Ramblings, secrets, and not so comfortable comfort zones

Warning: This post is a series of ramblings. Read at your own risk. And if you know my children, please don’t tell them that I rambled in public, for I know I will never hear the end of it. (I have often found myself telling my children (who like to talk, a lot) that some things are better left as thoughts and not really intended to utilize someone else’s fine tuned listening skills – for example, does everyone really need to know that the nubby on your left sock looks surprisingly like President Lincoln, and hey, didn’t someone sell a potato chip that looked like Ben Franklin for quite a bit of money on the internet, and maybe I can make a few bucks that way because I do believe that there is a beany boo out there that I might not own yet, so could you come here right this very second and tell me how anyone could possibly think this is not the spitting image of Mr. Lincoln himself?!) Seriously, I would be most obliged if the following ramblings could be our little secret.

So here’s how it started. A few weeks ago, I entered a writing contest and was reading the FAQ’s (frequently asked questions) to make sure I followed all the rules, when I stumbled across some curious information. While I had entered two novels and a picture book, I noticed that two out of three of the most entered categories were short story (2,000-4,000 words) and short-short story (less than 2,000 words). If you have never tried to write a complete story, this may not matter to you at all, but to get a whole story out, that seemed like a very small amount of words to me.

It made me remember back to the days when I started writing and joined a writer’s group. I wrote picture books (around 700 words) and broke into a sweat whenever I thought about writing something longer. That is until one meeting, when a well published children’s novelist said the unthinkable – she wanted to write a picture book to see if she could get a story across in such an unbelievably small amount of words. She went on to say that writing picture books was much harder than writing a novel…and people in the room agreed with her! What?! Harder?!

Now I am not trying to say any of these things is easy, but it got me to thinking that maybe I should try something longer, get out of my comfort zone. Then, a few weeks later, I got pushed (very kindly) out of my comfort zone when I took a picture book in progress to my friends for advice because I was having a hard time keeping my word count down. “This would make a great novel!” they said. Sheesh. Goodbye comfort zone.

It turned out, though, that with careful planning, lots of advice from friends, and a long life of loving reading novels, I was more prepared than I thought when I sat down to give it a try. That novel, The Runway, was a huge (and it turns out not impossible) accomplishment for me. I can also say it gave me the confidence to write a second one and in doing so has not only gotten me out of my comfort zone, but has expanded that zone.

So here I am, enjoying writing both novels and picture books, when I came across this short story comment in the FAQ section. Instantly, I was intimidated. I can imagine picture books because they have illustrations to tell the part of the story the words don’t, and I have novels to get out all the information I need…but a short story? No pictures? No ramblings? That doesn’t sound comfy. Not at all.

But it wouldn’t leave my head. And because it didn’t leave my head, I spent a lot of energy thinking about what makes a story and how I can fit one into a small space. Hmm, what makes a story? Personal connection, identifiable characters, something old in a new way, something new in an old way, unique point of view, insight into something common that is really not so common? My list went on and I kind of made a game out of adding ideas, until the other day, I was going through my desk looking for a story map I needed to review and I saw the corner of piece of paper. It had my name at the top written in pencil with the word Stokes underneath it. It was an assignment I did for a writing class in college, and believe it or not it was a short story. Now, I had never thought of it as a short story because that wasn’t technically the assignment, but that’s what it was and when I pulled it from the stack of papers on the desk I couldn’t suppress a smile.

The interesting thing about this paper was not really the grade (A+ yay!) or the assignment, but the reason I still had it, and it was really no surprise that it was right there. (It was actually so much a part of my desk that I had forgotten it was there.) The smooth corners of the papers and smudged pencil marks proudly told the story that this paper had been taken good care of and had been read many times. But not by me.

For seventeen years, this paper sat in a slot in my dad’s briefcase, where he once told me was a handy spot, because he always carried the case and it allowed him the opportunity to reread it whenever he wanted. (Parents are the best!) I didn’t realize until then that he had kept it for so long, and I have to say that his secret possession made me proud. It meant so much, in fact, that when he passed away, it wasn’t long before I asked if I could keep that briefcase, thus leading to the paper being on my desk where I could have the happy memory in my own handy spot.

The timing of this whole discovery couldn’t have been better and I instantly began searching for ideas. Being a music fanatic, I turned to my iPod, since in my opinion songs are the ultimate short stories, and began the search for inspiration, hoping this time to push myself out of my comfort zone. I settled on a combination of songs that have given me the right emotions to start my story.

Watching All The Cars Go By, by Keith Munslow – Gave me the idea to make the story about someone traveling to a place only revealed by cryptic description.
One Thing, by Finger Eleven – Gave me the idea to give the story a twist based on the one thing most people would give something up for and the way his motivation is different than expected.
The Last Kiss, by J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – I can’t reveal this connection:)

So my question for you as I embark on my short story (and my comfort zone cries out for help) is where is your comfort zone and what would make you push yourself out of it? What songs make you feel like they are a short story that you cannot forget? What do you feel most comfortable writing or reading and what intimidates you? (Science fiction intimidates me and I just put Ender’s Game on my nightstand.)

Today is a good day to scare the pants off your comfort zone:)

Happy writing!

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A Popcorn Party in a Silent Cafeteria

For the last few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about two things: bullies and quotes.

Good quotes have such a way of giving strength to words by using so few of them to make a point, and often, bullies use the same tactics. So as I ponder famous sayings to help me better understand the power of words, two quotes continue to rise to the top of the pile. Although both are well known, they are completely contradictory and I would like to know your thoughts on the subject.

Here are the quotes, merged into my thought –
If sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me…then how is the pen mightier than the sword? (First quote has various citations of origin, but the latter quote is by Bulwer-Lytton.)

I have to say that having been the recipient of very unkind words, I have never liked the first of those quotes, and while I try to let most things roll off my back, I have been searching my memory for words that have been mighty for me.

I have found them.

(Yes, I am going to talk about my students here – you must know this by now if you have read my other posts. I learned so much about life from those kiddos and I just wouldn’t be doing that knowledge justice if I didn’t pass it along for further thought.)

The story of the mighty words starts with a young girl, who was quite shy, in a room full of students who were the exact opposite. Example during my first week – I happened to call for a Tuesday folder from a student who had forgotten to turn it in, and was informed that it was forgotten as she hurled a chair across the room in anger. And she actually liked me. Yes, lots of stress and anger issues. Anyway, there were also several calm children in the room and one of them was named Stephanie. She was pleasant, always did what was asked of her and was kind when she spoke. Mostly, she visited with Kyla, another student in the room, who for some reason, everyone recognized how unbelievably nice she was and always treated her well. Stephanie, being more shy, was often lost in the shuffle.

I wish now that I had had more experience than a couple of weeks of teaching so that I could done more for her, but I will always remember what she did for me.

Believe it or not, for the first few weeks, classroom behavior actually had to take a backseat to lunchroom behavior. Whereas I required the occasional help from the principal and frequent help from my mentor, the lunch ladies often required help from officers. Yes, officers.

Needless to say, when the ladies put a colored card on the wall next to each teacher’s name monitoring progress to see who would win the popcorn party for good behavior, we always got the same color. We had so many red cards it looked like someone threw a can of paint on the wall.

In addition to the need for severe improvement, I felt horrible for the kids who had been good, so over the course the next few weeks, we tried many things. The effort that finally paid off, though, was to send only half the class to the cafeteria each day while the other half ate with me in the room, alternating groups each day. Over the time we spent together, we got to know each other (they were much better now that we had some personal connections), the calm, independent kids got to eat in peace, and the ones who struggled had a whole table to spread out at. By the end of the second month, the lunch ladies approached me with an idea. While we couldn’t win the party with all the extras, they wanted to invite us to the cafeteria after recess for just the popcorn to celebrate their progress. Yes!

