Saturday, October 15, 2011

If you lose your way...

 I got my notes from my editor regarding my next book, Piney Moon.  They were sent by email and were written on MS Word, but they might as well been written with one of those bright, glowy pens. They were filled with great comments and good, hard questions. As a writer, it's the kind of stuff that lights you up, points you in the right direction and makes you want to dive back into your own story. Before her notes, I was worried about this one. I felt like I was losing my way.

Last night, when my niece Andrea called to fill me in about her wedding plans, I ended up telling her about my editor's notes and about my losing-my-way fears. She reminded me about one of our "special days". When she was growing up, that's what we called the days we spent together. 

When she was 10 and I was in my early twenties, we decided to take a drive from her house in central Jersey to Seaside Heights (aka the Jersey Shore). We were so busy talking and singing and laughing that I wasn't paying attention to where I was going.  I'm not from New Jersey and they were country roads  -- and there were no street signs. Of course, we got lost. Since it was before the days of smart phones and Google maps and GPS systems, we had to stop and ask directions many times.

The directions weren't always easy to follow.  "Make a left at the yellow pick-up truck", said one gas station attendant, "but make sure it's the one that's parked underneath the crooked tree..."
I nodded, pretending I understood. Soon I noticed that the gas station attendant wasn't even looking at me. I turned around and saw Andrea holding a purple sparkle pen, writing everything he said in her Hello Kitty notepad.

Thanks to the 10-year old, we found our way to Seaside. It was an afternoon in early spring. The Snookiless boardwalk was crowded just enough to make you think you were someplace special. At the first arcade game, we won a giant basket filled with toys and candy. We moved onto a different game and won again. This time, it was a huge stuffed animal. Our wining streak lasted. Stuffed animals, gift baskets, toys-- that day, we won it all.

On the way back to the car, we stopped at a palm reader (I'm a sucker for psychics). Honestly, I don't remember anything she said to me, but when it was Andrea's turn, I held my breath. Not that I necessarily believe in the veracity of boardwalk palm readers, but still, Andrea was just a kid. What if she was a scam artist? What if she said something bad? This could get uncomfortable.

As soon as she told Andrea that she'd someday have a great job and an excellent education, I exhaled. Then she stared at my niece's palm and made that 'tsk tsk' sound. "Finding your true love will take a long time," she sighed. "Many many blind dates."

Years later, Andrea and I still marvel at our luck at the boardwalk games, and we've laughed at the "many many blind dates" comment over and over again throughout Andrea's dating years.

There probably should be some tie in here between losing your way in writing and losing your way on the road, and I wish I could say something clever about being fearless in both circumstances. But since both of them still make me nervous, I'm not sure I can draw that conclusion. However, if you do manage to get lost in either writing or driving, I have one piece of advice: Travel with someone who knows enough to bring a sparkle pen.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricane Irene, Evacuation and a Reading List

A hundred steps from my house is the Barnegat Bay. There's a lagoon (NJ terminology for a large canal) across the street. On the next street, there's another. I'm surrounded by water and way too close to the bay to ignore the warnings. So I'm leaving my home and heading inland.
It will be my first evacuation. 
I'm taking the necessities-my favorite scented soap, my hair straightener and a giant bag of York Peppermint Patties.
But I'm also thinking about what I'm going to read.
All my life reading has been a way to escape. And I can't think of a better way to get through a difficult weekend than a getting lost in a good story.
Here's my reading list for the storm:
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
I haven't decided on my middle grade books yet. I so wish that Paul Acampora's Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in The Face was out this week. That first chapter I read on his blog tugged at me. It comes out next week so I'll have to wait.
I still need to get some middle grades.
What book would you take with you to read during your evacuation?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling: Interview with Frank Cipriani

Frank Cipriani is a writer, an amateur ethnobotanist, primitive survival enthusiast and a professional educator. I met him at the library where I work. He mentioned he was working on a book proposal about one of my favorite things, storytelling. Frank had to opportunity to learn about storytelling from Kenneth Little Hawk, the renowned Mi’Kmaw First Nation storyteller and was collaborating with Little Hawk and his wife, Beverly Miller.
His book Learning Little Hawks Way of Storytelling by Kenneth Little Hawk and Beverly Miller as taught to Frank Domenico Cipriani was released this summer.  

