Friday, October 29, 2010
Involved with the toy industry for over 25 years, Barbie has been near and dear to my heart. At Mattel, I originally interviewed for the position of Barbie accessories designer. Finally landing in the Girls Dolls and Plush Department, my office was next to the Barbie designers, who became my good friends.
At first, I was worried that the book was going to be another Barbie bashing or, on the other side of the spectrum, full of Barbie fluff.
After reading The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, I have to say "Bravo" to Tanya Lee Stone! The message that stands out to me is that girls can do anything. And, I believe that exact phrase was a Mattel advertising tagline one year. Ruth Handler persevered in so many ways - by making things work when everyone said no, by crushing the stereotypical '50s housewife image, by recognizing the new TV advertising medium, etc.
March of last year, Barbie turned 50 and on my blog I wrote about my own personal love of Barbie. Regarding Barbie's negative stereotype:
Grandma cut off some of her own hair and glued it onto Barbie's private parts. Yup. This is how an adult saw Barbie - a grown-up mature woman. To me, Barbie was years of the best play imaginable. The creation of Barbie's life in my mind was priceless.
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie is a five-star interesting nonfiction read for girls of all ages. The flow of the book is seamless from the beginnings of Ruth Handler's imagination, through the process of Barbie's rising star. This includes the impact of the revolution of plastic manufacturing, the embracing of diversity, Barbie as an art form, and, of course, the controversies - peppered with fabulous, thought-provoking quotes from Barbie fans and critics.
As a child, my Barbie play was a treasure-trove of stories and adventures. Barbie's house and town was a mixture of the family couch and lots of blocks and boxes. Barbie's clothes fascinated me - I loved her bright, blue patent leather coat and neon go-go dress. And, as for my self image, my mom told me that I was prettier than all the girls on her soap operas.
Toy and doll history can be used in the classroom to support curriculum in Social Studies, and American and European History. Kids can relate to toys and dolls. Last November in my Play and Creativity in the Classroom presentation at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair, I shared with teachers how to combine toys and play with social studies, science, and math curriculums. In my I.N.K. post last year, Interesting Nonfiction and Toys, I shared a variety of toy-related nonfiction books.
Last year when my ten-year-old son was having a difficult time picking an appropriate book for his class nonfiction unit, I handed him Toys! Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions by Don Woulffson - now his favorite book.
I say, give them something that they can relate to - and I know most kids can relate to toys... and Barbies.
Speaking of fun...
Have to mention that I was recently asked to act as Consulting Editor for Appleseeds Let's Play Issue. I'm also writing some extremely fun articles for the issue... almost doesn't feel like work. And, isn't that what it's all about? Having fun with whatever we do?
Thursday, October 28, 2010
One thing that many folks don’t know about me— unless they’ve seen one of my keynotes— is that I am a photographer. I’ve been taking photos since I was 11. Decades of travel have given me a library of 60,000 wildlife and landscape photos from Madagascar to Michigan. But until recently, they only appeared as small spot photos in my book. Words are a passion and I’ve been working professionally mostly in that realm; it wasn’t until scanners and iphoto became available that I could efficiently organize my photo content.
Still, even though I’m now doing several books illustrated entirely with my photos, I’m not sure I’d say I’m a master photographer. I’d say I can get 98% on a photo. Solid focus, composition, inspired subject, and sometimes fortunate timing. But then, there’s that 2%. Ah, that last 2%. That’s what takes time–gobs of time. Most of a photographer’s time.
What does that extra 2% look like? Take a peek at the kingfisher diving photos/article by Andy Rouse. Click on the photos to see larger versions of his exquisite work. The dripping bird clutching the fish. The water droplets. The water entry. Ahhhh. You are there.
That last 2% is what makes a master photographer. That extra boost of quality is what takes the most skill and preparation and dedication. It’s the days/weeks/months spent in those waders, setting up blinds, studying behavior to catch just the right moment. Those photos are nonfiction dreams. They are beauty. I think lots of us, with our fancy digital cameras, great lenses can do such consistent good work that we’ve forgotten what GREAT work is in the photo world.
Sometimes I pause to look at the Outdoor Photographer’s Network (http://www.naturephotographers.net/) just to appreciate what photo artisans on this level can do. The group includes passionate amateurs and professionals; some of the photos are glorious.