The kids were ecstatic and with the stress of the past few months, we were all do for something positive. After recess, we (principal closely behind) entered the cafeteria and sat at our usual table, and much to my dismay, the noise level began to grow. There were some heated discussions about seating arrangements, now that the whole class was together again, the decisions of who should sit at the head of the table in order to get served first…aahh! My head started to spin with how quickly I could get us out of there. I placed them in seats of my choosing and decided to serve the popcorn to the quietest students first.  That worked for maybe a minute – although things did stay calmer. Then, I see popcorn begin to fly – seriously, I couldn’t believe how quickly they were ruining their moment – and as I walk over to retrieve a few people’s plates, a little voice calls out to me. “Mrs. Buckner, she took my popcorn.”

Popcorn flying, voices rising, seats changing, mind spinning, the smallest problem in the room was that someone had someone else’s popcorn. (This is the part where I cringe because I can’t believe what I said next, but I must say it, because if I don’t, I may forget what happened, and I never want to make this mistake again.)

“It doesn’t matter, I’ll get you a new plate.” There. I said it. It doesn’t even matter that what I meant was that I didn’t want her to worry, I would get her whatever she wanted or needed because I knew she was being such a great kid amidst the chaos.

That’s when she turned to me and said, “But, it matters to me.”

When Stephanie said those words to me, my mind blocked out all other sounds and the cafeteria became suddenly silent with the wisdom and power that they spoke.  The principal and I ended up with a few powerful words of our own for the people who needed to hear them, but after all that happened, I only remember her words.

Those are the mighty words I remember. They seem simple when said by themselves, but I think they say a lot for each and every one of us. When we think about hurtful things and bullies, we often think of the words that can make it better, help it make sense, or make it all go away. I think that is why I like quotes. When I was a teenager, I kept a binder of them and when things got rough, I would look through it and see if one fit what was going on. I usually ended up feeling better just rereading the bits wisdom.

So while this story is what made me think about powerful words today, there are many more out there. I would love to hear what quotes are important to you. Here are a few more of mine.

“It is alright to stand up for yourself, as long as you don’t stand on other people.”
– I got this out of a book and couldn’t find the title. I will update when I do.
“Listeners hear no good of themselves.”
– Proverb
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
A.A. Milne
“What you are will show in what you do.”
Thomas Edison
“But, it matters to me.”

Happy writing!

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Sincerely, Antoine’s Mother

Since I last wrote, I have been thinking about the other student I spoke of.  Although his story also begins on a day that is different, like Iankel’s, it is a story I will probably never know.  I can only tell you about the character – and what a character he was.

Unlike the year before, Antoine’s class was difficult.  Every year brought a few kids who had tough lives, and as a result, their needs were…complicated.  In Antoine’s year, that was over half the class.  (I had not seen a class like that since my first year, but that is another story entirely!)  Being a fifth grade teacher, I had heard for several years what worked and didn’t work for him and quite frankly, I was a little nervous.  He wasn’t the only one who would need a lot of attention and I worried that if I didn’t think of something, this boy would struggle through yet another year, and that did not sit well with me – not in the least.

So the first day of school, I prepared to meet the people I would spend the next nine months with.  I tried to plan things that were fun, yet challenging, arranged my room so that it was neat and organized but also comfortable, and I tried to remember to smile (it was a big day for all of us) so that they would know I was happy to see them.  I opened the door, and in walked Antoine.

With eyebrows raised in a questioning way, and a completely bald head, he walked right past me, into the room.  I couldn’t help but notice that each step on his left foot was high and each one on his right foot swung his body into a much lower position.  He was strutting.

“Heeyyy, Mrs. Buckner,” he drawled as he searched the room for the perfect desk.  (They already had names on them, but he didn’t seem to notice.)
“Good morning, Antoine,” I said.
He paused low in his strut and looked back at me. “You know my name?”
“Of course I know your name,” I said. “I’ve watched you grow up.”
He looked at me skeptically. I guess it didn’t occur to him that I might know something about him. He plopped into a seat in the back.
I walked over to where he sat and pointed to a desk by the opposite wall.
“I know this looks like a good seat, but I have a spot for you over there. You’ll be able to see the the morning work and the front board much better.”
He looked at me, I smiled. I waved my hand for him to follow. I knew he had a way of standing his ground, but before I reached the other seat, he passed me, pulled out his chair and began checking the other names at the table. Returning to greet the others, I left him to get settled.

The other students filed in, some rowdy, some quiet, and each found a seat waiting for them. I looked at the students, wondering how they felt, how the year would go, and ready to get started, I began explaining the first activity. It was a sheet with a list of fun facts and a blank next to each one. The students were suppose to get to know each other by finding a different person to fit each statement. They milled around talking and writing for about 15 minutes and then we shared some responses. Antoine didn’t share, but he had quite a few comments on what others said. For example,
“You can’t be a vegetarian – I see you puttin bacon bits on your salad!”
“Antoine, this part is for listening and learning,” I said. I had to stifle a smile though, because that student had already put her lunch in the tub and I could see a big salad through the clear plastic and a mysterious baggie filled with brown crumbles.

At the end of the activity, I gave each student a packet to fill out on what they wanted to do and learn this year while I looked over the questionnaires. I was curious to see which blanks Antoine signed his name in. I scanned the sheets, not finding his name on any of them. I had seen him writing, so I looked again. That’s when I noticed that several blanks had random words written in them. Like a puzzle, I pulled out those papers and tried to find a pattern. The words were written in a different blank each time, never the same word twice. Then a thought occurred to me. I took those papers and kept rearranging them until they made a sentence.

I’m just chillin on the bus makin rhyme with my cuz.

The sentence was clear. I don’t know why, but it struck me as funny and before I could help myself, I burst out laughing. I couldn’t stop. The students were all watching me and I still couldn’t stop. When I finally did catch my breath, I read some of the statements he’d signed his “name” to.
“Antoine, could you come back here for a minute?”
The class all watched him as he strutted back to my table and looked at me with his raised eyebrows. I pointed to a fact next to one of his “answers.”
“I didn’t know you liked spinach?” I said.
He looked at me and the papers spread out on the table. And then he smiled back. Not a sassy smile, but a conspiratorial smile.
“I can’t be divulging all my secrets,” he whispered.
I nodded. Yep, I recognized a good sense of humor when I saw one.
I pointed to some of the other responses he gave – I like to read, scary movies give me nightmares, math is hard, writing is fun.
“Me too,” I said. “I completely understand.” He lowered his eyebrows, nodded several times, and returned to his seat.  I couldn’t be sure, but it felt like progress.

For the next few weeks, I got to know Antoine quite well. A mixture of humor and changing the procedures a bit to fit his comfort zone was the way he made it through the day. He was far behind the class and it turned out that these skills were a way of saving himself embarrassment when he felt uncomfortable, and not a way of tormenting the other people in the class.

I chose to watch and learn.

When we had indoor recess and he convinced the boy with dyslexia and the bully, who never want to read, to play Pretty Pretty Princess, I knew there was more to the story.  I noticed that when they took turns reading the game cards, they often added their own words.  He was making friends with the one who could hurt him and the one who understood him.  And he was making fun, in a good natured way, of all of them at the same time.  And when we had a reader’s theater, he wanted the lead because making mistakes isn’t such a big deal when it looks like you are there by choice…and because of your enthusiasm, the teacher might overlook the fact that you improvise every time the words get hard.  Because of this new comfort zone, he doesn’t notice the real reason the teacher has for loving his improvisation so much is so that he won’t think anything of it when she has him write down his own version (difficult words included) and reread it for someone else’s class.

