The Art of the Letter

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Maybe it was all the excitement in my house about the premier of Season 3  of Downton Abbey.  Or maybe it was the Christmas cards that I was putting away.  Perhaps it was the solitary time I had recently spent reviewing the notes from an old Victorian literature class.  Most likely, it was probably a combination of all three.  No matter what the cause, the effect on me was an impatience and frustration with our present systems of communication.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not about to spend the rest of my morning haranguing the merits of modern technology.  I am merely trying to point out that I fear we have forfeited some fundamental communication skills in the rush to adopt and welcome the newest gadgets into our lives.

Who can honestly deny that they still feel a little jolt of something – dare we call it happiness?- when we find, buried amidst the piles of bills and junk mail, a handwritten letter?  The silly notion that we are important enough for someone to take the time to write, in their own hand, a little note can make some of us positively giddy.  The effect of this little gift of thoughtfulness that we find in our mailboxes can leave us lightened for the entire day.  Texts, I’m afraid, do not leave us feeling that way.  Once we muddle our way through the egregious spelling mistakes and gratuitous happy face icons, we’re left with little more than a typed line of empty words, lacking thought, emotion, or grace.  Texts (and emails, for that matter,) are useful.  But, they need to be reserved for times when they can be just that.  USEFUL!  Period.

Now, to the Christmas card.  I’ll keep it brief.  Christmas cards (or holiday cards if you want me to be more politically correct,) can have a beautiful effect on the recipient.  Whether or not we care to see how much the children have grown that year or what you look like in a bathing suit, the effect of receiving a card is a positive one.  It makes the recipient feel important – even if we all know that we probably won’t be in contact with one another until next year’s card sending extravaganza.  However, if sending a card to a myriad of people that you would otherwise not converse with or even think about during the other 364 days of the year sends a feeling of dread through your innards, then, by all means, refrain from putting yourself out.  You’re not a bad person.  And, by all means, DO NOT succumb to the burgeoning group of tech savvy card givers who feel that an e-card is a thoughtful way of keeping in touch.  If you try to tell me that it’s just one more way you are doing your share to save the environment, I beg you, let me see your recycling bin.  I bet it’s half as full as it could be.  And don’t get me started on your monster truck in the driveway.

While I’m on the subject, thank you notes are not just tasteful.  They are necessary.  And by notes, I mean something handwritten on nice paper with a STAMP on it.  Even if it’s only being delivered two houses down.  Common civility should not suffer the wrath of the smart phone.

The art of the letter was once exactly that.  An art form.  A crafted piece of someone’s creativity and imagination, put on paper that reflected the style of the person signing their name.

It’s time we take back the opportunity to let people know we are thinking about them in a beautiful, heartfelt, and gracious way.  Go ahead, Facebook them, send them a tweet, text a little emoticon of happiness.  But, don’t forget the letter.  It is the only simple form of written communication that we still have available to us that can brighten up even the darkest of days. (And it helps to make sure that the postal service doesn’t go belly up.  At least not this year!)

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kcoleary:

A fine lady that I have the privelege to know has started something wonderful. Take a look!!

Originally posted on Be someone's hero. No cape required.:

One of the reasons, I loved going to my grandparents’ was their big wooden box in the basement filled with toys and books. There was one thing in particular that I loved—a giant picture book of Little Red Riding Hood. I’d toss the toys aside to find it and sit myself right down on that cold concrete floor to flip through its pages. Although I had toys, I had no books of my own at home.

After publishing One for the Murphys, (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, May, 2012) a children’s novel about a tough girl who is changed by a loving foster family, I’ve found that few foster children have their OWN books. Yes–most foster parents provide books but for a foster child to OWN a book? This is rare. I want to change that.

I know as an author, a teacher, a parent, and a former child that reading opens…

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kcoleary:

PiBoIdMo has begun! Happy November!

