Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Gae Polisner - Writing Wednesdays

I’m trying to remember the first time I “met” author Gae Polisner. It must have been on social media after reading her brilliant book, The Pull of Gravity. Gae is beyond kind and shortly after that agreed to Skype with my class. To say the Skype was eye opening to me would be an understatement. (You can read about my experience with that HERE.) Then she earned my gratitude forever by Skyping with my own book club as we sat around my laptop talking to her from my dining room, drinking wine, and crying over her brilliant book The Summer of Letting Go. Gae means the world to me and I’m beyond grateful she agreed to answer all of my questions for this week’s Writing Wednesdays. Welcome to Gae!

Talk to me about your writing life - what does it look like?

My writing life is an almost-daily endeavor -- but I do NOT write every day and do not believe you need to write every day in order to be a real writer. Other things in my life often take precedence over writing: my family, my dog, my hobbies, exercise, volunteer work, etc. and there are days I just don’t feel it. Get too caught up in the news. Feel distracted. Etc. Having said that, most days, I get up, make my coffee, and write. And some days -- if I’m engrossed in a manuscript, or stuck in revisions on deadline -- I’ll be at the computer writing 10, 12 hours a day.

I do almost all my writing on the computer. Only when I have a rough draft do I print up a hard copy to read it from that perspective and make revisions right on the hard copy. Usually, by 10-20 pages in, I have SO many marks and revisions, I feel overwhelmed, go back to the computer to input the changes, and end up doing the rest of the revisions on the computer, never returning to that hard copy again, LOL. I’ve learned now, only to print up 10 - 30 pages at a time.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I’ve yet to really have a good answer for this. I mean, I can definitely tell you where I get sparks of ideas from -- newspaper articles I read, curious stories (click bait), etc. -- but so often, I really don’t know where the inspiration comes from. Sometimes, I just have a character or a scene that comes to me, and I start there and start asking “Why?”

So, for example, IN SIGHT OF STARS began when the scene that now appears on pp. 9 -10 in the book came to me, a scene where a boy who is very serious about becoming an artist, is in art class with this girl he’s drawn to (forgive the pun), and he can’t help himself and reaches out and draws on her paper. This was the scene I wrote -- I could see Sarah’s hair on the paper, I could feel Klee lean across and trace the strands with his charcoal -- and I knew this, for any artist, is a cardinal sin: You DON’T draw on someone else’s art without permission. But Klee did, in the scene in my head. So I asked, well, “Why? Why would he do this?” And the answer that came to me was that he was on the edge, not feeling in control of himself, desperate to connect. And when I asked, well, “Why?” again, the answer came, “He’s suffered some tragedy. His father, the loss of his father has undone him.” And again, I asked “Why?” and so on, and so on. And ultimately, a story that started out about art because a story of an emotional break and healing. . .

As for names, those usually take lots of specific thought, but also have to do with what a name feels like to me (and since that is subjective, could mean that same name feels very different to a reader). For example, when I wrote THE PULL OF GRAVITY, I wanted my MC to be an “every guy” that boys going through those awkward early teens could relate to. I wanted a solid more common name that felt both light and sturdy. I came up with Nick. One quick syllable: Nick. It felt exactly right. And when I was thinking about his last name, the thought that kept coming to me was, “I want something pretty garden variety.” That thought -- and the word garden -- led me to Gardner. Nick Gardner. In IN SIGHT OF STARS, it was kind of the opposite. My MC comes from a family of art and wants to be an artist. He’s named Klee after his mother’s favorite artist, the Swiss painter Paul Klee, even though his father focused almost solely on Van Gogh. That fact alone tells you something about the dynamic in his family -- allowing you to make assumptions that may also be wrong. The fact that Klee is pronounced “Clay” factors strongly into the opening of the story.

Because my name is Gae -- a hard name to grow up with -- I am often giving my characters either struggles with their name, or nicknames (something I dearly wanted to stick as a kid/teen and could never make really happen).

What was your journey into writing?

I wrote all the time as a kid and teen and young adult, poems and short stories, primarily. I took creative writing in HS and college but NEVER thought of being a writer. It would have been Pie In the Sky, beyond my wildest dreams. Besides, writing a novel is far different than poems or short stories, and I really wasn’t a person with a ton of novel ideas just floating in my head.

After college, I went to law school and became a practicing attorney (I still maintain a very small and quiet practice . . . when the cases come to me. . . ) I didn’t return to writing until my early thirties. I just wanted to see if I could write 100 pages (my first and second manuscripts were both women’s fiction; it was finally my third manuscript, a YA, that sold). It is beyond my wildest dreams that I have my fifth and sixth novels coming out in 2020.

Were you a writer in middle school? A reader?

I answered half up there *points up* and YES, I was a voracious and fast reader in middle school, high school, and college (Gosh, I miss HER!!! I’m so, so slow and distracted now…). In elementary school through college, I probably read two or three novels per week. Even after I graduated, when I was living in NYC, I’d read 2 - 3 novels per week. I want to be her again. I blame computers and social media. UGH.