We each studied hard that year, and it paid off.  He made great progress…and he felt it.

Antoine was not the character that I expected when he swaggered into my class, but he was a character nonetheless.  He had strengths and weaknesses and a whole string of quirks, just as all good characters have.

So when I received a phone call from the office and listened to the message I would have to relay, it was not easy to hear.  (I began to notice a pattern here and wished I could start letting that phone ring off the hook.)

Antoine had come in that morning, just like always.  Smiling, joking, seeing what he could get away with.  We never talked about his home life and there was no need.  We both knew it wasn’t easy.  What I did not know that day was that he had spent the night with an aunt because the authorities had decided that his mother’s next few months would be spent in a county jail and they had picked her up the evening before.  For Antoine, this was another problem he would overcome.  My message to him was that his father, a man he hadn’t seen in years, had driven all night from Mississippi to Texas and was standing in the office waiting to take him home.  To Mississippi.  Antoine took the news like he took everything else.  In stride.

“Guess I finally found a way to get out of homework,” he said.
I looked at him and stifled a laugh, both of us knowing he had never done his homework.
“I think being home probably took a lot of work all by itself, didn’t it?”
He breathed out a little laugh and nodded. “That’s the truth right there.”
“He drove all night. Did I tell you that?” I asked.
“You told me. Kinda makes me wonder what was keeping him so busy all those other nights that he couldn’t have driven here on one of them.”
“That’s the truth right there,” I said. We both laughed at that. “Sounds to me like he’s going to be stuck in the car for a lot of hours tonight with a kid who has a lot of questions. You think he thought of that?”
“I hope he did,” he said. He zipped up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. “I guess this is it.”
“I guess it is. Will you make me a promise?”
“What promise?”
“That someday you’ll tell me how you keep finding better and better ways to survive this complicated life of yours.”
He lowered his eyebrows and nodded a slow nod. “We’ll see, Mrs. Buckner. But I can’t be divulging all my secrets.”
I hugged that little character and watched him walk down the hall until I couldn’t see him anymore.

It wasn’t until summer that I found out a little about how he was doing. His mother was released after school let out and as I packed my classroom for the break, my phone rang. It was Antoine’s mother. She told me that Antoine had really gotten to know his dad and had decided to stay with him for a while. In her new found quest to put him first, she had decided that that was the best thing for him. I smiled thinking he might be getting to settle down into a routine and thanked her for her call. That’s when she started to cry.
“I actually called to thank you. I have talked to Antoine a few times on the phone and each time he talks about you. He says you were the first teacher to ever make him feel like you liked him. I can’t tell you what it means to me to have my baby happy. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

I was glad to think that things were looking up for Antoine all the way around. He had a lot of days that looked like the end, that were really the beginning, the days of his story that were different. And like the ambitious kid that he was, he faced all of them head-on…the first day of class, the day his mother was taken, the day his father returned, and the day he chose to stay in Mississippi.

Strong characters don’t always realize the full impact of their choices, but they make them just the same. Mick Harte chooses not to wear his bicycle helmet, Theodosia chooses to follow the strange man, and Reynie chooses to go to the Institute.  What books do you love that have strong characters that create a day that is different from all the rest by a choice that they made?  My favorite right now is Hunger Games.

Happy reading!

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Iankel’s Voice

Every story (as told by my friend, Anna Myers) should start with the day that is different.

If you are like me and believe that writing mirrors life, than you probably look to the new year like a new story.  You make resolutions – some small and reasonable, some grand and eternally hopeful – in the thought that like a new story, the new year will start with the day that is different.  I like to think that resolutions are like wishes.  If you really believe in them, you will talk about them often, and when you talk about them often, you begin to own them.  Owning them means you have to care for them, nurture them in the way they deserve and in doing so, you greatly increase their odds of survival, and if you are diligent, they may even surprise you.

This year is five days old as I write this and I have made a few resolutions I hope to keep – get out of my pajamas more often (the curse of a dedicated writer), eat healthier foods (I plan to start by dipping them in my new chocolate fondue pot), and get at least two pieces of my writing out there in the real world.  Unfortunately, I cannot yet tell you more on this story because although I feel different, I have yet to experience the day that is different (I am still in my pajamas, chocolate covered celery is much better in theory, and map quest refuses to tell me the location of the real world.)

As I ponder ways to make my resolutions real, my mind wanders a lot to two of my former students and the days we shared that were different than all the others – the days they walked into my life, and the days they walked out.  I will tell you about one of those students now and one of them in my next blog.

My third year of teaching was wonderful.  I looped from fourth back to fifth and kept the same class, all except a few spots that seemed to have ever-revolving students in them.  One of those students was named Iankel, and if I were an artist, I could draw every detail of his friendly,inquisitive face.  The funny thing, though, is that it isn’t his face I remember most, it is his voice – a voice he only used once.

One Monday morning, Iankel walked into my classroom, nervous and silent.  His eyes scanned the faces in the room and his slow exhale showed a small amount of comfort at the thought that half the class probably spoke the same language he did.  I had been told that the previous Friday he had been in a completely different world, hundreds of miles away, with no idea that Monday he would be in a school in America.  I could only imagine how he felt.

I sat him next to a friendly boy named Edgar who was an amazing translator, and although I could read and do small math lessons in Spanish, most of the day was in English, a language he could not speak at all.  Edgar whispered as I taught and Iankel nodded and wrote his answers the way he would have in his old home.  I read a bit of his work as I passed his desk and was very impressed.  Edgar spoke great Spanish, but he struggled as a student.  I knew the answers Iankel gave were those of a top student and were his very own.  Not once that day did he smile, speak, or make eye contact with anyone.  I said what I could to welcome him in Spanish, but if he wouldn’t look at me, he couldn’t see me smile – couldn’t see how happy I was he joined us.  When he walked out at the end of that day, he was in a line of kids who wanted hugs.  Uncertain, I reached out to pat his back and say goodbye, but he hurried out the door.  My thoughts began to spin with things I could to do to make sure I was the teacher he needed.

That day was different for me because I had never encountered anyone like Iankel before.  Pulled from his home, his country, his language and friends and placed in my care mere days after the event.  I now felt responsible for helping him feel happy and connected to his new home.

Over the next few months, many things began to happen for my nervous, brilliant, silent student.  He was ahead of the class, so I often gave him more challenging work.  He devoured it.  I used the best Spanish I could and soon he began to nod in understanding for me the way he did for Edgar.  He began to play soccer with the boys and stopped for his silent goodbye at the end of everyday, and though he never reached out for a hug, and he never spoke, he was a new and happier person.

And then the unexpected happened again.

One day, after a lesson, I joked around with one of the kids and the others all giggled, but when Edgar went to translate…Iankel was already laughing.

He understood me.

Edgar and I didn’t share this news, for it wasn’t ours to share, but both of us enjoyed the comfort our humble friend seemed to feel at his newfound knowledge of English.

For two more months we enjoyed this new side of Iankel.  The one who laughed, began to look the kids in the eye, helped them work out math assignments when they didn’t understand – all while remaining silent.

Then came the second day that was different.  Iankel came into class, with the hint of a smile we saw more often upon his face.  The bell rang, and as I took attendance the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” said the secretary. “Does Iankel have his things ready?”
I looked at Iankel, who was always ready, but knew that couldn’t be what she meant.
“He’s ready for class, but what do you mean?”
“Is he packed? His parents are coming to withdraw him.”

