Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who go to summer camp and those who don't.

In a camp experience that keeps on giving, my husband and his brother frequently talk about the summer they went away to sleepover camp. They say they hated it. Their mother claims they loved it. They argue about it regularly at family holiday meals.

My own children went to over-night camp sponsored by our local Y. The camp is in Michigan and they all loved it, starting the summer after third grade until we ran out of money and could no longer afford to send them. (Once again, the youngest child gets ripped off, with only two years of camp under his belt. Sadly, we won't be able to afford his therapy bills, either.)

One year when I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to go away for two weeks to Camp Metamora in Michigan with my Girl Scout troop. Unfortunately, I announced this to my parents the day before the final payment was due in full. I don't remember how much it was, but from the look on my mom's face, it must have been astronomical.

Ever-practical, my mother said that, while she appreciated my desire to go away to summer camp, it was a big expense that we had not planned for. If they allowed me to go to sleep-away camp, the rest of the family would have to give up any form of summer vacation and that wouldn't be fair. I pouted. "But," she said, "If you really want to go, you can start saving up your money now for next summer and if you can save up half, Daddy and I will pay the other half." I wish I had that kind of parental discipline with my kids.

Camp Metamora never happened, but not because I couldn't save up the money. All my friends who went that year hated it. It rained, it was cold, the food was bad, there were bugs. They hated it.

While my more well-to-do friends suffered through overnight camp, I went to a Girl Scout day camp that involved a 40-minute bus ride each way. I don't remember where it was, but I do remember that we rode past a big cemetery and all lifted our feet off the floor of the bus when we passed so the dead souls couldn't get us. The girls were from in and around the greater Detroit-metropolitan area and all were new to me.

I loved that camp. I remember one girl in particular, Judy Martin, was very nice, and her mom was one of the leaders. We made s'mores and god's eyes and lanyards. We played Red Rover and sang camp songs. We hiked and played on the playground. But the best part of day camp for me was the bus ride.

A tiny African American girl sat on the seat across from me the first day. I later found out that her name was Selena McGee, but for the first three days she just stared at me. I had very blond hair at the time, and when she finally got up the courage to talk, she asked if my hair was made of real gold and if she could touch it. From that day on, Selena spent all our time on the bus playing with my hair — brushing it, styling it and, long before Bo Derek, putting it in corn rows. It was like have my own personal stylist aboard a mobile beauty parlor.

This year, for the first time, I'm teaching a creative writing camp for 7-11 year olds through our city's Cultural Arts Program. It's an afternoon-only day camp and I have eight campers, all girls. In the grown up writing world, this would be called a writing retreat and it would cost a fortune.

Just like my childhood day camp, we play games, sing songs, and make crafts. Only the games we play are improv or story-based games; and the crafts we do include making our own journals, decorating book bags, and writing letters with feather quills. We also write poems, pick a word of the day, and take weekly walking field trips to the library and beach. My brother calls it Geek Camp. I call it a blast. The camp combines all my favorite things — writing, teaching, books and kids (who go home at the end of the day).

I remind my writers, as we head to the library or beach or playground, to use all their five senses. When we get back, we try to write down five sensory details that we noticed along the way. We talk about what it means to be a writer:
  • writers write
  • writers support each other
  • writers ask questions
  • writers pay attention to details
  • writers read
Each time I remind my campers of these writerly attributes, I remind myself, too. We work on our long stories in a "Stinky First Draft" spiral binder (with a tip of the hat to Anne Lamott), because writers write. When one of us shares her writing, we give three Likes and a Wish:

"I like the main character's name."
"I like the detail of the fluffy pillow right in the middle of her bed."
"I like that I could almost smell her birthday cake baking."
"I wish I knew more about her two best friends."

We use this method of critiquing because writers support each other. We choose a word of the day that is new to most of us, because writers ask questions. We note our delicious details in our journals, because writers pay attention. 

And each day, I read aloud to them, because writers read. On Friday, we finished our first read aloud, called A Beginning, a Muddle and an End by Avi, a book full of plays on words and serious ideas about the writing process. I hadn't read this book in a long time, and was delighted to rediscover one of my favorite bits of writerly advice. Edward the Ant tells his would-be author friend that if he wants to attract readers, then he shouldn't write writing, he should write reading. Brilliant. I wish I had written it.

Below is a silly Dr. Demento animation of Allan Sherman's camp classic, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. After you watch it, click here and leave a comment about your own camp experiences.

