The Highlights Foundation Magic

Visiting Highlights Foundation for the first time is much like entering an enchanted forest, the leaves dripping with writing magic. Three nonfiction story ideas were born in my little cabin in the woods. Several familiar Illinois and VCFA writer names were spotted in the Cabin #10 journal, reassuring me that I was among friends. Drastic revision of my narrative nonfiction project occurred. Even more powerful: the community of writers who gathered in The Barn to share their love of KidLit nonfiction.

My Tell It True workshop was taught by Leda Schubert and Tod Olson, with Skype visits by Steve Sheinkin and MT Anderson. Editor Kandace Coston also visited in person. If you have the opportunity to hear any of these nonfiction experts speak – take it! So much wisdom and encouragement was packed into our four days together.

My first revelation: Nonfiction picture book biographies are super popular right now.

Okay, maybe that should have been obvious based on the nonfiction picture books being published right now. For this workshop, students were asked to submit a narrative nonfiction piece for the group to critique. What surprised me: almost everyone submitted a picture book biography. I thought I was in the beginning stages of researching a middle grade piece, but my workshop group disagreed. I had also submitted an early draft of a picture book biography.

How did they know?

Research constraints. The primary source documents available for most of the historic women in engineering I’ve been researching are mainly newspaper and magazine articles from their adult lives. There are no letters, memoirs, interviews, or transcripts of the key scenes in these women’s lives. These women are also no longer living, so the opportunity to ask them questions is gone. In some cases there is so little information that a woman’s story is lost to history. I selected the woman on my research list with the most primary sources, but it is likely enough for a picture book, not a middle grade story.

Here’s why I can write a picture book biography with less primary sources than what is required for middle grade:

  • Picture book biographies have more summary than scene, with many of the scenes shown in the illustrations rather than described in the narrative. Why? A tight picture book word count, and the strict nonfiction requirement that all text have sources to document it.
  • Dialogue is often not used in picture book biographies, avoiding the tricky question of how to document what exactly was said in historic conversations.
  • Little internal monologue is used in picture book biographies, once again because of the tight picture book word count and the strict nonfiction requirement that all text have sources to document it.

There must be voice, character emotion, and conflict to tell a nonfiction narrative story – of course – whether it is a picture book or a longer biography. For middle grade or young adult, this story must be told primarily in scene.

It surprised me to hear every one of the authors who write middle grade or young adult nonfiction mention a story they were passionate about but had to walk away from. Why? Not enough primary resources to develop the key scenes, or not enough scenes that kids will find engaging and connect to.

My second revelation: The personality of the biography subject is super important.

The best picture book biographies don’t use a bland narrator voice spewing out chronological facts. Narrative nonfiction is a story, not a history textbook. The narrator voice can bring a subject to life, especially if that voice is inspired by the personality of the subject.

It is also very difficult to impose the author’s preferred narrative structure on a person’s life. Real life timelines are very different from narrative storylines. Reading about the subject’s life and getting to know his personality will bring out a structure that best fits that person’s story.

The picture book biography comparison our group kept coming back to was Handel: Who Knew What He Liked versus Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd. Both were written by MT Anderson, both are picture book biographies of composers, and yet they have completely different narrative voices and structures. We asked MT Anderson why. His response: the two composers had very different personalities.

My third revelation: I will find a narrative nonfiction story idea that is not a biography.

My workshop group probably thought they were encouraging me that I was on the right track. My story is a picture book biography, which might be an easier sell in the current market. They are correct. I have begun significantly cutting the text with the use of a picture book dummy, thanks to Leda’s wise suggestion.

What my workshop group had in fact done was lay down the challenge for me to find a non-biography STEM topic with enough research materials available to write middle grade narrative nonfiction. Challenge accepted! A few ideas were already germinating during my long day of travel back to the real world.

My fourth revelation: I must return to the Highlights Foundation. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Posted in Highlights, Jennifer, Kandace Coston, Leda Schubert, Middle Grade Books, MT Anderson, Nonfiction, Picture Books, Steve Sheinkin, Tod Olson | Tagged | Leave a comment

Tapping Into Your Creative Inner Child

This fall author / illustrator Lynda Barry has fueled my creative fire. She generously shares her teaching materials and encourages others to follow along with the UW-Madison courses she teaches by sharing her syllabus, exercises, and homework assignments on Tumblr under The Near-Sighted Monkey. Making Comics is her current class, and I’ve been following along.