What does it take to get that extra 2% in the world of photography? Andy Rouse describes the work he did just to set up and photograph kingfishers on the nest in this article.
And his preparations are relatively tame compared to the stories you hear about photographers trying to photograph elusive bears or cats.
Jeff and I sometimes come across these same folks in far flung birding hotspots. Like us, they know the right time of year, the right marsh to photograph a Blackpoll Warbler, or whatever else is “in season.” They are putting in the time.
Meanwhile, I am putting in my time, to do that extra 2% on my nonfiction writing. Oh, I can get to the 98%. Solid content, specific details, fluid writing. But the extra something—the voice, the surprising details, the joy, the propulsion in the writing—is what is sometimes elusive, even for seasoned writers like me. That’s where skill, passion, time, and pure doggedness are needed.
In the last few days, my 2% has been some endmatter for a book no editor has seen, and perhaps no one will every buy. Who knows? It is not finished yet. I’m not letting it out of my hands until I can make it sing.
Oh, that main text came in a great whoosh, like a gift, fully formed. But I want more for this book. I am weeks in, deep in to the endmatter: consulting world experts, experimenting with ultraviolet lights and magnifying glasses, emailing people in small towns in Wisconsin and Michigan who mentioned something on the Internet about . . . well, about the subject of my book. Here we go. I am diving in.
Of course, I might be convinced to take a break late next year to write text for a certain photographer’s kingfisher book should some editor ask me . . . ;-)
Uh oh, distracted from that last 2%. Don't abandon ship! Focus. Focus. Finish!
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
I’ve been writing about Phillis Wheatley, the eighteenth century slave poet from Boston who published her one (and only) book of poems at the age of nineteen. She was the first African American woman, indeed the first African American, to publish a book. She was a celebrity in Boston, and lionized by the aristocracy in London. She met Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, who praised her “great Poetical talents.”
Wheatley was educated by her owners. She also learned the social graces of a proper white girl, became a devout Christian, and remembered virtually nothing of Africa where she was captured and enslaved at age seven. Phillis Wheatley was freed when she was nineteen, but still lived at the Wheatley mansion.
Three weeks after her owner died, she married a bounder who abandoned her and their three babies (who all died in infancy.) Wheatley herself died in a squalid boardinghouse at age thirty. Many children’s biographies have been written about her and most of them focus on her triumphs. But in the world of adult scholarship, things aren’t so rosy.
Since her death in 1784, her reputation has waxed and waned. She and her poetry were praised in the sentimental nineteenth century. Twentieth century feminists championed her for writing at all (her poetry is hard to take today,) while black activists vilified her as an early Aunt Jemima. Now, in the twenty-first century I want to tell her story and talk about how history has treated her. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard scholar and no stranger to controversy, has laid out the territory in his Library of Congress Jefferson lecture, published as The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.
In telling her story I don’t shy away from her best-known, most-anthologized, and most-reviled poem, written when she was but fourteen.
On Being Brought From Africa to America.
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.
It’s easy to see why she was called “a colonial handerchief head” and “utterly irrelevant to the identification and liberation of the black man[!].” But I see black pride in this poem too: black and white folks are equal before her God. Her gratitude for the “mercy” of slavery is harder to accept, especially when you look beyond her seat on the sofa in the Wheatley parlor. But hey, she was only fourteen. Later on, she wrote against her literal slavery, and called out her Boston neighbors who used the term as a metaphor.
So, tricky subject with a controversial history makes life for this biographer more complicated than for earlier hagiographical writers who ignored these thorny issues. But it’s more fun too.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
The truth is I don’t have the complete history of civilization memorized. And what I learned in college is a lot fuzzier than it used to be. But the research skills I gained there are still very much intact. In my writing area, I have numerous books within arms reach to go to as soon as I need to remember or have a better understanding of something. Not surprisingly, many of my most often used reference materials are children’s nonfiction.
Thinking about a new topic and want to put it in historical perspective? I always reach for Joy Hakim’s A History of US. It’s beautifully written and will inevitably tell you what you want to know and something else you hadn’t thought of before. (If anyone is looking for a holiday gift for a favorite blogger, I’d love the complete 11 volume set. For now I make do with a couple of volumes and a trip to the library).