She went on to explain that they were moving. That morning. I looked at Iankel, head bowed, writing answers in his journal for the questions on the board. Nothing had been different about that day until that very moment and I had a sinking feeling that Iankel did not know what I knew. I hung up the phone.

I went to Iankel and in the kindest, least trembly voice I could manage, told him about the call. His pencil stopped in the middle of a letter. His hand shook much like my voice. No, he had not known. Much to everyone’s heartache, we packed his things. The other students, his friends, said goodbye as he walked to the door with his his head hung low. When I reached out to pat his back, Iankel surprised me for the last time. He lifted his head, looked me right in the eye and hugged me, hard. With his face on my shoulder, I heard the softest of sobs…Iankel’s voice. It is a beautiful, sincere, voice, and I shall never forget it.

The day he walked into my life, was the day I began to really learn that language differences are not barriers, they are opportunities to learn to speak with your actions, and I hoped with our help he would survive the upheaval his life had thrust upon him.  The day he walked out of my life, was the day I realized that through our experience together, I learned more from him than he did from me, and though his sadness was deep, I knew he would survive this new upheaval that was thrust his way, because I knew him.

The stories, like Iankel’s, that I like most always start on the day that is different.  Harry gets his letter to Hogwarts, Prim’s name is called at the reaping, Artemis finds the fairy, Reynie reads the ad in the paper, a plane full of only babies pulls up to the airport gate, and Luke watches the trees in the forest around his house being cut down.

Today is the perfect day to to have something truly different happen – I hope you are ready!

What are your favorite stories and what is different about the day they begin on?  In the stories you write, or want to write, what is different about that first day?

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The Best Day Ever!

I know this sounds contradictory to the title, but sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes a bunch of them happen right in a row.  And sometimes, there is nothing you can do to stop them.

When I woke up at camp on a geology field trip in college, ready to explore some really neat rock formations in West Texas, I didn’t know how the day would really pan out.  My professor’s field trips were always interesting, so I had no reason to think that his (he had to be in his 80’s) energy and enthusiasm was about to be the death of me.  At that point, I also didn’t fear goats or horses or the bright warm sun, and I had never been knocked…you get the point.  I did not fully understand what was about to happen, but now that I do know, you are probably wondering – what would I do differently.

Let me tell you the story and then I will answer that question.

Early one summer…
In cars fully packed with gear and students, we headed to a farm my professor visited with his summer classes every year.  It was pretty far out and though it had no main fence, we had to enter through a type of gate I had never seen before.  Each driver pulled his car right up to it and bumped a little panel in the middle that unlatched it and swung it open just long enough for one car to pass through.  Very cool.  New things happening already.  (I am easily impressed.)

Through the gate, we drove to the farm house and watched a rather large group of goats eat while the professor let the farmer know we were there.  The goats turned their heads to watch us, like they all worked from the same mind.  Kinda cute.

Back in his van, the professor led us around a hill to the base of a cliff with a flat face and a small ledge that looked like a ramp leading you along it all the way to the top.  The ledge looked quite thin, but this was a class trip, so how dangerous could it really be?

“We’re going to look at the rock layers on the way up, and the hike will start when we reach the top,” said the professor. My group and I went to the trunk and retrieved our backpacks and our maps.  These maps were actually ariel photographs taken of the farm so we could see all of its features and find our locations as we hiked.  The professor had mounted them to thin, wooden boards so that we could each have our own.  They were three feet by two feet, and while they were difficult to carry, they were very detailed.  Shouldn’t be a problem. (I am also optimistic.)

Here’s where things got tricky.

The ledge actually was thin, but no problem.  We went single file, backs up against the cliff wall, photo boards held facing out.  This is where the saying “everything looks higher when you are actually up there” comes in to play.  I didn’t remember it looking so high from the ground.  No problem.  Close the eye farthest from the cliff and focus on the person in front of you.  This worked well until that person stopped, went to great pains to rearrange his belongings so that he was facing the wall and then flew two steps ahead.  What?  I opened my other eye. The ledge had a gap where it didn’t actually exist anymore and in this gap was a very small “tree” sticking out of the rock. My friend had actually grabbed the branch with his empty hand and swung across the gap. SWUNG ACROSS THE GAP!!!

“Professor,” I called. “I believe someone forgot a section of the ledge.”
“Ah, that’s the beauty of geology! You never know what you will find. Luckily the sediment caught a seed, so grab on and jump across!”
“Um. (Seriously, my grandma could have knitted a sweater in the time it took me to come up with a reason.) I can’t, professor. I am still holding the map.” (Who could argue with having to hold a map the size of a small child?)
“Good thinking! That’s what the other hand is for!”
I did not see that coming, but I probably should have. Unfortunately, I still didn’t believe I could do it. We were really high up at that point and I could not muster the courage. (Or the insanity.)
“Professor, thank you for the advice, but I really don’t think I can get across.”
“No problem! You’ve got your trusty map. Do you see where the top of this hill slopes down to a creek?”
I did.
“You go back past the farmer’s house, follow the path, and meet us there.”

That sounded like a plan. It happened to be a plan that involved me, my backpack, and my map, retreating down a ledge the width of a number two pencil, while somehow passing each of my classmates that had the misfortune of being behind me in line, but it was a plan, nonetheless, that didn’t involve me being Tarzan on a field trip. Retreat I did.

At the bottom, I pondered ways to become more graceful, as my trip down the ledge could not truthfully be described that way, all the way to the gate. The same gate that required the bumper of a car to bump the little plate. I was not in a car. But how hard could it be? I hit the plate. Nothing. I kicked it. Nothing. I karate kicked, body slammed, bull ran, and rammed my body into the gate. Nothing. Looking around in despair, I mocked the sign…which I then noticed referred to a hand lever. Sheesh. Really?

So I entered the field in front of the house and was greeted by the ever watchful herd of goats. They were so cute, and were not only chewing their grass in unison, they were watching me in unison. Cute little goats. So calm. So peaceful. Look they’re coming over. Hmm, all of them at once. Wow, I didn’t see all of the ones behind those tall bushes. That probably makes them an even hundred. And look at that, all coming to see me at once. That’s ok. I’ll just speed up. Hmm, who would have thought goats could walk that fast while chewing?

That is how I found myself running across a field, being chased by a hundred, chewing goats, and wondering just how deeply my maniacal entrance at the gate had offended them. Fortunately, while it appears I cannot outrun goats, I was able to reach the other gate before they caught up with me. This time, I chose to hurl myself over it, and although I used my usual lack of grace, it was quite a bit quicker than the other way.

(Fast forward through the next hour where I walked in the wrong direction, panicked, and drank all my water. I found out later that the photo map I was carrying had been taken approx. ten years earlier when there was still a small stream to follow. Would have been good to know.)

The next lovely set of wildlife I met was a pair of magestic looking (albeit mutantly large) horses grazing on the other side of a barbed wire fence. I looked on my map (this where I realize I am lost) and recognized the large rock formation in the middle of the pasture. I quickly figured out where I was and where I was supposed to be…on the other side of the pasture. No problem. It’s a long way off, but I’ll just cut through the pasture. Horses are pets, right?

So through the barbed wire I went. Snag. Wow, my backpack is much larger than the gap in the wire. That’s okay. That pocket was so small it was quite useless. Rip. No problem. I wore my worn out shorts, and a few years ago, a hole that size would have been fashionable. Scratch. Oh, that reminds me, I forgot to pack a first aid kit. Horses aren’t attracted to the scent of blood are they? Surely not.