Much of Lynda’s teaching involves turning off the analytical half of the brain to tap into the creative half of the brain. The goal: Finding my inner child, who fearlessly plays without worrying about whether she is good at drawing or too old to use crayons.

I recently watched my daughter cross the threshold from “I’m an artist” to “All I can draw are stick people.” This experience really made Lynda’s work resonate with me.

As you may already know, I have a very analytical brain that is difficult for me to turn off. Since my MFA graduation, my analytical brain has led to much fiction revision, many new nonfiction pages, structured lesson plans, and planning for a new SCBWI Network. My analytical brain is very productive. It has also caused a drought of new fiction pages, because I’m overthinking the story instead of feeling it and playing creatively.

How can I turn off that analytical brain? By starting a Lynda Barry style journal. The emphasis on What I Did, What I Saw, Quotes I Overheard, and Questions I Have is designed to help you notice the world around you. There is also a drawing / coloring component that taps into your inner creative child.

The first assignment was to trace your handprint, a task many of us did as a child, on the first page of your journal. This is a place to write your name, the date, and assign yourself a writing alias for the semester. It also allows you to see yourself reflected in the page.

My creativity was apparently dying to be released. The simple one-page assignment took over two pages of my journal and became a full color doodle.

The creativity was contagious. My daughter decided to start her own journal. She asked me to draw for her, to get past that “I’m not an artist” barrier, but the picture she described to me was clearly artistic and creative. Her alias as a giraffe was a perfect fit.

Yet the only alias to inspire me was an owl, an animal known for its wise thinking ability. Perhaps my analytical brain hasn’t quite been turned off yet. More drawing and coloring are clearly needed.

Posted in Art, Creativity, Jennifer, Nicole | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Tapping Into Your Creative Inner Child

Post-Grad Revelations

Last month I checked a few major writing milestones off my bucket list:

1) Delivered my graduate reading of my young adult science fiction work-in-progress, Eraser.

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2) Presented my graduate lecture, Shift That Narrow Trend Line into a Scatter Plot of Possibilities: Crafting a Wider Range of Authentic Lesbian Protagonists in Middle-Grade and Young Adult Novels. It will be on the Commons soon for VCFA students and alumni to listen to. If anyone else is interested in the topic, I’m happy to share a copy of my critical thesis on the same topic.

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3) Graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults!

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4) Vacationed in Vermont with my family to relax and celebrate after two years of hard work and sacrifices. There were a serious number of maple creemees involved in that celebration, but also lots of nature, laughter, and love. Believe it or not, my extremely supportive husband even agreed to ride a horse for the first time.

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Now I’m back home, starting the adjustment to life after the MFA. It’s funny how you don’t appreciate the way an MFA program breaks the writing life down into manageable pieces until you’re facing an endless horizon that is deadline free.

Semesters.

Packets.

Book annotations.

Critical papers.

Creative pages.

Writing Prompts.

Revision comments.

My family definitely does not miss all of those stress-inducing words, but I might. Writer Jen is now bobbing in her canoe in the middle of a still lake, unsure which shore the wind will push her toward.

Post Grad Revelation #1: No writer spends all her time writing. 

As my classmates and I discussed our many post-grad goals and dreams during our last residency together, it occurred to me that there are many variations of what it means to be a writer. In pretty much all of them, that writer is juggling at least two full time jobs. Here are some of the many combinations I heard about:

Writer + Illustrator

Writer + Teacher

Writer + Public Speaker

Writer + Editor

Writer + Book Reviewer

Writer + Book Seller

Writer + Librarian

Writer + Pre-MFA Day Job

This last one somehow gets the lowest status, but is, in my opinion, the most difficult combination to juggle. If your pre-MFA day job is an analytical STEM related career, such as Structural Engineering, it is unlikely you will find others who are juggling that same combination of work. In my experience, it is also unlikely the people in either of those two worlds can relate to or understand the demands of your other world.

