Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Writing Wednesdays - The Importance of Feedback

Friday I sat in Starbucks and typed the last words in the second book in The Highland Falls series, the romance series I'm currently writing. As I finished, I sat and looked at my computer in a bit of awe. Make no mistake about it, I’m well aware that I haven’t finished the great American novel. These first two books are only in the first draft stage and so much work is needed before I feel like they’ll be something I am willing to share with the world. That being said, since April of 2018 I have written 190,000 words contained in two books in a fictional world called Highland Falls, Illinois. I’ve met a host of characters. I’ve built their world, their homes, and for four of them, their happily ever afters. 

It’s pretty cool.

What is even better is that a few friends have read these stories. Lots of friends have asked, and if you have, thank you! However, I knew I needed to keep the feedback coming my way small when I just started. My friend Cindy has read the first book and is getting ready to read the second. Karen has read the first one and read the second one chapter by chapter as I wrote. I’ve written before about the need for different types of feedback as I write and what that’s taught me for teaching writing in my classroom. You can read that post HERE. What I want to talk today about is what a blessing feedback can be.

If you teach kids writing, whether that be in preschool through college, I hope you are writing too and asking for feedback as well. I don’t care who you are asking for feedback from, but what I want you to remember is how much trust is involved in that act. Writing, at least for me, is deeply personal. There is not a moment that I’m writing that I’m not afraid of sharing it, that I’m not well aware of my lack of writing knowledge. And yet, I’m still trying. These characters are in my brain and I really want to tell their stories. I love writing about them, even as I cringe at my inability to write how my favorite authors do. So when I actually pull together the courage to share that writing, it makes me want to vomit a bit from nervousness. This is why my friends rock.

Karen finished my epilogue on Sunday. I saw that she left me a message on Voxer about it, so I clicked over to listen. Please recognize, Karen is not grading my writing. She’s not my teacher or boss, yet my heart rate still increased. Imagine what our students feel, then, when we sit down to talk to them about a piece of writing they care about and are turning in for a grade. So, as I said, I clicked over to listen to her message. I was sitting in my kitchen on a couch, curled up with my dogs. Karen’s voice came through and I could immediately tell she was crying. She proceeded to tell me, through a whole lot of tears, how much she loved how I ended the story, how sad she was to leave this couple, and what she thought of the world I’d created.

Karen apologized repeatedly for not waiting until she had her emotions in check to send me a message. I immediately messaged her back and told her that she couldn’t apologize, she’d just given me the greatest gift in her reaction to my writing. 

It reminded me of a time in my classroom last school year. I had twins in my first hour class. Emma, one of the twins, came up to me with a Chromebook and said, “Lynnsey and I think you need to read Kylie (her twin’s) Age poem. She doesn’t think it’s good enough to publish.” 

The rest of the room was quietly typing, twenty-six seventh grade (almost eighth grade) bodies sprawled on the floor, couches, around tables. By this point of the year, we were very comfortable together and they knew me well. Grabbing my coffee, I sat down with Emma’s Chromebook and read her sister’s poem. I’ve shared their poetry for this assignment before (you can check them out HERE), but here’s Kylie’s poem:

I am 13.
Officially a teenager.
Technically, I’m 13 years and 8 months.
Not like that matters.

I belong to what is called “Gen Z”.
We’re the kids born between 1995-2013.
We’re the ones ridiculed for our technology
They call us “iGen” “Gen Wii” “Screenagers”
To quote the lovely Maisie Williams:
“They [older people] think you’re a self-obsessed,
Selfie-stick waving generation.
They’ve counted on that.
They’ve kicked your future in the teeth,
And hoped you wouldn’t notice.”

She’s not wrong.

13 is the age where, maybe, 
you finally realize you deserve to be treated 
Like more than the dirt you walk on.
And then,
They have the audacity to say 
“it’s a rebellious phase.”
“They won’t respect their parents.”
“How dare they disrespect their elders!”
“Back in my day, we treated our elders with respect!”
Why should I respect someone who won’t respect me?
Why should I respect someone who brushes me off as self-obsessed? 
Who says that they are better than us?
Who doesn’t listen to what I have to say?
Tells me my thoughts don’t matter
Because I’m younger than them.
It baffles me.
They really think I should respect someone
Who tells me to shut up and sit down.
Not in a million years.