Originally posted on Writing for Kids (While Raising Them):

Wake up, kidlit campers! Rise and shine! It’s time to register for Picture Book Idea Month!

I hope you’re ready to take the 30-picture-book-ideas-in-30-days challenge!

Need to know more before you sign up? Read this.

Those who sign-up for Picture Book Idea Month will be eligible for prizes—like feedback from one of four literary agents and critiques from picture book editors! Plus more to come!

To register for PiBoIdMo 2012, you must do three things:

1. Subscribe to this blog via email.  (Click “Follow Tara’s Blog” button in left column.)

2. Leave your full name in the comments of this post. The form will ask for your email address. Please enter it so I can contact you if need be. (Your address won’t be published and I won’t use it for any other purpose.) PLEASE LEAVE ONLY ONE COMMENT. DO NOT REPLY TO COMMENTS.

3. Display…

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Is it still Monday?

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Have I slipped into an alternate universe?  Is there a bigger power out there playing jokes on me?  Am I on Candid Camera?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, but I’m starting to get extremely suspicious.

After my ugly Monday morning, I decided to pick myself up off the pity floor and get back to work.  Seven hours of revisions and formatting later, I was ready to throw another dart.  But, it was time to get the kids off the bus.  Submissions would have to wait.

This morning, I edited one last time for good luck, checked, double – checked, and triple – checked the address and hit print.  Nothing.  Not a peep.

I checked the power cord.  Plugged in and ready to go.

I checked the paper supply.  Full.

I checked with my computer.  Yes, the printer was enabled.

I tried again.

Nothing.

I banged, thumped, jiggled, and slapped that computer.  No response.

I rebooted, disabled, and turned off my computer and printer.

I counted slowly to twenty and turned them back on.

I hit print.  Silence.

I called tech support.

One hour of precious time slipped away.  Jared, the tech guy, took remote control of my computer.  He clicked, double-clicked, opened, and closed dozens of icons.  He downloaded, uploaded, and reloaded.  He hit print.  Nothing.

My new printer is in the mail.

Submissions will have to wait.  Again.

It must be Monday

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To all you writers out there, I need some sympathy.  Today, just five minutes ago, I found out that the story that I have been researching, writing, editing, and revising for nearly two years, has been told by someone else.  And it just got published.  OUCH!

This isn’t the first time this has happened.  A second story – not one that I had finished to the point of final revisions, but one that was definitely en route there, was published earlier this year.  Again, not with my name on the cover.

To make matters worse, my baby, the one that has been going out on submission field trips for the past six months, has been told in such a magnificent manner that it is actually being nominated for AWARDS!  AARRGGH!

Okay.  Enough self-pity.  I’m off to write.  More words.  Racing against time.

I’m feeling a little deflated this morning.

No.  That’s a lie.  I’m feeling VERY deflated this morning.  But, write I must.  The ideas keep flowing and they need to be heard.  It’s just so hard to have to let go of the one that was most special.

Ce la vie.  Into the box it goes.

Congratulations to the authors who beat me to the punch.

What is it with kitchen sinks?

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Ideas just flow out of them.  Literally.

A friend of mine confessed that the idea for her novel came to her while washing dishes.  There it was, the first line, trickling out of the faucet water.  I thought she was so lucky.

This morning, it happened to me.  There I was, standing at the sink, washing dishes, when the first line to a novel tumbled out of my faucet.  I knew I had to catch it before it zoomed down the drain but I was paralyzed.  This wasn’t the first line of a novel that I wanted to write.  This was the first line of a novel that would get me into a lot of trouble.

I thought of a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:  “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.  You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

I turned off the faucet and turned on my computer.  Then I typed that line.  My stomach sank.  I typed it and I printed it.  Then I put it away in a box where no one but me would see it.

