Signs and symbols, messages and meaning

Lately I’ve been reading James Gleick’s important book, The Information. Before I launch into my observations about it I have to say that anyone thoughtful who lives in our world must, I repeat, must, read it. I don’t say that often. Books are generally a matter of taste, and something I like might seem silly or stupid or unimportant to someone else. But in this case, whatever your feelings about non-fiction, I urge you to make an exception.

Why do I feel this way? Because Gleick pieces together the elements of communication and meaning that we, as a species, have evolved over time, and reveals a continuum, a trajectory, that makes sense of so many things.

He starts with the language of African drums, progresses through the way that written language changed everything about how human beings thought of the world, to an examination of the early steps that identified information as something that can be measured and analyzed. Simple concepts, like the blossoming elegraph wires in the nineteenth century being described as a “net-work” traversing the landscape, suddenly make sense of our immensely fast and complicated way of interrelating to each other through words and encoded electronic impulses.

The very fact that I’m able to write this, now, as I sit in a lovely restaurant in Dumbo, Brooklyn (Superfine, if you want to know) simply wouldn’t have been possible without all those trailblazers and their sometimes outlandish, abortive attempts to make the next great thing, to find ways to send messages faster. For instance: the very idea of standardized time depended on faster communications. Not to mention the concept of a weather report! Imagine when weather was something that simply happened suddenly, without warning, with no relation to any nearby place. Or when time was dependent only on the local moments that defined it: when the sun was at its highest point defining the noon hour. Would it surprise you to know that no one minded much about that until standardized time was essential to ensure that trains didn’t collide?

I’m not going to summarize the entire book, but as a historical novelist as well as a normal human being, I find all these matters extraordinarily important.

So, read the book. You won’t be sorry you spent the time

The Elevator Pitch

Recently I’ve had to tell a lot of strangers what my upcoming book, In the Shadow of the Lamp, is about. I’ve got a reasonable, one-to-two-line pitch that gives a rough idea of what to expect:

A young parlormaid in Victorian London loses her position, and stows away to go with Florence Nightingale and her nurses to the Crimea, where she learns to nurse wounded soldiers and falls in love—with two different men.

This morning, a friend’s Facebook post directed me to this article by the ever intelligent Laura Miller in Salon.com. She discusses the potentially conflicting skill sets of great writing and first-rate self-promotion. Her examples are the recent bits of big news in the publishing world: Amanda Hocking’s 4-book, $2 million contract with St. Martin’s, and Barry Eisler turning down a $500k deal with the same publisher and deciding to self publish.

Those issues have been thoroughly explored in the various book media and on many blogs, my personal favorite being Nathan Bransford’s. What I started thinking about in the middle of the night was how the great authors of the classics might face the daunting publishing world of today, and give an elevator pitch for their books.

This is not a novel (excuse the deliberate pun) idea: I think I’ve read some fanciful pitches before. But with recent discussions, it somehow seems more relevant. Some authors might be good at it: The ever-commercially minded Dickens, for instance. But as I thought about my favorite classic novels, I had a really hard time coming up with selling lines that I thought might actually appeal to publishers—or even the reading public—today.

Here are a few of my attempts:

An unhappily married woman falls in love with a dashing officer, losing her sense of self and abandoning her social circle, and ultimately destroying everything she holds dear. (Anna Karenina)

A young man is encouraged to count on his inheritance to bring him a better life—without any guarantee that he’ll get that inheritance in the end—and makes a series of bad choices. (Great Expectations)

A woman with fragile health remembers her youth while she prepares to give a party, and a parallel tragedy of a shell-shocked WWI soldier plays itself out at the same time. (Mrs. Dalloway)

So, those are not sparkling and witty. What they do is demonstrate to me how difficult it is to distill the essence of a work of literature in a few sentences. I’m reminded of a famous Woody Allen quote (paraphrased here): “I decided to read War and Peace. It’s about war, and peace.”

