Blog 9: Earning My Wings…

I wrote Blogs 9 and 10 back in the middle of October; however, I never published these. I hesitated to share them now, yet as I reread them, I realized that they show the journey my creative writing students and I are taking together one baby step at a time. I also highlight my colleagues who have helped me to remember what Clarence, the angel, so aptly reminds George Bailey at the end of one of my favorite Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. He writes in a copy of Tom Sawyer, “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence.” So much has changed in my Writing Workshop classes since I wrote these blogs, and it’s due to the support of key people at Udall. I now feel like I have wings! I shall share all that has happened with you, and it begins with blogs 9 and 10, Then, during Christmas week, I will share how far my creative writing students have come in eight short weeks. Merry Christmas!

“Hit’em where they live…”  is an expression my principal uses each time I discuss my creative writing class with him.  He is constantly urging me to use my passion for writing, and the available technology, to ignite a level of passion within my students.  Although I realize he means well, if only it were that easy and that simple.  Unbeknownst to him, the daily problem I continue to face is that my passion is writing, but for the vast majority of my students, they do not feel nor will they entertain the possibility of exploring this realm of possibility.  They still refuse to meet me halfway and alter their fixed mindsets! Additionally, I am shocked to discover that technology doesn’t wow them either–but I’ll go into that a little later.

I know you must be sick of hearing me vent, but I kid you not (no pun intended; ah, alright, maybe) that each day I must work to win my creative writing students over. It continues to be my daily nemesis.   As I have lamented in the past, I long for this to be the class to which my students joyfully flock. In reality, they continue to linger outside my room until the bell corrals them and forces them inside like a sharp whip.   Their dislike for this class is palpable.

Each day, I continue to watch students slump into their seats with frowns upon their faces. I hoped this feeling would fade, but it’s obvious that this class is still a daily reminder that they are not where they want to be, and they are forced, against their wills, to do what they do not want to do.

It reminds me of a line from a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury, called “The Veldt.” The narrator comments,”Children are like carpets; they need to be stepped on every once in a while.” I know this is true, for I have spent the better part of my life forcing teenagers to follow my directives or else. I’d ignore their grimaces and protestations knowing that ultimately I would provide them with what they needed even if it fell far short of what they wanted at the time.   I constantly remind myself that this class is experiencing growing pains, but somehow, when it comes to this class, it feels counter intuitive.  Each day I feel more and more like a failure. It’s not a fun position to be in– for them or for me!  I equate it to force feeding a mule where I am constantly kicked in the butt and the heavy hay bucket lands on my head.

And,  I must admit that I feel sorry for these kids;  I literally feel their pain.   Like them, I feel stuck and helpless as to how to motivate them.  And like them, this class most assuredly ranks up there as one I would strive to miss every chance I could–if I wasn’t the teacher.  LOL!  As a result, I’ve noticed that many students come in late or leave school during our elective period together.  They are savvy enough to realize this class is inconsequential to their overall grades as there aren’t any, and if they do miss what we do that day, so what! The class was intentionally designed this way to allow students to experiment and not be restrained by the fear of a poor grade.  For now, it’s just seems to be another reason the class just isn’t relevant to their lives. Ugh!

I try so hard not to take their dislike personally, but I am the face of the class and the one making them do what they ultimately do not want to do.  It’s hard to hit students where they live when they come to class with body armor.

I continue to envision this elective feeding my soul.  Instead, my soul is withering away, consumed by an invisible pathogen called reticence, and it’s ravaging the entire creative population.   If I could unzip my body and fly away, I would–and I am sure this is the only time my students would eagerly follow my lead and join me.

Not yet ready to wave the white flag and surrender, I have come to realize it takes a village to save me and my students from drowning in despair, and it’s got a great big rainbow above it!  So, like Noah, I recognize that while I am building this ship as I am simultaneously trying to keep it afloat,  I couldn’t be doing it with out the aid of so many of my colleagues at Udall Road Middle School.   When my motor conks out, they continually appear as the oars that allow me to find dry land and survive another day.

Hence, I am bolstered and inspired by two great women at Udall; first, my colleague, Kimberly Crouch, who I highlighted in my last blog and who is my work-wife!  She continuously creates the most fascinating products for the E.L.A. classroom, and I encourage you to click on her name, which will bring you to her store.  And to our library media specialist, Anne Bean, who also serves as a continuous lifesaver as she pulls me up to and through twenty-first century technology.  I am grateful for the constant collaboration of these amazing educators…Come back on Tuesday and find out why/how! 

Blog 8: The practice of acceptance can lead one to a place of…

… peace and contentment.  However, when last we met, this was by no means how I was feeling. Quite the contrary. My creative writing students were disgruntled, and I knew I had to win them back, so…

I decided that if I had learned anything from teaching this age-group, teenagers can see right through a false facade. They do not like to feel that they have been duped by an adult. Moreover, on any given day,  you cannot make them do anything they do not want to do.  They also believe it is their job to keep every adult they know honest.  When they perceive you are not, they will definitely point it out to you–and usually it’s a humbling experience.   I was sure it would be for me,too, but I was willingly to eat humble pie if I could just get them to buy in to the class.

