at the eleventh hour. Roe already did a fantastic job covering this issue. What this experience will likely do is impact my writing. My story idea with a rural setting will likely move up my priority list. The protagonist’s trailer park home is going to subvert this stereotype to show another reality, one that is rarely considered in children’s books: a happy home and a close-knit community in a rural trailer park.

I have only happy memories of my early years living in a trailer park. My parents were young, blue collar workers who bought a small home they could afford. Emphasis on the word ‘home.’ We were surrounded by other young families, which meant lots of kids for my sister and me to play with and lots of couples for my parents to socialize with. The only inherent danger I recall was tornadoes, because trailers don’t have a basement. The owner of the trailer park always welcomed the residents into his own basement whenever there was a tornado warning.

The trailer park where I grew up had a collective parenting mentality of looking after all the children. I haven’t experienced that mindset in any suburban neighborhood I’ve lived in since. Any of the moms on my street would punish me if I were naughty, but they would also help me if I were in need. Because everyone was of low socioeconomic status, there was a passing down of clothes, toys, and bikes among families. There was also a greater value placed on taking care of your belongings and appreciating everything you owned, which I do not see in the middle and upper class children I encounter now. Yes, that includes my own daughter and her friends. They are a product of their middle class socioeconomic environment.

Eventually my parents did save up enough money to build a more traditional house. It was a big adjustment for all of us to no longer have those neighbor kids and adult friends in such close proximity. We continued to get together with some of the families from the trailer park for years afterwards as they, too, moved on to larger homes. Many of those families, like my own, chose to stay in a rural setting near a small community, where there was a similar mentality and way of life as the rural trailer park.

Photos of my early childhood are limited because camera film was considered an expensive luxury for us at that time. I wanted to share the few of the photos I do have to give a brief ode to our happy home in a rural trailer park. In the ways that matter, it wasn’t much different from anyone else’s childhood.

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Subtext: Two Plus Two Equals A Reader Connection

Eons ago, at my first SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day Conference, I heard the popular writing tip “show, don’t tell.” That catch phrase should be writing advice to live by, except this wide-eyed newbie didn’t understand how to “show.”

I jumped to the conclusion “show means slow.” To me, telling was a summary that skipped the reader ahead in time. Showing must then mean slowing down to flesh out a scene. True, but that was only half of the equation.

The other half of the showing equation was missing from my writing: emotion. Adding emotional depth to the scene makes a connection with the reader. In his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How To Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Donald Maass said, “One secret ingredient behind effective showing can be summed up in this word: subtext. When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but it is evident anyway, that underlying feeling is the subtext.”

The concept of subtext finally solved the equation for me, or so I though. I had decoded the “show, don’t tell” advice, ten years after I first heard it. Yet my writing was still uneven. There was emotional depth in some scenes, but none in others. The reason: my understanding of subtext was only in terms of dialogue.

In her weekly e-mail newsletter, author Sarah Aronson discussed three levels of dialogue: “what is said, what is unsaid, and what is unsayable.” To me, the unsayable was the subtext – the only type of subtext I had figured out how to write. That meant my reader could only emotionally connect to my protagonist during scenes with dialogue. My writing remained uneven.

I discovered the final variable in the equation while reading The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass suggests writers “Add a detail of the setting that only your protagonist would notice, or that everyone notices but your protagonist sees in a unique way.” The key to showing subtext through description is the setting detail only your protagonist notices, but the writer must open the door for the reader by establishing why that setting detail matters.

From Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk, the “unifying theory of two plus two” is one method to establish why that setting detail matters. Readers enjoy figuring things out for themselves. “Don’t give them four, give them two plus two.” Don’t tell the reader how the protagonist feels about the setting detail she notices. Let the reader put two and two together so he can feel the subtext emotion himself.

Holly Black used setting description to show subtext in The Darkest Part of the Forest. Hazel’s mother came home from a thrift shop one day with a sword for her brother Ben and a baby doll for her. The problem: Hazel was the one who dressed as a knight to explore the forest, the one who desperately wanted a sword.