Got any good elevator pitches for your favorite classic novels? Let’s see if we can make one or two of them appealing to today’s market! And then, let’s appreciate that promotion and writing are two different things, both necessary to either traditional or self publishing in this current world.

Jane Eyre and I

I don’t even remember when I first read Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s sweeping novel of tormented love and fierce individuality. I remember more clearly reading Virginia Woolf’s assessment, in which she takes Bronte to task for being so polemical in her feminism—a view shared by some modern feminist authors.

I also don’t remember when I first saw a movie adaptation of the novel. It was certainly before my high school drama teacher had us watch the version with George C. Scott and Susannah York (I recall not liking it very much, not because of Scott, but because Susannah York didn’t fit my image of Jane). I think I must have had the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version in my mind, with its black and white gothic atmosphere, where Elizabeth Taylor plays the uncredited role of Helen Burns and a frothy Margaret O’Brien is the ward Adele.

But the adaptation I am most familiar with is the BBC series from 1983, with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clark. This multi-part series is the most complete of any made to date, incorporating both the typhoid epidemic at Lowood and the character of the good principal, Miss Temple. It also fills out the relationships (a little fantastic and coincidental, but nonetheless part of the original novel) between St. John and his sisters and John Eyre of Madeira.

I enjoy that adaptation so much that I own it on DVD and rewatch it periodically. It always satisfies me.

But the siren song of a new adaptation, with the entrancing Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, was too much to resist. As part of my preparation for this movie, I re-read the novel

(something I had not done for a very long time). I fell in love with it all over again, I must say. Bronte’s ability to delineate characters, the confessional tone of the first-person narration that sounds surprisingly modern despite a few telling details of style and grammar, the quality of Jane herself as a passionate, well-rounded, principled individual—these are just some of the things that make Bronte’s novel deserve its place in the canon. And doubtless, they are also a big part of the reason filmmakers try again and again to capture the brooding essence of the novel on screen.

Jane Eyre is a sprawling work of great emotional and moral complexity. It is not easily contained in a two-hour time slot. Although it lacks some of the cinematographic atmosphere of other adaptations, that’s why the lengthy BBC version is so successful. That, and the casting of the mouse-like but spunky Zelah Clark as Jane. And despite his critics, I think Timothy Dalton does a pretty good job as Mr. Rochester, a little too handsome though he is.

I was hoping that the director of the latest version, Cary Fukunaga, would discover some magical way to distill the essence of the story, even though I knew she would have to make choices that would eliminate some key scenes and themes in the novel.

The Welles/Fontaine version is hard to beat for choosing the bits that would most successfully translate into a feature-length film. No wonder, with a screenplay by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. The school was ironed out into something completely inhuman, of course: it’s hard to include the sympathetic Miss Temple in a shortened version. The addition of a scene where Jane and Helen, as punishment, must parade around in the rain at night carrying flatirons was pure theater. And events are a little rearranged, but not annoyingly so. The filming is gorgeous, the lighting very atmospheric. Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane is fabulous. In addition, the balance of scenes of Jane’s youth and her maturity works, somehow.

Jane’s tenure as a teacher at Lowood is eliminated, and she goes directly from the end of her education to her position as governess—a thoughtful excision, I think.

The music is old-Hollywood dramatic, and hearing it fills me with nostalgia. The director emphasizes the darkness of the story, of course. And that is my primary complaint about all the 2-hour film adaptations. The Jane of the novel has wit and humor and a strong sense of self, with a generally positive outlook, despite the events that have darkened her life. These are qualities that are lost in every feature adaptation I have watched, including the latest one.

I won’t talk about the authenticity of the costumes in the 1943 version. Costume dramas were a very different matter then. There seems to have been an established “period” frock, worn for just about every film set in the 19th century. Fontaine is rather self-effacing and brooding, and perhaps a little too pretty for Jane. On the other hand, I may be one of the few who actually likes Welles in the role of Rochester.