Thus, on the Monday of the second week of school, I vowed to make things right.  Yet, as I suspected, it was going to be an extremely hard sell.

Before class, I watched students linger at their lockers until the bell signaled they had no other choice but to enter dreaded room 103.  I decided I had to launch right in.

First, I apologized to all of my students for last week’s debacle.  I then explained how the class was created over the summer, which made recruitment for the course impossible.  I also acknowledged that when I gave students the option to  leave this class, I inadvertently made students feel unwanted, which was not my intention.  I suggested we begin again, that if they opened their minds and trusted me to get them through, they could have fun writing creatively.

To my surprise and happiness, my students seemed impressed by my honesty and seemed to appreciate it.   Hoping for the same result, Tuesday I repeated my speech, and the students in those classes seemed receptive.  All was right again in my world!  However, as the end of the week approached, I was back to square-one.

I tried to do a fun whole-class activity with all of my sections, but except for one, it fell flat. I could see right away that because the class is an elective, and students do not have to worry about a grade, they weren’t going to take it seriously and try to be creative with words and ideas. The vast majority  were either detached or chose to  fool around. I left school on Friday feeling frustrated and dejected. How could I get them on board?

As you know, I went to yoga.  At one point during the one hour session, our yogini cautioned us that we should listen to our bodies, and if a pose does not feel right, we should not stay in it to impress her or the person next to us. She urged us to take the ego out of our practice, and if we didn’t like where we were, we should come out of any pose.  She also said that no matter how much we might want to perform a balancing posture, some days, no matter how hard we try to make it work, it just won’t.  In fact, she said a pose could take years to master, but that’s why it is called a practice.  She implored us to meet ourselves where we are now.

My choice became clear:  I had to stop grieving over a class that was a figment of my own imagination, and my students had to accept that they were now a part of this class for the remainder of the year. We all had to deal with the situation in its present form and move on.

As a result of my yoga epiphany, I placed myself in my students shoes and determined what I would need if I was in a class where I didn’t feel excited or comfortable with the curriculum. I realized that they were asking me for guidance, and I needed to take back the reigns.  And this reminded of my very first Paint Nite experience two years ago.

My daughter asked me to come to a fundraiser to support the cheerleading team she was coaching.  I will admit, I tried to worm out of it a number of times, for I am not artistic at all.   So, not only was I resistant days and hours before, I was even worse when I arrived at the restaurant.

There, in front of every seat, was a huge stark-white blank canvas.  A few feet away was the instructor’s perfect portrait that we were supposed to emulate.  As I stared at it, I felt defeated without even dabbing my brush in a speck of paint.  I could feel all of my creative energy drain as I searched for and nearly tackled a waitress, begging her to bring me an alcoholic beverage immediately–and to keep them coming.

When it came time to paint, I had a snarl on my face as the instructor made each of us lift our glasses and repeat the phrases we were forbidden to utter during the next two hours: “I can’t do this!”  “Mine sucks.”  “Can I leave now?”  “I hate this.”  “Please don’t make me do this!” If truth-be-told,  I didn’t want to fail at something I knew I could not do.

Yet, I reminded myself why I was there and worked hard to knock the cranky, sullen critic off my shoulder.  I took a deep breath as I watched and listened to the instructor show us the first step.  Tentatively, I picked up my brush and swirled it in the paint.  Once my brush began its ride across the canvas, I realized I was actually enjoying the process. With each stroke, I became more relaxed; I started not to notice those around me. I was captured by own creativity.   When our instructor presented the next step, I watched her and then went about it with my own creative flare.

By the end of the evening I was euphoric.  I had proven to myself that I possessed the capacity to create a piece of art of which I was proud.  I wanted to show it to everyone I knew!

As I stood beaming at my triumph on the easel, the smile slowly slipped from my face. It dawned on me that this must be how my reluctant writers feel when they approach a blank page.   Just like they, I had experienced that same sense of insecurity and recrimination. Conversely, simply changing my mindset helped me succeed beyond my own limiting expectations, and I needed to share this with my students at school.  The next day,  I did just that, and then I hung my picture in my classroom.  It is a constant reminder that with a little tweak to my mental attitude, feelings of frustration and self-doubt can be replaced with joy and self-discovery.

Thus, on the Monday of the third week of school, I decided to grab my painting off the wall and share my Paint Nite experience with my creative writers.  I recounted my initial negativity toward this form of artistic expression.  I admitted to them that until I was placed outside my comfort zone, I never fully realized how intense it must be for students to approach a blank page when they don’t feel confident enough to fill it with ideas.  However, if I could paint, they could write, and that was exactly what we would be doing from this day forward.  The whining and complaining were over.   They were placed in a creative writing class. I am the teacher; they are my students, and we will  move forward–together.  For now, I must lead, and they must follow.

