I remember the first book I wrote. I was in the first grade and used crayons to illustrate our Airedale and her 11 puppies, stapling the finished pages together. Wilsonville Primary School Librarian, Mrs. Plant, placed my book – boldly shouting my name on its cover – on a shelf in our library. I felt so proud. For after all, the library was already among my most favorite places.
Two weeks ago I met my new friend Jane at the Fiala Farms Annual Stafford Hamlet Family Fest. While chatting about my books, Jane asked me if I’d consider talking to her writing class at Sherwood High. I thought about it for less than half a second before blurting, “Of course!” Through email we agreed on a date which was yesterday. Now, I’m comfortable with teenagers – I love teens! I raised two, enjoyed their friends, and even frequently talk to this age group about workplace safety for my day (read this as paying) job. But talking to them as a writer? How cool was this opportunity: if you know me at all, you know how passionate I am about writing. And yet, I did start to wonder….what do I know? Last week I decided to check in with some of my writer friends via Twitter, the writers I know who teach teens. I asked them to share with me their “one tip.” Those tips naturally flowed with what I had to share during yesterday’s class discussion, and, yes, I promised the students I’d recap the tips in my blog, so here goes. Thanks to these fellow Oregon writers:
Benjamin Gorman (Don’t Read This Book, The Digital Storm, and others)
“Learn to read differently. You are a writer, so everything you read is by a peer who has something to teach you.”
“1. Only write about the things you care about.
2. Be incredibly honest.
3. Enjoy the shit out of it.
Mindy Hardwick (Seymour’s Secret, Weaving Magic, and others)
“Be honest. Tell the story you need to tell that belongs to you. The world is waiting to hear your voice.”
Evan Morgan Williams (Thorn, Canyons/Older Stories)
“The real work, and the gratification, comes in revision.”
Kate Ristau (Shadow Girl, Clockbreakers, and others)
“Write with abandon! Edit with coffee.”
As if on cue, prior to heading to Sherwood High I stopped in to visit Chapter Books and Coffee, a few miles south in the town of Newberg. For some time I had meant to drop in and ask this only bookstore in Newberg if perhaps they might carry a copy or two of Beyond the Ripples: a story that begins with the launch of a note in a bottle in a stretch of the Willamette in Newberg. (Do I get any extra points since I was too married on Newberg’s Parrett Mountain?) Because I am so attuned to the serendipitous nature of life, I wasn’t surprised that the one patron I struck up a conversation with just happened to have a son who also teaches English at Sherwood High. Later at the school, my friend Jane laughed knowingly when I told her – for she knows that Beyond the Ripples is about connections and synchronicity. I’m no longer surprised by the abundance of these occurrences in life.
And it was then that I had the privilege of spending 70 minutes with these young writers. As an early introduction I shared with them the spiral notebook I had grabbed at the last moment from the large stack of filled journals in my desk drawer. This was from 1978-79, my high school senior year. I read a short paragraph (which included the sentence, “You know, it’s a bunch of shit when people tell you high school’s the best time of your life!…..”). We talked about the power of writing, how we are the only one to know our own life journey, the therapeutic nature of writing, and writer’s block. At the end of our time together I asked them, honestly, who was getting bored? One brave person raised their hand – I think they were being truthful. I let them know that I was no expert on this, and I write because I must, and learn each day more about how to do it. I was reminded of those high school days of fun and anticipation and sadness and pressure and devastation. I walked into the parking lot feeling full.
And as if I needed a topper to the day, I had scheduled a lunch date with my fourth grade teacher, since I had taken a vacation day from work. The special teacher that I had only seen once since I was a fourth grader, and that decades ago and only in passing. The same teacher that I write about in My Music Man.
““I wish Mrs. Nelson hadn’t left to have a baby,” I said. “I really miss her.”My Music Man Chapter 12: Girl in a Boys’ World
Mrs. Nelson was the buffer between me and the fourth-grade boys I fought with. Two boys in particular: Mark and Craig. I competed hard against them on the kickball diamond. They teased me and I fought back. Mrs. Nelson told me sometimes boys did this when they liked you, but didn’t know a better way to act—nobody had ever told me this before. And Mrs. Nelson was our coolest teacher yet: she introduced us to “Feelin’ Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel, a song we were allowed to sing and dance to during the school music concert. It was the same year my parents were separated for three months, with Dad taking an apartment back in Portland. A tough year.“
In the midst of so much else, I am thankful for a day so full of life, love and friendship. What might be next, I wonder?