What was your publishing journey like?

In addition to what I told you above: checkered, full of rejection, frustrating at times, and, as I said, beyond my wildest dreams to have succeeded at any level.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Keep your eyes on your own paper,” is some of the best advice. Meaning, stop comparing yourself to others and stop trying to be them or replicate how THEY do it. We can only be who we are, do what we do how we do it. “Comparison IS the thief of joy.” Quote, Theodore Roosevelt’s, emphasis mine.

Best thing about being a writer?

Showing my boys that it is possible, with the right combination of skill, perseverance and luck, to become not only who, but what, you want to be. And that it DOES, for nearly all of us, take a ton of perseverance.

I also cherish the notes and relationships with readers my stories have touched.

Hardest part of being a writer?

Everything else.

But mostly the public or external aspects -- not comparing my own moderate level of success with those who have far more. Not comparing someone else’s stellar work with mine and thinking, “UGH, I’ll never write anything as brilliant as that!”

What do you do when you’re stuck?

Those who know me could answer in unison: Swim.

Do you have an “inner editor” voice that is unkind?

I have an inner voice, period, that is so unkind. Evil, really. The older I get, the better I learn to talk back to it. “Shhh, quiet.”

Part of being able to persevere is learning to quiet that inner voice. I could NOT do it when I was younger and it dictated all of my quitting and failures. I’m so glad I finally learned in my 30’s to do so. Mostly, I did for my sons, so that they would learn to quiet theirs by example.

What are you reading now that you’re loving?

I’ve not read a lot lately because, with two books coming out in 2020, I’ve been steeped in revisions for both on deadline (first time I’ve ever been juggling two books in the production phases… ) When I do read (which I do often by listening to audiobooks, I’ve been allowing myself to read more adult fiction. The last GREAT book I read (meaning, it resonated with me, personally, as well as winning external accolades like the Pulitzer, LOL) is a Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I’m listening to a book I’m loving so far called Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It’s so quirky and surprising. . . and I’m reading the ARC of a middle grade that comes out in May called PLANET EARTH IS BLUE by Nicole Panteleakos. So far, it is beautiful.


Thanks again to the amazing Gae Polisner for giving of her time to share her thoughts with us. If you'd like to find Gae online, here are some links.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Jaleigh Johnson - Writing Wednesday

Jaleigh Johnson is an author who I’ve written about before on this blog. You can see posts about both Jaleigh and her books HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. Jaleigh not only writes books that my students and I devour, but she also lives in our town. To say that’s rare would be an understatement. We live three hours south of Chicago, in a tiny rural community surrounded by fields. Authors do not stop here on book tours. We had an independent bookstore open up at the start of winter this fall (YAY!), but before that the only connection many of my students have to books was through school or the local library. They don’t know authors beyond the images they see on the back of a book. This is why I’ve had my students involved with social media, they can tweet authors and they tweet back. It is magical.

Once I learned that Jaleigh lived in my town, I brought her in my classroom as much as she could come. She taught my students about finding inspiration for Mark of the Dragonfly by seeing the restored steam engine in town and wondering what type of planet it could reside on. She taught them how playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, or video games, builds her creativity.

But what Jaleigh really taught my kids was the power of the words what if.  What if this train was on a planet with meteors hurling to the earth? What if you had a kick-butt young girl that was like Han Solo? What if? It’s that power to wonder that makes you a writer, in my opinion. I think we all have that when we’re younger. We get older and, speaking from my own experience, we tamp it down as we compare our creativity with others, thinking we don’t measure up. That is why I strive each day to make my students wonder, create, and dream. I want them to see something and ask, what if?

And with that, welcome Jaleigh Johnson! Thanks for stopping in.

Talk to me about your writing life - what does it look like?
With a few exceptions, my day-to-day writing routine starts after my day job is finished, though sometimes I can squeeze in a writing or editing sprint during my lunch hour.  I use a laptop, and usually I’m writing in my office or outside on my back porch when the weather’s nice. Projects start from a detailed proposal and outline. I leave myself room to change things if I need to, but I’ve found an outline helps keep me focused during particularly rough stretches of a project.  My writing goal while I’m drafting is about a thousand words a day, and I tend to be a linear writer, so I write from beginning to end without skipping anything. When I’m editing, things become more fluid. It’s hard for me to set a goal of a certain number of pages edited per day because one page might take me two hours to edit while another takes two minutes.

Were you a writer in middle school? A reader?
Yes to both.  The love of reading came first.  Nothing gave me greater pleasure than diving into the worlds my favorite authors created, getting to know their characters, and maybe getting to know myself a little bit more along the way.  I wanted to be able to do the things those authors could do with words. Being a good storyteller felt like a superpower to me (it still does), and I wanted that power too (I’m still trying to get there).

What is some writing advice you’d like to give either to my students or to other aspiring writers?
The best advice I ever received as a writer is also the advice I’d pass along to others.  Write because you love it. Find joy in the process whenever you can, because writing is hard, and publishing is even harder, and there are many things you won’t be able to control.   But if you love what you’re doing, you’re already succeeding.

