Richard Foster and Holy Week

Subs for my classes in place, I drove four hours last weekend to Calvin College in Michigan for a writer’s conference. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived in the dark, without my glasses to twist and turn my way down the roads of Grand Rapids which are marked by vexing u-turns and SE, SW indicators on every road sign. By the time I found the Prince Conference Center, the whole first day of speakers was over, everything but the poetry reading which proved to be a packed out delight. “Fog, fog, fog, fog, fog,” read the professor from China in an accent that left me wondering if he was saying “fog” or “frog?”

The morning sun melted the last of the roadside snow piles by noon the next day as I sat taking notes, listening to Bret Lott (Jewel), poet Luci Shaw (bought her book, Harvesting Fog) and Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline).  All worth the admission price of the conference alone and a similar exhortation ran through their talks. LISTEN. “The most important thing a writer does is listen.” (Foster) “Morning by morning he awakens my ears to listen.” (Isaiah, paraphrased by Shaw).  These three talks filled six pages of my journal and motivated me to stand in line for thirty minutes waiting for Luci Shaw to sign a collection of her poems. I was full and ready to go home, but didn’t want to miss Anne Lemott who was the evening’s main speaker. Hoping to decompress, I sat in on a run through of a new play on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, lots of singing in Latin. Once again, a theme of the play…Listen. Listen for what God has specifically for you and then do it. By now I was getting the message. My writing life needs more listening so let’s start next week, in Holy Week.

During a Saturday session, Richard Foster was being interviewed by his son Nate. I was already tired of listening and almost skipped it. My listening stamina must be pretty low if I feel exhausted after comfortably sitting in and taking notes on an eight hour day of star studded conference speakers. After grabbing some solitude and revising a poem in the Arts Center balcony, I forced myself to unplug and go listen, again. Nate asked his dad, “What does a life look like fully formed in Christ?” Without hesitating he spoke, from the edge of the stage, long gray pony-tail dangling down the backside of his blue blazer, “Penetrated throughout with love. Someone who can see the good in all. Possessed by hope. Enabled by the Holy Spirit to overcome evil with good. And the ability to laugh.”

So simple and straight forward, but so difficult.  In only 30 words, Foster had set a course, a tacking wind on the breath of the Holy Spirit, into Holy Week, back to my writing desk and beyond.  May you all listen, hear God’s voice over these coming days and then follow Him into the future. Happy Easter!

A Letter to Students and Writers

Dear Beloved Students,

We are looking at the finish line and it isn’t even Spring Break! Yet, in less than three months you will be frolicking in summer splendor and I will be promoting my novel which comes out June 1st. Here are some thoughts to finish the year with a flourish.

Give as much attention to revising as creating – March is creative writing month and April is poetry so you will be tempted to whip through these “easy” units because you all love to write stories. Please don’t. I’m just finishing up with the copy editor on my novel. This means it’s been through too many revisions for me to count, well over fifty. I’ve learned a few things along the way. If I tell some of  them to you now, you will save yourself much agony in the future.

1.  Remember to save your work. The late night scream and subsequent crying because you forgot to save something brings a ton of stress upon the household. I’ve forgotten that pdf’s (read only), made corrections on them and then tried to save it but you can’t save on “read only” files. Save the work before you begin revising so you don’t wake up in the morning and find an empty black hole is waiting for you in My Docs.

2.  When you were little, it was show and tell, now its show don’t tell. Robert Louis Stevenson shows us how it’s done in The Black Arrow.The path went down and down into the marsh, till he lost sight of the neighboring landmarks but Kettley windmill on the knoll behind him, the extreme top of Tunstall Forest far below. On either hand there were great fields of blowing reeds and willows, pools of water shaking in the wind and treacherous bogs, as green as emerald, to tempt and betray the traveler.” Can you see the movie behind your eyelids? (All credit to Mrs. Michael.)

3.  Don’t head hop from one character’s POV to another character’s POV and then to someone else or we will all be so confused, even the characters. Know who is telling your story and stick to it. Keep your tenses consistent.