And, now, here’s my point.  Where is the line that an author must cross in order to write a real truth vs. just a good story?  What kind of courage, or is it stupidity, does an author need to commit to a decision like that?  And, more importantly, what is it that allows one author to take that crucial can’t-turn-back-now step deep into the guts of a story while another stays stymied on the sidelines, refusing to write that truth out of loyalty for the small handful of people who will probably never read it but who will be offended if they did?

And, what’s the big deal anyway?

Truth is perception, right?  Most people see truth through their own individual lenses.  We rationalize and analyze and hypothesize until we, finally, accept or reject a truth based on how we feel about it or how we want to feel about it.  Truthful stories can reveal themselves in many different ways:  raw, comical, surreal, honest, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking, or just plain dull.  Readers filter the words through their own experiences.  Offensive to one might be inconsequential to another.  So, if everyone perceives a truth differently according to the personal experiences and psychology that each reader brings to the page, why is it so darned hard for some authors to expose their version of a story with honesty?  Why do I feel that I shouldn’t, or I mustn’t? Why can’t I write my version, which is real to me, without feeling guilt or anxiety over the result that my words may or may not deliver?

I’m not sure when or if I’ll take that sentence out of the box.  I suppose that if it wants to be heard, it will let me know.  For now, I’ll just sit tight and remember to keep my mind open to any other sentences that might come flowing into my kitchen sink.

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kcoleary:

Here’s a post that I found today that I feel is definitely worth a read. Any Silverstein fan will probably agree!

Originally posted on clburdettwrites:

We build our world on axioms; common ground principles on how we should live our lives. By comparing adult axioms to Shel Silverstein’s poetry for children, the line between adult and child fades away. Lessons learned in childhood are still imperative for adult living. According to Robert Fulghum (1988), in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, kindergarten values are the “basics” to living an honest and worry-free life. By sharing with others, taking daily naps, and eating something sweet for dinner, we become our better selves. Today, kindergarten values are lost on most adults. With the invention of the automobile, alcohol, and sex, adults tend to forget they are still, in some ways, children. And it does not matter how much money or experience one has in life, they can still open the works of Shel Silverstein and identify with its wisdom.

Shel Silverstein (who…

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Blank Pages

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I used to worry a lot about my daughter’s outlook on life.  So pessimistic, I thought!  Unrealistic expectations. Frustrated with the “inadequacies of life.”  People, to put it plainly, disappointed her.

I worried that she would grow to find her life filled with unhappiness.  I tried to persuade her to look for the proverbial silver lining in her days, to find a spark of joy in boredom, to habitually seek out the positive.  She resisted.  Or, so I thought.

This morning, all my fear for what I believed to be her inevitable misery-filled life vanished.

We were at our local coffee shop sharing a private half-hour before school (enhanced by hot chocolate with extra whipped cream.)

She was at ease.  Happy for the surprise date that I invited her on.  Positively giddy about the whipped cream dangling from her nose.

We spoke about school, books, writing, poetry, and, ultimately, the creative process.

I have always admired hers.  She is fearless when it comes to her writing.  Words pour from her.  She does not worry about the consequences of her sentences.  Perhaps she is unaware of them.  For such a tiny, little girl, her stories are deep and, well, big.

When she writes, she is immersed in her mind’s world.  She pays no mind to the goings-on about her.  She has found her rabbit hole.  When she emerges, she carries with her a creation that she is, surprisingly, unattached to.  Dropping her pages on the table, or maybe even on the floor, she skips off to play with her Barbies.  Her writing is done.  It is in the past.  She rambles forward, waiting, confidently, for inspiration’s lightening bolt to strike again.  She does not worry that it will not come.

My writing process is the polar opposite.  Ideas flow, yet I struggle to surpass the fear that my words won’t adequately convey my message.  I conjure, ponder, fret, and procrastinate.  I think, study, research, and doubt.  I spend hours, weeks, sometimes months, crafting my story in my mind, refusing to commit it to paper until it’s fully cooked.  Even then, I torture my work with endless revisions and edits.  I feel guilty about all the paper I’m wasting.  Forests of trees sacrificed for my fledgling sentences.