Working in the overlap of that venn diagram can be a lonely place. But it can also be an asset because you have a unique skill set from your day job to bring to your writing. For me, that involves crafting girl characters with STEM interests who break gender rules in my fiction and writing about the female pioneers of structural engineering in my nonfiction.

What combination do I envision for myself? My MFA qualifies me for Writer + Teacher, which I’m excited (and a little terrified) to try. Writer + Editor appeals to me, too, but might require further education. I have my eye on a great one-month summer program, but have promised my husband we won’t be paying any more grad school tuition (for at least the next year).

Post Grad Revelation #2: Regarding the Structural Engineering Day Job 

The most commonly asked question since I graduated from VCFA: When do you start back at your structural engineering day job?

Not whether my young adult manuscript is completed (It’s half-finished).

Not how my nonfiction proposal is coming along (It’s ready).

Not the status of the many queries I’ve submitted for picture books, magazine articles, and short stories from my creative thesis collection (I’ve been doing revisions for an interested magazine editor!)

There is this assumption that my structural engineering career is my real career that I must hurry back to, while writing should resume its hobby status.

The answer: Jennifer does not have plans to return to her structural engineering career. Yes, she is still a licensed Structural Engineer and will maintain her credentials. No, she will not be designing any bridges in the near future. For fifteen years, I used writing as a skill in my structural engineering career. I’d like to take a few years to see if I can use engineering as a skill in my writing career.

Right now, that means I’m going to give Writer + Teacher a try. This fall, I’ll be teaching a community creative writing workshop that is an introduction to the age levels and formats of writing for children. If you live in the Rockford area, check out the listing in the RVC fall catalog. I’ll also be an SCBWI Network Rep, working with my local critique partner to set up the first SCBWI Rockford Network. And I’ll be writing, of course.

Post Grad Revelation #3: Many Roles Require Many Goals 

After two weeks back at home, I barely feel settled into my new post-grad writing routine. What have I been up to? Flipping through two years worth of notes on lectures, workshops, and writing craft books. Sorting out the items that will be most helpful to Writer Jen and Teacher Jen. Most importantly, making goals.

What immediately follows those goals? The To Do list.

For me, the Writing Super Star has been a key component to making those goals and establishing the first steps on my to do list. It looks something like this:

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This little guy has been popping up all over my journal. First, I had to establish the five main categories of my writing goals: fiction, nonfiction, art, teaching, and SCBWI Network. Once I had those categories established, it was easy to doodle a star and put a goal next to each star point.

SCBWI Network: Send out survey to SCBWI members in the Rockford area to ask what would be most helpful to them at a network meeting. If you live in the area and didn’t receive our survey, please let me know. We hope to schedule our first meeting in September.

Teaching: Course listed in RVC catalog. This goal came with pretty firm deadlines to apply to RVC, fill out the course description paperwork, and now to prepare the lesson plans. It is the most structured of my star points, which is something I really needed to remind me that writing and teaching are now a job.

Art: Right now this star point is about making time for art again. I’m not ready to illustrate anything yet, but I have ideas of projects I could illustrate, and I’ve been learning and practicing. This star point is the least urgent for me, my one fun category, which is also something I really needed.

The last two star points, related to my actual writing, are the most difficult to set goals for. So much of publishing is out of the control of the author. The only things I can control, and set goals for, are the projects I want to write and the dates I’d like to have each draft completed.

At VCFA I discovered a key aspect of how I write best: I need both short projects and long projects in progress at the same time. Short projects allow me breaks from the marathon of my longer projects. They also give me something to finish and submit when the completion of my longer projects feels like an eternity away. I’ve also learned that finding someone with a similar goal really helps you stick to your own goal and gives you someone to swap pages and critique with.

Nonfiction Short Goal: Picture book biography of Olive Dennis to swap with an awesome VCFA classmate. Research is already underway.

Nonfiction Long Goal: Query middle grade nonfiction scrapbook proposal about Elmina and Alda Wilson. The nonfiction proposal is ready!