Thornfield looks like the castle of the wicked witch of the west, an impression that is reinforced by the resemblance to Margaret Hamilton of the actress who plays Grace Poole. (And I’m thankful they got a real singer to perform for Blanche Ingram, even if it was unbelievably operatic—the voice in the recent version was positively painful.) The advent of Mason occurs earlier than in the novel, as well, exactly as it was in Fukunaga’s interpretation. Although this omits the scene where Rochester poses as a gypsy, it’s an understandable foreshortening, in my view.

The chemistry between Welles and Fontaine is palpable, which makes the accelerated timeframe somehow more believable. Several of those with whom I’ve discussed the Fukunaga version have pointed out that there isn’t much chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender. She seems far too young and girlish for the depth of passion necessary, although Jane in the novel is only 19.

The biggest changes in the story of the Welles/Fontaine version are the inclusion of a scene where Rochester puts Blanche off, and the complete omission of the episode where Jane runs away and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters, eventually discovering that she is an heiress. Instead, she returns to Gateshead and Bessie, and—as with Blanche—Hollywood decided that Mrs. Reed had to be less evil, and stages a rapprochement on her deathbed. After her death, Jane actually starts to write a letter asking to be taken back as a teacher at Lowood. On a predictably dark and stormy night she hears Edward’s voice and races back to Thornfield, discovering the burned-out mansion and her now-blind lover.

Although the cuts in the story are broader and more drastic in the old version, what it achieves is a measure of space to develop Jane and Edward’s relationship, to make their intense, ill-fated love believable.

For the sake of those who have not yet seen the Fukunaga version, I won’t detail how the plot is manipulated. But the director tried to include more of the story elements, and in the process—for me, at any rate—hurried through emotional content so that ultimately, the movie feels a little empty.

And yet, I’m glad someone tried again to capture the magic of this remarkable novel on film. If nothing more, it only proves the enduring power of the written word, and how it works on an individual’s imagination to create an impression that’s different for each of us.

Standing here, now

I sometimes get bogged down in stupid things. Unproductive thoughts. Obsessive worries. Things I really have no control over, but that for one reason or another seem to matter too much to ignore.

Today, I started out that way. I’ve long postponed switching the platform on which I create my website to something where I could integrate this blog. I’m partway there, but I don’t have the necessary background skills to make it easy, and I’m tearing myself apart with frustration.

For me, frustration is a visceral pain that sits just below my sternum. When I experience it, the pain washes over every other emotion. It completely engulfs my psyche, making it impossible for me to enjoy anything until I have managed to solve the problem or issue that’s frustrating me. I can’t even write fiction when I feel that way.

So I’ve decided that I need to set out on a course of self-improvement to overcome this annoying failing I have. I need a way to be able to set aside things I can’t control, a way to put the task that refuses to be conquered into the background, behind a screen where it will not raise its ugly head and taint the rest of my life.

While I was standing on the train platform, up high above Atlantic avenue, waiting for the 12:49 to Long Beach, I looked out over the semi-industrial, dilapidated commercial buildings that line that main Brooklyn thoroughfare, and I tried to empty my mind of bad thoughts, frustrations, and sadness. I stared across into the cloud-dotted, pale blue sky. I felt the cool breeze through the sweater I optimistically wore as my only coat on this early spring day. I noticed the horns honking, the car and truck engines roaring. I saw a plane go by on its way to JFK.

I repeated to myself, “I’m standing here, now.” I couldn’t think of anything better.

The result? Nothing much I’m afraid. I still have that knot in my stomach. I’m still going over and over how to solve the knotty problems I seem to be having at the moment. But I think I might have had some moments of calm while I was actually doing the exercise. I suppose it’s a little like meditating, which is something I’ve never successfully done before.

Now, I will try the supremely zen exercise of interacting with my grandchildren. I’ll let you know if that works any better.