Twenty minutes later, I was through the fence and I started to cross the field. More chewing. These horses had an uncanny resemblance to the goats. People don’t ride goats though, and these horses had long flowing manes. So pretty. I decided to walk around them and not disturb their meal. Hmm, seems as if they are curious. Hope I was right about them not being attracted to blood. As they approached, I realized that they are even larger, close up. I know I can’t beat them across the pasture, but I figured I could beat them back where I came from. So, backpack flapping, shorts blowing, blood running, I start thinking that getting to the fence might not be the problem…getting through it will be. No problem. I’ll just go over.

The story of me getting over the fence is too brutal for young ears, but I did learn a valuable lesson. Just because you don’t see the barbs on a barbed wire fence, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. My hands matched my leg by the time it was over, but I also confirmed that horses can’t climb fences. This is lucky. I’ll just walk around.

Two hours later (it was a freakishly large pasture – very spoiled horses), I found a hill that actually did appear on my map and it was the one I was supposed meet my class at. And yeah! There was the teaching assistant waiting with a big cooler of water! I hobbled up the hill to join her.

“Where have you been?” she asked.
It was a long story, so I just said, “I took the long way. Can I have some of your water?”
“Sure. You’re really red. Are you okay?”
“It’s just blood, I’ll feel better when I get a drink.”
“I didn’t mean the blood, I mean your skin. You are really red.”
I hadn’t noticed, but I was having trouble listening because of a strange tap, tapping noise right above me.
“Do you hear that?” I asked.
“Yeah, what is that?”
We looked up. Little black dots were raining down on us. What could they be? One landed on my hand. Closer look.
Within seconds they are all over us. They were already trying to climb in the top of our socks and under our belts. We were brushing, flicking, flinging, swatting, to no avail.

They tried to get in my shoes, so I flung them off. In my socks, toss them. The teaching assistant was doing the same thing and as we saw them squirming to get in our belts we tossed them too. It looked like we were on Little House on the Prairie and we were getting ready to go in the swimming hole – and this is the site that greeted my class as they finally made it over the top of the hill. Seriously.

We did what we had to. “Ticks!!! They’re everywhere!” At first I think they thought we were joking, but when we didn’t stop yelling they rushed over and pulled us out from underneath the trees and helped us “de-tick” ourselves (which is more humiliating than “de-cactusing” yourself – just trust me on this).

Cleaned up, packed up, watered down, and ready to go, the signs of heat exhaustion began to set in. I was dizzy and nauseous. The assistant wrapped my head in a wet towel and I envisioned getting back to the cabin and getting some rest. This is probably why I was able to muster the energy to half-jog to the cabin when we got back. Had I known how hard working the prairie dogs in West Texas are, I would have taken the time to look where I was running. I did not know that. It was fortunate that the prairie grass was high because I do not think the way I bounced when I hit the ground looked graceful. Not to worry. The towel acted as a helmet, so no problem there. Very lucky.

At the cabin, I showered (no remaining ticks thank goodness) and headed to the upper bunk I would call home for the night. There was only the slight obstacle of having to keep my luggage on the bed (thanks to the scorpion incident the night before), but no problem. A little hop over the bags, and… I am unclear as to exactly how it happened, but witnesses say I jumped directly into the ceiling beam and knocked myself out. It is amazing how deep you can dent your forehead without actually breaking the skin. That was lucky.

Anyway, that is the end of the story for my best day ever. How, you might ask? It’s simple. If I hadn’t had gone through everything I did that day, I would never have thought I could have survived it. Turns out, I am more resilient than I thought. And resilient is a pretty good thing to be.

Two months ago I began a picture book called The Best Day Ever, where Penelope Paloma Piper falls into the Grand Canyon. Anybody want to make a guess at some things she survives?


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The Memory Necklace

Everything has a story.

Around the age of ten, I started to notice things about people I hadn’t noticed before. Like how Michelle got to play outside way after dark and I had to be home by the time the streetlights came on. Lisa went on lots of vacations to places I dreamed of going. And how Molly had more pairs of designer shoes than I had socks. It is so easy to compare things when you don’t know the whole story.

I would point these things out to my parents sometimes and they would just say, “Hmmm…,” in a way that said they had a thought but weren’t sure they wanted to share it. In response, I would say something like, “You know, not many people are even out after dark, what could really happen?” (What was I thinking!?!?) Or, “Two weeks in Florida sounds fun. Can we go?” I wasn’t trying to compare myself to the other kids, but I was tossing the question, “How awesome are they?” around in my head quite a bit. I am guessing some of you have done this same thing at least once. You take one thing about a person, out of context, and assume you know more than you do. Michelle’s mom knows she’s big enough to take care of herself. Lisa’s family thinks it’s important to see exotic locations and meet new people. And Molly’s family knows how important staying on top of fashion trends is. Yeah, right!

Here are the stories I didn’t know then. Michelle’s mom had a new boyfriend who didn’t like kids, so the less Michelle was around, the better. Her mother didn’t even know where she was most of the time. Lisa’s father had an insane need to compete with his brother, who made 3x the amount of money he did, so he was in debt up to his eyeballs trying to keep up with all the stuff the other family did. Eventually, they lost their house. And Molly’s mother loved to visit with the other moms and tell all about her new job. All the travel, all the money, all the promotional events she planned and attended. She never noticed that while the other moms were talking about their kids and families, she didn’t mention Molly once. Not once.

I feel like a lot of the time, things are pretty clear cut, and are not this strange. But either way, there is always a story behind it. One of my friends recently told me a story of how she sped through traffic late one afternoon, getting around cars as quickly as she could, all the while she’s covered in paint with her hair piled haphazardly all over her head. And because she spent every moment making sure her family was attended to, she never paid much attention to the car she drove and it was quite old and much loved. Take a second a try to picture her.

Completely a mess, she is clearly not late for work. No children in the car, so no one is headed to the hospital. She looked like a dirty, crazy woman, speeding around town with no regard for anyone around her. Pretty clear cut, right? Well, the one thing they couldn’t see was the family cat draped across her lap, dying. And the one thing they didn’t know is how much hope this person held in her heart that if she could just get to the vet fast enough, it would all be okay.

The woman with the cat is still my friend today, but I haven’t seen the other three girls in thirty years. What I learned from their stories, though, has stayed with me and I hope I never forget that just because I don’t know the whole story, doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there.

Growing up, I learned many hidden stories from my friends, and grew to love them so much that I started looking for them everywhere. In biography shows, news reports, magazine articles. Unfortunately, those stories were harder to remember because I had no personal connection and they passed by me so quickly. The issue of not remembering every story that made an impression bothered my greatly…until my first year in college when I met someone with an idea, and more stories than I thought possible.

Mrs. Artista (I’ll tell you about the name in a bit.) stood at the front of a plain white room, under harsh, fluorescent lights, and facing at least 50 desks, full of students enrolled in an art history class. It was the least artistic room you could imagine. She welcomed us, telling a little bit about herself and how she came to be there. She was primarily an artist, dabbling a little in many areas – painting, pottery, etc – but taught part time for a little bit of steady income. I became nervous wondering how much effort she planned on putting into a job she needed instead of a job she wanted, but she seemed friendly, in a favorite aunt, have a cookie kind of way, so I made sure to smile when she looked my direction. And she did. She looked at everyone – directly in the eye. After a short while, it didn’t feel like she was standing in front of a class, it felt like she was standing in front of each one of us and having a personal conversation.