Photo credit: roasting marshmallows by jenny.nash712 via a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Strength in Numbers

Welcome to the SheWrites Blogger Ball!
"You can have anything you want if you want it desperately enough. You must want it with an inner exuberance that erupts through the skin and joins the energy that created the world." 
Sheila Graham, writer/performer (1904-1988)

There are two kinds of people in the world: the isolationists and the joiners. This comes pretty close to the crux of my whole Two Kinds of People philosophy. I spent close to 25 years as an isolationist, waiting for the world to discover the greatness of me. Never happened.

In my late twenties, I dibbled and dabbled, taking a class here and there, but still not really becoming part of a community. It wasn't until my twins were born and a neighbor dragged me to a Mothers of Multiples (MOMs) meeting that I finally understood the idea of strength in numbers, in shared experiences and common ground. 

My own mom was never much of a joiner, and I believe my early aversion came from a sense that groups that you had to join were all about exclusion, not inclusion. That can certainly be true. Even in my little MOMs group, if you didn't have more than one baby at a time, you couldn't be part of the group, which is too bad, because I learned most of the good things I know about how to be a parent from that group. 

But joining doesn't have to be about exclusion — it can be about creating and belonging to a community. In thinking about how I changed my joining tune, I turned (as I usually do) to the dictionary and found my perfect definition of community in the online version of the MacMillan Dictionary (definition #4): "the feeling that you belong to a group and that this is a good thing."

It is a good thing to belong. Since I figured that out, I have started a book club, been PTA president, and become a member of the board of a long-running writers' workshop, just to name a few groups. And now … now there is the Internet. Geography is no longer the delimiter in defining community. We can create virtual communities.

There are those (my Dad) who think we've come to far. There are those who doubt the veracity of an online community — isolationists who see the Interwebs as nothing more than a playground for perverts and procrastinators. Not true.

The online writing community, in particular, is one of the most vital. Just spend 15 minutes lurking at #yalitchat on Twitter and you'll discover a worldwide group of adults passionate about the creation of literature for young adults. Or follow #amwriting or #kidlitchat or #author.

Now I'm going to tell you my little story about how virtual became reality. About two years ago, I stumbled upon something called I was fairly new to Facebook and brand new to Twitter and trying to figure out the whole social networking scene, which seemed vast and uninviting, harder to crack than even the tightest PTA cliques (you know who you are).

I signed up for SheWrites. I joined a group called Chicago Area Writers. Nothing. Then I joined, on a whim, a group called Mother Writers. The group's "owner", E. Victoria Flynn, reached out to me in welcome. We swapped some info and she became one of my first Twitter followers. On my first "Follow Friday", she sent a shout out to her Twitter pals inviting them to follow me and suddenly I was in.

I've "met" hundreds (probably thousands) of people on Twitter and now have more than 900 followers of my own, but there's a kind of core group that has developed and we've become friends on SheWrites and Facebook, as well as on Twitter. If you're confused by all this tech talk, don't worry; I'm getting the the real part. Over time, my crew has been very supportive of each other's writing efforts and one of us, the beautiful and talented Rebecca Rasmussen has seen her first novel, The Bird Sisters, through to publication. We were all so excited. Really.

Then we heard that she was going on a book tour, just like a real author. And then we heard that she was coming to The Book Stall, a fabulous, still independent, still open book store in Winnetka, IL. And we hatched a plot. Our group would meet at for cocktails and dinner or whatever and go together to hear Rebecca read from her new novel. We would travel from around the midwest: Victoria (of Penny Jar) from Madison; Christi (of Writing Under Pressure) from Milwaukee; Julie (of Beginning a Life at 50) from Nashville; and our celebrity author (of The Bird Sisters Blog) from St. Louis.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans and good intentions and all that. It usually doesn't work out. Except when it does. Like this time. Maybe it was because we didn't have to do it, that everyone would have understood if the thing fell apart. But I think it's because we stopped lurking and joined in. We created a real community. It started out virtually and transformed each of us quite literally. I can't wait for our next book launch. Wonder which of us it will be?

At The Bookstall, from left — Rebecca Rasmussen, Julie Jeffs,
E. Victoria Flynn and Christi Craig. (Where am I? Taking the
picture, of course.)
I'd been planning this post for some time, but the writing of it was prompted by the She Writer Blogger Ball Re-Re-Redux, another opportunity to meet and greet and join. Click on the little bookshelf image at the top of this post and join in the fun of a blog hop. No membership dues required, although your comments are always appreciated (here and on the other blogs you visit). 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mogul Diamond Readers

There are two kinds of people in the world: fast readers and slow readers.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was more specific (and more critical) in his assessment of readership:

"Readers may be divided into four classes:
  1. Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied.
  2. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
  3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
  4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also."
I tend to agree less with Coleridge and more with one of the speakers in my writers' workshop who said that writers do only half the work; readers complete it. Each time a book is read by someone new, or even when it is reread, it is rewritten.