And if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Of launch days and being a writer

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It never gets old, but it’s always a letdown.

Today my second young adult historical novel, Anastasia’s Secret, releases in paperback and e-book. Granted, it’s been out in hardcover for a year now, but these new formats should extend the reach, being both more affordable and more convenient for readers. And my publisher is pretty strict about release days: books aren’t actually shipped from online sellers until they say.

So it should be a big deal. Yet one of my writer friends quoted another of them as saying that release days are “dull thuds.”

I think before I was published, I had the image that choirs of angels would accompany my books to the shelves of bookstores on the day they were released. For my adult novels, I at least had appearances scheduled around the time of the release, and even if only a few people came, it felt special to have my book featured in the window of a bookstore, with a poster of the cover furnished by the publisher.

But the YA world is different, so I’ve discovered. Bookstore appearances are nonexistent, unless you’re a really big name–especially in new York, where I’m living now. My readers are too young to drive, generally, and so they have to persuade a parent to bring them. This only adds to the “dull thud” experience of release day.

What’s hard is keeping sight of the accomplishment, of making sure I don’t subside into actually feeling sorry for myself when in fact I should daily remind myself that I have done something beyond the comprehension of many people, I have not only written numerous books (hard enough in itself) but had five of them published by major new York publishers (soon to be six).

Life is crazy sometimes. Why is it so difficult simply to live in the moment, enjoy the day? Why are we always striving, always trying to do and be more? I guess it’s human nature, part of a survival instinct so fundamental as to be ineffable. I’ve read in some places that our children no longer have those instincts, that we’re becoming a nation of complacent non-achievers because the next generation has reacted against their hyper-achieving, anxious parents, who spent all their time telling their kids how special they are, no matter what. I don’t see it with my daughters, of whom I’m incredibly proud, and who have strivings of their own. Maybe that’s another tendency to guard against: the tendency to generalize because it makes a good sound bite.

In any case, it’s release day, and I’m enjoying it. Even if no one else in the world (aside from my family, Facebook friends and anyone who reads this blog) has any idea. The time is mine. The day is mine.

Sticks and Stones

Yesterday I stumbled into a news item about a legal scholar in Israel who was suing someone in the French Courts (a German) who gave her book a less than positive review. Wow. The upshot was that she’s probably done more damage to her case by bringing the suit than by just letting it go, but it raises the issue in a very dramatic way about negative reviews and how authors respond to them.

First, full disclosure: not only have I had my share of those—thankfully outweighed by positive ones—but recently someone decided to lacerate my adult book published in 2007, Liszt’s Kiss, in a lengthy blog that tore apart just about every aspect of the book. I skimmed the article, but what I found most disturbing was the “reviewer’s” accusations about historical inaccuracy. She called me on things I knew were actually correct.

So what do authors do when faced with negative, nasty reviews?

If they’re on the big pre-release sites (Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal), basically you just suck it up and figure it’s one person’s opinion. Which it is. No book is ever going to appeal to everyone equally strongly, or even at all. I’m not a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen, even though I recognize his writing skill, but a lot of people disagree with me about that.

The trouble is that nowadays, everyone on the Internet who reads and has an opinion can make that opinion public. This is in many ways a good and helpful thing. I love the many book blogs out there (I’ve been treated very well lately by The Book Pixie, for instance) where passionate readers share their explorations. By and large, the main bloggers treat authors with respect, and don’t bother to review/feature books that they think are substandard. Silence can be deadly to an author, but far less hurtful.

In the Shadow of the Lamp

Coming April, 2011

I have heard many stories from author friends who have experienced bitter criticisms from readers who just decide to trash someone’s books, whatever the reason. That, to me, is cowardly. It’s akin to cyber-bullying, saying horrible things about someone you never have to face and with no consequences. What people who delight in this kind of criticism don’t realize is that once something’s on the Internet, it stays there. And writing a book, going through the many hoops to get it published, and sending it out into the world is hard, hard work. All authors deserve respect and consideration for managing it, even if what they’ve produced is not to your taste.