Being 13 is being a part of the generation
Who knows that they could be killed in their own classroom.
By their peer.
By someone they’ve known since they were 5.
By a friend.

Being 13 is entering a classroom for the first time
And thinking
“If someone came through that door with a gun,
What’s the safest way out of the room?”
“Who in here might have a gun in their backpack?”
“If I’m by the window, is it a quick escape if need be,
Or is it an entrance point for an intruder?”

Being 13 is growing up
Being told by that we’ll drown in college debt.
That buying a house is unrealistic.
They’re just too expensive.
I mean, you could buy a house. 
But then you can’t afford to pay for food.
It’s your choice, I guess.
Food or a decent living place?
Can’t have both.

Being 13 isn’t all negative.
We’ve got social media
So we can talk to our friends who live far away.
I’ve got a friend from England
Who I can talk to whenever I want.
Although, time zones make communications tricky.

Another thing about being 13.
I see my peers standing for what they believe in.
Remember what the kids from Parkland did after the shooting?
Remember how they refused to be silent?
How they marched for their lives?
How they took to the streets?
For change
Saying “Enough is enough”
“You stand by and watch us slaughtered.
In our own schools.
And you’re okay with that.”
They pushed for change.
Kids like me
Demanding stricter gun laws.
So maybe we won’t get mowed down in those uncomfortable plastic chairs.

Of course, because we are 13,
Because we are kids,
We can’t make a change.
We tried.
We tried so hard.
They didn’t change the laws.

At 13,
I’ve been raised on fantasy.
Heros and heroines teaching me right from wrong.
I grew up with Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Captain America.
I was told we could make a difference,
No matter our age.
People seem surprised we are speaking up.
They’re the ones who told us to stand for what we believe in.
(But only if we believe the same things as them.)
(We aren’t supposed to stand up against them.)

Because I’m 13,
I’m typing this at home.
It’s midnight.
I need to be up in less than six hours.
My parents tell me I need to go to bed.
I ask.
“You need sleep.”
They reply.
“But I’m not done with my homework.”
I say.
“You still need sleep. Getting your homework done isn’t as important as sleep.”
I look at my parents,
What do they mean, 
Basic self care is more important than my grades?
No one has ever told me that.
“Your grades should be the most important thing to you.” 
Is all I’ve ever heard. 
They are. 
I put my grades before my own health.
Because that’s all I know.
That’s all I’ve been taught.
I’ve never heard someone say
“Your happiness and mental health is more important
Than your schooling.”
So why do my parents think I should put myself first?
Isn’t that what they told me to avoid?
That it’s selfish
To put your basic needs before others?

Being 13 is asking your parents to proofread your poem
And your mom thinks it sad
That this is our reality.
But your dad
Looks at you incredulously
And tells you
“You realize you live in the most privileged generation?”
“We didn’t have the internet
When I was young.
We had books.
We didn’t have television,
Or phones, 
Or music we could easily access.”
You’re comparing being scared of being shot in your classroom
To not having internet.
Not exactly a fair comparison.
But I hold my tongue.
“Don’t disrespect your parents”
They say.
Apparently sharing your own opinions is disrespectful.
Don’t worry,
Next time, 
I’ll write what you want to read.
I know it’s hard to read.
The truth hurts.

I remember reading this that day in April and not even bothering to hold any tears back as they snaked down my cheeks. I looked up to see Kylie back at a table, peeking over her computer screen, the fear of sharing something so personal written all over her face. Ignoring her sister standing next to me, I locked eyes with her and said something like, “I love that you wrote bravely from your heart. This is personal, this is beautiful, and I won’t forgive you if you don’t publish it.” 

Her smile is something that stays with me. She beamed. 