By the way, this book was blurbed by one of my childhood idols, folk singer, Pete Seeger.  Here’s what Pete Seeger said. “What Little Hawk has to teach is exactly what America has to learn.”

Frank stopped by Ramble Street for an interview so let’s meet him.

Welcome Frank. So how’d this book come about? How’d you meet Kenneth Little Hawk and Beverly Miller?
At my local library, I was teaching a survival camp for kids. My friend, Barbara, suggested that we teach storytelling as well. She had seen Little Hawk and suggested I go see him. I did. He's unforgettable. I had seen other storytellers before, but he was astounding.
Little Hawk is a Mi'kmaw/Mohawk storyteller. His Mi’kmaw people still live in Nova Scotia, although his great-grandmother left the tribe to settle in Mohawk country. He was educated in the traditions of both his people by his grandparents, and he was named by them. Little Hawk has traveled the world telling stories in Europe, Africa, Australia and, of course, North America. He’s performed at the White House, Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History and was featured in the Ken Burns’ documentaries, The West and Lewis and Clark.

How is this book different than other books on storytelling?

It’s a book that teaches storytelling by telling stories. I haven't seen another book that does this. Many books tell specific stories, even Native American ones, but I don't know of another how-to book on storytelling that is actually a story in itself.

This book has a very interesting byline. It’s by Kenneth Little Hawk and Beverly Miller as taught to Frank Domenico Cipriani.  Why “as taught to” instead of the usual “as told to”?
‘As told to’ doesn’t make sense for this book. It implies dictation. Look over the book. Much of that sort of language is missing.

Traditionally, native people would not ‘tell’ people to do things. They would “invite” them. So, we needed a word for my role in the collaboration that reflected that invitation to share. My job was to take the lessons I learned from Beverly and Little Hawk over the years and create a story arc consistent with their teaching. The book is my interpretation and research, but all of it is based on their instruction.   

So what was the process like?

Little Hawk and Beverly have this wonderful air about them. You feel transported when you're with them. I would try something, storytelling-wise, and they would tell me stories back. Through that I would learn. I did follow the trail, the life of this story. Little Hawk and Beverly's wonderful place, the stews that Beverly would cook, Little Hawk's home, it all has this feel of being in the world that should be, a world which is harmonious with the ancestors, with nature, with our own true selves.

Sure, we used cars to get to the hut, sure, we had some modern conveniences, but both at our hut site in the woods and at Little Hawk's home, that feeling of respect and reverence was always prevalent. I thought of writing in a more conventional sense, but the story really flowed "through Spirit", as Little Hawk would say.

Wait.  You learned how to tell stories from a world-renowned Native American storyteller in a hut in New Jersey?  Where?

We built a wonderful hut in a park in our town. We made a deal with the town, that if we created programs for kids on the land, they would not sell the land to developers. Over the years, it’s been a site for many interesting native gatherings, storytellings, and even religious services. One day, we had the Chief of the Mountain Band Tsalagi, the Keeper of the Flame for the Lenape, and numerous other dignitaries there. After they spoke, the kids at the hut served them meals prepared at the fire. The Keeper of the Flame told me that ‘For the first time in my life, I feel like I am really home.’ It was a great honor. 

 What an unusual opportunity. Sorry for interruption, Frank. Please tell us more about the experience.

 Grandfather Little Hawk has the ability to carry people with him to that perfect place, where nature is balanced and humans have lived the same way for ten thousand years, in harmony with their surroundings.

So I learned from him, lived a whole life, and wrote down what I observed. I think that it's true that he took me on a spiritual journey to that place. Then Little Hawk and Beverly suggested corrections to the language I used to "translate" the experience. For instance, in an early version of the book, I say that "Dancing Rain told the little children to sit in their older siblings' laps". That may be what I saw, but the truth is that Dancing Rain invited the children to sit. It was simply not a part of the culture to tell people what to do.