I always seem to have yet another question about a President so I use Presidents. A Time for Learning Book by Melissa Blackwell Burke. I think I haphazardly picked this book up on sale in a Target or Kmart but I’ve had it for years and pull it off the shelf often. My American History Desk Reference by Scholastic is a used copy I scooped up for $4.95 on a wonderful trip to Powell’s bookstore in Portland. Tons of everything one needs in here, including a fascinating facts column for each state. Yes, I sometimes read those just for the fun of it.
I’ve lent out Kathleen Krull’s A Kids’ Guide to America’s Bill of Rights several times but I’m very persnickety about having it returned to me. Although people would like to believe that three years of law school means that a person can knowledgably answer any question on American jurisprudence that is unfortunately not the case. This book certainly helps.
I also use children’s nonfiction for everything from knitting, to crafting, to word synonyms. These books fill my shelves and provide much of what I need to stuff the knowledge gap. I have another book on my shelf, one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biographies entitled, This I Remember. For me, that would be a much bigger problem.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
orchestra. Standing at the podium, hearing the music surrounding her, she said, was an extraordinary experience. I must admit I was a little jealous. I mean I could do that. Stand up there and read one of my books. I could listen to the sound of violins and cellos and flutes washing over me. How wonderful would that be? Alas I hadn’t written a book that would qualify for such a thing. But from time to time I thought about Debra and her story. Remembering it gave me a vicarious thrill.
So you can imagine my excitement when, by chance, I found myself on a plane seated next to David Robinson, the musical director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Sandra Jordan and I were just finishing the third or fourth draft of Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. David and I chatted about the book and the music. He could actually hum the whole score, which Aaron Copland had composed for Martha Graham’s dance first performed in 1944, when America had entered WWII. Isamu Noguchi had designed the sets. It was a great collaboration between choreographer, composer, and artist. I told David we were having trouble describing the last, lingering notes of the music. “They seem to ask ‘What will happen tomorrow?’ ” David said. Yes! I mentioned that I had a vision of the text narrated with illustrations, accompanied by the music. I wanted the book to make a contribution to family concerts, a modern alternative to Peter and the Wolff. I wanted to stand up like Debra and hear the full orchestra playing behind me. (I didn’t tell David that part of it.)
He was enthusiastic about the idea, as one of his interests is showing audiences the way the arts interconnect. Two years from that serendipitous meeting, Ballet for Martha was presented with the St. Louis Symphony performing Appalachian Spring. Brian Floca’s illustrations appeared on an overhead screen. We were all there, Sandra, Brian, and our editor Neal Porter. It was exhilarating! In November there will be four performances for younger audiences of Appalachian Spring, along with the narration and images from Ballet for Martha. I guess you’re wondering if I will be up there narrating. Well, no. David, himself, will read excerpts from the text with the images overhead. The orchestra will play fragments of the music as they relate to the story, followed by the complete symphony. As for me, I’ll be sitting happily in the first row with my grandchildren and humming along. But I’m working on the next performance, which will be in Aspen, Colorado next summer. Maybe that will be my big chance!!!
Thursday, October 21, 2010
You may think that nonfiction books and a rockin’ party don’t go together—but you would be wrong! Last night was the official launch party for my new book The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on our Culture. And let me tell you, people were In the House to celebrate nonfiction!
The place: Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont.
The time: 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening.
The crowd: SRO!
Even after a long day of working, shuttling kids to play rehearsals and soccer games, nonfiction aficionados showed up to usher in this newest addition to the Dewey Decimal shelves. There were parents, teachers, librarians, and kids armed with questions (as well as a few Barbie dolls). Who says nonfiction is dead? Phooey!
On hand were Karen Pike--the photographer I hired for the bulk of the interior images--and Peter Harrigan--the theatre professor/Barbie collector who made the photos possible.
The questions from the audience were fabulous. We talked about writing process, how do you know when it’s time to stop your research, and the many, many cultural questions that come up when people start to talk about Barbie.
The question I addressed first seems to be the most frequent and obvious one surrounding the publication of this book. The question posed to me, in its many forms, always comes from this place: “YOU wrote a book about Barbie? Really? Barbie? You?”
Although I actually anticipated and dreaded this questions several months ago, now I really enjoy it. Why? Because the question is at the heart of why any nonfiction writer (any writer, really) chooses to write about a topic—and why they are the right person to tackle it. It opens up all kinds of avenues for thought and discussion.