So, to that end, my plan for my creative writing class is as follows:

Each day when students come into class, they write for ten minutes in their notebooks on a journal prompt of their choosing.

Last week, I shared the science of writing with them, and explained that the writing that begins each class will always be done in their notebooks.  The act of writing by hand makes the brain focus on the words being written. Although students aren’t aware of it, out of this writing can come a germ of an idea that can grow into a bigger, deeper piece.  Julia Cameron calls this stream of consciousness writing or “Morning Pages.”

They also can choose to write on a prompt from a clever book entitled Unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince.  All the prompts are fun and impersonal.  They also enjoy the prompts that come from Rip the Page!  by Karen Benke.  In addition, a fellow friend and outstanding occupational therapist, Laura Trent, encouraged me to purchase, Spilling Ink A Young Writer’s Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter.  Her son was reticent to write, and the prompts at the end of each chapter helped to open him up as a writer. I am excited to introduce it into my repertoire.

Additionally,  my plan is to  demystify the process of structuring a story for my students by sharing one I wrote awhile ago that reviews all of the necessary story elements.   It is based on a first-sentence-story-starter prompt called, “Horrible Beginnings.”  I chose one of the many lines and started my story with it.   After we read it together, students will analyze it for plot, conflict, setting, theme, point-of-view, characterization, dialogue, figurative language, irony,  voice, word choice, and fluency.  This will serve as a review and as a model, so that when students work on their own narratives, they can refer back to it if they are stuck.

Furthermore, I am confident that when  my reluctant writers are introduced to 25 Creative Writing Prompts (That Don’t Suck!), which my amazingly talented colleague, Kimberly Crouch, created and sells from her store, English, Oh My! on the Teachers Pay Teachers website, I will certainly get my students writing!   The students view a silly picture and then have to write according to the goofy prompt that goes along with it. Students love to laugh and make others laugh as well. My hope is that when we share these prompts aloud, it  will generate an atmosphere of fun and trust in the room. (Visit Kim’s store; she has a ton of products to turn any E.L.A. teacher’s classroom into his/her students’ favorite period of the day!)

Alas, this is my challenge for now.   I will meet my students where they are.  I think if I keep it simple, we should all be fine.   I hope each of my students will come to embrace his/her writer within.  I want more than anything to share my love of writing with all of them as I keep it alive in myself.   I will continue to nudge and guide them toward their own stories as I continue to work on my novel. Yes, this is a challenge, but I’ll only fail if I give up–and I refuse to be defeated by a little teenage angst.

If you have any suggestions for me, please feel free to comment.  I am open to all ideas!  We all learn best from each other!   I hope my students come to realize this.

I’ll write again soon to let you know how it’s going! Thank you for reading!  Namaste!


Blog 7: Challenges abound

Hi, everyone. I am back. I worked on my novel and have made progress. Now that I am back at school, Challenges abound. Please read my blog and feel free to comment and share!

…as another school year begins.  I am teaching a new writing course, and while the thought of it once filled me with possibility and excitement, I now feel only angst and frustration.  So, over the past weekend, to refresh my mind, body, and soul, I signed up for a local yoga class.

As I have said in prior blog posts, God knows me better than I know myself.  He quietly nudges me and always leads me to the place I am supposed to be and to the person I am meant to meet.  He led me to a yoga instructor who simply had me focus on the intention of accepting my own personal truth and finding contentment there.   It couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. My typically yellow aura was black.

Our yogini began class by simply encouraging us to become aware of our inhalations and exhalations as we breathed to center and quiet our minds.   As we concentrated on our breath, she soothingly explained to us that while the physical practice of yoga, the asana, or third limb, is important, it is the awareness of one’s self during one’s practice that is most important in yoga.  It’s accepting one’s own limitations on any given day and learning to work through a challenge or to realize to simply pull back and take a breath. Every day the physical body and mind will be in a different state, and both will present new challenges to us.

She also reminded us that while we may choose to practice yoga in a group, it is a solitary practice, and each of us needs to meet ourselves where we are at any given moment.  After all it is our practice, and it is the present moment that matters–not the past, not the future, for one is gone, and the other will take care of itself.  It’s when we surrender to self and accept who, what, and where we are presently that enlightenment and contentment will inevitably follow.

As I let her words wash over me, I breathed into each pose and carefully noticed the ease or difficulty, and I accepted how I was feeling. My mind began to quiet.  I focused on my practice and let go of  everything that wasn’t serving me in that moment.  After the class, I felt renewed and regenerated.  I decided that I must bring this practice and new-found awareness with me to my classroom each and every day.

Now, you might be thinking that yoga and my writing classroom are mutually exclusive, but you would be wrong.  Many of the same principles apply.

