Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Come-Aparts, Mr. Negative, Laura's letter and some Strawberry Fields Kerry Madden

This picture of my girls, Lucy and Norah, makes me so happy...and since it's the anniversary of John Lennon's death, I keep thinking of "Strawberry Fields."

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I'm shattered with the end of semester blues and the dance of living 2000 miles away from my husband, teaching creative writing, and yet also working with some amazing students.

So I really needed Laura's letter. She wrote it in response to our workshop's visit to a local magnet school in Birmingham, the last day of class. For the past seventeen weeks in our workshop at UAB, we've been writing children's stories - picture books to young adults and workshopping them. From Cynthia Leitich Smith to Ann Whitford Paul to Laurie Halse Anderson to Kathi Appelt to Kimberly Willis Holt to Barbara O'Connor to John Green to Amy Koss to Katherine Paterson to David Lubar to Kathryn Erskine to Deborah Wiles to Elizabeth Bluemle to Jacqueline Woodson to Elizabeth Dulemba to Katie Davis to Cecil Castellucci to Anne Isaacs to Coe Booth to Libba Bray to Tanya Lee Stone to Rick Riordan to Roald Dahl to Suzanne Collins to Dare Wright to many many more...I introduced authors to them, the students shared authors they had discovered, and I encouraged them to write. We did writing warm-ups, we read, we workshopped, and we tried to understand together writing for children and what works and what doesn't.

In the workshop, they wrote and revised the following kinds of stories:

1. A Maurice Sendak-inspired story.
2. A James Marshall-inspired story. (a la George & Martha!)
3. A Chris Van Allsburg-inspired story.
4. A fairy tale or fractured fairy tale or tall tale.
5. A middle chapter.
6. A young adult chapter.
7. A query letter to a publisher.

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But before I get to Laura's letter, I have to say that lately I've been wondering how to sustain a writing life in academia. Last year, I told people that raising three kids on a teacher's salary/freelance writer's income in Los Angeles was just as hard as being an assistant professor, so I could do this job. But this year it got harder. I have my eleven-year-old, Norah, which makes me a single parent, but I wouldn't stay if she weren't here. She's at that magical sixth grade age where we talk about everything, and we eat simple meals and find HULU episodes of Modern Family, Bewitched, Mary Tyler Moore and Glee to watch. Tomorrow we're going to Gee's Bend on a big field trip with her class.  We've been to Sloss Furnaces, Oak Mountain, Birmingham's Day of the Dead at Bare Hands, the climbing wall at UAB, and the Piggly-Wiggly aplenty.

But recently she said to me, "Sorry if I distract you from your writing, Momma."

I said, "It's okay."

She looked shocked and said, "WHHHHATTTT? Seriously? I distract you? I was just kidding!"

But to be honest, I allowed other things to distract to me a whole more than Norah. I had a negative student in one of my workshops who really broke my brain this semester.

Let's just call him, Mr. Negative.

Mr. Negative gave me a serious case of the "come-aparts." Another student, not Mr. Negative, wrote about his mother and how she used to get the “come-aparts” after drinking a case of Tall Boys. (Horrifying? Impressive?) As an adult, he’d have to go over and calm her down with a “Momma, let’s pray” when his own mild daddy couldn’t do a thing for her.

But now that the semester is over I find myself wondering what I could have done differently. I should have tried harder to quell Mr. Negative. His feedback to other members in the workshop would often commence with the words, "Nitpicky! Nitpicky!" I tried to model good and positive feedback. I talked to him about feedback to other members of the workshop who became wary of him. Rarely was anything positive ever going to come out of his mouth. I met in conference with him and tried to encourage him to find his voice as a writer. He also seemed to think that because I have had some very modest success in publishing I held the proverbial “Get Out Of Jail” card to the in-crowd world of bestselling authors. If I knew that freaking secret (and as much as I love my job) would I be living 2000 miles away from my husband trying to get our kids through college?

So how do you teach generosity and kindness in a writing workshop? How do you do that? The majority of my students already know kindness and generosity. They don't need to be taught, and they know how to say thank you. They are kind and generous with each other, which is what new writers need in a workshop - a place where they can share they stories without being attacked. I'm not saying we have to be all Mary Sunshine, but we can say the things that need to be said in a workshop without meanness and negativity.

I almost stopped writing my first novel, OFFSIDES, because of a mean critic with the face of a prune who hated everything I wrote. Finally, I had the sense to stop sharing my "infant" novel in the workshop until she stopped coming. And I love good criticism - I need it. It's made me a better writer, but not the kind that is not helpful - not the kind that is more about the critic "liking the sound of his own voice" as my grandmother, Elizabeth Baker, used to say. (Elizabeth did the THE TAMING OF THE SHREW in 1917 in Leavenworth, Kansas and heard someone in the front row whisper loudly, "She likes the sound of her own voice!" When she told me this story, she laughed and said, "And you know what? It's true! I did.")

But back in September, a most wonderful children's came to visit our children's writing workshop.

Jane Kurtz is the author of so many books: MARTIN'S DREAM, DO KANGAROOS WEAR SEATBELTS, TROUBLE, and so many more. She has started a program called ETHIOPIA READS.