Yes, I often write what might be called feminist books, or books that have at the heart of them a desire to empower girls. And yes, on the surface, the topic of Barbie seems at odds with that. But that’s what’s so fantastic about immersing yourself in a topic of nonfiction, looking at the back story, discovering the who, what, why, where, and when of a topic, looking at it from all sides and ultimately synthesizing an understanding of it.
I won’t give away what my conclusions are, lest I be accused of treading into Spoiler territory. But I will tell you that every time I answer the question of “Why, why, why, would YOU of all people choose to write about Barbie?” I am rewarded with the facial changes, head nodding, and verbal feedback that indicate I have made a connection with my audience. I have expressed myself. I have initiated a thought process out in the world that leads to discussion.
This is why I write nonfiction. And THAT is definitely something to celebrate.
So come on Barbie, let’s go party!
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
#edchat education chat
#edubk books about teaching
#elearning electronic learning
#elemchat elementary education chat
#elemed elementary education
#kedu kindergarten education
#kidlit children’s literature
#STEM science, technology, engineering, math
If you haven’t already taken the plunge, try Twitter and see how it may fit into your online experience. And please feel free to follow me @LoreenLeedy.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Monday, October 18, 2010
Friday, October 15, 2010
“Leaving the lights on won’t actually kill a polar bear.” This headline for a column in the July 4, 2010 issue of the “Washington Examiner,” a free daily paper found at most DC Metro stations, caught the eye of a friend of mine. She tore out the column, scribbled “here’s another view” at the top of the page, and left it on my front porch. It’s got me a little worked up. It’s not every day you see the word “iniquitous” used to describe the motives of children’s book authors.
Meghan Cox Gurdon began her piece with the story of two young girls in her kitchen, one of whom asked Gurdon to “please tell [the other child] that global warming isn’t real.” When Gurdon asked why, the girl responded, “Someone told her that if she leaves a light on, a polar bear would die.”
“Nonsense,” Gurdon told the child. “Grown-ups are investigating global warming and arguing about it. The one thing I can tell you is that you shouldn’t be afraid to turn the lights on. It’s not going to affect a polar bear either way.” With that, “the worried child’s face cleared, and the two girls went off to play.”
I think we can all agree that children shouldn’t worry that a polar bear will die every time they flip on a switch. And while it’s obvious that Gurdon is a global warming skeptic, I’m not writing today’s blog to help de-mystify climate science. What concerns me is the way she went on to indict “adults in the grip of environmental alarmism” who have “made a point of filling young lives with the threat of looming eco-catastrophe.” In particular, she pointed her finger at the “innumerable children’s books [that] sell a terrifying future to children as young as 4.”
One of the nonfiction books Gurdon singled out was Sarah L. Thomson’s “Where Do Polar Bears Live?” Part of the Let’s Read and Find Out Science series (suggested ages 5-9), this book had the effrontery to state that “If the Earth keeps getting warmer, the summer ice in the Arctic could melt completely by the time you grow up.” Seymour Simon’s latest collaboration with the Smithsonian, “Global Warming” (ages 5-9), earned Gurdon’s contempt for its cover, a breathtaking photograph of polar bears walking through melting ice.
Granted, polar bears are overused cover creatures these days. (And I say that as the author of a book with a polar bear on its cover, “Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World.”) It’s valid to criticize illustrations for anthropomorphism or to conclude that a book may have an outlook too bleak for its intended audience. But Gurdon stepped over the line with the following:
“Put aside the debate over climate science for a moment. These are adult matters, or at least they should be. It’s iniquitous for grown-ups—who themselves are roiled over the subject—to transfer their anxieties to children who are too young to wrap their minds around the issues.”
Iniquitous? Thomson is a respected children’s book author. So, of course, is Simon, who according to Kirkus “may have done more than any other living author to help us understand and appreciate the beauty of our planet and our universe.” Based on my own experiences writing about global warming, I expect that Thomson and Simon went out of their way to AVOID “transferring their anxieties” to their young readers. The more research I did, the more experts I consulted, the more knowledgeable I became about climate science, the more concerned I became about the rapid changes happening to our world right now, but I was still determined not to let my book be depressing and alarmist. The last thing I wanted to do was make global warming seem so scary that kids would feel hopeless about it. So I labored to explain the subject clearly and calmly, and to acknowledge that while climate change poses a serious challenge to people and other creatures around the planet, it’s also an opportunity for human innovation. I wanted to help kids feel empowered, not threatened, and I'm sure Thomson and Simon do, too.