I don't remember not knowing how to read. In fact, once I broke the code, it seemed impossible not to read or try to decode a series of letters organized in the shape of a word. I do remember the enormous pleasure I got from reading as child. I devoured books (not quickly, I'm one of the s-l-o-w readers), but in great gulps. I remember reading straight through the Little House books in third grade, then moving on to other, more treacly series like the Bobbsey Twins and Sue Barton Student Nurse, just because there were so many of them. I read every biography of every famous female I could find. I lived and breathed the lives of the March sisters, furious when I finished the last Louisa May Alcott book in our school library.

By middle school, I had moved on to adult literature (there was little by way of Young Adult [YA] material back then, though I vividly remember A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mr. and Mrs. BoJo Jones (later, a truly awful movie of the week starring Desi Arnaz, Jr.) and Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (a "true diary" as fraught with controversy as James Frey's Million Little Pieces). Back then, the thing I loved most about books is that I could scan them for every little mention of the topic most on my mind — sex — without having to ask any adults. I remember sneaking into the stacks of the public library and reading the Angelique books by Sergeanne Golon, a tawdry historical series set in 17th Century France.

In high school, I was steeped in Chaucer and Fitzgerald, and began a life-long love affair with John Irving. My family was big in car trips and reading took me all over the world while our station wagon traversed practically every square inch of the state of Michigan and most of US east of the Mississippi.

But by college, I ran out of time for fiction. I had so much school-related reading to do, and read it all so slowly, that I just couldn't squeeze in much extracurricular fiction (except for a brief tour through Harlequin romances my sophomore year, which I still regret, but those bubblegum books took even a pokey reader like me less time time to read than it took for my gum ball to lose its flavor). Rediscovering the joys of fiction after graduation was a gift.

I have one son who reads as fast as an Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduate. He literally reads whole pages in a glance — it's remarkable. My middle son claims to hate reading. Last year, he told me he was a "bad" reader. When I asked what he meant, he said he's a bad reader because he reads one word a time. I assured him that I've always read one word at a time and consider myself a very good reader. He wasn't convinced. When his English teacher told me at the beginning of the year that my son had the highest reading score in his grade, I told the boy to get over his reading phobia and embrace his word-for-word technique.

Like my son, though, I always assumed my slow reading was a liability, until I read Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. In addition to having perhaps the best name ever for a writer, Prose is also a critic and teacher, and advocates what she calls "close reading" — reading at the word level, the sentence level and the paragraph level. Suddenly, I discovered that I had been a brilliant reader all along. (For a nice 2KoP review by Wilson Knut of Reading Like a Writer, click here.)

As life has gotten busier, as I have buried myself in all the reading I must to do for parenting and work, I find that I don't indulge in fiction the way I should. I read all the time, but mostly on line these days. Like golf, fiction just takes too long, or so I tell myself. The other day I began to prepare to teach a four-week creative writing camp by making a poster board about writing. "Writers write" said rule #1. "Writers read" said rule #2. "Hypocrite" was what I wanted to write in my little teacher bio.

To avoid having to condemn myself in my summer camp bio, I started and finished the book I've been wanting to read for months. The leisurely pace and beautiful language of the writing encouraged me to read the way I read best — word-for-word, one word at a time. I read for long stretches every day until I was just about 25 pages short of the end, when I did what I always do with books I love … I set it aside, not wanting the story to end, not wanting to lose my connection with the characters. I hate the end of a good book, which may be the real reason I read as slowly as a do.

I hope you will let me give you the gift of recommending this book for your summer reading list: The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen. Be one of Coleridge's rare and valuable mogul diamond readers. Savor the words. Rasmussen has imbued The Bird Sisters with everything that makes for good storytelling: love and betrayal, longing and despair, devotion and sacrifice. And tornadoes, both real and metaphorical:

"After her father returned, wild-eyed and windblown, Twiss ran to him, but not as quickly as she could have. It was as if he had inadvertently told her something essential about himself, a secret she would have to keep forever: You can't count on me."
— Chapter 4, The Bird Sisters
In my next post, I'll tell you about getting to know author Rebecca Rasmussen. In the meantime, let me know if and when you read The Bird Sisters. Or take a minute now and tell us how you read, fast or slow or somewhere in between. And please share your best recommendation of what should be on our summer reading lists. Just click here.