Much of what she said related to my students.  As a teacher, I work with humans each day, so no two days are ever the same because my students are never the same day  in and day out.   This is, as they say,  both a blessing and a curse, especially if those humans are thirteen or fourteen.  It’s a fair bet that most days will present many challenges. For me, the daily personal challenge is to be able to meet and accept my students where they are and to find contentment in that. This is a difficult posture for me–especially when it comes to their reluctance toward writing.

While I enjoy teaching all aspects of English Language Arts, teaching writing is something I love simply because I love to do it.  Yet, when adolescents are tasked with putting pen to paper, the challenge is real. Even though we are writing in a group, it is a lonely process for the majority of them because generating ideas and organizing them seems as insurmountable as climbing Mount Everest. Many equate writing with rigor and constraint as they must adhere to each teacher’s rules if they are to earn a decent grade. So clearly, it’s the destination or finish line that matters to them, not the journey. They don’t trust that I will guide them through their own practice.

Each year as I present each writing lesson, my students are turned off before I ever get the chance to turn them on.  They only feel anxiety and fear as they look at a blank page, and for some, no matter how much I guide and cajole, this mindset will never change.   They will never feel the ease of writing or be willing to work at the process and steadily improve. Therefore, my lessons on expository and persuasive writing are mostly met with sighs and eye-rolling. I get it; essay writing is a necessary evil, but it’s certainly not something most students enjoy doing.  In our middle school, we do not have block scheduling; therefore, the structure and size of a class does not always lend itself to one-on-one time with my students.  Too often, I don’t meet a student’s writing until I am grading it.  If a paper is returned with a less than perfect score, many students view themselves as failures, and thus, writing is dead to them.

As a result, for eighteen years,  I have longed to have a class where students liked and were anxious to write. I believed that if  writers were in a relaxed setting where they were free to show up to the page as the writer they were on any given day, they’d enjoy discovering their own truths and their own unfettered journey toward self-expression. Ultimately, they would come to love writing as much as I do.

So, this past July, when my principal called me and asked me to teach Writing Workshop, a.k.a. creative writing, I naturally jumped at the chance.   I was so excited and  full of ideas, and he genuinely seemed interested in them.

During the course of our conversation, we decided that the four sections of creative writing should be on a blue/gold rotation, which means every other day, I would meet with two sections of my creative writing classes, and this cycle would continue throughout the year.  This schedule would work well, for there would be no more than sixteen students in each of the four sections.  I thought this would be ideal in terms of conferencing.  Additionally, I strongly suggested that it not be grade-driven in order to allow students to explore genres without the constraints of arbitrary grading.  He agreed. Lastly,  I  inquired whether students could switch out if they did not wish to participate in this elective class. He assured me that students would be given this option.

When we hung up, I felt so blissful.  Finally, I was given the opportunity I always wanted! I felt I deserved this.   All summer, I had proven to myself and to the world that I am indeed a proficient, creative writer and not just a person who talks about it.  I had started my blog, and I was steadily working on my novel-in-progress.   Hence,  my principal’s unsolicited, fateful call convinced me that the universe had recognized I was emitting a high frequency. Yes, indeed, the universe had aligned with my positive energy and was providing me with the boost I would need when I returned to school in September: a class which would feed my soul.   This course was going to be everything I always dreamed a writing course could be.  Ugh, not quite.

With a mind full of images of the perfect creative writing course, I gleefully drafted an overview of the course and envisioned all it would be.  My welcome letter encouraged independence and choice.  I conjured up a class where all of my students loved writing and begged for more.  Ours would be a Utopian society where everyday we’d be eager and excited to create, and together, we would learn so much about ourselves and each other as we explored words and ideas.

Armed and ready with creativity and desire, on the first day of school, I met with my first two Writing Workshop classes, and all of my expectations were immediately dashed. My students were not at all happy to be in my room, most notably the boys who essentially filled each class.  The boys outnumbered the girls.  I knew this might be a problem.

From past experience, I had come to know that many boys, not all, mind you, are not very fond of writing at all. Many boys do not like reading either.  I am not sexist;  I am a realist, for it applies to many girls as well.  Somewhere in the course of their experiences, their love of words was strangled, and other extracurricular activities have taken precedent over their love of reading and writing.  They may have loved it in elementary school, but by middle school, they ditched their books for their cellular phones, their bikes, or their video games.   These facts became glaring apparent as I polled each of my classes to ascertain the number of committed readers and writers I actually had.  I soon discovered that the majority of the boys wanted out immediately, and to my horror, many of the girls were ready to make a hasty exit as well.

Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I had been stricken with that summer sickness that teachers frequently catch when they are away from their classrooms for too long. I glorified the type of writer who would waltz into my class and romanticized about what he/she would be willing and able to do.  In the past, many of my students complained that we never wrote anything fun in English, just boring essays.  So to me, now that they were afforded the opportunity to write for fun, which eighth grader in his right mind would ever choose to leave this class?  Uh, many, and they were unfortunately in my creative writing classes! Yet, I refused to see it.