I’m a mother, too. I understand the powerful instinct to protect one’s children. But I think Gurdon is underestimating kids, their optimism, and their ability to understand the basics of science, including climate science. Furthermore, after perusing some of her other columns, I suspect that Gurdon’s skepticism of global warming—and her criticism of these books and authors--is based less on an understanding of climate science than on her politics. But let’s put that debate aside for the moment. Accusing people of evil because they write about a topic that you find too controversial? Well, that’s just…sad. And turning the lights off when you leave a room? That's just smart.
Speaking of climate science, check out these terrific resources:
“How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming” by Lynn Cherry (paperback, March 2010)
Climate Kids: NASA’s Eyes on Earth
A great new web site.
Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis
National Snow and Ice Data Center
"The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge" (2010)
Ms. Frizzle tackles global warming!
Thursday, October 14, 2010
The class I’m taking, “Editing for Writers,” taught by Stephen Roxburgh, doesn’t even start until this weekend, and yet I already have homework. I’ve been mulling all day: how to describe, in one paragraph, what the “core story” of my novel is—not a plot summary, mind you, but something much more challenging.
What is my story about?
It’s the same question I ask myself every time I embark on a new picture book biography—not what happened, but what is the story about?
(It’s not surprising that this question would come up whether considering a novel or a work of narrative nonfiction. After all, both genres are forms of storytelling.)
When working on a biography, what happened is unwieldy and amorphous. Its legions of characters and mountains of detail threaten to swallow the poor researcher whole and spit out the husk—dry and utterly spent. (OK, OK, a little melodramatic. But when buried up to one’s eyeballs in books and articles, when said eyeballs are spinning from a day peering into the screen of the microfilm machine, it’s hard not to feel a little put upon.)
One of the greatest challenges of writing narrative nonfiction, I’ve found, is that it’s not always clear at the beginning what shape the story will take, and I think it’s crucial to approach the material with an open mind. It takes a certain amount of mucking about and slogging through research material before the hint of a storyline emerges (since, after all, you can’t simply make stuff up). Certain themes seem to resonate with what you’ve been reading. It becomes easier to take step back and see how a character’s actions illustrate those themes, and then the beginnings of a story come into focus—a story about something.
I’m heading to class with the first draft of a novel, but I fully expect to apply what I learn to future narrative nonfiction projects, as well. I’ll report back next month what I learned.
Happy Back to School!
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Sounds good, doesn't it? Let's give the kids something to read that's different from what's required of them. Facts aren't all that matters in a good education; exercising the imagination is also important, and novels are what do that. But wait a minute--what's wrong with this picture? For one thing, where do the ideas for fiction writers come from? They come from the real world, from real events, things that really happened. And think about science fiction--it's a wonderfully imaginative genre that takes its inspiration from real scientific discoveries and inventions.
Some people prefer to call nonfiction books "informational books." I agree that the word "nonfiction" can have a negative sound to it--it says what our books are not instead of what they are. But "informational" sounds plodding and boring, and our books are far from that.
Reading exciting history, such as the recounting of the adventures of great explorers, for example, can really get children imagining. Take this tidbit from my book, The Lewis and Clark Trail Then and Now, describing the journey ahead:
"For more than two years, your diet will be limited to a few items.......You will work so hard that you can easily gobble down a meal of nine pounds of meat. Many times you will go hungry. You will be completely out of touch with family and friends except for one chance to send, but not receive, letters after the first winter."
A mathematically inclined reader might think for a moment, then realize--wow! Nine pounds of meat--that's 36 Quarter Pounders! The child who is constantly visiting his Facebook page and texting on his cell phone may wonder--how could I survive not being able to contact my friends? These kinds of reactions stimulate the readers imaginations to take them places mentally and emotionally that they have never been before.
Good nonfiction writing can also take something that seems mundane, like dust, and transform it into something magical. Here's a sample from April Pulley Sayre's book, Stars Beneath Your Bed The Surprising Story of Dust:
"Dust can be bits of unexpected things--a crumbling leaf, the eyelash of a seal, the scales of a snake, the smoke of burning toast, ash from an erupting volcano.......Old dust stays around. Dirt that made King Tut sneeze is still on Earth. It might be on your floor. That dusty film on your computer screen might have muddied a dinosaur." Now that's writing that will stimulate any reader's imagination!
