Friday, September 30, 2016

The Dirty Side of Writing

You spend six weeks of your life on the research paper—in the library, in class, at home—immersing yourself in the arguments.  You outline, you draft, you revise, you arrange and rearrange so many times that arranging and rearranging becomes a remix of “Home on the Range” now called “Home on the Arrange” . . .

You’re home, home on the arrange, where all you do is rearrange; a sentence is good, no wait it’s not good, and you arrange and rearrange all day

Halfway there, with aching joints and weary eyes, you reflect on an inspirational quote from Stephen King: “To write is human, to edit is divine.” 

Then you edit that quote to, “To write is grueling.  To edit is to eat gruel.” 

Or at least roll around in it, in the muck of misplaced sentences, deleted words, confused counterclaims, uprooted paragraphs —your outline now as obsolete as the Walkman, LaserDiscs, and whoever finished third on The Bachelor.  Or first on The Voice.  You mud-paint with punctuation, tug at sentence structure, jam paragraphs together like a 3rd grader too proud to admit the puzzle pieces don’t fit—“It’ll work if I just shove it in there—come ON—puzzle’s broken, manufacturer musta messed up.”  And for some it is broken: elbow deep in grime, the puzzle just don’t fit.  It’s not the writing; it’s the topic, as ill-conceived as inviting Chad to Paradise.   You trash paragraphs that became sections that became days.  You only have a finite amount of time as a teen and it’s being spent in this toilet of a place: in the mire of revision and reorganization.  In a tub of gruel.

At some point, when the thought of reading another word makes your stomach turn, you trudge through one last time, re-read and print. You clean yourself off and present to the class (ugh!) and hallelujah you’re finally, finally, done! 

We’re all done!  Now a celebration, a break, a vacation—

Oh right, crap: 100 papers that are an average of 7 pages to read and edit.  And if there are 100 papers and each takes about 15 minutes, that’s a total of 25 hours of time at home to give them back. 

But to see how young people can raise their ceiling and realize they’re better than they think they are (“I’m actually proud of myself, for real,” many have said), can write longer than they think they can  . . . to equip them with confidence, character, resiliency and pride . . . Worth it, I tell myself.  And something within me—maybe my left kidney or my intestine—believes it and knows it to be true.  True, my large intestine says.  Worth it

So after all the grading and sharing papers with my family and beaming about growth, I hand the papers back, eagerly awaiting . . . something. Something’s gotta happen right? Something does:

They stare at the number and fixate on its impact — How much longer is the quarter and how many more grades and is this my final grade and OMG it went down 3.25 points — then they move on.

“Wait,” I say, "let’s learn from the edits — let's reflect on a piece of looseleaf.”  And they do, but three ask if the reflection will be graded.  

This is when I think of sunsets.  And yoga.  And trading jobs with Guy Fieri.  

And then respond with something like, What’ll be important 2 years from now, when you’re a freshman in college and you’re assigned a lengthy paper? 

Answer: Well the grade, of course, that you just got back in Blackstone’s class!  You’ll just breezily stop by a professor’s office hours and say with a wink, “Sorry to bother you and all, Dr. McThompsonberg, sir, but I earned a 91% on my paper junior year of high school.  So, yeah . . . I’m excused from this, right bro?”

Still, it’s a hard concept to get: that the mark can be less important than the muck.  That the grade can be less important than the gruel. 

That the gruel—that thankless, slippery process where you tossed your work out to sea and started again, where you lost your way but found your voice—is infinitely more self-defining and lasting than a number.  You learned not to give up, not to panic.  You saw things from other sides, from others’ eyes.  You belly-flopped in mud and emerged a better thinker, writer, maybe even a better person.  And in the end, no—you didn’t become cleaner; you learned to like the muck of a world not black and white. You realized that the truth—or the one truth, or the one perfect way to state it—is as slippery and slimy as your toes at the bottom of a lake.  

But the grade—without it, you don’t even get into Dr. McThompsonberg’s office!  Sometimes, unfortunately, that can be true.  It's also true that skills matter, to Doc McT-berg and beyond.  