Ben’s sword beat any stick Hazel used to fight him. Frustrated, she noticed a machete in the tool shed and whacked the new sword with it before running off into the forest. In this scene, Black gives the reader two: Hazel’s jealousy of her brother’s sword.

After an incident in the forest where Ben has to save Hazel because her machete is an inadequate weapon, Hazel describes this setting:

“Hazel’s gaze went to the bank where she’d fallen, the gouges her scrambling had made in the mud, Adam’s rotting body and her dog’s limp one beside it, the buzzing of flies in the air above them, and something else, something that shone in the sunlight like a hilt. A knife? Had Adam brought a weapon with him?”

In a scene with a dead child and a dead dog, Hazel notices the glint of sunlight on metal. Black gives the reader two: Hazel cares more about finding a weapon so she can become a real knight than the death of her own pet or friend.

The subtext in this scene is not relief at surviving the hag attack or horror at the death before her. Two plus two adds up to four. Hazel’s jealousy of her brother’s sword plus her desire to find her own weapon at any cost add up to hope. Hazel hopes she’s finally found her sword. And she has. The reader is now emotionally connected and ready to root for Hazel on her quest to become a real knight who fights the evil of the forest.

In my own writing, I was stuck on a scene where my protagonist is alone in a town car. I needed the town car scene for pacing, but there was no one in the car for her to talk to. No way for the reader to understand how she was feeling. Or was there?

I had already given the reader two in an earlier scene:

            Still the crowd chaffed me. I didn’t find an open patch of pavement to hit my stride until the Wrigley Building, the historic tower with the giant clock face. Probably the only non-digital clock still ticking in all of Chicago – other than Dad’s watch on my wrist.

My protagonist, Kat, notices a ticking clock. She is running out of time. The subtext is anxiety. Kat is also wearing her dad’s watch. The reader knows from an earlier statement that his funeral was four months ago. The reader wonders why this teenager is on the run so soon after her father died. An emotional connection begins to form.

Kat was right to be anxious. Two mob goons catch her and toss her in the back of a town car. She’s being forced to visit the mob boss. The reader needs to know how Kat feels about this meeting. Yet she’s alone. Dialogue can’t reveal the subtext. Instead, I needed to use description of the setting to convey subtext. What was the item only Kat would notice in the town car? A bottle of her father’s favorite liquor.

I grabbed the bottle to check the label. I’d expected Schlitzer. Der didn’t settle for anything less than the best. To him, Deutsch ist am besten. The older and purer the better.

            Scapa. The label said Scapa.

The bottle trembled in my hand. I read the word again, because that couldn’t be right. Der hated Scotch, wouldn’t lay hands on anything Scottish, except maybe Chrissy.

The cork squeaked as I wiggled it back and forth, prying it out of the bottleneck. Who’d uncorked Scotch in this car with no door handles?

Two plus two equals four. Kat’s anxiety plus finding an open bottle of her father’s favorite liquor in the back of the mob town car with no door handles adds up to a suspicious death. The reader feels the subtext: suspicion. The reader worries Kat is being taken to a mob boss who may have been involved in her father’s death.

Now this scene in the town car matters. The subtext of the protagonist’s setting description has forged a connection between the reader and the protagonist.

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Can Kids Relate to Structural Engineering?

I never thought my day job as a structural engineer designing bridges would ever intersect with my dream job writing for children. Right-brain pursuits never cross paths with left-brain projects. Yet somehow they have, with a little help from my VCFA advisor. Cynthia Leitich Smith nudged me in the direction of narrative nonfiction. She thought my credentials as a licensed Structural Engineer and Professional Engineer made me uniquely qualified to write nonfiction picture books about bridges.

My first thought (which I blurted out at our meeting): Nonfiction is boring. I didn’t like it as a kid, and I don’t read it as an adult unless it’s research.