One final point that has been brought up before in our blogs--there are children out there whose imaginations are more stimulated by nonfiction than fiction. They may even put down fiction as "just made up stories" and only be interested in reading about "real" things. If one goal of education is to help children develop a love of reading, then not allowing these children to read the kind of books that they find interesting can only work against this goal we all share.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
This would never do, of course. Not only was the text wildly long for the majority of my intended readers, it was 200 pages over the contracted page limit. Yes, I had known the text would come in long for many, many months, but I'd continued pushing the text forward to work out the book's themes and overall structure. Besides the writing was going smoothly and I wanted to see where it would lead, especially with regards to the dramatic action sequences. So it was all my own fault -- and don't think my inner voice didn't let me know. Every so often, it would suddenly blurt out, "Just be ready to delete a lot of this stuff, Murphy."
When I finished I wasn't in a panic. Well, not a big one anyway. I knew I had a great deal of work to do and knew it would take time to accomplish. So I took a deep breathe and launched into the revision.
At this point my # 1 priority was to cut as much of the text as possible without completely destroying the narrative story line and flow. I did what every writer does: I read each sentence carefully and analyzed it to see what needed to stay and what could go, cutting a word or phrase here, a paragraph there. Some of this was quite easy. There is always excess fat that needs to be trimmed. Some deletions were more problematic. I might slash a paragraph and feel fine about the decision, only to realize later that the paragraph set up a crucial scene and needed to be restored. After going through the entire text once, I went back for another try at it, ax in hand and ready to chop. When the dust finally cleared, I sat back to look at the text and was shocked by what I found. After weeks of work I had managed to cut the text by a measily 7 1/2 pages!
Now the panic set in for real. I had focused on cutting the text and had pushed the delete key hundreds and hundreds of times. I thought I'd been brutal on my writing, had attacked it with single-minded purpose. But the manuscript was still over 300 pages long. What had gone wrong? It took several days, but the answer finally came to me. I had fallen into a common writer's trap. During the initial writing phase, I had lived with the text for months on end, had read over and massaged every word, every line, and every paragraph numerous times to get the text just right -- and I'd fallen in love with what I'd written. I couldn't see the flaws, so I couldn't devise a solution. Didn't want to really because I thought I'd already worked out all the problems. In effect, my inner voice -- that ever present critic I counted on to help me make the text as perfect as possible -- had followed me down this path as well and couldn't really point out the problems or a solution either.
What to do now, aside from panicking completely. Here a more rational and calm voice finally chimmed in. Clearly, I had lost the ability to view my text with perspective; logic suggested that the best way to get my perspective back was to put as much distance between me and the text as possible. I needed a vacation from my words, and not just one that lasted a few hours or even days. I needed to get as far away from the manuascript for as long as possible.
At this point I decided to enlist my editor's help. I sent her the manuscript, told her it was too long (as if she wouldn't see this immediately), and that I could use some guidance on what to cut. Then I went on to work on other projects and whenever I thought about opening the George Washington file I used every ounce of will power I had (with help from that inner voice) to resist the temptation. Several months went by like this until my editor sent me an e-mail. She had no specific suggestions on what to delete; her only guidance was to "keep the focus on George. He's the star of the show."
This wasn't the kind of advice I'd expected. I guess I'd felt so clueless about what to do that I'd hoped for a more speciific blueprint. Which was when it dawned on me that she had actually done just that.
I opened the George Washington file and began to read what now felt like someone else's manuscript. Which was a good thing. My inner voice was chattering away, saying over and over, "Keep the focus on George." And whenever the focus drifted away from him even for a second, I highlighted the section and pushed delete. Over and over and over again. At one point I deleted an entire chapter (where British officers discussed military tactics and their views on Washington). Push, delete; push, delete. It wasn't easy sending away great chunks of what felt like a beloved child, but it had to be done no matter how painful. And this time when I viewed the results, I was almost as shocked as after that first failed revision. This time I had whittled the text down to 74 pages!