4.  Read your work aloud. Read it to someone you trust and someone who knows nothing about it. Your baby brother who is wandering around with his Thomas the Tank engine in his sticky hand is a good listener, but don’t count on him for feedback. If there is no one else, he’ll do. A group of three students in my Core 201 class are working on a novel and they share their work with each other at lunch. Who do you trust to share your creativity with? Find those people.

5. I’ve been working on this for twenty minutes and I just saved it. Ahhh…peace. Oh wait, let me revise this list one more time.

Plan right now what you are going to read over Spring Break.  Read whatever you want. You are free from your reading list! Pick out something you’ve been saving for when you don’t have to read a required book. Take a break from Middle English or the Ancient Romans and pick something FUN. I’ll be reading Texas Rich. You know I’m obsessed with all things Texas. Do you know why? Remember, you all agreed to read a thousand books before you write your first one! Who said that? Linda Sue Park, right- good for you for remembering. Here is her website if you don’t remember who she is: www.lindasuepark.com If you don’t know what to read over Spring Break, read her book, A Single Shard.I look forward to our remaining creative months together. Happy revising!

Forever yours,

Mrs. P.

The Common Core and an Uncommon Bookstore

Parents are figuring it out. States are begging to delay implementation. Radio talk shows are screaming with people who “had no idea” and now that they are finding out the truth about Common Core, they are rightfully terrified. As a writer and writing and literature teacher, the reality that classic literature is being all but stripped from the curriculum of American education makes me breathe a sigh of relief that I teach in two institutions who applaud teaching the classics as a method of honing critical thinking and the development of ideas. Our own government, with the help of Bill and Melinda Gates, doesn’t agree.  So they came like a thief in the night to our states offering them more Title 1 money if they quickly adopted Common Core. Most could not resist the temptation and the line that higher uniform standards will certainly result in higher quality, more competitive students. They came to South Carolina when their state legislature wasn’t even in session, so there would be no chance for review and debate. Although they adopted it, they are now reconsidering. Governor Nikki Haley’s said:

“While I understand and agree with looking outside South Carolina for ideas to improve educational outcomes, I firmly believe that our government and our people should retain as much local control over programs as possible.”

All this brings us to A Book Above, the new bookstore in Elmhurst, IL. The brainchild of single mom Carolyn Carillo, who needed to make a living for her children. Not many of us would turn to selling books if we were in dire circumstances, but like Nikki Haley, Ms. Carillo is a brave woman. On a recent frostbitten Saturday afternoon, I led a fiction workshop for a table full of hungry, creative minds ages 8 – 13 seated in the upper level of her store. We were surrounded by great books. Through the Socratic Method we brainstormed our way through the Five Elements of Fiction using a black and white illustration of a house blasting off into the sky on a dark, wintry evening. Every child contributed to our roundtable and at the end of the hour each one had the outline of their own short story and plenty to smile about.  All this happened because Carolyn had the wherewithal and belief that children on a cold, Saturday afternoon would venture out with their parents and grandparents to a new bookstore to learn how to write.

A Book Above, the schools where I teach as well as the brave states of Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska all know that good education comes locally, by those who have a passion to educate the students closest to them. Programs that are developed by the people who sit day after day doing the work and seeing the lightbulb go off when the concept takes root. These are the people who know what works and what doesn’t and the farther away it drifts from the hearts of the people and their educators, the more maligned and misinformed it becomes.

So if you are looking for an alternative to Common Core being crammed down the throats of your children and you share in the desire to protect their hearts, check out The Greenhouse at www.the-greenhouse.com  or Home School University at www.homeschooluniversity.org  and the new bookstore, A Book Above at 136 Vallette Street in Elmhurst IL, just behind Elijah’s Coffeehouse. In all these places, the classics are being upheld as a mantle for the development of critical thinking, engaging ideas and hearts. We are busy creating and teaching curriculum that molds these young servant leaders into the stewards of America’s future –without Title 1 money.