Wise Cynthia asked me, “Have you read narrative nonfiction?”

I had not.

Have you?

Spoiler alert: It’s not boring!

Biographies of historical figures are very popular in the narrative nonfiction market, but there is a real desire for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics as well. Even a very dry topic like Structural Engineering can be conveyed to kids in a compelling way through the use of a child protagonist connected to the structure and a glimpse into the landscape of the time and place the structure was built.

Yes, this revelation birthed another critical essay. No, I won’t bore you with my actual critical essay. Instead, here’s a list of the narrative nonfiction and traditional nonfiction books I’ve been reading this month. I’ve zoomed in on the topic of bridges, but there are great nonfiction picture books out there on so many topics.

Guess who is researching her first narrative non-fiction project right now.

Spoiler Alert: It’s a fascinating structure nicknamed Galloping Gertie.

Bunting, Eve. Pop’s Bridge. Illus. C.F. Payne. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Curlee, Lynn. Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2001.

Editors of Yes Mag. Fantastic Feats and Failures. Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2004.

Finger, Brad. 13 Bridges Children Should Know. New York: Prestel, 2015.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building. Illus. James E. Ransome. New York: Dragonfly Books, 2012.

Hurley, Michael. Landmark Top Tens: The World’s Most Amazing Bridges. Chicago, IL: Raintree, 2012.

Johnmann, Carol A. and Elizabeth J. Rieth. Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build, & Test. Illus. Michael J. Rieth. Nashville, TN: Williamson Books, 1999.

Mann, Elizabeth. The Brooklyn Bridge: The story of the world’s most famous bridge and the remarkable family that built it. Illus. Alan Witschonke. New York: Mikaya Press, 1996.

Prince, April Jone. Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing. Illus. Francois Roca. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Sayre, April Pulley. Woodpecker Wham! Illus. Steve Jenkins. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015.

Ratiff, Tom. You Wouldn’t Want to Work on the Brooklyn Bridge! An Enormous Project That Seemed Impossible. Illus. Mark Bergin. New York: Franklin Watts, 2009.

Richardson, Justin and Peter Parnell. And Tango Makes Three. Illus. Henry Cole. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2005.

Ritchie, Scot. Look at That Building!: A First Book of Structures. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2011.

Tate, Don. Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers, 2015.

Tonatiuh, Duncan. Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2014.

Posted in Engineering, Jennifer, MFA, Picture Books, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Moody Edges

I just finished my first packet of my second semester of VCFA WCYA. (Insert virtual high five’s all around). My new advisor’s feedback was very insightful. No surprises there. I have even more work ahead of me for my second packet as the writing bar has been raised even higher. I kind of expected that, too. What really shocked me: my advisor returned her feedback in only one day! Cynthia Leitich Smith – you’re awesome. I have no idea how you work so quickly.

Before I dive into packet two and am off grid for another month, I thought I’d share an excerpt from one of my critical essays. This topic has prompted a new writing game I’m calling Moody Edges.

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The Changing Mood of Edges

In her blog post “From Rough to Final: A Dissection of Revision,” Maggie Stiefvater explains, “The first line, to me, is about the purpose of the scene; the mood I’m trying to set; the ‘mission statement’ for the chapter. Edges – the first and last sentences of chapters, paragraphs, novels – are incredibly important for the work they do in the reader’s subconscious.”

Rita Williams-Garcia defines mood in her lecture “Tone, Voice, Mood” as “the emotion the writer seeks to evoke in the reader.” It differs from tone in that mood is all about the reader, not the writer. Tone, as defined by Williams-Garcia, is “the writer’s attitude toward his subject.” In many cases tone may be invisible in the narrative, but mood must always be present. Emotionally engaging novels use a change of mood from the first line to the last line of every scene, every chapter, and the whole novel to hook the reader and make him feel.

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I won’t bore you with the rest of my critical analysis of a sample text. Instead, try my new game, Moody Edges. I’m playing this afternoon with my own work in progress.