Still clinging to my delusional mindset, I encouraged any disenchanted students to visit the counseling office to switch out.  This proved to be a disastrous decision as I sadly watched three-quarters of my class jump up and march triumphantly out of the room.

I could feel my soul sag like a deflated balloon. While I felt disappointed, I held tightly to my dream, believing I would end up with the students who wanted to be there,  Alas, this was not to be the case. I soon came to understand that the only change in this course were my own unrealistic expectations, for I would soon be dealt a restorative dose of reality, but not until I was ravaged by my own delirium.

Needless to say, by the close of the second day of school, my principal was sitting in my classroom resolute in his conviction that though the majority of the students placed into my classes clearly wanted out, he would not allow ANY of them to leave without a very good reason.   He could not run classes with four students as these classes were two/fifths of my teaching load.  In addition, switching students would create a scheduling nightmare for him.  So, like it or not, every student was part of this class for the duration of what now looked like a very long year for me and for them.

How did it all go so wrong so quickly, you ask?  If I had not missed the obvious I would have realized that the universe wasn’t out to get me–the computer was! Since the course was quickly developed in the middle of the summer, each of the four sections which became Writing Workshop  was composed of  a random grouping of students that had begun its genesis as a study hall but later morphed into one of my Writing Workshop classes.   Since rosters were computer-generated, students were haphazardly placed into this elective whether they wanted to be there or not.  Once classes were formed,  no one had the foresight to go back and ensure that the students placed into these classes were students who would willingly embrace the idea of actually being in them.  So, the long and short of it was that students were essentially stuck in a course that required them to write creatively when the vast majority wanted nothing more than to  talk to their friends and do homework during a study hall period.  Instead, they were now stuck with me, an over-zealous writing maniac who encouraged the vast majority of them to quit before they had ever been given the opportunity to try.

And worst of all for me, I, alone, had to find a way to make this class work with students who were now, with good reason, reluctant, resistant, resentful, and rebellious.  Yet, how in the world could I ever hope to achieve this after I had decimated the morale of the class before the first week of school was over?

Come back Monday and find out…

Blog 6: “Devotion and commitment will be their own reward.”

This is a quote from an accomplished, amazing, well-seasoned author and teacher, Anne Lamott.  The quote sounds like marital advice, and I guess it is in a way.  After all, I have been married to this novel for the past 10 years, and while there have been plenty of times I’ve wanted to quit and throw the damn thing out, I always come back for more with a deeper commitment to make it work.  I just can’t let go, so I know that what Elizabeth Gilbert states in one of my all-time favorite writing books, Big Magic, is true: Nora’s story won’t let go of me either.

Like Lamott and Gilbert, I know I write because I have to make sense and create a structure for what is swirling around in my head.  I think that’s why I love writing Chick Lit so much because some of my characters have no problem saying what they want to say to the person who needs to hear it.  Yet, while it makes for a satisfying scene, it makes for an awkward state in real life. In one of my favorite movies, You’ve Got Mail,  Tom Hanks’ character says,  “I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.”

Writing stinging, clever, truthful dialogue is so liberating!  Some of my characters must speak this way so conflict will ensue, or I won’t have much of a story!  However, I know what Nora Ephron was getting at in that movie.  Less-than-effective communication happens in real life. Therefore, effective communication is not easy, but it’s necessary. How many times have we heard ourselves or someone else gripe about a text or an email received where the sender’s intention seems nebulous or snarky? How many times do we read a controversial FB post that belongs on a blog or an editorial page? Aren’t we all trying to figure it out? Isn’t it why  we read?  Isn’t it why we talk?  Isn’t why we write?

Honest, clear communication takes time; one doesn’t need to be talented.  One needs only to take the time to play with a stream of words until they come together and form a flowing, mighty river that forges ahead with truth that will transform.  Sometimes what we write doesn’t do this.  It doesn’t enlighten or elevate.  It cuts down or annihilates.

I think what we forget is once we press the send key, we are publishing our words to an audience. Those words will ultimately inform, touch, entertain  or wound a single person or an entire demographic.   They are now out there, and they can never be retrieved.  Yes, a document or a post can be deleted, but even trash can be recycled.  Words have power, and we must make sure we use them wisely.

This is what is meant by a writer’s truth.  It can be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s why writer’s write.   I know I  am constantly trying to understand my own truth; some subject or theme is swirling around in my head that needs to be explored. Hence, as an author, I will explore it here through the writing of my blog, or through the depiction of a character’s escapade in the form of a scene in my book.   I am ultimately trying to create order in my world, and sometimes it’s easier by creating an alternate place where I can place characters in awkward situations that mirror life, and see how he/she handles them.  It’s fun, for as I watch the conflict play out on the page, I am figuring it out for myself as well.