I spent some time reviewing books for the Historical Novels Review. I quickly learned to volunteer only for those books that had a fair chance of being my cup of tea. Why? Because I know that just because I don’t care for inspirational fiction doesn’t mean there aren’t readers out there who love it. Just because I’m not versed in the requirements of certain genres doesn’t mean that the readership of those genres aren’t waiting with bated breath for another example to come out.

Reviewers should be honest. Otherwise there’s no point in a review. But also, reviewers should be aware of the weight their words carry. A panning review, although fun to write, doesn’t really serve the reader, and it certainly makes it difficult for the author to connect with readers who might really disagree with that one person’s assessment if they got past the review and read the book anyway. As a reviewer, I always try to say something positive about a book. There invariably is something positive to say: the book wouldn’t have made it past the gatekeepers of the publishing world if it didn’t have some merit. And then, I also try to say what kind of reader might enjoy the book. If I loved it, I have no trouble waxing lyrical with praise.

These things are on my mind lately as I wait for the first major reviews of my next novel, In the Shadow of the Lamp, to come out. I’ve had some fabulous early feedback from teen bloggers, but a lot of chains and libraries wait for the big reviews to come out before making purchase decisions. And that’s the crux of the matter: Reviews are one of the few avenues of publicity open to book authors. The primary publicity a publisher engages in is sending out ARCs for review.

This is all nothing new. Ever since Amazon started allowing people to rate and review books, there have been issues with nasty reviews. But in the spirit of trying to keep the generosity going with the book world, here’s a list of wonderful books I think everyone should read:

  • Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt
  • Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell
  • Father of the Rain by Lily King
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • The Tudor Secret by C. W. Gortner
  • Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland

And I’m sure there are tons more I’ve read recently that I should include. I’ll add to the list in comments!

So, happy reading. Happy reviewing. Just remember that it isn’t true about sticks and stones: words do hurt, so if you’re going to write something negative, be sure it’s worth the pain it will inflict.

I blame it on the three-ring circus

The other morning, on my way to Grand Central to catch an early train to Connecticut where I spend time each week working for an awesome startup company, I saw a poster for Barnum and bailey’s circus. As I casually glanced at it, remembering going there last year with my granddaughter, it suddenly hit me: this was the beginning of multitasking. Or if not multitasking, at least of our expectation that our lives will be filled with not one thing at a time to focus on, but three or more.

All this is an elaborate way of explaining my recent silence on this blog, as I struggle to fulfill so many obligations that I pass at least one sleepless night a week, and know that even all this feverish activity won’t actually pay the bills on time.

On Saturday I attended an inspiring day of awesome speakers at the scbwi winter conference in new York. But the comment that made the biggest impression on me was made by one of the editors at a breakout session. Lisa Sandell said that she thought writers were focusing too much on the ancillary things, the marketing we have to do because of the importance of the Internet and the extreme competition out there, but that we really need to concentrate on just writing good books. Without the books, of course, the marketing is pointless.

I’ve had many conversations with my fellow authors lately in which we tear our hair out, wondering if there’s anything we can do to get our books noticed, get someone to pay attention so that we have a ghost of a chance of maybe being able to earn a paltry living from the efforts that have sometimes torn pieces out of our souls. We all know that our books are entertainment, that we have to offer the reader something that will keep her turning the pages and coming back for more, that storytelling should be broadly appealing, not arcane or obtuse. We hope we’ve done that, or we wouldn’t have made it through the filter of agent and editor and acquisitions board.

But once we’re out there, how can we avoid the black hole of complete obscurity? We are often reduced to praying that a good pre-publication review will be noticed, that one of the popular magazines will mention the book, that librarians will be inspired to recommend it. Spine out on a bookstore shelf can be almost as invisible as not being there at all. It’s no wonder, frankly, that we spend so much mental and emotional effort on promotion.