The most I could offer Jane was a ride to and from UAB and a Papa John's pizza party. That was it. I couldn’t pay her for her time, but she came to visit my workshop on a blisteringly hot September day with her beautiful daughter-in-law, and she poured her heart out to my class, showing them pictures of Ethiopia, her childhood, her writing life, and what it means to be a writer and what it means to sustain a writing life by doing good work and helping others and all of it.

Jane was kindness. Jane was pure love that day.

Now Mr. Negative couldn’t make it the day Jane came to visit, but last week, on the last day of class, he came up to me with his portfolio already finished - hundreds of pages of portfolio - and he said, “Hey, you remember that professional you had come visit our workshop.”

"Do you mean Jane Kurtz?” I asked.

“I can’t remember, but she was a professional. You think you could have her take a look at my portfolio after you're done with it?"

Did I hear correctly? Did he just ask me to ambush Jane with his portfolio? I wanted to scream and shout and do cartwheels... "Yes, yes! What a great idea, Mr. Negative. Let's call Jane right now. She's probably not too busy working on her own books, and she'd be happy to drop everything to read your portfolio."

Of course, I didn't say these words. I only very quietly told him I would do no such thing. He nodded, not surprised. We parted ways, but not before he apologized for rewriting a few pages of the first chapter of my new novel that I had sent out to the class to give them an example of middle grade fiction.

I guess he thought he had a better plot in mind.

* * *

And so all of this is a long way of getting back to Laura's letter - a letter that came at an especially dark and bleak time when I felt like curling up in a fetal position with a bad case of the come-parts. This is what Laura, another student, wrote after our visit an elementary school where my students read the stories they had written to the children from kindergarten to fifth grade.


As my weird day winds down, I'm reflecting on the EPIC school visit, and I liked that a million times more than I thought I would (I envisioned having gummy bears thrown at my temple, etc).

When that girl brought me her journal of secret stories and said she wanted to write like me one day, I had to hold back, like, real positive human emotions. I felt like a real writer. They got my story and LOVED it. They gave me better feedback than anyone in our class did. They asked how long it took me to write it and how they could write stories like me. I told them I kept journals when I was their age, and now I can look back and remember what it felt like to be a kid. That's a lie, but they were so excited I said that and they all said they were going to write journals, too. Another girl said she filled up a WHOLE notebook. I love them. They said, "Will you come back and read more stories to us?" and I had even MORE emotions.

That really made me feel great. Thanks for taking us over there. I'm sorry I secretly thought it was the worst idea ever.

Hope all is well.

* * *

Here letter reminded me not only why I write stories, but why I teach writing, and why I love teaching it. I learn so much from my own students, and I'm grateful to them.  I am also grateful when things work out, and I'm not even sure that they're going to work out at all...and then once in a while, they do. They just do, and Laura met a young writer who made her happy, and I know Laura probably changed that little girl's life just a little bit.

Who knows?

But if Mr. Negative signs up for my class again, I quit. :)

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Kerry Madden is author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy, published by Viking Children's Books. The trilogy includes Gentle's Holler (2005), Louisiana's Song (2007) and Jessie's Mountain (2008), set in the heart of Appalachia in the Smoky Mountains. Her first novel, Offsides, was a New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age in 1997. Her book Writing Smarts, published by American Girl, is full of story sparks for young writers. Her latest book, Harper Lee: Up Close, published by Viking, made Booklist's Ten Top Biographies of 2009 for Youth. Madden teaches creative writing at UAB. 

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The school visit... :)

Kristen Walker reading to 4th graders...



Jeannine Atkins said...

What hard work. And good work. Nobody deserves a Mr. Negative in class, but they do show up, and I wish they didn't take over the way they invariably do. The secret of shutting them down would be as valuable as the secret of penning that epic bestseller.

Wishing you warm and happy holidays! And just a little more time to write.

Toyin O. said...

Sorry to hear about Mr. Negative

Kerry Madden said...

Thank you so much, Jeannine! I love it..."the secret of shutting them down would be as valuable as penning that epic bestseller." So true, so true! I'll have to write once I'm back in Los Angeles...this coming week I'm hiding out in LA. Thank you thank you.


Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Kerry, What a heartfelt post. I wish I could take one of your classes - I'm sure you are a wonderful teacher.
I don't know if this will help, you probably already talk about the sandwich method of critique - a kindness on the front, a gentle "I" felt this way about the text (never "you did this/that") - and a kindness on the end. When I teach at the John C. Campbell Folk School I make clear from the start that we will be using the sandwich method and that the most important thing is we NEVER discourage anybody from writing. Not everybody writes to get published. Some write for personal expression, healing, their family, whatever. And nobody has a right to shut that down in another person. Once I establish that, THEN we move forward. And I enforce it too.
Hugs to you and Norah. I signed at Foxtale in Woodstock the other day and thought of you. Miss you both.

Tracy Barrett said...

Beautiful and thought-provoking, Kerry.

Kerry Madden said...

Thank you, Elizabeth - the sandwich is such a great idea! Thank you!!! And Tracy thanks for your kind words!