Category Archives: writing

Brown Girl Dreaming.

A note: I wrote this post as a mentor for my students.  It’s written in a more formal structure than what I usually use, and demonstrates structured writing that is just about ready to jump ship to more creative (thought still focused) nonfiction structures, which is where many of my 8th graders live as writers.  Also, this book was beautiful and I can’t wait to pass out the seven copies I just received through a Teachers College grant. 

ypl_woodson_Brown_Girl_DreamingSometimes middle schoolers can forget the power of the dream. Though still children, their school and family responsibilities and expectations often seem to fill their waking hours. They are often treated like adults, but the adults forget that the grown-up life is brand new to them. Jacqueline Woodson’s latest book, Brown Girl Dreaming, is not just a compelling escape for readers, it is a lifeline of hope and beauty. The realizations Woodson shares throughout her memoir set in verse can help guide adolescent readers through their own messy lives by giving them hope for the future.

Early in the story, Jacqueline Woodson realizes that drawing strength from her roots can help her store up strength to face the challenges she will face. The first stanza of the story sets the stage for the cultural atmosphere for her childhood: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA—a country caught between Black and White” (1). Woodson began right away with one of the most difficult realities that despite the decades past, our country still doesn’t know how to handle. Later, though, she writes, “From Columbus,’ my father said, ‘you could go just about anywhere” (16). Literally, her father is referencing the fact that highways run north, south, and diagonal through Columbus. Figuratively, her father is giving her permission to dream. Woodson is passing this ability off to her readers. Even when people are born into what might feel like an impossible situation, there are ways to move forward. Her voice in this story gives permission to the reader to dream about where they might be headed in the future.

In the middle of the story, Jacqueline Woodson acknowledges the difficulty in making sense of life, but realizes that it’s ok to struggle as she figures out who she is. When she and her siblings are shuffling between their grandparents’ home in South Carolina and her mother’s new home in Brooklyn she writes, “Our feet are beginning to belong in two different worlds—Greenville and New York. We don’t know how to come home and leave home behind us” (195). Beyond the difficulty of moving and feeling like an outsider, readers can relate to Woodson’s acknowledgement of the struggle to fit in. She also writes of how she is often compared to her siblings and feels lost in comparison. When she begins to listen to the voices of wisdom in her life, though, she has the courage to be comfortable being herself. She says of her grandfather: “And when I sing to him, I’m not just left of the key or right of the tune. He says I sing beautifully. He says I am perfect” (236). Woodson realizes that she doesn’t have to please everyone or be like anyone else and while this frees her. She is able to feel comfortable with the question “How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me?” (247).   This realization is also able to free the reader from some of the anxiety that accompanies adolescence and encourage them that it is normal to wrestle with their identity.

The biggest gift Woodson offers the reader by the end of the story is the message of hope in the future. As her older brother sings a solo beautifully in a school performance, she is stunned that she had no idea her brother had such a beautiful voice. She realizes, “Maybe…there is something hidden like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered” (233). In the beginning, Woodson wasn’t sure where she was going to go, but was given permission to dream. And now she sees how a small passion, even if it is unknown to others, can blossom into something more. By the end of the story she is able to see how she was born to write: “I keep writing, knowing now that I was a long time coming” (298).   Woodson is able to grasp this enormous part of her identity and see that it has always been a part of her—it just took courage to keep at it. Her readers can see how her past and present work together to give her something that will carry her into the future, and can also believe that this could be true for them as well.

This story is one that was made for young teenagers who need to be reminded that there are many roads to choose from, the assurance that the journey might be bumpy, and most of all, that a future filled with hope is in their hands.

Winter Writing Inspiration.

I finally finished Cloud Atlas this week, but it’s one of those books where now I need to process and think and research because David Mitchell packed so much into it.  While I gather my ideas, I thought I’d share some thoughts on writing, especially in the winter.

A friend and I decided over drinks a few months ago that we desperately needed to start a writing group–some accountability to actually put the pen to paper and to bring the pieces living in our heads to life.  We start next week.  As I’ve been trying to prepare some work, I realized I’ve done quite a bit of writing in this space about winter.  And then, serendipitously, another friend of mine sent me this blog post from the New York Times that starts this way:

In early winter, when the heavy rains come to the Pacific Northwest and we settle under a blanket of sullen sky, something stirs in the creative soul. At the calendar’s gloaming, while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.

I do not live in the Northwest, but I live in a city where it seems I walk a half mile to get anywhere, bundled for winter as I have no car with an automatic starter or seat heaters.  I now choose warmth over fashion and can really only wear boots in the winter, always have a winter hat in my bag and find my shoulders most often pulled up to chin while bracing the cold.  Needless to say I prefer to hibernate and the lack of daylight only encourages this unsociable practice of mine.  I also love the nod to Seasonal Affective Disorder in the article.  (I finally bought a light therapy lamp this year.)

So, while you are waiting with me for warm days that seem so far away, read the article from the Times, join me and find your voice and your outlet: writing, painting, cooking, reading.  Winter is the most acceptable excuse to stay in with some kind of delicious beverage and get lost indoors.

"I put it down on paper and then the ghost doesn’t ache so much."

About a million years ago, a good friend of mine mailed me a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and said it would probably change my life. He was right.  This book holds everything I love about literature inside of it–and really, a blog post isn’t enough–you should read it and then we should meet for coffee to talk about it.

 It is a collection of snapshots that chronicles the coming of age of Esperanza (in English, hope), a girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.  Cisneros’ use of vignettes instead of a standard narrative structure captures stolen moments and insights that together create a portrait not just of Esperanza, but of longing and small beauties, anger and angst.  Though short and incredibly readable, this story is complex.  Her poetic style brings the beautifully tragic peripheral characters of Mango Street to life, each desperately seeking freedom, each desperately breaking and inspiring my heart:

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life. 