Best thing about being a writer?
I love watching a story come together on the page bit by bit, watching it take shape into the thing I want it to be.  The other best thing is when someone tells me that one of my books helped them fall in love with reading. My heart can’t contain the joy that hits me in those moments.

Hardest part of being a writer?
The hardest part for me is keeping self-doubt at bay and convincing myself that I am good enough, that my stories are worth telling, and that my voice is worth hearing.

What are you reading now that you’re loving?
I tend to read outside the genre I’m writing in once I’m far into a project, so I’ve been reading more mysteries lately.  I’m deeply in love with Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series, which begins with The Anatomist’s Wife.  There are six books and a novella in the series so far, with a seventh coming in 2019.

Thanks again to the amazing Jaleigh Johnson for giving of her time to share her thoughts with us. If you'd like to find Jaleigh online, here are some links.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Winter Blues

We're over halfway through our school year, signaled by my many Facebook friends who have children creating hundred day projects and sharing them to all. And yet, I don't need a calendar to tell me that, I can see that we've hit the long stretch of the year when I look at my middle school students. After three years in middle school, like clockwork, we've entered the time I call the winter blues. It can go by many names, but essentially it is that long stretch of January through mid-March where my seventh graders act like children that have been bottled up inside of a one-room cabin all winter long and they are dying to break free.

Yeah, like that. 

Add to it this past week the forecast of crazy low temperatures and you had a recipe for disaster. All day Tuesday I fielded questions from kids and their parents alike, 

Would we have school Wednesday? 
What did I think about Thursday? 
Could we possibly be out Friday too or, too much to hope for, would we get out early Tuesday? 

After teaching in elementary school for sixteen years, Tuesday in middle school reminded me of any holiday in elementary school where my students had too much sugar. They were shaken pop bottles looking for release.

And they found it in all sorts of places I wished they wouldn't, in all ways I wished they wouldn't. There were times of too much "contact,", too many heated exchanges, basically the entire day could be summed up in the phrase "too much." 

The day stretched on, the forecast looked bleak, we realized we would not be out early Tuesday and we soldiered on. 

I taught comprehension lessons in reading, we read the picture book Float and my students educated me about why it reminded them of Stephen King's It, we watched THIS clip on a high school wrestler from CBS, and we read and wrote together. 

There were absolutely moments where I was close to loosing my cool. At one point I looked at my principal when she came in my room to ask me something and she smiled and said, "All they can focus on is that there might be no school tomorrow." 

I took a breath and remembered. I remembered being twelve and thirteen, in seventh grade, when all that mattered to me was my friends. I remembered the excitement of a snow day, the drama of school, the heartbreak of trying to fit in. I remembered the confusion that is puberty, the times I felt like a grown-up in a kid's body, the times I felt like a kid in a grown-up's body. And I remembered how hard it was, how scary, and I took another breath.

Tenth hour the kids I have eighth hour come back to me. We were beginning book groups and one boy needed to switch groups. I could tell he was extremely anxious because he worried he wouldn't catch up to where everyone else was. I was worried that his anxiety would lead him down a path filled with poor choices. So, I grabbed his book and sat down beside him and asked if he wanted me to read for awhile, to help him get caught up. You could physically see his body relax and he nodded yes and I began.

For the last thirty minutes of the day our classroom was filled with words. Kids meeting in book groups/ partnerships and discussing their books. Kids reading to each other if they so desired, getting that night's reading done, and my voice as I read this book to my student. We stopped along the way, discussing the characters, checking in to make sure he understood, then moved on.

At 3:20 the bell rang. My students began to clean up, then we heard a loud WOOP from the hall, then another, then another. With big eyes, we all looked at each other, as I made my way to the door to make sure bedlam hadn't descended on the hallway. When I reached it we learned that school had been called for tomorrow, the windchill would be around -50, and some teachers had told their students. I hadn't seen the email, so they didn't know. They rushed out of the room to meet their friends but one boy came back. "Thanks for reading to me, Mrs. S." Then he was gone into a sea of celebration.

The winter blues are tough on us all. There are days I cannot walk my dogs our full mile route because of ice and/or windchills. I feel bottled up inside. The dreary days without sun threaten to bring me down. I need to remember that my students are dealing with it too, on top of the craziness that comes from being an adolescent. We had a bit of a break this past week, but Monday we are back at it with a normal schedule once again. I will try to remember, and keep in mind that it's only forty-six days until Spring. 

Just a reminder...
In just three week's I'm presenting at the fabulous Dublin Literacy Conference in Dublin, Ohio. The conference is on February 23rd and registration ends February 16th. It looks like a fabulous way to spend a Saturday. Hope to see you there. (LINK HERE)

I have a course available on Choice Literacy from March 1st - March 13th. It is all about student research writing in grades 3-7. In it I talk about short term research projects which are my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE way to end the school year. I hope you join me. Here's the LINK if you'd like to find out more.