Your Manuscript is Done! Now What?

I’m a slow writer. In creating my novel, I followed author Linda Sue Park’s advice, “Write something every day and then first thing the next day, review and revise it, then keep writing.” Sometimes the next day does not lead to writing, just revising. Or, the whole section might be deleted and you start over. Good writing takes time. A favorite professor at Trinity University told us, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.” I’m sure Hemingway or someone famous said that first, but Frank Kerznowski gets the credit today.

After countless hours of living with your characters, the time inevitably comes when you need to share them with someone who can be trusted, someone who is also a writer. These professional friends become your “first readers.” I asked for feedback from a few of them and they so kindly complied, by sending a red line edit back to me or an email with their thoughts. Because A Minor (my novel) intensely weaves classical music into the plot, I asked a dear Redbud Writer’s Guild friend if she would assess the manuscript from a musical perspective. She was a piano performance major in college and she had plenty of wise contributions and questions for me to think through like, Tchaikovsky vs. Chopin concerto choices? What to do about that? Go back to the desk. These comments invoke the need for more research which leads to more revising than anticipated. I fell in love with Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto as a result.

A manuscript group is invaluable. In my suburban world this looks like a bunch of well dressed women who meet once a month to drink wine, eat low calorie food, laugh and cry over the work presented and then tear your work to shreds. Of course, you’ve known these women for years so everything they share is worthy of your ear and heart. In the group, there should be some more experienced writers than you are and some less experienced. One of the best critiques that came to me from this group was, “She is having a miscarriage on the bathroom floor. Don’t tell me that in one line, tell me all about it. What happened before, what happens after. How was she feeling in that moment?” Because they are women, they will think about your work from a feminine perspective so make sure some of your first readers are men as well, seek balance.

Once your work has survived these rounds in the ring, you are ready for “Joe Plumber.” I found it insightful to receive feedback from someone who was not a literature major, does not write, does not talk about T.S.Eliot at the dinner table, but does read A LOT. What would the average reader tell someone else about your manuscript? I wanted to know. Listen to them. They probably won’t email a detailed summary of comments, but they will tell it to you straight. Revising will be needed after you hear from them. Now you are ready to seek out a real editor who will comb through your manuscript and fix your writing deficits. Mine fell mostly in the realm of point-of-view, too many people speaking and thinking in a chapter. Because this is my first novel and I believed in the story, I decided to pay someone who specialized in fiction editing to do this. It added a couple more months to the writing process, but it put the manuscript in a place of readiness to send out to potential agents and publishers. That is where the fun really begins!

Who is She?

Have you met the Proverbs 31 woman? Her description has always evoked feelings of awe and annoyance. Sewing late into the night by a lamp that does go out, gorgeous toned arms planting a vineyard, a prominent husband, self-designed purple clothes and children that get up in the morning and praise her? All of that sounds like an unattainable biblical ideal.

One Proverbs 31 woman does exist and she lives on the Amazon River. A few years ago a band of 14 folks from our church braved a missions trip in July on the Amazon. We lived on a boat, helped build a church, ministered to children, slept in hammocks and prayed we wouldn’t get sick. Our boat captain’s wife, Virginia, became our adopted mother. She rose in the dark for her quiet time with the Lord and then began preparing our food for breakfast. Working in a ship’s galley that was about three by four feet, she quietly went about smiling and chopping her way through the day.

In her “free” time, she helped us on the construction site, mixing cement and tamping down dirt with her bare feet. At days end, after serving all of us a not-to-be-duplicated fish soup, she held her husband’s hand and laughed with him as we all played Train Dominoes. She didn’t play, just contentedly sat beside him delighting in the fun he was having. We would worship together singing in Portuguese and English and she was filled with freedom and joy in her Savior, whether she knew the language or not. She had the capacity to love us like her own children with barely a spoken word. Being in her quiet, loving presence was like being with Jesus. I’ve thought a lot about Virginia since the Amazon and concluded that her transient home, a heart on a river boat is one of the perfect homes for him because, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have their nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matthew 18:19-21.