Also true: coffee, olives, Portlandia, herring, Louis C.K., anchovies, mustaches—these are acquired tastes.  So is gruel.  You can’t change everyone’s taste buds, but if you help students acquire a taste for it, a hunger and appreciation for it—how hard it is, how it works, how long it takes (this article took a week, my second book two years)—if they get a paper back and still want to learn from it, still want to rework it—if they hum Home on the Rearrange the next time and the next time they write and edit—and you helped them get there . . . yes, large intestine, yes: So worth it.

And yes, Stephen King: To [teach them to] write is human. To [teach them to] edit is divine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fear of September (and Failure)

You dreaded it as a teenager yourself, rolled your eyes to welcome August, winced at the back-to-school sales, gripped the last days so tightly you got blisters on your tanned fingers.  And now you're here again as an adult with a few more wrinkles and a few less hairs (oh, just me?), doing it all over again.  

To cope, I initiate several diverse strategies:

1. Pretend September doesn't exist, is a mirage, is an illusion like everyone's eternal bliss and self-actualization on Facebook.  September is a rumor, I tell myself.  It's the tooth fairy, witches on broomsticks, Obama's foreign birth certificate, Ryan Lochte's robbery.  September is as real as having to wait 30 minutes after eating before you swim doggy-paddle stand in a pool, or digging so far in the sand you end up in China. And even if September did exist, not that it does, but if it did, it's light-years away, like robots who exercise for you.  Light-years away, like Cleveland winning a championship, George Clooney ever getting married, Brangelina splitting up, or Pokémon making a comeback. Light-years!  Ain't happening, you dig?  Maybe I'll meet ya in eighty years, September—if that's even your real name!       

2. Actually, that's the only strategy I use.  

By the time August 26th rolls around and denial is no longer an option, I cling to ice cream cones and pools, and live every day like it's my last one on earth and I just so happen to be in Disney World (rides! chicken fingers! for! breakfast! of! course! movies! popcorn! ocean! sunset! again! again!).  To live in exclamation points is exhausting, so I go to sleep, and there I dream of students not listening.  Then I try to convince myself that having only 4 days left isn't a bad thing; that it's a four-day weekend, and how happy would I be if someone offered me a four-day weekend in March?  But this is the voice of a used car salesman with a greasy chin and a comb over.  His breath smells like boloney.    

So, it's the day before school.  And in the whirlwind of supplies, seating charts, book lists, rules, regulations, expectations, policies, copies of your syllabus that always seems to have one typo, I try to decide what to prioritize this year in my classroom.

After 14 years of teaching, first in Baltimore through Teach for America, then in the Bronx, now on Long Island, this year I've decided to pick my battle with this phrase: “I’m not sure if this is right, but . . .” 

At my school, it is as commonplace to begin a sentence with "I'm not sure if this is right, but . . ." as it is to start with "um." Or "well."  Or a throat-clear. 

"I'm not sure if this is right, but _________ (insert opinion)."  

"I'm not sure if this is right, but isn’t Romeo being dramatic?"  

“I’m not sure if this is right, but I think that ‘elation’ might mean joy.”

"I'm not sure if this is right, but Tom Robinson, I don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that—well, he kinda sorta seems innocent to me, but that’s just me."

"I'm not sure if this is right, but I believe it's snowing—and, again, not certain of my accuracy, but I believe an early dismissal could be in order, and it’s possible I’d be more comfortable on my couch." 

Okay, that last one’s made up —don’t they always know the second it snows or rains?—  but why the need to add a disclaimer that there is a statistical chance you aren’t accurate before every sentence?  What are we so afraid of? 

“I don’t know if this is right, but . . .”

It's not an English teacher pet peeve like the Oxford comma, or too many semicolons, or using “I believe” in your paper.  It's not that I don't want students to sound unsure; I want them not to fret about failure.  It’s not about the form; it’s about the culture, and the I-don’t-know-if-this-is-right formulation encourages a classroom of hesitancy and self-doubt. I don’t want students to be afraid to be wrong.  It's the attitude that breeds rigid writing. It's the mindset Teenage Me had in my own language classes when answering what I did over the weekend.  I played soccer and basketball, I'd write, not because I actually did, but because I knew how to write it correctly.  I wouldn’t make a mistake that way. 