This is why I vehemently disagree with critics who think Chick Lit is a trivial genre! Through funny situations, a writer is able to a tackle a wide-range of topics and articulate her thoughts about them through a character’s actions, thoughts, and dialogue. In Chick Lit, characters must make mistakes and mess up all the time, for inevitably the characters will learn from their mistakes and grow into better people. Not perfect people–better, dynamic people.  They don’t stay stagnate. If they do, then the writer has failed to articulate the message trying to be conveyed through the plot of the story.   The characters get down and dirty, but they ultimately clean themselves up and move forward.  My job is to give my reader’s a satisfying experience, so my words must ring true, or they will put my novel down and never pick it up.

So to that end, this week,  I completed the daunting task of printing out my novel as it stands now.   This is the first time I have ever actually printed out the whole 255 pages, and I have to tell you I was initially overwhelmed.  Like my students, going back and making sense of the whole thing made my stomach upset.  I had to walk away and regroup. I have to remember this feeling when I return to my classroom.  Ugh, I am forever reminding them every chance I get that writing is rewriting.  There is no such thing as one-and-done, but I must confess when I approached the stack of pages, I wanted there to be.

Once I started rereading it, I felt better.  Since as a pantser I just launched into writing it all those many years ago without a plan, I am now in the process of cleaning up my mess by restructuring how I present the characters and the plot.  Since I have done an extensive backstory on each of my main characters, I now understand their intentions much more. Therefore, I clearly see the scenes in my story I must delete and the scenes I must add to make the plot and a character’s motivation for doing something clearer to the reader.  I might have done it backwards, but I am making sense of my truth and ultimately Nora’s story, so it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Moreover, the theme of my novel has become clearer to me.  I now know the message or the truth I want my novel to convey, and it has much to do with the inherent need to find one’s purpose in life no matter how old he/she may be.  It also has to do with creating the family one wants by choosing to love and embrace those who may not be related by blood but who generously love us with their full hearts.  It also explores the restrictive expectations we often place on those we claim to love.  As I said before, the human condition fascinates and frustrates me.  Hence, all of these issues have found their way into my novel, and as the writer, I get to explore them through my characters.  Again, it’s a way to my truth north!

In closing, I must reiterate again that writing this blog is more for me than for you, but I thank you for reading it!!!  By publishing with readers in mind, it forces me to do all the things I am trying to do in my novel: make sense of this crazy,  unpredictable world of which I am a part, and to convey my truth about it as clearly and effectively as I can through my words. I come here to make sense of what I am doing there–in Nora’s Chick Lit world.

Each time I write my blog or I work on my novel, I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment for showing up and doing it!  I also feel uplifted and unburdened, and I am happier even when my writing isn’t flowing.  I just feel that I fulfilled my purpose for that day.   As Ann Lamott says in the final chapter of Bird by Bird, “Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious.[…] Don’t be afraid of your material or your past.  Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you.  Be afraid of not getting your writing done.”

I am, so I gotta go!  Thanks for checking in with me, and I’ll be back when I have more insights to share about my writing journey as I continue to uncover Nora’s truth as well as my own!







Blog 5: Shallow and petty…

are adjectives I never wanted ascribed to the main character in my novel, yet there I was with the aforementioned editor who attributed these words to my heroine, Nora Donovan.  Those words smarted, yet they profoundly resonated. One’s heroine is the focal character in the story, and her job is to drive the entire narrative.  So, if an editor, a woman who works in the romance business, tells me my main character is unlikable, well then, I am in deep trouble with my writing… or so I thought.  What I learned is that I have a lot to learn, but I instinctively know more than I think I do.

After I pressed my editor as to why she didn’t like Nora, she enlightened me by explaining that in my opening scene, my heroine is trashing another character that the reader has not yet met.  Nora seems to focus on trivial aspects of this woman’s life and appearance. Since Nora never fully explains to the reader why she is taking cheap shots at her nemesis, Blythe, and because we have not been shown why Blythe is indeed this horrible woman,  in my editor’s mind, there seems to be no basis for Nora’s feelings other than she is shallow and petty.

When I thought about her critique, I was initially confused.  Her critique didn’t seem fair.  Won’t I show Blythe later, and then the reader will understand Nora’s feelings?  In Chick Lit, aren’t heroines allowed to be snarky and sarcastic? Don’t women feel jealousy and envy toward other women who always seem to have everything or toward women who always seem to one-up them?  When I asked these questions, she said that in romance, one’s heroine must be likable immediately, or the reader won’t buy-in.  She gave me suggestions on how I should rearrange my scenes to achieve this, and I took all she said under advisement, but I still couldn’t quite wrap my mind around those adjectives.

I let her comments ruminate for a while, and I didn’t go near my novel. The thought of trying to rearrange and rework everything seemed daunting, and I really liked Nora the way I had created her. I didn’t know what to do with her now that she was dubbed petty and shallow.  I wondered if I should ditch her all together.  Clearly, we weren’t too good for each other.