We talked about how different each artist’s creative process can be.

“A blank page frightens me,” I admit.  “All those possibilities.”

“All those possibilities!!!” she exclaims, eyes sparkling.

“The first word is always the hardest for me,” I say.

For her, writing that first word is akin to being the person lucky enough to step in the snow before anyone else.

“Blank pages make me shiver,” I continue.

“I love blank pages!” she laughs.

Perhaps she’s not the one I should have been worrying about.

Developing Character

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kcoleary:

Here’s a post that I read today that resonated with an issue I’ve been dealing with: Character Development! Hope you all find this helpful, too!!!!

Originally posted on The Writer Within You:

This has been a great challenge for me since I embarked on writing my first story.   Up until this point I have only written non-fiction and primarily for education.  So when at last I developed the gumption to try to write the story that had been visiting my mind for roughly a decade I did not know exactly where to start with character development.

When I taught, one of the skills I addressed in every novel I read with my students was characterization.  So I treated my story the same way.  I began with a t-chart of negative and positive character traits of my main character and two sidekicks, just as I did with my students.  However, with my students, they had to support each character trait with evidence from the story.  I didn’t have evidence yet.

This wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I considered researching personality types.  I came…

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Lies, bribes, threats, and tears

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Our daughters have been homeschooled for the last four years.  This year, we all decided that it might be a good idea to try public school – for an adventure, to compare the two types of schooling, to broaden their horizons a bit, to give mom a much-needed break and some time to re-invent herself and her goals.

They went to their first day of school last week and then we took them out of school for the next two days – (we had planned our family get-away before they enrolled and it didn’t seem fair to miss out on it!)  I know, things are not starting off on the right foot, but, one of the marks of homeschooled children is that they easily adapt to changes.  So, today was their second day of school.

Bob the bus driver picked them up about an hour ago.  Since then, I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how in the world I’m going to get my thoughts out into this blog without offending people.  I don’t think I can.  So, at the risk of sounding like a political zealot, I have decided, after much hesitation, to put my current thoughts on schooling out there.  Here they are.

Schooling is a system of lies, bribes and threats that serves to keep everyone in line.  Here is what I mean:

Our day began at 6:30.

One daughter woke up and began getting washed and dressed for school.  Wow!  That was easy!  Until, I saw her watery eyes.

“Don’t worry, honey.  We know this is a big change, but it will be great.  I promise!  School is a ton of fun!”  (LIE!)

Our other daughter woke up with the birds, but wouldn’t get out of bed.  Grasping the spindles of her headboard with her kung-fu grip, she vehemently refused to go to school.

“It’s awful!  A lot of the kids were rude to the teacher – they didn’t listen!  The art teacher is mean – she made us spend more than half the period testing markers to see which ones had dried out!  The cafeteria stinks!”

“Honey, you have to go to school.  It’s the law.  Now that you’ve enrolled, you need to show up.  I’ll tell you what, get up and get yourself dressed for the day.  When you’re ready, I’ll have a nice, fresh blueberry muffin waiting for you in the kitchen.”  (BRIBE!)

“I’m not going.”

I called in the big guns.  I enlisted my husband to go upstairs and coax her out of bed and into the school bus.

From downstairs in the kitchen, all was silent.  I took this to mean that his calm nature was effectively turning our determined child into a compliant one.  Then, I heard -

“If you don’t go to school, you can’t go to your dance class tonight.  No school = no dance!”  (THREAT!)

It was only 7:00 A.M.   We were all broken.

Eventually, she got out of bed and managed to get ready for school.  Not, I can assure you, without putting up a good verbal assault on the truancy laws of our state and the effectiveness of coercion upon the behavioral development of children.  (If you are thinking about homeschooling and think that there might be a time in the future when you decide to send your children back to “regular school,”  remember this:  Homeschooling children have a lot of time on their hands.  Time to play, create, explore, and form powerful arguments for just about anything that they deem worthy of investigating.  They excel in debate and often leave their parents dumbfounded and tongue-tied.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you!)