I don’t pretend to have the answer to this, but I do think it’s yet another symptom of our generally fragmented attention, and the overwhelming options we have, and choices we must make every day.

So, when the paperback of anastasia’s secret comes out next month, do me a favor and pick up a copy. And when In the Shadow of the Lamp makes its appearance in April, if you’re feeling flush, buy it. I’ll be doing what i can to get the word out, but in the meantime I’ve another book to revise, another first draft to write, several freelance editing projects, freelance advertising copy to write, and a startup business to help launch.

It’s hard to find the time to enter that sacred place where stories are born, come to life, and thrive.

Yoki

Yolanda KingI was a raw, innocent 17 year old, fresh from a girl’s high school, going (somewhat on sufferance) to an all girl’s Smith College. “House” assignment was by lottery, with an element of first-come, first-served. I had been unenthusiastic about the decision to go to Smith at all, and didn’t select my housing as quickly as I should have. I ended up in Laura Scales House, instead of my coveted Haven House, with its rambling, New England clapboard, or Tyler House, across the street from the music building (and hosting the swing featured in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf).

In fact, I recall being very disappointed that I would live in the neo-Georgian Quad, and not even on the inside of it. My room faced Elm Street, the only “busy” street that bordered the campus. The silver lining was having a single room. As the only girl among three brothers, I’d never shared a bedroom in my life, except when I was too young to notice, and I was afraid to start doing it then.

Scales House turned out to be extremely interesting.

I entered college in 1972, when the Civil Rights Movement was still very much underway. When Women’s Lib had gained ground, but still had an uphill struggle ahead. (The fact that Gloria Steinem had gone to Smith made me feel a bit better than I had on realizing it was the best place for me to go, and made up for the fact that my mother had gone there too.)

My childhood in a suburb of Buffalo was very sheltered, although not, I strongly believe, because my parents had any overt prejudices. The community of Kenmore, New York, was entirely, lily white. The only black person I knew was our cleaning lady, until my brother and I started attending the Community Music School in downtown Buffalo. There was the first place I encountered—and befriended—black children my own age.

When I went to a private high school in the city (The Buffalo Seminary), I met a handful of the brightest, most motivated black girls in Buffalo. One of them was captain of the cheerleading squad for Nichols, the boy’s school nearby, and we were friends.

But Smith—I was completely unprepared for exposure to young, black women so passionate about their right to carve out a place in society that they definitely had an edge of militancy about them. These were not girls who dared to knock on the door of white conformity and beg to be let in. These were women who were proud of their heritage, and vocal about it. Scales House, it happened, was the epicenter of the black population at Smith. And at its center was an extraordinary young woman named Yolanda King.

Yoki wasn’t like some of the other black women at Scales, who kept to themselves, sat at their own table in the dining room, made it clear that at certain times, white girls weren’t welcome in the communal living room. Yoki, even at the age of 18, was a bridge builder. She made a point of being courteous, of getting to know everyone in the house. She was a drama major, and I was a music major, so we felt some connection there. I wasn’t afraid of Yoki, where—I am ashamed to admit—I was sometimes afraid of one or two of the other women in that group.

Nothing bad ever happened. I’m sure I had no reason for actual fear. To this day I don’t know how much of my trepidation was my own perception, and how much was simply mutual distrust because we were so different, from such different backgrounds. But the stand-out memory for me was the unfailing kindness and grace of Yolanda King. I would never claim to have been a close friend of Yoki’s. But we were friendly, and she was a positive light in our small, protected community.

Very few of those black women ever came back for reunions, but Yoki did. We got together and talked, heard about everything she was doing with her theater group, and then a film. I was glad to reconnect with her and wished we didn’t live on opposite sides of the country so that I could keep that connection going.