When she finished, she clapped her hands twice and called for the lights to be turned off. As a student flicked the switch, a small projector tucked behind her on an otherwise empty desk hummed to life and a large array of colors illuminated the front wall of the room. It was a slide of Rodin’s The Thinker.

“I will show you many pieces of art this semester,” she said. “Some famous, some not so famous. What I want you to remember most is that each of them has a story. I will spend our classes telling you the stories that I have learned, but my hope for you is simply that you learn to appreciate the fact that there is always more to the story, if you will just take time to think about it.”

For an entire hour (that felt like five minutes) she showed slide after slide of works of art, telling us well-known and little-known stories about each one. (I think she was also part professional storyteller because not once did I hear snoring in the very dark room!) It was fascinating and I remember more from her classes than I do most of the others I took during college.

Anyway, at the end of the class, the lights came on and as a parting activity she had us each introduce ourselves. She wanted us to feel more comfortable with discussions and wanted to break the ice, but before we started she said there would be a prize for the person who remembered the most names/faces at the following class. From her pocket, she withdrew a tiny clay pot swirling with all the colors of the earth. The roundness of the middle came together at the neck where a black, satin string was tied just below a little piece of cork that closed off the top.

“This is a memory necklace,” she said. “For every story that is in my head, there are at least two that I have forgotten. Whether it is a story of art, or a story of someone who has crossed my path, if they have touched my life in way that changes it, or changes the way I think or want to be, I don’t want to take a chance that I will forget. To help me, I keep this. When I hear a story, meet a person, or encounter something that I want to remain a part of me, I write it down and tuck it in here. That way, even if I am not always thinking about them, they are always with me.”

It was like she spoke directly to me.

The class continued and we all told our names and a couple things about ourselves. Normally, I stink at remembering names, but in my mind that necklace had been waiting for me for a long time – and two days later, I was the only one to remember the names of every student.

I had that necklace for many, many years and I know it has to be packed safely away, but lately I have been thinking about it more and more. I have been gathering names that need to be kept safe. So in its absence I am creating a new memory vase (I am optimistic that there will be more names than what will fit in the necklace.) and have two stories to put in. One is of a little girl who started her own clothing line and make-up video collection. She died of cancer earlier this year. The second is of a man who recently dove into a shallow river to save a little girl from drowning. He broke his back in the process and later died of his injuries. It was revealed after his death that two weeks prior to the incident he had pulled a truck driver from a burning vehicle and saved that man’s life too. Two weeks, two lives. These are the first entries into my memory vase of stories. If you were to make one, what stories would you keep safe?

(Mrs. Artista is what I call the wonderful artist and teacher who created the memory necklace because I didn’t think to put her name inside the vase before my memory lost her true name.)

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Don’t go in the ditch…

My dad was an inventor.

This profession might make you think he was a complicated man, filled with complex ideas and a stash of machines and inventions waiting patiently for the missing pieces or epiphanies that would allow them to reach their full potential, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

He was actually a very simple man that spent his life taking complicated scientific ideas, breaking them back down into the original thoughts that conceived them, and showing them in their simplest forms. He never set out to be a scientist or an inventor. These things found him later in life, because he still had what many people start out in life having – intense curiosity.

This is the same way I became a writer.

I am pretty sure if you’ve reached the age of nine, you have seen how complicated life can become. Did so-and-so not sit with me at lunch because she had to ask so-and-so over there a question about the social studies project they are working on or because when she made eye contact with me during silent reading I had a frightening, vomitous look on my face? And there’s no way she could have known I had that look because I just read a passage about a zombie who tried to eat his own rotten arm that was oozing polluted slime and NOT because I was grossing out at her Rudolph sweater with the faded nose that so-and-so told everyone was really just a big ball of snot. It should be simple. “So you think Rudolph has a disgusting cold too?” “No, of course not, but if he did, how kind of you to include him in your wardrobe on what was definitely not his most photogenic day.” “How kind of you to notice:)”

My dad and I thought a lot alike about what should be simple, and although some things really are complex, we tried our best to keep the main point in mind. The first memory of my dad taking something I thought was complicated and making it simple was when he taught me to drive. I will start out by telling you that I was terrified of driving a car. For one thing, I never actually saw my dad put the car in reverse. I just saw that every time he wanted to go backwards, he put his right arm over the passenger seat, looked out the rear window, and the car went backwards. I never thought there might be more to the story (like a gear shift), so I never asked, and I was very worried that the car might not believe me when I put my arm on the passenger seat. The left turn lane freaked me out as well. I didn’t know it was the turn lane, of course, I just knew that occasionally I would look up while we were at a stop light and there would be other cars in front of us, in our lane – and they were facing us! Unfortunately, I am somewhat easily distracted and never paid attention long enough to see how we made our escape, thus adding to my fears that I wouldn’t know what to do.

It turns out, though, that when you are the daughter of a man who loves cars (loves, loves, loves cars) and he thinks it is time to teach you how to drive one, it doesn’t really matter that you have fears, because he acts a lot like you do when the car goes in reverse – he didn’t ask any questions, because he didn’t know there was anything more, and I didn’t tell him, because at that point it didn’t matter. If he thought I could do it, then I would do it.

So, he takes me out into the country and puts me behind the wheel, and suddenly, I don’t feel as scared as I thought I would. There is no room for turn lanes and I can’t think of a single reason why I would have to go in reverse on this quiet, country road. It seemed a little simpler than I thought it would with so many of the worries out of my way. My dad sat in the passenger’s seat, so proud of me getting ready to learn how to drive, and I started to believe this just might work. We didn’t really wear seat belts back then, but I was pretty tall for my age, so I fit perfectly behind the wheel. I felt good.

Now, the only thing I haven’t told you so far, didn’t seem important then (although looking back, it would have been VERY important if my mother had known!), but it is really the most important part of the story. When I sat behind the wheel, ready to command a giant vehicle for the very first time with no experience whatsoever…I was eight years old. My dad shut his door, looked at me with confidence, and gave me my first words of advice about driving – “The pedal on the right makes it go, the one on the left makes it stop. There’s a ditch on your side and a ditch on my side. Don’t go in the ditch.” And that was it.

The ditches looked huge back then, but I have been on that road a few times since, which was actually a part of a farm, and they are pretty small. Even if I had driven in one, not much would have happened. The point is, they seemed so large, and I felt so small, but I gave it a try, and I did great! He took away all the distractions, much like kids driving 4 wheelers in a field, and it became a much simpler task. Now I am not telling you to drive at the age of eight and I am not telling you that this was the most brilliant idea, but it has served as an inspiring memory for me many times in my life when I thought something seemed too complicated, when what I really needed was a way to make it simpler.

This month, I have been participating in National Novel Writing Month where I have 30 days to write the first draft of a novel that is at least 50,000 words and have thought about this memory more and more. On November 1, I was pumped. I had my story sufficiently thought out, had a basic plot map with a ton of things that I had envisioned would move the story along, and my character was very strong in my mind. I started out with a bang and wrote quite a bit. At the end of chapter 2, 5,000 words in, I had a serious question. Should I continue to write in first person? I had just decided to go back on another novel and change the verb tense and it is not a small job. I felt I needed to decide before I moved on. I ended up changing the tense here too, instead of the viewpoint, and it was much stronger. Deeper in, at 12,500 words, I asked the question again. Now I am overwhelmed with thoughts about both options and instead of moving forward, I am not moving at all. Well, I am, but it is moving along with cleaning the house and anything else that will “legitimately” keep me away from my story.  I have been allowing my complications to cloud the main idea of getting the story out at all.