  1. Write down the first line of a scene / chapter / manuscript.
  2. How does that line make you feel? Why?
  3. Write down the last line of the same scene / chapter / manuscript.
  4. How does that line make you feel? Why?
  5. Did the mood change?

Hint: If the mood didn’t change, you probably don’t need that scene.

Or you have some revising in your future.

Happy Writing!

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The Rule of 10,000

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I’ve finally made it back from Residency, recovered from the stomach flu that hitched a ride home with me, and dug my way out from under the To Do List avalanching my desk. And now, to relax, I’ll dive into Packet 1. For my awesome new advisor: Cynthia Leitich Smith!

I know, homework packets are not everyone’s idea of fun.

If they’re your idea of fun, though, you’re probably curious what happened at Residency. What prompted over one hundred writers to trek to Vermont in the winter to live in dorms, brave the cafeteria food, and put their home lives on hold for two weeks?

The short answer: Magic.

The longer answer: What happens at VCFA stays at VCFA.

Sorry, but that’s the truth. Students in the Writing for Children and Young Adults Program work very hard to be admitted. Then they invest serious time and resources into a full time graduate program that requires a 25 hour per week commitment. Plus, to be honest, you really do have to experience Residency first hand to understand the magic of this program. There is no golden nougat of wisdom handed out at Residency that will publish your book.

What I can share: The Rule of 10,000.

The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill. Writing included. The VCFA low-residency program is modeled after this concept. Students invest many, many hours in reading, writing, and analyzing children’s literature.

As I make my plan for the semester, I’ve been reflecting on my pre-MFA self. She desperately wanted to take her writing to the next level, but didn’t know how. She didn’t have the time or resources to attend an MFA program. Are there things I know now that might have helped her? Yes.

Here are the key ingredients to the Magic of VCFA:

  1. The Faculty!

That’s what draws the students to Hogwarts. There’s a faculty list on the VCFA WCYA website if you’re curious who I’m talking about. Each of them are award-winning authors with books you could read. Many of them also blog. Some speak at conferences or teach workshops open to the public throughout the year. Even if you don’t have access to these particular faculty members, there are many other amazing writing teachers who host workshops.

  1. The Annotated Bibliography.

Commit to read ten books per month. Read broadly.

What does that mean?

This semester I’ll be reading 1 writing craft book, 2 picture books, 2 middle grade novels, 1 graphic novel, and 4 young adult novels (on average) each month. At least one must be originally published before I was born. At least one must be originally published outside the United States. At least two must involve a diverse identity marker. I also like to include a mix of contemporary and speculative fiction. That’s broad.

Reading these books is not enough, though. Annotate them. Think about writing craft techniques you notice. What do you like? What didn’t work for you as a reader? Take the time to write these thoughts down and learn from them.

  1. The Critical Essays

Pick writing craft topics that would inform your work and research them. Students write critical essays citing example texts, writing craft books, recorded lectures, etc. First semester students write two 3-5 page essays per month. Second semester students transition to one 8-10 page paper per month. Third semester students pick a topic they feel passionate about and write a critical thesis.

Do you need to write these formal papers if you’re not a student? No, of course not. But you do need to admit to yourself that there are writing craft skills you need to work on. And then invest the time in learning more about those topics.

  1. The Creative Pages

The best way to learn to write is to actually write, but more importantly to revise and learn from critiques of your work. Students produce 25-40 creative pages per month. Part new material and part revision. Even if you don’t have an awesome faculty advisor to critique your writing, you could still find a critique group or writing workshop to attend.

This advice won’t magically guarantee a publishing contract. Neither will a completed MFA. What it will do: get you on the path to 10,000 hours of learning to write well.

 

 

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New Year! Same Goals!

This weekend I’ll be packing my bags to return to VCFA, also known as Hogwarts.

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Can’t wait to be reunited with this group of amazing and talented writers.