Because it is not traditional to tell people what to do, the only way to instruct is by example and storytelling. Instruction is in the first person, or the third person, never in the second. So for instance, Beverly never said to me, "Use props to illustrate this point". Instead, she’d say, "Once, when Little Hawk's audience was a little too quiet, I handed him a conch shell to blow." This is the traditional way to teach, by offering a story of a time when something was learned, or a problem was solved. It implies that the listener has a choice. 

So now that you learned the art of storytelling, have you tried it?

At my first book signing, I was very nervous. Before that, I never told a story in public. It went very well, we sold many books and I got invited back. So, I guess the book really does work.

I’m still in the process of reading this book. I’m learning a lot. Thanks so much for visiting Ramble Street, Frank. Come back again soon.

 By the way, Frank Cipriani is an interesting guy. Here's what I found out about him that he was too modest to mention.  
  • He has two published two books in Spanish. 
  • Became involved in Primitive Survival, started a nonprofit organization that took children on 200-plus mile walkabouts, planted over 3,000 trees
  • Is the official Spanish translator for Little Hawk's stories
  • Homeschooled his children for eighteen years Lives near the Jersey shore with his family of ten. 
  • Writes a weekly column for a paper in Bangladesh
  • Was recognized by the State of New Jersey as the county's volunteer of the year in 2009
  • Has won several awards for Childrens' Empowerment.
 Book related websites:
Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling Facebook page 
Kenneth Little Hawk's website

Monday, May 23, 2011

Inspired by a Teacher and The Simpsons

Working full time and writing is hard. A few weeks ago, I met someone who is so dedicated to his craft that even though he has a day job he spends six hours a day writing on weekdays and longer on weekends.
His day job: New Jersey middle school student. His age: 12. 

I met Chris P on his twelfth birthday. (I met his mom too, who confirmed the amount of hours he spends churning out stories). I was so inspired by Chris that I wanted you all to meet him. Plus when he becomes a famous author, I can say that I gave him his very first interview.  Fortunately he agreed to stop by Ramble Street and answer a few questions.

So please welcome 12-year-old writing prodigy, Chris P.

Hi Chris, so how’d you get started writing?

I love to write. I can throw my emotions into my stories, and just have fun with it. When I first decided to write a novel, I started at 8 pages a day. In language art classes, I hated to brainstorm. I always just started writing whatever came to mind on a subject.
My fifth grade teacher always made me write more than everyone else, because she knew I had potential. If she said one page for everyone, it was two pages for me. I would write and write, and if it wasn’t better than the last, I had to redo it. Then I wanted to write a novel. 

 How many hours do you write a day?  And tell me a little bit about your writing process.

I write at least six hours a day. If I write less than six in one day, I write more the next. I feel that if I break my routine, I’d be hurting myself, because I’d wind up with writing less and less each day. So I write on a strict schedule.

If my friends want to be in the novel, I pick the first three friends who ask. I wound up adding my friends Abby, Nick and Jess. They supported me the whole way. When I ask them, they give me ideas about what I should do.

Ha! I put the names of my friends into my stories too. 

Your mom mentioned that you’ve already sent in your first manuscript to some publishers. How’s your submission process going?

I’ve sent manuscripts to two large publishing companies. They both rejected me. It felt bad at first, but I know that some of the best authors get rejected plenty of times. Someone told JK Rowlings that she wouldn’t make money off of children’s books. Harry Potter is a best seller!

Where do you get your inspiration?

Two things inspired me to write a novel. One was an episode of The Simpsons where Marge decides to write a novel and it gets published.
The other was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Mulrane. It was like she could see the futures of her students.

I’ve never seen that Simpsons episode, but I have been lucky enough to meet teachers like Mrs. Mulrane.

What authors inspire you?

One is Rick Riordan, who has written two book series in three years. The other is Eoin Colfer who has written lots of books and is still going. I can’t wait for Rich Riordan’s new book!

What type of stories do you write?

   I mostly like to write "Sword and Sorcery" stories, because fantasy and mythology have always fascinated me. I love the idea of magic, alchemy and armies storming castles. I love to read fantasy books because it’s like a movie of magic and warriors and castles right in your head. I think writing is the best of the arts.