So this memory has been bouncing around in my head and I thought I would share it with you, because tonight I finally feel like I am back in the car, on a country road with my dad. I smile at him, looking more confident than I have felt in days, and even though I know things can all come with complications, I tell him that I see the ditch on my side and I see the ditch on his side, and I still choose the pedal on the right. Tonight, I will thank my character for waiting so patiently, and tomorrow I will not let anything get in the way of my moving forward.

I would love to hear about anything that keeps you moving forward!

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Bunnicula has left the galaxy…

Your favorite character is dead.  The author of the most exciting book you’ve ever read doesn’t believe in sequels.  And the world famous series you just finished is over.

What to do, what to do?

Well, you could cry into your pillow and ask how the universe and gods could mistreat you so.  Or, you could approach Hollywood producers and pitch the book as the next box office hit, and of course you would play the lead since you know the character like the back of your hand even if he is a six foot four ninja and you wear the smallest point shoes in your young ladies ballet class – you could make it work.  Or, if those ideas don’t pan out, you could research the money made from trilogies and stalk the author with pamphlets you’ve made depicting your findings in graphs and charts that sequels are a must and, if they don’t believe you, you will just wait right there on their front porch in case the have any questions – for the next ten years.

Or you could remember that you’re a writer.

Assuming that you’ve dappled in some of the ideas from my last post, and that you’ve reinvented the wheel a bit, here is something else you can try to ease the pain and tragedy that “The End” can bring.

First I want you to think of the last book you read where you knew, more than once, what was going to happen…and then it did.  This is one of the biggest let downs for me in a book.  As a reader, I don’t want to spend my time learning how much an author and I think alike.  I want to see something new.  Writers know this.  Good writers prepare for it.  When they are thinking about writing a new story, one of the most important things they consider is possibility.  When you think of a new story this should be the first thing on your mind after you create a character.

I talked a little bit about character when I wrote about beliefs in “Cafeteria French…,” but for this exercise we are going to use characters we are already familiar with.  First I want to make a list of characters you like.  They can be main characters with lots of background information or side characters that you would like to know more about.  They can be heros, villains, or characters with the potential to be either one.  Try to have at least ten well thought out possibilities.

Next, I want you to close your eyes.  Try and think about a book that has a setting so clear you felt like you could be in it.  For me, the greatest example was Harry Potter and I know this because when the movie came out, everyone I spoke with said it was exactly as they had pictured it in their minds.  Rowling was very clear and consistent with her descriptions and it was easy to picture where each scene took place.  For you, it could be anywhere.  Try to think of as many as you can with a goal of being able to write down ten settings.  If I was writing down Harry Potter’s setting, I could write Hogwarts, Gryffindor,    Diagon Alley, etc.

Now on to the fun part.  A character is just a character until there is a conflict.  Try to cover up the first two lists you’ve made and think about what kind of trouble a character could get into.  I once heard Mo Willems say, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to figure out.  Otherwise, you are just dictating.”  This is especially true when creating conflict.  When I wrote at the beginning of this post about predictability in books, this is where that comes into play.  If you write what you already know, then chances are, a bunch of other people know a bit about it too.  It isn’t an interesting conflict if you already know how it works and how it will pan out.  If you start off with a fresh conflict and try to figure it out as your character grows, you are letting things follow a natural course (like life) instead of trying to force them into what you think the outcome should be (aka a predictable story).

Once you have some ideas for potential conflicts write them down.  Again, try to aim for ten.  (I am OCD about things matching so just go with it.)  And this is where the lists stop.  I know you are probably wondering where to write the list for outcomes, endings, resolutions, answers so you can sleep at night for Pete’s sake!!!  Well, there isn’t one.  Whatever you do, DON’T MAKE THAT LIST!  If you do, you will write a predictable story, you will defy Mo Willems’ genius advice, and I will be forced to write him a letter and tell him, thus resulting in not only the Pigeon driving the bus, but driving it directly to your house for committing a grievous writing crime and I will not be held liable for any of the Pigeon’s forms of torture – first of which will be that you are forced to read and reread your own predictable story.  (How’s that for a run-on sentence?!)

So, now that you have your three lists: characters, settings, and conflicts, it is time to choose.  You need to get creative and pick a character, put him in an unfamiliar setting, and present him with a conflict.  Do not tell yourself how long the story will be, how it will end, or even worse – the lesson you want him to learn.  If your character encounters a conflict and navigates his way through it, he will inevitably learn something.  It is a given. You don’t have to aim for it.  You just need to record the action as your character experiences it.

So here you go.  I set you free to create something new.  Something that has never been done before.  I would, however, like to leave you with two thoughts about the inspiration for this post: my oldest daughter and Elvis.

When my oldest daughter was very young, she asked, “Mommy, what comes after outer space?”  To which I replied, “I am not sure.”  She smiled and said, “Then I want to be an astronaut so I can go there and see.”  She didn’t want to be an astronaut so she could go to a space station or to the moon.  She wanted to see what would happen if she went into the unknown.  She wanted to experience what was “next” and that is really what writers do.  They move on to what is next.  My title comes after the famous saying, “Elvis has left the building.”  Readers hear this saying and they think, “Aw, I am going to miss him.  I wish he was still here.”  Writers hear this and think, “I bet I can figure out where he’s going next.”  Being a reader is amazing.  Being a writer is even better.

The ultimate writer is always the one who sees his life as the greatest story he will ever create.  It doesn’t matter if you ever become a published writer as long as you understand the importance of always asking, “What if?”  And understanding that if you already know the answer, you should have asked a different question.  Ask questions that baffle and challenge you (and your characters) and then write down what what you (and they) do about it.

My choices from my lists are Bunnicula goes to Slytherin and becomes the mascot/house pet that is going to get sent home with an evil student for the weekend.

I would love to hear what combinations you want to try or any other thoughts you have!

Happy writing!

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Reinventing the Wheel

My youngest daughter detests sameness.

Let me show you a few examples of what I mean. On her first Friday at a new school, several years ago, she came home and immediately changed out of her spirit wear. “I do not wear the same as other people,” she firmly stated. “I am going to make my own.” We did and it was much more fun than buying one.
When she practiced writing numbers and wrote the number 22, she always wrote the first two backwards. I am a teacher and was completely confused at how she could write the same thing twice in a row and do it incorrectly. I kept trying to show her the “right” way. One day, she said, “Mom, that’s how everyone else writes it. This way it looks like a butterfly.” I could not argue with either statement.
And when she was three, I was flabbergasted that she was still refusing to learn the alphabet. “Everyone knows those,” she said. “I want to make my own letters.” And she did. She made a fun system of pictures and symbols that no else could understand.
The common thread with my little creator, is that every time she learns something new, she wants to reinvent it. Sometimes it feels like she is reinventing the wheel and even though that isn’t her goal, she is constantly paving her own path with her own unique viewpoint.

In writing, this can be the ultimate idea source.
One of my favorite forms of reinvention is fan fiction. Creating a believable, interesting story with a complete beginning, middle, and end that includes authentic characters interacting in a setting you can picture…AAAHHH! STOP! It is a lot to think about. Fan fiction sets you free by letting you take established characters and settings and write a new story plot for them. You can write a new episode for your favorite show, a sequel to your favorite series, or you can rewrite an ending to go the way you wish it had.  There are a lot of sites that let you post or read stories that people have written where they use familiar characters and settings and then write an original story for them. You can’t sell these in the real world, but it is a great place to practice writing. Kid Fan Fiction is a great site to read examples.  (Note: I do not recommend googling fan fiction.  There is way to much out there for a blanket search and I found the most success when I included the word “elementary” with my key words of “kid fan fiction.”)