When I heard of her early death in May of 2007, I wept. It was no assassin’s bullet, only a speculated heart condition that felled her. I was too young to be fully aware of all the great work her great father was doing for oppressed populations of all descriptions, not just people of color. But I felt I knew what kind of person he must have been through knowing Yoki.

May we all learn the lessons he had to teach us in whatever ways we can on this day that celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Imagination of the Middle-School Girl

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I just had the immense privilege of sharing some tips about writing, but mostly gaining wisdom for myself, with a group of ten lively middle-school girls in buffalo, new York.

The event was a writing workshop for prospective and incoming freshmen at the Buffalo Seminary, the high school I graduated from in 1972. I hadn’t been back to visit since then, never even going to reunions, in part because I straddled two classes: I entered in one class and accelerated to graduate a year early. But something made me reach out to my high school Alma mater and see if I could somehow do an event with them.

Aside from the poignant pleasures of revisiting the haunts of childhood and youth, I was eager to make connections with some potential young readers.

One thing led to another, and here I am.

The girls who attended came from a wide variety of schools in the Buffalo area, but they had in common a genuine interest in writing, and a passion for reading. They were all willing to speak up and share their thoughts. They listened to each other with respect and interest. They were attentive to me (although I spent as little time as possible doing the talking), and entered into the discussions and the writing exercise I gave them with true enthusiasm.

It was a heartwarming, encouraging, and enlightening experience. I split them into pairs and gave each pair an envelope with three or four pictures in it of people of different ages and types. They were to work them into a story, then come back together and share their inventions.

Each one was highly imaginative. I could never have predicted what they would come up with. No young person in their fictions had more than one living parent, and in at least one case, it was an evil stepmother. Dead bodies were littered all over the place. There were two cancer sufferers. Romance in most of them. A really inventive tale about an immortal Cleopatra who remained so by living off the life force of successive lovers over the centuries.

It was fabulous. I want to do it again, on a more protracted basis, and have a group write a novel together.

Most of all, everything I’ve done while I’ve been here has reminded me how spirited and imaginative young people are, how giving of themselves, how open and eager. At least these young people, who clearly have families who encourage and support them, and who are motivated and intelligent. Were there hints of darkness and confusion? All those dead bodies and illnesses were a hint. But being able to work through some of those issues with stories over which they had control, and where the outcome could be molded and cathartic, is surely a good thing.

What a responsibility parents, teachers, and mentors have to nurture creativity and self expression, not just because it’s an important intellectual exercise, but because, like creative play, it is part of how teens and preteens learn how to negotiate the world, find their place in it, and leave their indelible, individual stamp on humanity.

Thank you, everyone I met and worked with here in Buffalo.

Echoes of the Past

I haven’t been back to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, for many years. Possibly 15, in fact. Not since my older brother was living here, recovering from the aftermath of a liver transplant and other major health issues.

Yesterday and today I have visited two of the schools I went to when I lived in the modest suburb of Kenmore. Yesterday, I was a guest at a meeting of the Writing Club, organized by an enterprising English teacher, Marjorie Waldron.

I didn’t know what to expect, having arranged this at the last minute when I thought I might as well try to have more than one event while I’m here in Buffalo. I brought Betty with me for protection (not! She’s a little fluffy white dog; I really brought her as an icebreaker).

Turns out I didn’t need an icebreaker, although everyone loved Betty. These students were lively, confident, forthcoming, welcoming. They were all eager to share their work with me, and took turns reading their short stories/chapters/poems aloud. It was a breath of fresh air, to see that students in the txt generation wanted to create narratives in good, coherent English, wanted to tell stories and open up by spilling their thoughts onto a page.

I don’t know if they got anything from me. Honestly, I mostly listened! But I thank them for reminding me how exciting and new and wonderful it was to be twelve or thirteen. In case any of my YA writer friends are wondering, these were the themes that popped up in their writing: Love, friends, action, adventure. In about that order.

More about today’s high school visit to come!