Alicia, whose Mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university.  Two trains and a bus, because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.

Cisneros gives Esperanza an eye for tiny details and a writer’s heart that carries the weight of her neighborhood.  She writes a poem:

I want to be
like waves on the sea
like clouds in the wind
but I’m me.
One day I’ll jump
out of my skin. 
I’ll shake the sky
like a hundred violins. 

Esperanza, who is not beautiful, but is smart.  Esperanza who is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, a tiny thing against so many bricks, who looks at trees.” I love picturing this girl gathering her strength and her pen and shaking the sky with all of her might.

Toward the end of the novel, her aunt almost prophesies over her:

You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free.

As a person who writes often, and especially as an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time wondering what exactly this means.  For Esperanza, it helps her to channel her emotions and her anger:

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.  

This is why I love writing–and introducing students to writing.  I have found that the times in my life that I feel most at peace–even if life is swirling in a thousand directions–is when I am writing.  Most of the time it is nothing important, and often words I may never reread.  But just like Esperanza, once I’ve thought through my life with pen and paper, whatever ghost was haunting me doesn’t ache so much.

Esperanza reminds me of so many of my students–trying to figure out what it means to be a young adult, what it means to love, where to put anger, how to be themselves.  They all come from different places, and yet I think that there are vignettes of beauty inside each of them–and that somehow life would make more sense if they understood that.  I’m trying to remember if coming of age novels meant anything to me when I was their age or if I love them now in hindsight after surviving adolescence.

I realize it is naive to think that the world could be saved by writer’s notebooks. But perhaps we’d all be a little more emotionally healthy? Free from the demons that eat at us, free from the insecurities that plague us, because we’ve written them away rather than having them wake us in the morning and whisper to us as we try to fall asleep.

My favorite summer book. Of all time. I don’t say things like that very often.

I’ve written about The Summer Book before.  I first read it in 2008 and fell in love.  The post is so short because I had no words to describe how much I loved it.  I have recommended it, given it as a gift and reread it every summer since then.  Pure joy. You should be on your way out the door to find a copy by now.

Each chapter is a separate vignette style story that distills the essence of summer, childhood and adult sense-and nonsense-ability.  Sophia, her father and her grandmother have an easy way about them, as they live quietly and adventurously all summer. Sophia is six, feisty, and pays attention to all of the small details and mysteries of life for the first time.  Her grandmother is 85, equally feisty and is paying attention to the small details and mysteries of life, but with the kind of wisdom only age can give.  I have found myself falling for the way that Jansson captures Sophia’s awakening to life and the endearing patience with a side of crankiness with which Grandmother watches it happen. These are just a few things I was thinking about today as I was reading:

In “The Robe,” Sophia is going through a “rebellious” stage.  This is the part that makes me love Grandmother with all of my heart: “…she played cards with grandmother.  The both cheated shamelessly, and their cardplaying afternoons always ended in a quarrel.  This had never happened before. Grandmother tried to recall her own rebellious periods in order to try and understand, but all she could remember was an unusually well behaved little girl.  Wise as she was, she realized that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they’re eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself.” 

In “The Tent,” Sophia tries to sleep all night in a tent outside and comes in under the pretense of wanting to hear about her grandmother’s experiences in tents. “A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she lost the urge…That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things anymore. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough…unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.”  This is kind of random, but this speaks into my writing life: although sometimes a little discipline is required, I’ve found the best time for me to write about something is the moment in which I am excited about it.  That is when the most passion is conveyed in what I’m trying to say.  It also made me think about how sad it is when stories get lost because the moment it should have been told or written has passed.

Jansson does not let the moment pass, though, because this short book crystallizes so much. Seriously. Find a copy. Curl up somewhere summer-y: I’m predisposed to the porch at my parents. A lake would be ideal. And love.

My mind is about to burst! or, Where do I put all that I have to say?

One of my favorite things going on in my classroom recently are my students reading responses.  Stay with me, I promise this whole post isn’t all about teaching.  In an effort to ignite some passion into my students’ reading and “writing about reading” lives, I’ve been doing a weekly reading response where students share their entries out loud with the rest of the class. Not only has it provided a real “audience” and given them motivation to write something they are proud to read, we’ve been asking questions like what goes into a good reading response? What invites a reader into your writing? 

My 7th graders are basically all stars.  Many of them have started their own reading blogs (heart!) and are growing in sophistication…which makes me scramble for new ways to teach into writing well. This has caused me to think about my own writing process for this blog, in an effort to coach into what writers can do. This is what I’ve found: (1) I reread all of my underlined notes and dog-eared pages, typing ones that seem weighty into a new post page. (2) I read the ongoing conversations about the book online to help me gain a context/find insight I may not have considered on my own. (3) I try to pull a thread from all of the above to focus on for my post…or, try to choose what might be the most important thread to pull.

The point of this post, is that there are often way too many threads.  Sometimes I miss being an English major so much it hurts because all I want to do is write and talk about books in classes that meet three times a week.  Sometimes one post per book isn’t enough (unless people want to read crazy long posts, and let’s be honest, I think my parents might be the only ones who would really read every word I wrote. Because they’re awesome.) Anyway, you may begin to see “outlier” posts that are less about the book itself and more about some of the ideas that came up within it that I need to think through. I also blame this on the amount of Young Adult fiction I read…when I finally spend time in books on my own reading level, I don’t know what to do with myself!