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Communities of Learning…live curious

One of my mottos in life is “Live Curious.” In fact, I still have it on my list to track down one of those National Geographic “Live Curious” t-shirts.  Some of my most exciting moments as a child weren’t in a traditional classroom setting, but in alternative classroom experiences where I was learning to make a pin hole camera, or discovering that “King Peter Can Order Free Green Snakes” is a fabulous mnemonic device for remembering the taxonomic groupings of individual organisms in biology.

I’ll admit it – I love to learn and to exchange ideas with people who have really big brains. I have always been a person who wished she could have lived in the days of the salons of revolutionary France or the bars of Greenwich Village when the Abstract Expressionists held their impromptu salons fueled by booze and blowhardiness.  The reason?  In the midst of this blowhardiness was the desire to learn… to live curious… to continually challenge oneself and others with new ideas or new ways of looking at old ideas.

In college I was in heaven.  College provided a forum for intellectual salons. Fueled by cheap beer and our own blowhardiness, a few hours spent deconstructing how quantum physics may support the idea of reincarnation felt exciting and like a great way to spend time.  As an adult, with a job and kids and responsibilities, those hours felt indulgent.  The closest I could get to these gatherings of intellectual exchange were my book club or a writing critique group.  But in the midst of life’s minutiae, book club is more frequently spent deconstructing how third grade girls have become obsessed with chasing the boys on the playground. (When did this happen?  As the mother of a third grade boy, I’m not ready for the chasing and the crushes and the kissing.  He’s still my little boy.)

So, as an adult my “living curiously” has become mostly an independent pursuit:  voracious reading, an admitted addiction to NPR’s “Radio Lab” and a love affair with the internet because at any hour of the day I can find out details about obscure happenings. (For instance, did you know that in 1918 the residents of Gunnison, CO barricaded all roads in and out of town during the Spanish influenza epidemic. Train conductors warned all passengers that if they stepped outside of the train in Gunnison, they would be arrested and quarantined for five days. As a result of the isolation, no one died of influenza in Gunnison during the epidemic. This served as partial inspiration for the novel The Last Town on Earth.)

As a parent, I am watching my children’s education unfold.  It physically hurts me to witness the monotony of public education’s mandates.  Let me say that both of my kids attend public schools and they have some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen in action.  However, no matter how great a teacher is, our country is evolving into a “teach to the test” society.  I still see those moments of pin hole cameras and taxonomic mnemonics made fun, but the moments are fewer and farther between all the time.  I wonder what sparks of learning excitement my own children will carry forth into adulthood.

For all of these reasons, I was inspired by John Green’s Tedx called “The Paper Town Academy.”  If you have 18 minutes, you should watch it.  He talks about learning communities – both traditional and non-traditional – which foster an excitement about knowledge.  Many of his ideas surrounding learning are steeped in the use of technology (YouTube specifically). I don’t know that I am quite as convinced as Green is about the interactive nature of YouTube.  However, I do admit that channels like Minute Physics and Vsauce and Crash Course are providing a lot of intelligent presentations and sometimes interaction for those who like to live curious.  They certainly aren’t as interactive as discussing art over a beer with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock at the Cedar Tavern.  But they are probably a lot more fact-filled and a lot less haze-filled than the latter.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of learning and the establishment of these online learning communities?  How can our children live more curiously inside and outside of the classroom? How can we find or establish our own learning communities as adults?

We write against the void…

wewriteagainst the void

A mental map of a writer’s mind

I have been to all of these places and will return to each a thousand times more.  I am currently headed to the Glade of Hopeful Aspirations after a bout in Crippling Insecurity-ville.  How about you?  Where have you been hanging out lately?
mapofawritersmind
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Hand in Hand – Advice from Writers

Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, has a summer creative writing program called Shared Worlds. For Shared Worlds 2013, the program asked some of speculative fiction’s finest artists, editors and writers to write advice on their hands and send a picture. The result of the project is called “Hand in Hand,” and the words are inspiring and provide “a simple reminder that you’re not alone on this path you’ve chosen. Maybe you simply need to know that someone else has been there before–behind a different keyboard, holding a different pen.” Take a look at some of my favorites below or view all of the photos at Shared Worlds’ website.