I decided to talk about this critique with those with whom I had allowed to read my novel, and they all vehemently disagreed with the editor’s assessment.  They loved Nora’s voice.  They thought she was hysterical.  So, I was really flummoxed, to say the least.  What to do?  What to do?  Like Pooh, I wanted to stick my head in the honey pot. Instead, I told myself I had to forge ahead.  This was the first negative remark I had heard, and it had come from an authority figure, so it had weight and merit.  Although it was hard to hear, it was constructive criticism.  This was no time to be petty and shallow.

Being a pantser, I decided I needed to be a plotter, so I took out the book I mentioned in a previous blog about writing a book in 30 days.  I figured this was a good way to go back and rework my story.  I also read another book on how to write a romance novel.  I used the tips in the books and started reworking my scenes, but I felt like I was taking my round story and trying to fit it into a square story peg where it didn’t belong.  This is about the time I was asking for those signs as to whether or not I should be writing this novel at all since it just wasn’t working. I bet you can guess what happened. Yup, another sign, and this one all but kicked me in the, uh, head.

I remembered I had been given a gift certificate for Barnes and Noble from one of my beloved students.  I decided to go online and use it to find yet another book on writing. Sure enough, when I searched, books on writing, one of the first ones that came up was Cathy Yardley’s book, Will Write for Shoes How to Write a Chick Lit Novel.  I ordered it on the spot,and read it voraciously.  It’s so conversational in style, thus, it was a joy to read! Best of all, the tips she gives are so easy and pragmatic that after reading it, I realized that my book is not a romance in the traditional sense; therefore, it doesn’t have to fit into the tight parameters that dictate that particular genre.  Chick Lit, while relatively new, is its own evolving genre, and all of the reasons I loved initially writing my novel make me know that it’s Chick Lit!

After my initial euphoria, I felt like an idiot.  With all the books I’ve bought in the past 10 years, how could this one have escaped my attention? This book was published in 2006–I started writing my novel in 2007 without every knowing what Chick Lit was.   It was clear; without even knowing it, I had been crafting a Chick Lit novel from the very start, and  I needed to continue writing it.  So, while I will still take into consideration the notes the editor gave to me, I’m just going to enjoy the process of writing the damn thing for now.  I’ll worry about unattractive adjectives about my work when I revise and edit it!

Maybe it’s wrong for me to admit that so much of me is so much a part of Nora, but I think when a writer creates a character, it is based on everything that person is and knows. This is why I think I know why Nora is, perhaps, petty and shallow.  It’s because many of the things that I have her do in the novel are the same actions or reactions I’ve displayed in real life.  Have there been occasions when I have gossiped about and judged others to make myself feel better? Yes.  Do I let stupid, nonsensical things annoy me on a daily basis? Yes.  At times, instead of genuinely celebrating another’s achievement, am I silently reassuring my fragile ego that I am accomplished, too? Yes.  Am I fully comfortable in my own skin, or do I often need validation that I am as worthy and good enough as the attractive, thin woman who just walked in the room? Yes.  Do I make mistakes all the time, and try to find a lesson in each one.  Yes.  And, it got me to thinking.

Doesn’t neurosis make us all human?  Don’t we all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to show to anyone, not even ourselves? And doesn’t all of this make for great fiction?!  Obviously, because along came Chic LIt.  Just like it’s awfully dangerous to take ourselves too seriously, I don’t want to take my Chick Lit heroine’s flaws too seriously either.  If Nora seems to be petty and shallow in the beginning of the story, it’s for sure that throughout the novel, I will have her work to overcome this. Thus, I’ll be evolving, too, through her journey and evolution.   Nora is different from me, too.  She’s funnier, more courageous, prettier, more generous and thoughtful than I am.  Life imitates art, and art imitates life.  Chick Lit allows the heroine to fail miserably at being perfect. This is what makes it so relatable, so real, so funny, and probably, so Nora!

So, I guess the only thing I know for sure is that before that editor uttered those two dreadful words, Nora and I enjoyed hanging out with each other. It’s time we return to each other unashamed and unfettered.   It’s been way too long, and I miss her.  As her creator, she is the way I can come to understand this world and my truth about it. We need each other.   And there’s nothing shallow or petty in admitting that!




Writing Blog??? – A Tale of Procrastination — Exploring Life with Nishtha Shukla

Hi, it’s Jayne.  I did not write this post; Nishtha Shukla did.  Check out her blog, and read this post.  I thought it was interesting, so I thought I’d share it.  Hope you like it . If you are a procrastinator such as I, you might see yourself in her post!   


via Writing Blog??? – A Tale of Procrastination — Exploring Life with Nishtha Shukla

Blog 4: I am an expert, all right…

in absolutely nothing!  In every area of my life, in every facet of my career, I am a novice. I am not resolute in anything except my love for my family, my dear friends, and my love of God.  Each day, I seem to learn something new about myself, and it ain’t always pretty. Yet, it leads me to a new self-discovery, and it makes me glad I’m not an expert at anything.  This might sound counter-intuitive to you, so let me tell you an extremely humbling story which will illustrate my point:

Last March, I attended a writer’s conference.  As a perk, for a nominal, additional fee, I could sign up for a one-on-one with an editor or agent of my choice, and he/she would read the first 40 pages of my novel as well as my plot summary, and of course, we would conference about them.   I investigated each editor thoroughly, and I made what I thought was the perfect choice.