This week I will begin the hard work of revision on my two novels. From there I need to decide if I want to look for an agent or if I am going as planned into the self published route. It’s a lot, but this journey has taught me so much. Hopefully my classroom will continue to benefit from all that I learn as I go. I want to remember how brave my students are when they share bits of themselves with us. Especially through writing, but in all the ways they do. The reaction Karen gave me honors me. It makes me want to keep writing. It buoys me on the days when it’s hard, which is exactly what I want for my students. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

My Reading Journey

Let me set the scene. It was a warm Sunday in July. Actually, thanks to Amazon, I can tell you it was the 23rd of July in 2017. My husband and sons were on day two of an eight day trip to Canada. The world closely resembled a dumpster fire, kind-of similar to now. Anxiety, my old friend, was sky high. As I walked the dogs that morning, I left a message for my friend Cindy on my Voxer app. I figured she’d listen to it later as she made her way about her day in Pennsylvania. I wish I’d saved her reply, which came while I was still walking, but alas, I didn’t. Suffice to say, she suggested I download a romance book to read, that maybe it would help me to relax and let go of worries. I loved reading young adult books, but in romance I was guaranteed a happily ever after. Cindy somehow knew that I needed that, more than I’d ever realized.

Today I sit here typing this blog post on July 22nd, 2019. Seven hundred and twenty-nine days ago I downloaded my first romance book to my Kindle App. Since then, on Amazon alone, I’ve read five hundred and five books. That doesn’t count rereads; that doesn’t count the books I’ve purchased at our new independent bookstore, Hartfield Book Co.; that doesn’t count books I’ve borrowed from our local library in print or ebooks; that doesn’t count any of the picture books, middle grade books, or young adult books I’ve read. Simply on one app, I’ve read 505 romance books in 729 days. 


In a few weeks I’m joining forces with my local bookstore, Hartfield Book Co., to celebrate romance books for Bookstore Romance Day, something that independent bookstores across the country are doing on August 17th. I’m honored to be a part of this. One thing I hadn’t realized when I started reading romance books 729 days ago was that there was a stigma in the eyes of some when you declared your love for this genre. 

Weird, right?

I can’t remember when I began reading romance books. As a junior high student, I know I devoured this series as fast as they could come out:

I don’t remember talking to a lot of people about my reading, I read for my own enjoyment. I loved the characters in these books and my heart would be crushed when relationships would break up. For that reason, maybe they weren’t true romance books. According to Romance Writers of America, a romance book must…

  1. Have a love story as part of the central storyline.
  2. Have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending, or the happily ever after. (Otherwise known as a HEA.)

So, I’m not sure if Couples would be true romance books, but they’d set me on the path.

Meanwhile, I was surrounded with reading role models. My parents read every night before bed. My friends read, though we didn’t typically discuss books. My grandma had a stack of these books next to her armchair in her living room. 

I knew my grandma read romance, though I think she bought them used at her auction. It wasn’t a big deal, just what she read. 

As I reached high school, my reading taste changed. I was busier with more homework, so I read for pleasure less. When I did read, I typically could be found with a book from this author:

I was obsessed with Steel and read everything I could that she’d written. 

In college I found less and less time to read. Once in awhile I’d go back and read an old favorite from Steel, reread Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, that I loved, or share mysteries with my parents like books from Dick Francis or Mary Higgins Clark. My reading life wasn’t consistent, but being a history major meant a lot of my daily reading was for school.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant with Luke that I began to devour books again. I found a series called The Mitford Series by Jan Karon that I loved. Here was a sweet romance story between a pastor and his neighbor set in a small town in North Carolina. Not a traditional romance, but the elements were there. 

Flash forward from Karon’s books I read in 2002 until now, seventeen years later. I’ve read a lot of books over the years. I devour picture books on a regular basis. Depending on the year, I read more or less for my classroom. But in the last two years, one constant in my reading life is my love of the romance genre. I’m always reading a romance book, no matter what else I’m reading. 

Being a romance reader has had benefits I hadn’t anticipated. One, it helps when I’m stressed or worried. Reading has always been that safe place for me, but some of the books I read in the young adult or middle grade categories definitely wouldn’t be considered to have a HEA. Whether it is the world we live in or the age I am, I need the majority of the books I’m reading to be that safe place to land. I need to not have to worry about my characters being alright, and I’m ok with that. This reminds me that depending on their life outside of my classroom, my students might need lighter or heavier books to read.

The other thing romance has reinforced for me is the lack of judgement we need to have around reading. I’ve always allowed my students to read whatever they desire, but that is a constant discussion with colleagues and parents. Whether it’s graphic novels, rereading books, audio books, or what have you, I’m here to support their reading, not shame them for it. 

So how about you? What genre do you love reading? Share and we can obsess about books together. And if you need a romance book recommendation, check back on the 17th or send me a message, I have lots of thoughts on that.