GaimanNeil

Neil Gaiman

GrossmanLev

Lev Grossman

LowacheeKarin

Karin Lowachee

DrakeDavid

David Drake

NixGarth

Garth Nix

BuckellTobias

Tobias Buckell

VanderMeerAnn

Ann VanderMeer

ShinnSharon

Sharon Shinn

CooneyClaire

Claire Cooney

KasaiKirstenImani

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk: Your elusive creative genius

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, TED talks are delivered at a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.  Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, and Bill Gates, to name a few.

I love this talk on nurturing creativity delivered by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in 2009.  Enjoy and happy writing with your elusive creative genius.

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May Round Up – On My/In My

It’s always fun to take a glimpse into the minds (and lives) of others.  So here are the things that were On My… and In My… for the month of May.  I found this idea over at In the Warm Hold of Your Loving Mind.

On the Nightstand:

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

where-things-come-back

and

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

wonder

On the Shelf:

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison (The book I was supposed to read for my May book club meeting.  I didn’t read it because I’ve been busy with editing 100 pages for submittal to an agent.  See more below.)

lookme

and

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert (The book I’m supposed to read for my June book club meeting.  I’m hopeful I can carve out some time for it.)

molokai

At the Theater (or from the couch):  I watched this from my couch.  I’m a sucker for fairy tale remakes.  This one had some visually stunning scenes.  Overall, I can’t say that I was blown away by the characterization or story.  I did love the filmmaker’s take on the seven dwarves.

Snow White and the Huntsman

snowwhite2

On the Small Screen:

Shameless – More on this in its own post.  All I can say is I love this show.  I just finished watching the first and second seasons on Showtime.  The show is crass and tough and has gratuitous sex and nudity, if you ask me.  But I still love it.  The characters are three dimensional and the situations are hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time.  This isn’t typically my type of show, but something keeps me coming back.  I think the writing is brilliant and I love William H. Macy’s acting in the show.  I can’t wait until January, 2014 for season three.

shameless

In My Ears:

“Hands Held High” by Linkin Park.  This song came on during my run the other day.  It’s been stuck in my head ever since:


Around the House:

Building a dog fence.  We adopted a puppy from an animal rescue.  Monty, our 10-week old mutt joins our 15-year old Brittany Spaniel, Bailey.  Bailey isn’t sure what hit her with this new puppy begging for her attention.  In order to adopt from the animal rescue organization, we needed to build a fence.  It was a new adventure pitting my 5’3″ frame against a post-hole digger.  Thank goodness it was a team effort with my husband or that sucker would have bounced me all over the yard.

Monty

In the Kitchen:

Smoked Salmon – I bought my husband an electric smoker last Father’s Day, and we’ve been making this killer salmon recipe at least once a week.

This is more like a brine recipe, meaning you will keep your salmon marinating in the mixture overnight.

1/3 cup soy sauce

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup water

1/4 cup veg. oil

Mix above ingredients all together in a bowl.  Place the salmon skin side up in bowl and refrigerate overnight.  If you have a large slice of salmon, you may need to cut it in half.  Both pieces of salmon should fit on your grill when smoking (use the top grill when smoking this).  When you are ready to smoke the fish the next morning, pull it out of the fridge and let it sit on the smoker rack over your sink, to drip dry, about 10- 15 minutes.  When the salmon appears to be drying off, lightly sprinkle the salmon with lemon pepper and garlic powder.  Place the fish top rack of your smoker and cook for 1-1/2 hours. (Cooking times may vary depending on your smoker.)  We use a mix of apple and hickory chips.  Yum!

In My Closet:

Nothing new here except a mess and ridiculous amounts of laundry to which I need to tend.