After Bob the bus driver dutifully picked up our girls, I began to think about this school thing.

I remember my years at school.  Some of them were, indeed, wonderful.  Three of them, to be exact.  The majority of them were, more or less, unremarkable.  A few of them were torture.

The teachers all did a fantastic job of teaching and inspiring me.  Some were strict, others permissive.  Some were young, others old.  Some were creative, some were “by-the-book.”  All in all, the quality of the educators assigned to me was superior.  It wasn’t the teachers that made school undesirable.  It was, well, schooling.

School boards are pressured to increase the quality of our schools by the taxpayers of the town.  More computers!  Better pay for more qualified teachers!  New books!  White boards!  Digital payment options in the cafeteria!  If the taxpayers don’t get what they ask for, the quality of our schools and, ultimately, our tax-base will be compromised.  (THREAT!)

Curriculums are adopted to meet the regulations of federal and state mandates that were created by teams of educators, researchers, politicians and publishing houses. (BRIBES!)

Superintendents and principals are encouraged to work in a bi-partisan manner with the teachers, parents, students, taxpayers and boards of education. If they don’t keep the boat from rocking, their jobs are in jeopardy. (THREAT!)

Teachers must create plans to meet the diverse educational and emotional needs of twenty-five students while satisfying national curriculum standards and parent expectations.  This is what they are getting paid for.  This is what they went to college for.  This is what they signed up for! (LIE!)

Parents must comply to school rules and expectations.  Volunteering isn’t required but it is encouraged (HINT, HINT.)  Allowing your child to skip class to see a half-price performance of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Swan Lake has negative results on the classroom as a whole as well as on your child’s academic performance. (THREAT!)

Encourage your child to practice that tuba that she comes home with every Friday afternoon.  All your hard work and encouragement will pay off in spades when you hear her play it at the spring concert.  (BRIBE! and LIE!)

If you don’t study, you won’t get good grades.  If you don’t get good grades, your parents will be disappointed. (THREAT!)

Behave according to our rules or you will find yourself in the principal’s office. (THREAT!)

Those of you who remain quiet throughout the entire assembly will not have to do any homework tonight. (BRIBE!)

Whoever talks during silent reading time will lose ten minutes of their recess.  (THREAT!)

You must remember the value of Pi – you will need to use it one day.  (LIE!)

The way I see it, there is an awful lot of people complying with the rules and expectations of others.  Such is life.

I have to wonder.  Is is necessary for our educational system to function this way? School is a precursor for the big adult world that we all must face.  I do not think that it should be all puffy clouds and sunshine.  I do not think that there should be an absence of consequences for disrespectful or negligent behavior.  I do not think that children should be sheltered from society’s expectations.  But, I do find myself questioning the way in which we allow our schools to enforce these rules.  Not just on the children, but on the adults as well.  Is a system of lies, bribes, and threats an easy way out?  Don’t we owe it to ourselves to conjure up a more positive system?  Unrealistic? Probably.  But, it’s nice to dream.

At the end of the day, I know this:

There are children in hundreds of towns and cities in this country who will cry today.  Out of frustration, fear, anger, or exhaustion.

There are parents in hundreds of towns and cities in this country who will cry today.  Out of frustration, fear, anger, or exhaustion.

There are teachers in hundreds of towns and cities in this country who will cry today.  I’m betting mostly out of frustration and exhaustion.

Perhaps I’m unrealistic.  Or, just frustrated and exhausted.  I’m hoping that tomorrow morning will be a little easier.  I’m determined not to succumb to the ease of dolling out lies, bribes, and threats in order to make my children comply to my expectations.  I will try harder tomorrow.  In the meantime, I would love to hear from all of you out there.  What are your thoughts?