 Thanks again for stopping by Ramble Street, Chris. Keep writing!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sunrise over Barnegat Bay

I am convinced that my dog believes my husband's name is He Who Must Not Be Awakened. If she has to go out in the early morning or the middle of the night, she cries and whimpers at me.  This morning at 5 am, that's exactly what happened. I woke up without having slept away the stress and tension of the past few days.  My dog, Chi, didn't seem to care. She nudged me down the stairs and ignored my grumbles.
But... I opened up the front door and I saw the sunrise.  I even walked down the street to take a picture -- and I did this pre-coffee.
The picture is dark, but if you look carefully you can see the sea grass in the front, the Barnegat Bay in the middle. And way up at the top, there's a morning star.
Current status: Me: Awake and drinking copious amounts of caffeine.
                          Chi: Sound asleep.    

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How Bad Childhood Memories Creep into Your Fiction

I'm working on a scene for my w.i.p. where my main character has to dance on stage. It doesn't go well for her. And the scene didn't go well for me either. While I was writing, I kept getting interrupted by my own stage traumas. It made me go straight to the photo albums.
The picture above was taken before my very first dance recital. Even at age 5, I knew I could never pull off that flashy one shoulder look, but there's more about that dress that you need to know. It's not actually a dress. It's shorts with a skirt over it.
My dance group consisted of me and two other 5-year-old girls. We were called the "Blue Eye Shadows". At the end of our dance, we were supposed to lift up our skirts to reveal a giant eye on the other side of the costume.
Dance lessons were okay. Dance recitals were another story. I was and still am an introvert, but I've always been a tall introvert, which means that when it comes to being on stage, guess who they put in the middle. 
We were half way through our big dance number when it happened. Instead of step step shuffle turn, I stepped turned shuffled stepped. The two other Blue Eye Shadows followed my lead. We lost the beat. All three of us went in different directions. One turned. The other hopped. I shuffled.
A voice boomed over the music.  It barked out orders. "Step! Hop! Step!" Our teacher Miss Corrine, the one who came up with the make up themed dance recital, had grabbed a microphone. Even though she was behind the curtain, we could see her standing in the corner of the stage. She was not amused.  We ended our dance and forgot to lift up our skirts to show the big blue-eye-shadowed eyes.
At the end of the night, we all had to go back on stage and sit there while Miss Corrine addressed the audience. Again, the Blue Eye Shadows were in the ones in the middle. After she was done with her little speech, Miss Corrine called the names of each dance group one by one and gave them presents. The boxes were beautifully wrapped. They were all different shapes and sizes. Ronnie, the Dancing  Eye Pencil who took private lessons and tapped around the stage with great pizazz, got the biggest gift.  I wish I could remember the names of the other dancing groups of cosmetics that Miss Corrine called up to the stage that night. The Lip Sticks? The Powder Puffs? The Cuticle Removers? 
She never called our name. The recital ended and the Blue Eye Shadows were the only ones who didn't get  presents. 
Our group broke up after that. We went our separate ways.The next year, I had a new dance school and a new teacher. But that blue-eye-shadowed memory stayed with me. I never got over my fear of dance recitals.
And now I'm writing a scene and putting my main character through a very similar experience.  Somehow no matter what the story is about, I always manage to slip in my own memories. I wonder if other writers do this too. 

By the way, the little boy in the picture is my brother, Robert. He always hated wearing that red suit. But that is his story to tell.

Friday, January 21, 2011

My dog, Chi and the Golden Kite Honor (A Three Second Video)

Here's Chi taking a look at the Golden Kite Honor plaque. It came in the mail a few weeks ago, but my camera broke so this is the first chance I have at taking a pic. Both Chi and I agree, it's a very pretty plaque. I love the boldness of the blue and Chi seems to love it too. And of course, I'm thrilled to have this honor. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Now I'm a Leo...