Another form of reinvention comes from rewriting stories that happen in your life.  Really, who knows those characters and settings better than you?  When I was in elementary school, most of the girls were not nice.  At all.  So each day, when I got home, my dad would ask me about my day and we would talk about everything.  We were always like that.  At the end of the conversations I usually felt much better, but I felt absolutely fabulous after I rewrote the scenes the ways I wish they had gone.  I almost always stuck to strict dialogue and now that I am a writer I am glad I did because it gave me lots of practice.  Try taking a scene from your life that could have or should have gone differently and rewrite it.  Hindsight is always twenty twenty and it can make for some very creative and powerful stories.

The last form of reinvention that I like is filled with instruments.  Since both my girls were young, we have made a game out of taking familiar tunes and changing the words.  The rhythm gives you a predictable and even pace and can help take away the temptation to ramble on.  Songs are relatively short so there is not much time to do anything except get to the point.  Nursery rhymes are the easiest to start with but after a bit of practice, your mind will start changing the words to some of your favorite songs.  Here is one I wrote for fun to the tune of the song I Want Candy by The Strangeloves.

Pirate Flier

There’s a tree in my backyard.
Gonna build a for, it can’t be hard.
A pirate ship to sail the wind.
A pirate quest, that never ends.

I want higher…
Pirate flier…

Make the mast 100 feet high.
The sails will stretch up to the sky.
Got a hammer, wood, and nails.
I can feel the wind in my sails.

I want higher…
Pirate flier…

Shape the hull and carve the wheel.
Fill the gaps and test the seals.
Search the map for buried loot.
Find the X and mark the route.

I want higher…
Pirate flier…

Hoist the anchor, raise the flag.
Tie them tight, so they won’t lag.
Set to fly, we need a pilot.
Does anybody know a pirate?

I want higher…
Pirate flier…

Songs are a fun way to get the creative juices flowing, but trying any of the three story reinventions can get you into a strong habit of writing. A little bit of familiarity combined with a fresh idea can be a springboard for stories that can be much stronger than their originals.

I use to joke with my youngest about the fact that she seemed to always be reinventing the wheel. That is until the day I realized that if no one had ever reinvented the wheel, we would be riding in cars with wheels made of wood. So start reinventing some of your favorite things and let me know what things worked for you!

Posted in September/October | 5 Comments

Cafeteria French Fries and Nostrils are Exactly the Same Size

It all starts when someone believes.
When I was fifteen, my best friend’s mom had a baby. Her name is Emilee, and even then, we all knew she was perfect. If you have ever had a baby brother or sister and were old enough not to feel the need to compete, you may have thought that about them, too.
With this baby, my family was lucky enough to be with her all the time and it was like having a little sister of my own.
As time passed, she remained the most important thing to all of us, and for all the spoiling we did, she was a good kid. In fact, she was such a good kid that she would often do what I asked without giving it a second thought, even if she should have.
One of the times that stands out in my mind the most, happened on the lawn of the Texas state capital. She had flown to Austin by herself to stay with me and I took her all around town. She fell in love with everything from the UT tower to the bright green grass on the capital’s lawn. At the end of the day, I rested there, with her beside me searching in a patch of clover. After a while, Emilee called out, “Look, I found a four leaf clover!”
This is a good time to tell you (or warn you) that I joke a lot. This is not always a good thing, but Em has a great sense of humor, so it usually works out. This was not one of those times.
So I replied, “Emilee, you can’t pick clovers from the grass at the capital!” You can probably guess what happened. She dropped the clover back into the grass before I could say I was kidding. I felt horrible. We searched for an hour, to no avail, and what made it worse was that she wasn’t even mad at me. She just kept saying, “Don’t worry, it’s okay,” after each of my numerous apologies. She really meant it.
The next year, she entered kindergarten and I often picked her up in the afternoons. Occasionally they would still be playing right outside the classroom window and I would watch her for a few minutes through the one-way glass.
One day as I watched, I saw a boy in her class (well known as a bully) pushing a little girl in the chest, hard. Emilee, being the kid that she was, wouldn’t let her friend endure it alone. She stood in between them and I could see her lips saying, “Stop.” The boy didn’t stop. Instead, he grabbed her friend by the arm, and when Emilee tried to pry them apart, the boy shoved her to the ground. Em got up to find chunks and splinters of mulch in her legs. I couldn’t believe she didn’t cry.
The teacher didn’t see any of it and by the time I made it to the door, I was so angry I could hardly speak. I opened it, told her it was time to go, and we left. I was fuming. This boy was a tryant, and even though I could tell Emilee’s mother what happened, he got away with a lot. I knew Emilee was afraid and I wanted her to be able to defend herself. I also knew that defending yourself can be much harder than defending someone else. So in my anger, I told her she needed to get him back when he didn’t even see it coming.
PAUSE – This was not the right answer, but just like she would do anything I said without thinking, I would do anything to protect her – and I didn’t always think it through either.
Two days later, I picked her up again. She ran up and hugged me, and when I went to take her things out of her cubby, she began to cry. I turned around to see what was wrong and my eyes glanced at her daily behavior sheet. It had a message covering most of the page. I couldn’t make out the scrawled handwriting, so I asked the teacher what had happened and all the while Emilee is crying hysterically.
The teacher (the same one who couldn’t get a handle on the bully) proceeded to tell me that during lunch, Emilee had been playing with her food. She had taken a couple of French fries and stuck them in her lip so that she looked like a walrus. The kids thought this was pretty funny, so she decided to put them in her nose and see what they thought of that. They turned out to be the perfect fit and when she removed her hands, the fries stayed put. She started swinging her head around, French fries faithfully lodged, and one-by-one, the rest of the class did the same.
The teacher tried to regain control, but there were 20 sets of flying fries all trying to be the best walrus. When she looked at Emilee to tell her to go to time out, she was shocked. In all the chaos, a little boy sitting next Emilee had become distracted and she was silently putting something in his milk.
I looked at Em. “Who is the boy?” I asked, pretty sure who it was.
Still crying, she pointed to the little stinker. I have to admit, it was impossible to be angry.
“What did you put in his milk?”
Completely sobbing, she yells out, “It was a booger!”
I tried hard not to laugh. The little boy definitely had it coming. But as I looked at the teacher and back at Emilee, I remembered my words. “Get him back when he doesn’t see it coming.” She was devastated and she was in this predicament because of me. She had tried her best to do what I told her to do all because I didn’t fully appreiate how closely she listened to everything I said…and believed it.
Now I tell you those two stories to tell you this. I think we are all characters in our own stories and we all have things we truly believe in that define who we are and how we act.  Emilee believed that I would always look out for her, and although it didn’t always pan out like I hoped, she was right.  If she actually needed a four leaf clover, I would search to the ends of the Earth to find her one.  Like cafeteria French fries and nostrils, sometimes they don’t make perfect sense, or even seem like they go together, but there is a belief behind the craziness and it is what drive our characters and our stories forward.
When you are reading, you see this all the time. Harry Potter believes he is the only one who can kill Voldemort and restore peace to the magical world. Theodosia believes that she must stop at nothing to break the evil curses lurking the museum. The children of The Mysterious Benedict Society believe that if Mr. Benedict put them in danger, then he couldn’t have had any other choice.
All characters, like all of us, believe in things that make us do things we might not normally do. I would love for you to share what characters are your favorites and what beliefs propel them through the stories you love.

Posted in September/October | 2 Comments