Now, yes, trying new words on all assignments, especially major ones, isn’t the greatest idea—at times it doesn’t pay to reach for a new word, as I recently saw on a t-shirt that read “Sometimes I use words I don’t understand so I can sound more photosynthesis”—but to err is not only human, it's the only way to grow.  Through missteps, we learn how to disagree, we learn resilience, we learn flexibility, we learn about ourselves.   

I mean, even if you're wrong, even it's on the very first day of school and you aren’t 100% accurate, what’s the worst that can happen?  Are we gonna sharpen a stick on both ends like Roger in Lord of the Flies?  Are we gonna push a boulder on you?  The only wrong thing you can say in a 9th grade English classroom is this:

That's wrong.  That's just mean.  

Other than that, if you’re “wrong,” nothing happens.  Well, something: our dialogue improves, the classroom becomes a respectful place for a fearless exchange of diverse opinions, ideas, proposals, projects that improve our world, even if that world is as small as our 2000 square-feet room, our 2 acres of school grounds, or our 4 mile town. 

“I’m not sure if this is right, but . . .”   

It reminds me of my cautious two year-old daughter staring at a bump in the sidewalk, then raising her toe, then her foot, then transferring her body weight, then considering whether Elmo’s nickname should be El or Mo, then clearing the bump, then saying, “byebye” to the bump, then moving forward.  The whole operation takes 20 seconds.  If we add up all the time that reticence and fear take up in a classroom—or in life?— it’s even longer than Sylvie’s heroic trek over the step.  It sets the wrong tone for the year. 

And in this month of (okay, fine it's real!) September, I'd like to set the right tone: Please don’t tread lightly with your ideas. Tread lightly with people’s feelings – be careful you’re not rude or arrogant, that you never say and hopefully never even think, whoa, you didn’t know that? – but don’t tread lightly with your willingness to try something new: to write in a new form, to butcher your second language in conversation, to acknowledge September, to try public speaking even if you have a mustard stain on your shirt and your pants and you doubt you'll speak confidently enough for people to listen.

"I'm not sure if this is right, but . . . " Sorry, you can't start sentences that way.    

(And this year, as a teacher, writer, person, and moving forward a more consistent blogger about writing and teaching, I will try to follow my own advice.)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

School Visit

On Wednesday, January 28, I had the honor of visiting P.S. 174 in Queens, NY.  I've visited schools before, many schools -- in fact I teach in one every day that there is no major blizzard -- but this visit was magical.  The school ordered a class set of books prior to the visit -- got them for free, in fact, via Donors Choose.  The kids were so pumped about the visit, asked such thoughtful questions, and even drew AMAZING pictures of the characters, which I was flattered they wanted me to sign.  We did a brief writing workshop, personal signing time for each kid, and just had an absolute blast.  I can't wait to come back!

Kirkus Review


After his mother’s death from cancer, New Jersey seventh-grader Denny “Donuts” Murphy’s carefully crafted clown persona gets him in trouble at school without easing his grief.
As a distraction, his best (and only) friend, Manny, enlists him in a candy-sales scheme to make enough money to hire helicopters or whatever it might take to entice eighth-grade “hotties” to accompany them to the spring dance. But Denny would prefer classmate Sabrina, who seems to like him. Further complicating this story of healing-in-progress is the boy’s 300-pound father’s withdrawal. Both father and son are lost in their personal miseries—a point underscored with references to Les Misérables. The first-person narration chronicles six months of madcap behavior, flights of fancy and flashbacks revealing the reasons behind Denny’s downward spiral and predictable meltdown. The boys’ freedom to roam the halls of Blueberry Hills Middle School (limited only by encounters with a villainous eighth-grader) is surprising, but otherwise the school setting will be familiar, populated by some sympathetic adult characters as well as some less attractive ones. While some readers may tire of Denny’s frenetic goings-on, others, like Sabrina, will watch and wait patiently. They will be pleased by the improbable outcome.
For middle school readers, a painful, funny and realistic picture of a family coming to terms with loss. (Fiction. 11-15)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Booklist Review