I'm a Virgo.  And I'm good with that. Virgos are helpful, practical and quiet. They analyze everything. A lot of writers are Virgos. The kidlit world is filled with them -- Jack Prelutsky, Roald Dahl, Mildred Taylor and Karen Hesse to name a few. I even share the same birthday with Leo Tolstoy.
Virgos like to write. I'm a writer. They also have a quest for knowledge and love of research that makes them well-suited for a careers as librarians. I'm a librarian too. I fit into the Virgo mold. Oh sure, there are some traits that I don't have. My organizational skills are not what they're supposed to be. But I'm comfortable with who the stars say I am.
Until this week, when there was an announcement...
According to the Minnesota Planetarium Society, the moon's gravitational pull has changed the alignment of the stars and planets. In the past 2000 years, things have shifted. Zodiac signs are off by as much as a month. And instead of twelve signs, there are thirteen.  
Now, instead of being a Virgo, I am a Leo.
A Leo??!!! There's nothing about me that's a Leo. Leos are bold, confident, and natural leaders. My younger brother, Robert, is a Leo. Or at least he was...Now he is a Cancer. 
When we were growing up, someone gave us plaques with our zodiac signs on it. Each plaque listed traits associated with that sign. We had them in our rooms for years.  I hung mine over my bed. Every night I read it. Virgos like to do research. They enjoy writing.
Now, I'm wondering, did I become a writer/librarian because of some astrological destiny or was it because of those words I repeated over and over again?
What if I was the one who was given the Leo plaque and the words "bold, confident, outgoing" hung over my bed? And every night, I read those words.   
As soon as I heard about the astrological shift, I looked at the Leo traits and dismissed them. My reaction was not unique. The news reports were filled with people shrugging off their new identities. Even if you don't buy into astrology, everyone thinks of themselves as having certain characteristics. And not having others. In an attempt to define who we are, we often think of ourselves as a certain type of person.   
Trying out new characteristics is kind of fun. It's nice to have something (like the Minnesota Planetarium Society) shake things up a bit.
Maybe I will be a Leo today.  And "outgoing and confident" will be part of my new identity. If I repeat it over and over again, who knows what will happen?
We all know that words are powerful. Maybe they're as powerful as the planets and the stars.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The New Year

For 2010 I wimped out and came up with a bunch of resolutions I was sure to keep. For 2011, I'm going to add a few more..perhaps throw in some that might take a little work.

So here goes...

1.  It's time to buy a new camera. If you looked back to my last year's New Year's blog post, you'll notice the exact same adorable picture of my dog, Chi.  My camera broke and I'm going to buy a new one. Yep. It's lame. I'm going for the low hanging fruit here. But you gotta start somewhere and the next two resolutions are harder. 

2. This year I'm going to finish things I start. For example, I'm actually going to apply the anti-wrinkle cream. Having an vast assortment of fancy jars jammed into a cabinet is not enough.  According to the manufacturer's instructions, for it have even have the slimmest chance of working you actually have to put the stuff on your face. 
And the same thing with all those green leafy vegetables. You don't get any points for going to the store, selecting the perfect greens, carting them home, stuffing them into your refrigerator, and then leaving them to turn limp, soggy and yucky. You should! You really should!  Just like you should get points for sitting in front of the TV and watching an exercise video (even if you are shoving popcorn into your mouth and curled up in a blanket). But alas...that is not the way.  You actually have to eat the veggies and do the exercise.
They say the last miles of a marathon are the most grueling. Those final steps are the hardest to take. Look, I'm not promising that I won't get blanketed up to watch another tai chi/martial arts video or find yet another unopened jar of some outrageously expensive magical face cream or discover some moldy gray green thing in the back of my refrigerator that began life as a lettuce leaf (if the last part of this sentence went into the too much information category, I apologize), but 2011 is the time to do more of the hard stuff and take those final steps.

3.  I'm a tea-drinking librarian who writes middle grade books and reads a lot. Sometimes, I'm way too attached to my comfort zone. It's time to chase down some fears. Meet new people. Have new experiences. Be reckless.  (FYI, my definition of reckless is pretty tame, but it's a start). Besides, I learned the hard way that playing it safe doesn't keep bad things from happening. It can, however, keep you far away from your dreams. Successful people take chances. Creative people take chances too. 

 If you're making resolutions, good luck with them. Have a happy, healthy 2011