Fiction Short Goal: Write a short story to meet a specific anthology theme to swap with an awesome VCFA alumni. I’ve been wanting to practice writing to a specific prompt and am so thankful I found the perfect person who shares this goal. We’re starting with a middle grade mystery.

Fiction Long Goal: VCFA Writer’s of the Lost Arc pact to finish by year-end. “Finish” means different things to everyone in my class, but it is awesome that we have a group of writers who are so eager to support each other. My goal is to finish a first draft of my young adult science fiction manuscript.

Will we also see Jennifer posting on this blog more than once per semester now that she has graduated?

You may have noticed the blog isn’t a point on my writing super star, but my fingers are crossed that you will hear from me more often.

Posted in Creativity, Engineering, Family, Jennifer, MFA, Nature, RVC, SCBWI, Teaching, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Open Question

My first revelation of 2018 is that MFA programs have magical time slip powers. I last blogged in September when my third semester at VCFA was just getting started and I had taken on the challenge of writing a pretty complex, lengthy critical thesis. I blinked, and now it’s a new year and about to become a new semester.

Where did all that time go? There wasn’t a lack of things to write about. I had many great personal and professional events and revelations during that time. I attended the SCBWI MI Fall Conference and the SCBWI IL Prairie Writer’s Day with a great group of writers and learned so much. I ventured into the suburbs three times for awesome author events at Anderson Bookstore. I watched my daughter’s love of the arts expand as she played the saxophone in her first band concert. My husband and I braved the freezing Chicago winds to see Hamilton. I read so many books there isn’t enough laptop battery life to tell you about them all. I also wrote creative pages with more depth, heart, and nuance than I’ve ever accomplished before. And yes, I did conquer that critical thesis.

Now the creative thesis, and the New England blizzards, are staring me down. If my flight actually happens, I’ll be back at Brigadoon in five days preparing for another MFA time slip. I’ll graduate in July, and who knows what lies beyond that milestone.

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Of all the books I devoured over my Christmas Break, the one that most resonated with me was Deborah Heiligman’s young adult biography Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers. There is much to admire and analyze about the way she likened a biography to a portrait and used that extended metaphor in the novel structure, her writing craft, and her insights into the story of this remarkable brotherhood. But more than that, this story inspired me both as a writer new to nonfiction and as a hobby artist considering attempting illustrations for children. Vincent has inspired many, but his quieter, younger brother Theo stole my heart. The most resonant revelation for me, though, came from the author’s note:

 

Everyone has an opinion about Vincent van Gogh, an agenda of some kind. This was overwhelming. But I benefitted from two great pieces of wisdom at this time. My editor told me: “We want your tour of Vincent. Nobody else’s. When friends come to New York City,” she said, “I can’t take them everywhere. So I take them to my favorite New York places.”

And then, over lunch in a museum café, an artist friend said this: a work of art on a wall is an open question.

I thought about both of these things as I visited museums and looked at Vincent’s paintings. I looked at other artist’s paintings. And soon I realized that when we look at a work of art, we look at it from where we stand – who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve seen, how we feel. A work of art is an open question, a question that invites you in.

A life lived is also an open question.

When we look at a person – alive or dead – we do so from our own perspective. We bring our own particularly to art and also to biography.

 

Not everyone is a fan of New Year’s Resolutions. My husband, for example, believes that stating a New Year’s Resolution makes it sure to be discarded before the snow melts. He feels life changes are hard, and they require more commitment than declaring a drunken promise at midnight.

Perhaps a deeper way to consider personal growth and life changes is to consider:

          What is your open question?

          How is your current lifestyle helping or hindering your efforts to answer it?

          What do you want your biographer to select as the theme of your life?

Perhaps no one can clearly identify the open question in a life currently being lived. It’s sure to grow and change over time. What we can do is consider how we’d like to answer that open question and invite others into our lives.

I want the answer to my open question to be strongly rooted in:

Empathy, not Hate

Building, not Destruction

And all forms of Artistic Expression.

Posted in Creativity, Jennifer, MFA, Nonfiction, Reading, SCBWI, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing, Young Adult Books | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Open Question

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 on Talking Slower and Thinking Deeper

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.

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