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Really excited for my first Focus Workshop: Writing the Other taught by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Check out her blog Cynsations if you’re interested in learning more about Writing the Other, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and #OwnVoices.

And yet, my 2017 goals are exactly the same as 2016.

1)   Healthy, happy family and friends.

2)   Growth as a writer on my path to an MFA and (hopefully) publication.

3)   Free time for art and creative pursuits.

If you’re a writer, you already know mastering writing is a life long pursuit. And the publishing industry moves at the pace of a slug stuck in the mud. If you put all your hopes in a resolution to publish this year . . . then the next year . . . and every year after, you will become very discouraged.

Instead, let’s celebrate the little goals and accomplishments.

For me, 2016 was the year I joined the VCFA WCYA family of writers. I’ve never encountered such a welcoming, encouraging group. I explored many formats of writing for young readers. The two keys to success in this area of writing: flexibility and play.

2017 will be the year I return to my first love: YA Genre Stories. Can’t wait for the (chicken) sorting hat to select my next advisor for that leg of my writing journey.

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Super Hero Writers

Last weekend Super Heros flew to Chicago to gather for SCBWI Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day. This year my conference posse grew from two writers to four, including one of my VCFA classmates. We happened to sit in the Maw-ha-ha section of the audience, but there are no villains in writing and illustrating for children.

Only Super Heros!

This year we kicked off the day with an inspirational keynote by author / illustrator Don Tate. If you aren’t already familiar with his work, check it out. I especially loved how his artwork grew and changed over time into his own unique style. New this year was a Skype keynote by Kirsten Cappy of curiouscity.net on finding your audience, advocates, and being an ally in book marketing.

In my breakout sessions I learned about The Enigma of Voice from agent Linda Pratt, How Motivation Drives Story from Viking Children’s Books executive editor Kendra Levin, and Revising and Editing MG / YA from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers assistant editor Nikki Garcia. All wonderful presenters that I’d recommend if you ever have an opportunity to see them speak.

As always, there was learning for all levels of writers and illustrators, even those returning to the conference for the sixth time like me. I am always struck by what a vibrant, creative, FUN community SCBWI is, more so this year because I attended a much drier (but also very important) structural engineering bridge conference earlier in the week.

This year at Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day there was one Super Hero that kept popping up in every session and conversation: Diversity! Or “Writing the Other,” as it’s more frequently called in writing circles. This topic is more than a trend, it’s a new frontier the publishing industry has embraced.

I was glad to hear about the SCBWI-Illinois Diversity Initiatives, such as the auction of John Parra’s painting FRIDA on their website, the Diversity Has Many Voices buttons for sale at their events, the Diverse New Member Pathway, and the Many Voices Outstanding Manuscript Prize. It was also reassuring to hear the big publishing houses all have diversity committees focused both on their employees and their authors / illustrators.

Change is slow, but know that progress is being made.

In my own writing life, I was recently selected for the Writing the Other focus workshop at my next VCFA MFA WCYA residency. Exciting, yet frightening. To prepare for this workshop, students will read diverse children’s fiction as well as online discussions of Writing the Other. Identity markers in diverse books include race, religion, sexual orientation / gender identity, physical disabilities, mental health disabilities, body type, generation, socioeconomic class, etc.

To prepare myself for this focus workshop, I’ve been listening to VCFA archived lectures on Writing the Other as well as checking out great resources available for everyone:

TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Blogs: A is for Aging, B is for Book, Disabilities in Kidlit, Reading While White, Latinx in Kidlit, etc.

Article: 12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” (And The Self) by Daniel José Older.

Magazine: The Writer’s Chronicle: October / November 2016 Edition theme is Writing the Other

Book: Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

Whatever form of media you prefer, this important information is out there.

Inform yourself.

This week especially, after an election that has divided our nation and struck fear in a large percentage of our population, have empathy for your fellow Americans and listen to their many voices.

Posted in Jennifer, MFA, Prairie Writer's Day, Publishing, Reading, SCBWI, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off