However, I intentionally reminded myself on each day which preceded our appointment that I must keep my expectations low and realistic.  Thank God I did; otherwise, I would have been crushed by what she ultimately said to me.  More importantly,  I have come to believe that the editor with whom I met was simply another conduit that God used to speak to me not only about my writing but also about who I am as a person aspiring to be a writer.

When we sat down awkwardly on two folding chairs in a busy hallway, I saw the copious notes she had scribbled in purple pen across my pages.   I sighed and bolstered myself.

As any writer knows, waiting to hear the inevitable notes on your work is like giving birth or allowing  yourself to stand naked while the dermatologist checks for moles, or that nice lady at the tanning salon sprays you.  Sure, you’ve washed and waxed, and you try to act like this is totally normal, but you actually feel totally exposed, and you want it to be over before it ever begins.  My editor hadn’t uttered a word, but I had a feeling I wasn’t going home with a book deal.

She began by speaking to me about my book premise, which she liked.  I felt gratified. She went through my plot summary and made suggestions, all of which made sense. I exhaled.  However, I began to sweat and squirm profusely when she determined, “I couldn’t quite sympathize with your heroine, Nora.  In fact, I didn’t like her much.  Honestly, I found her petty and shallow.”

I felt my mouth gape open like a fish as I gasped for air.  I couldn’t believe it!  She continued to talk, but those two words looped in my brain.   Petty and shallow”!?  If she had said my baby was ugly, I couldn’t have been more offended!   I expected notes on my pacing or some of my plot points, but I never expected her to find fault with Nora!  She is so funny in the novel. So candid, so honest, so sarcastic, so, well… ME!

Now,  if you don’t write, you may not know that 9 times out of 10, a writer will balk at any kind of criticism because it strikes at the heart of who he/she is and what he/she has created.  Each writer has a unique vantage point from which he/she writes.  Although the same subjects are tackled again and again, each writer has his/her own way of communicating what he/she thinks about them, which is the direct result of every thought, feeling, emotion, triumph, or tragedy he/she carries with him/her at the time he/she sits down to craft that particular piece of writing.

Good, bad, or indifferent, when I begin to write, the real, vulnerable person inside comes seeping out.  Writing is as close to exposing my self and my soul as I will ever come, for if what I have produced is honest, part of me will  inevitably show up on the pages of whatever I have written.  Otherwise, why write, right?  Really, what’s the point if as a writer I will not honestly communicate the truth as I see it?  Yeah, yeah, we can argue these points, but to me–and again I will say that I am by no means an expert on this– I do believe that my writing is based on every prior experience I have ever had, and it’s a way for me to make sense of the world.

So, even though Nora is an amalgamation of many people, I had given birth to her, so for all intents and purposes, she was me, or she had shades of me in her character. The editor didn’t know it, but she had just excoriated multiple layers of my being, and she had no idea she had done so.

Therefore, criticism, no matter how well-intentioned, is demoralizing to the vast majority of people, especially writers, because they believe it’s a direct assault on what they have produced on the page, and an assault on who they are as human beings.   And it is, isn’t it?  A critic can say it’s not personal, but he or she is responding directly to someone’s inner thoughts! So, it is personal whether the writing is a memoir, an article, a short story, or a Facebook post.

Everyone wants to be respected and validated.  Acknowledging negative comments even when they are disguised as help, is an extremely difficult thing to do.  It’s another rite-of-passage everyone wishes he/she could avoid, but unfortunately everyone who is human has experienced it.  It might be necessary at times; however, it still smarts.  I must remember this feeling next time I grade my students’ essays.  Ugh! Right now,  I am picturing the dark faces of my students who have just received their papers back from me after I tore them to shreds with my sharp, harsh red pen.  Although my comments were meant to give them fodder for the future, they were unable to receive them with enthusiasm nor appreciation.  Duh, and I wondered why everyone in the room shut down and was disgruntled? I am so stupid that sometimes it astounds me.

At this point in my story, some people reading this might be thinking. Well, Jayne, yes, you are, and shame on you!  As an English  teacher, you’ve read enough literature.  The characters are fictitious, so Nora should not be based on you at all.   You’re nothing but an amateur if you fell into that trap.  It’s Writing 101!  Only amateurs write about what they know.  You’re an impostor.  A fake.  Your editor was doing her job, and you should be grateful she was honest and even willing to read your junk.  You have no business writing. Those who can do; those who can’t, teach! 

While this might well be how some readers feel about me right about now, I don’t agree. Again, I’m no expert.

Yet, some of you may be interested to know that  I eventually let those two negative words act as catalysts to enable me to evolve further as both a writer and as a person.

Tune in on Wednesday, and I’ll let you know how!