Sorry You're Lost

Eleven-year-old wiseass Denny is a class clown, pretending to surf on desks, wittily mouthing off to his teachers, and becoming the butt of every joke. But Denny’s life is far from funny—his mom died four months ago, and his dad is hiding from the world, spending his time eating fried chicken, watching TV, and avoiding talking to Denny. So when his best friend Manny comes up with a scheme that will distract him from his painful existence and rake in some cold hard cash, Denny is solidly on board. Together, Denny and Manny—walking a fine line between charmingly guileless and infuriatingly clueless—sell candy to their fellow middle-school students to ensure their popularity (or “compatibility quotient”) and their ability to score dates for the dance. Blackstone (A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie, 2011) has crafted compelling, believable characters here: Denny’s father’s life-arresting grief is palpable, and Denny’s painful battle between playing manically happy and being truly vulnerable—rendered in frantic, anxiety filled run-on sentences—is nothing short of heartbreakingly authentic.

— Sarah Hunter

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Advance Praise for SORRY YOU'RE LOST

Sorry You’re Lost is that most rare of books:  it is honest.  Oh, I could go on and on about the amazing voice of Donuts Murphy, and the astonishing cast of characters, and the hilarious plot Donuts embarks upon.  But it is the honesty of the book that stops us short:  Truth #1:  that the world is not fair.  Truth #2: that bad things happen.  And Truth #3: that we must make our way even if Truth #1 and Truth #2 have smacked us in the face.  But this story does not stop with that.  There's Truth #4, and this is the truth that this novel, with humor and sadness and healing and reality and sweetness, wonderfully proclaims:  that life is flabbergasting.”

-Gary D. Schmidt, two-time Newbury Honor-winning author of The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.

Sorry You’re Lost spins candy straws into gold, delivering an up-close and original look at a boy coming to terms with loss.  Through funny scenes, sad scenes, and candy schemes, from antics and avoidance to awareness and acceptance, readers take the journey with Denny.”

-Michael Northrop, author of Trapped and Plunked

"Sorry You're Lost is overflowing with emotion, energy and voice.  It's all at once surprisingly funny, yet sad, uncomfortably open and honest, and ultimately endearing.  It will likely be one of the best books you read this year."

-Chris Rylander, author of The Fourth Stall

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Truth About of Characters

How do you know if your characters are there to stay, like that mustard stain on your shirt or your buddy (who reminds you of mustard stains) who needed “a few hours” to crash?  How do you know if it’s time to sing that new(ish) haunting Rihanna song to your characters: I want you to stayyyyyyyy ayy ayy ayy ayy . . . I want you to stay?
I believe that if your characters stick with you to the extent that you believe they’re real, that you hear their voices (in a non-creepy way) when you’re running or walking or shopping or driving (very carefully), that you’d love one of your family members to meet one of your book friends (in a non-creepy but really cool way), that when your friends say something witty about donuts all you want to say is “THANK YOU” and all you want to do (after French cheek-kissing them on the cheeks 2-6 times) is run home to add a few paragraphs about a character named Donuts to p. 142, that when you hear a kid speak goofily (now a word) yet formally and without contractions you say to yourself, Hey, that is something Manny would say . . . that’s when you know you have a lasting character.

If you’re able to scribble the dialogue for his/her meeting with Zach Galifianakis, President Obama, Steve Urkel, and Stefan Urquelle; if you know what your character would say to your student, your mother-in-law, your dog, your boss, that lady at the gym who always needs a fan, that guy at the grocery store who never smiles, that waiter with the handlebar mustache . . . that’s when you know you have a lasting character.
In fact, an exercise I love to do with my students and one I practice when I’m stuck, is to write 10 lines or so of a conversation between one of my characters and someone I know: that snooty guy from sales, that teacher who has to be right, your sibling who is “just checking in.”  If you can do it — and want to keep going — you’re on the right track.
In the words of Dr. Seuss (and my mother serving boiled cabbage*), “Try it, you may like it” or something like that.
*If you enjoy boiled cabbage, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.  In fact, I envy you.  Now stop thinking about cabbage and try that exercise.