In My Mailbox:

Three prints from Spain.  I ordered these from this Etsy.com shop.  They have a Buy 2-Get 1 Free deal right now.  The print quality is excellent and they arrived without a rip or bend in the package.  Can’t wait to frame them for my office.

balloonlines copy

In My Cart:

My friend invented these Benbini watches.  They were originally designed for new mothers, but with kids aged 8 and 5, I’m definitely not a new mother, and I love my Benbinis.  I have the white and the melon colors.  I’ve had the Grey/Raspberry one in my cart for a month now.  I’m sure I’ll break down and add it to my collection soon enough.

Benbini watch
On My Heart:

Thoughts of the victims of all of the Oklahoma tornadoes.  Every time I pull up Google News it seems like I’m reading about another weather-related incident: wildfires in California, tornadoes in Oklahoma, flooding in Central Europe.  I’m thankful that Colorado had some decent rain and snowfall in May and hopeful that we continue to get the much needed moisture to delay our own wildfire season.

On the Calendar:

Sending two sets of requested pages to a literary agent.  This request was the result of a pitch session at this year’s Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference.  More on this once the edits are finished and I’ve hit the “Send” key.

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Debut Novels on my list for May/June

It’s that time again.  Time for my list of top five debut novels coming out in May/June.  This month we have a diverse group of books ranging from historical fiction, to fantasy, to a cross-cultural story of immigration and displacement, and finally, a genre-bending graphic novel.  Hopefully you’ll discover something new to add to your reading list this month.  Happy reading and happy writing!

Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani

A lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls’-school rituals, set in the 1930s South.  It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm—a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country.

Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner—a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression—and the major debut of an important new writer.

Named a most anticipated book for Summer 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly

The Blood of Heaven

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom

One of the most powerful and impressive debuts Grove/Atlantic has ever published, The Blood of Heaven is an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century. Its twenty-six-year-old author, Kent Wascom, was awarded the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and this first novel shows the kind of talent rarely seen in any novelist, no matter their age.

The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.

The Blood of Heaven is a remarkable portrait of a young man seizing his place in a violent new world, a moving love story, and a vivid tale of ambition and political machinations that brilliantly captures the energy and wildness of a young America where anything was possible. It is a startling debut.

The Oathbreaker's Shadow

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow by Amy McCulloch

In the world of fifteen-year-old Raim, you tie a knot for every promise you make. Break that promise and the knot will burst into flames, scarring your skin and forever marking you as an oathbreaker. Raim has worn a simple knot around his wrist for as long as he can remember. No one seems to know where it came from or which promise it symbolizes, and Raim barely thinks about it at all–especially not since he became the most promising young fighter ever to train for the elite Yun guard. But on the day that he binds his life to that of his best friend (and the future king), Khareh, the rope ignites and sears a dark mark into his skin. Scarred now as an oathbreaker, Raim has two options: run or be killed. He chooses to run, taking refuge in the vast desert among a colony of exiled oathbreakers. Will he be able to learn the skills he needs to clear his name? And even if he can, how can he keep a promise he never knew he made in the first place?

We Need New Names

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her–from Zadie Smith to Monica Ali to J.M. Coetzee–while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.

NewSchool

New School by Dash Shaw (Note: This is not a debut novel.  Shaw wrote Bottomless Belly Button and BodyWorld.  Just a June release that I’m excited to read.)

In Dash Shaw’s new, full-color original graphic novel, a boy goes to seek his brother on a theme-park island.