Virginia is living in the light of John 14:23, “If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching. My father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” She has daily made her heart his dwelling place and thereby abides in and creates a home from that place. The home of her heart emanates the love of the Father. She has learned to keep him at the center because everything around her is always changing i.e. new boats, new teams, new river communities to visit, new crews on the boats, yet because she makes her heart home his each day she is able to love us all as her own children. Although women in America don’t live in these circumstances, everything around us is constantly changing as well.

Who do you know that is a Proverbs 31 woman? Be on the lookout for her, watch and learn from her ways. Christ’s home in us enables us to effectively cultivate a home for many others as well. Virginia was able to do that without even speaking English, but she did wear a purple shirt.

Simplicity Over A Tub Full of Memory

purple-flowerThank you to all who wrote notes of encouragement to me about creating my daughter’s scrapbook for her graduation, but it’s not going to happen by Saturday.  While delving into the tubs full of construction paper art and cheesy class photos, the amount of time needed to turn this into an artful masterpiece was not available. The emotional fortitude needed to complete it without being overcome by nostalgic sadness was also not available. So, a simpler method became the logical choice…write a poem from my own stored collection of moments.

While visiting colleges in Texas over Spring Break 2012, an early morning moment of startling beauty presented itself along I-35. Unfortunately, my daughter was asleep and missed it entirely so I’ve decided to give this moment to her for her high school graduation gift, along with a far too expensive bottle of Vera Wang’s Princess perfume. We all encounter these “unforgettable moments,” but then we forget them. Carry around a tiny journal in your pocket, use your iphone, find your own way to record them so later when the stars align just right, you can capture the image and share it. With so much digital waste filling space, it feels good to step back and write something down on paper, hold it in your crafty hands and then pass it on. A moment missed, but later realized can be a simple gift of love.

Bluebonnet Girl
College visits come, a prerequisite to growing up,
while garden tea parties fade as seasons extinguish
alongside summer camps, baby ballet slippers, reading logs and AP tests.
The future is wide open on
I-35 north.
Open handed sky, arching this
Texas highway with
a ribboned morning
of March mist,
unveiling sun glinting streams,
upon cattle backs.
Live Oaks stretching out their green shoot shadows
against clammy red clay.
6:30 a.m. and you’re sleeping through it.
Acres of bluebonnets set a cool backdrop
behind your snowy white profile,
fresh faced, mouth dangling, head bobbing, damask hair cascading
freely into the unknown.
Your dreams float across the morning,
like a pale arabesque,
too beautiful to miss,
waiting for the Welcome Center to come.

Scrapbooking First Position

danceWhile emptying the dishwasher yesterday I started crying. The time has come to carry up from the basement the Target tub of memories and create my daughter’s high school graduation scrapbook. All of the coffee filter umbrellas which remind us “April showers bring May flowers” are about to get arranged on a page with the felt lettered headline, The Ark Preschool. Endless pink ribbons from her first pointe shoes to the ones she had signed by A.B.T.’s Gillian Murphy are waiting for me, but I’m not ready. One daughter, one lifetime, clipped and glued together to be wrapped and handed over on her graduation day. Parenting takes physical, spiritual and emotional fortitude and saying good-bye is the hardest part. My running partner reminded me of this on Tuesday when I met her in the parking lot and she was crying about sending her son off to college and he is going to college down the street! It is never easy. We jogged down the Prairie Path reminding ourselves that it is such a blessing when they come home again to visit, both knowing that although this is true, it isn’t the same. We reminded ourselves that God wants it this way. We all grow up together and move through our stages of life in order to be ready to accept what he has for us in each one. Separation anxiety in adults is not attractive.
So, I’ll keep planting seeds in my seed trays and wait for tiny things to grow, all the while reminding myself that the flower doing her homework in our kitchen is a beautiful gift which has to be shared with the world. Ouch! Life is hard and the Target tub is calling.