Category Archives: Beginnings

The Teacher Appears When the Student is Ready

I expect Marie Kondo would not approve, but on a high shelf in my studio I am saving an old booklet: Poems for a Favorite Friend. It’s a collection of pieces that I wrote during my eighth-grade year and then presented as a gift to my beloved seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Woodford.

Mrs. Woodford saved my gift for forty years. It was returned to me after her death. It touches my heart that she kept it so long, but maybe I am making too much of it. This was in the pre-Kondo era and teachers are known to be notorious packrats. Plus, on close inspection, it seems the construction paper cover was never creased open as one might do to read the contents.

But in any case, the collection offers a look into my early writing self. Like my poem SNOWFLAKES, which includes these haunting lines:

                        People murdering, kids a’flirtering

                        And snowflakes still fall.

Were I Mrs. Woodford, I would have laughed out loud. Such heavy subject matter for a kid — plus she was death on what she called “desperation rhyme,” a term she may have coined with me in mind. But what I knew from her was nothing but respect.

Which I could have returned unreservedly except for her habit of tucking her Kleenex into her bra.

Mrs. Woodford created that necessary safety zone where writing – no matter how ridiculous – flourished. But she didn’t stop there. She loved to travel and her enthusiasm spilled over as we studied ancient civilizations. We chalked huge murals of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We memorized short pieces of poetry, which we recited together after the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song every morning.

We learned poems by heart that have nourished me ever since. To this day I cannot walk into the woods without intoning: This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks bearded with moss and in garments green stand like druids of eld, (from Longfellow’s Evangeline); or, in times of indecision, I find myself whispering these words from Hamlet: This above all to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

I was sitting in Mrs. Woodford’s class, watching the even loops of her handwriting slant their way across the blackboard, when we found out President Kennedy had been shot. The news came over the loudspeaker from the principal’s office. We looked to Mrs. Woodford for how to respond, how to make sense of this event. I remember that tears filled her eyes (which would undoubtedly lead her to reach into her bra for a Kleenex). She asked us to observe a minute of silence in face of this enormous tragedy. Then we sang God Bless America. The comfort of the right music at the right time. She taught us that, too.

I suppose it should be noted that Mrs. Woodford was not perfect. She overlooked it when John Klaverweiden sprayed air freshener to disperse the cooties every time Susan Edwards walked past his desk. She shamed Eddie Filiberti into crying in front of the class when she felt he was too braggy about a good grade.

But maybe that’s partly why I remember her with affection. She was a living, breathing, fallible human being, warts and all – in fact she did have a warty/mole thing on her left cheek – and for some reason, I knew she was on my side. She believed in me in a way that helped me believe in myself and, as it turned out, most importantly, my writing.

Research suggests that it only takes one encouraging teacher to make a writer. So I am wondering: what writing teacher made a difference for you?

FEELING YOUR WAY BACK

Here we are in a new year. I wonder if you, like me, are using this quiet Covid time to generate new writing projects?

The EMOTION door is one way into a new story. Many of my favorite picture books are powered by emotion – i.e. Where the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, The Rabbit Listened. A whole reason to read is to feel the emotion of the story. Why not cross the border to childhood and mine your own emotional geography for stories from your deepest sense of who you are, your particular take on the world?

For instance, the Zelda and Ivy series comes from my experience as the middle of five children. I earned my black belt in sibling rivalry. Those childhood incidents have provided material for six books about the fox sisters. Mostly I go for stuff that makes me laugh, but those long ago happenings evoke all five of the major emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and peevishness.

Swinging with my sisters, Placerville, CA, 1956.

It’s a matter of feeling your way back to where the good stuff is waiting and reconnecting with experiences that provoked big emotions; experiences you found funny or scary or exasperating or intriguing or hurtful as hell.

Zelda announcing Ivy’s swing tricks in the first Zelda and Ivy book.

Here are three exercises I have found useful:

1. Emotional event inventory: Look at the first ten years of your life in two or three year chunks. What significant events occurred in each chunk? Note events that hold emotion: times of great loss, disappointments, times of wonder, deep satisfactions, things that made you laugh. List objects, people, places you loved or hated or found scary or funny. Even if you are not an illustrator, it is helpful to draw this stuff, or at least describe it carefully in words, so you retrieve a mental picture – picture books are a visual medium. Then add the audio. Put the event on scene – write it in first person present tense, using dialogue and narration. Don’t be encumbered by the facts. Lie, embellish and shape your story into the best story it can be.

2. Gather evidence from family archives: Revisit home movies and photos, diaries and any other artifacts from your childhood that bring up emotion.

3. Research Your Own Life: Visit the old neighborhoods, talk to the kids you grew up with. Comb old newspapers and magazines from the places and times in which you were a child. This probably comes from my journalism background, but often research will present stories and backstories. Scratch around. It’s waiting to be discovered. You can tell something belongs in a story if it raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, as friend and fellow Seattle writer Brenda Guiberson taught me years ago. Pay attention. Some stuff is charged for some people. Who knows why? It¹s that emotional charge that will carry your story and connect to readers.

Of course, ideas are found in the present, too. In fact, think it is the synergy of experiences and observations across a lifetime that gives a story juice. Crafting a story is a way to make sense of it all: to savor and honor some memories, and to provide closure and put to rest others.

Here’s to a new year bursting with new work!