In this brand new graphic novel from the acclaimed author of Bottomless Belly Button and BodyWorld, Dash Shaw dramatizes the story of a boy moving to an exotic country and his infatuation with an unfamiliar culture that quickly shifts to disillusionment. A sense of “being different” grows to alienation, until he angrily blames this once-enchanting land for his feelings of isolation. All of this is told through the fantastical eyes of young Danny, a boy growing up in the ’90s fed on dramatic adventure stories like Jurassic Park and X-Men. Danny’s older brother, Luke, travels to a remote island to teach English to the employees of ClockWorld, an ambitious new amusement park that recreates historical events. When Luke doesn’t return after two years, Danny travels to ClockWorld to convince Luke to return to America. But Luke has made a new life, new family, and even a new personality for himself on ClockWorld, rendering him almost unrecognizable to his own brother. Danny comes of age as he explores the island, ClockWorld, and fights to bring his brother home. New School is unlike anything in the history of the comics medium: at once funny and deadly serious, easily readable while wildly artistic, personal and political, familiar and completely new. Full-color illustrations throughout

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Graze vs. Devour – What’s Your Writing Style?

Grazing

Over at Writer Unboxed, Carleen Brice wrote a post today about grazing.  Here is an excerpt:

I too am back at work full-time and find that I don’t have large blocks of time (when I’m not exhausted) to write or exercise or garden or read. However, I am figuring out I do have many small bits of time that I can use. As I written here before I lost weight over a year ago and in my efforts to keep it off, I am packing my lunch and grazing on it over a few hours rather than eating it all at once. It’s working.

I usually bus in and get off a few stops early so I can get in a 10-minute walk before work. Then I take a 10- or 20-minute walk (or yoga break) at lunch and a 10- or 20-minute walk on the way home and voila! Exercise is done.

Just this week, I started doing the same with writing. I’ve always been someone who thought I needed several hours at once to get any writing done, but now I’m finding that I can apply the same grazing philosophy (10 or 20 minutes in the morning and at lunch, etc.) and I can slowly but surely get some work done.

After reading this, I was jealous and frustrated.  In my head, I’m not a grazer.  I long for those large blocks of time during which I can delve into a project and really concentrate.  But I rarely get them, and then I find myself having produced nothing because my number one writer’s excuse is, “I don’t have time to write. I need languorous afternoons filled with undisturbed time.”  My husband is always telling me, “You are rarely going to have hours to yourself to write.  Why not use those 20 minutes here and there to work?”

There have never been truer words.  Next year, my youngest goes to first grade.  In theory, I will have seven hours every weekday while both kids are in school.  In reality, these hours will be filled with meetings, other work related tasks, errands, and life. In an effort to be prepared and hit the ground running in August, I’ve been analyzing my calendar.  It appears that dear husband is right. I will rarely have large blocks of time.

Efficiency experts tell you it’s about working smarter, not harder.  Working smarter for me means having a grasp on which tasks are grazing tasks and which tasks require devouring.  Here’s what I’ve found:

Grazing Tasks—For which I tap into my inner sheep and chomp away little by little

  • If I’m halfway through a scene and I’m loving it, (For a first draft “loving” is a relative term.  It might mean that I have one or two lines I think are decent and the action is moving in the right direction.) I can usually graze through the middle section.  I know the characters, I know the voice, I know the plan for the scene.  I can write the remainder in small chunks of 15 minutes here and 20 minutes there.
  • If I’m writing non-fiction, I can graze through the middle of a short article.  Openings and conclusions are too brain-intensive to be grazing tasks.
  • Outlining, research, planning are all grazing tasks.
  • Editing is a great grazing task.  Especially line editing for punctuation, grammar and spelling.  Word-by-word editing also fits the bill.  It’s exhausting to spend extended periods of time re-working sentence after sentence for stronger verbs and more precise description.  I usually take a few sentences for the road and mull them over while driving or exercising.

Devouring TasksFor which I tap into my inner wolf and sit down to devour a full carcass at once

  • Beginnings and endings.  Whether it is the beginning of an entire novel, the first sentence of a new scene or the opening paragraph of an article, openings and closings require more dedicated brain power. I find that I often have to ramble my way into an opening.  The first 3-4 paragraphs of new work (fiction or non-fiction) are usually thick and muddled (and end up in the outtakes file) but serve as a bridge to get me to the “true” opening.
  • Action scenes.  Drafting an action scene requires undivided attention for me.  I’m a wordy writer and an even wordier drafter.  Skimming the fat to produce a tight action scene is challenging for me.  For this reason, these scenes need devouring time – no grazing allowed.
  • Fleshing out a scene which stems from one great line.  I often have lines (particularly of dialogue) and images that come to me at inopportune times.  Doing dishes is a prime time for this.  I jot them in my notebook, transfer them to my “Must Have Lines” page in Microsoft OneNote, and let them simmer.  These lines are usually something around which I can build a scene.  But then I get performance anxiety.  I love the line or the dialogue exchange.  I don’t want to write a crappy scene that doesn’t do justice to the dishwashing gem.  This is when I need long blocks of time to dig and devour the scene instead of grazing through filler.

I will still always dream of a cabin in the woods with an endless supply of coffee, firewood and peaceful time to write.  But I’m a mom, a wife, and a writernot a hermit. The list above certainly isn’t going to solve the not-enough-hours-in-the-day dilemma, but it might help me use those hours more effectively.  And who knows, maybe I’m really a sheep in wolf’s clothing and can successfully graze my way through a manuscript after all.

What about you?  Are you a successful grazer?  What tasks work the best for you as grazing tasks?  Or do you need space to devour your writing?

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Writing and Memorial Day

Memorial Day Flags

Memorial Day for many means a day off of work or school, backyard barbeques with friends and summer just around the corner.  It is all of those things, but this annual federal holiday means so much more, too.

Memorial Day is a day of remembering.  A day to remember the men and women who died while serving in the US Armed Forces. It was formerly known as Decoration Day, which originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service.

Yesterday, while driving past a cemetery packed with people placing flags into the ground near headstones, I explained to my two boys (aged 8 and 5) the meaning of Memorial Day.  We talked about their relatives and friends (some distant and some immediate) who served or serve in the armed forces. We talked about war—and the shades of grey which color our government’s decisions regarding our freedom and our country’s role in the world.

As my little guys processed this complicated information, I was reminded of a conversation with my oldest.  His elementary school annually participates in the One School One Book program. The book for 2012 was Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.  This book is beautifully written and deals with complicated subjects like divorce, alcoholism and war.  It was a mature book for my first grader to process, but it provided excellent fodder for family conversations about our world.

In the book, the main character, Opal, befriends the town’s librarian who shares great stories about her past, including a tale about her great-grandfather, whose family members died while he fought for the South in the Civil War. Grief-stricken after his return from battle, he decided he wanted to live the remainder of his life filled with sweetness. Thus, he invented Littmus Lozenge candies that tasted like a combination of root beer and strawberry with a secret ingredient mixed in—sorrow—which makes anyone who tastes it taste sorrow.

I will never forget my seven-year old staring up at me with big eyes and saying, “That’s how I feel, Mommy.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When you explained war to us. And when you were talking about the hard decisions that the President has to make. I felt like I was eating those lozenges.  I tasted sorrow when you talked about that.”

Wow!  From the mouths of babes, right?  This, my friends, is the power of literature.  It is why I read and why I write.

Saturday’s post contained a quote by English playwright and screenwriter, Alan Bennett.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is.  Set down by someone else. A person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

This was the case for my son.  Across miles and pages, Kate DiCamillo had taken his hand.  Yesterday as he sat with his face pushed against the car window watching those people adorn the cemetery with flags, he was sucking on one of those Littmus Lozenges again.  He didn’t say anything, just nodded and listened.  But I could tell that Memorial Day was a palpable concept for him. Thanks to Kate DiCamillo, my son could taste the sweet and the sorrow.  Thanks to great writing, he could put words to his complicated emotions.

So while I’m cranking out my own words this morning and then enjoying some laughs at our neighborhood cookout, I’ll be sucking on one of those lozenges too.  And I’ll have Kate DiCamillo and thousands of other writers to thank for helping me find the words to describe life’s complicated emotions.  Happy Memorial Day to you.  I hope you taste the sweet and the sorrow.

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Writing a novel is like driving a car at night…

el doctorow

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