It wasn't finished by a long shot. The text would require months of intense revision work. But eventually a much more compact and focused narrative emerged that would become THE CROSSING: HOW GEORGE WASHINGTON WON THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Despite this near disaster, I haven't given up on listening to my inner voice; it's been a faithful and accurate guide for too many years. But I do sit back in my chair from time to time and think about where its advice might take me. And sometimes if it seems like it might be a long, intricate journey, I close the file and take a little vacation before making a decision.
Monday, October 11, 2010
First things first—a shout out to Linda Salzman. Just as we must become parents to appreciate our mothers and fathers, I now understand the effort our blogmaster has made to keep I.N.K. running smoothly—from pinpointing the visitor counter as the culprit that gummed up the other software to making sure posts were scheduled and published. This is no easy task. Thank you, Linda.
I have come to this new realization because I’m now a blogmaster myself. This year I’m the author-in-residence of the Michael J. Perkins Elementary School, which is right in the middle of Old Colony Housing Project, which is right in the middle of South Boston. For those of you who don’t live in Boston, perhaps you remember the huge fights in our city about desegregating the schools in the early 70s. Southie, primarily an Irish-American neighborhood at the time, was right in the thick of it. Others of you might have seen Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River; its story took place in South Boston. Ben Affleck’s movie, Gone Baby Gone, was filmed in Old Colony.
Times have changed in many ways. Some of South Boston has been gentrified. The kids who attend the Perkins School look like an assembly of the United Nations. But Old Colony still has the red brick institutional design that labels its residents. Soon that’s going to change too. Stimulus money is bankrolling Phase 1, taking the first part of Old Colony down and constructing zero energy buildings in its place.
The Perkins School is literally across the street so its students have the best seats to watch the show—to find out about construction and sustainability, to think about their community and their relation to it, to learn to write about it. Hence the blog, hence the author-in-residence, hence me.
The day before school started, I went to a meeting of all the teachers. Most of it was about bus schedules, etc. But principal Barney Brawer also talked about how this massive renovation could double as a living museum, offering lessons in science, math, and writing to children in every grade. Then I talked about ways I hoped the blog could fit into curriculum and classrooms, and the thrill of having one’s work published for all to see.
Later a teacher came up to me and said, “You know what excited me most about your suggestions? You mentioned brainstorming with the kids about who they can ask to get answers for their questions, then actually talking to these experts. That’s a whole new idea for them. It’s something they need.” Her comment made me very happy.
So come visit the PerkinsBlog, subscribe even. Some day I’ll figure out how to install a visitor counter without gumming up the works.
Friday, October 8, 2010
Last weekend I spent several hours experiencing a nonfiction project that absolutely blew me away. The project is called “It Gets Better” and it was started by columnist Dan Savage in reaction to the heartbreaking rash of recent suicides by gay teens. In a column on September 23, Savage wrote about his reaction to the death of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, who hanged himself after enduring intense bullying at school. “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes,” wrote Savage. “I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”
Instead, Savage and his husband posted a video titled “It Gets Better” on YouTube and invited others to do the same. The response has been overwhelming. Within 10 days there were hundreds of videos from adults of all ages and ethnicities in the U.S. and abroad. Posters included recognizable gay and gay-friendly bloggers, actors, and musicians. But most contributors were “ordinary” men and women who wanted to bear witness to the experience of growing up gay or lesbian in a world where adolescence is an emotional whirlwind and any perceived weakness can leave a person vulnerable to attack.
One poster said he was beaten so violently in high school that he’s been confined to a wheelchair since. But even those who escaped long-term physical harm bear emotional scars from verbal abuse and fears that they were letting down their parents or committing sins against their god. Taken together, the videos paint a vivid picture of what life was like for many gay and lesbian teens in recent decades, a picture that it would be difficult for one filmmaker or one author to put together alone. The fact that so many people seized the opportunity to tell their stories and reassure young people that “it gets better” is a poignant example of a community finding its voice.
Before the Internet redefined community in this way, it was every man and women for him/herself.” When I was questioning my own sexuality in the 1970s, there were just a handful of books available and hardly any depictions of healthy lesbian relationships on film or TV. The first positive portrayal I remember seeing was “The War Widow,” a 1976 PBS teleplay set during World War I, in which the lonely wife of a soldier falls for a bohemian photographer. Though the most risqué physical contact between the two women took place when one put her hand gingerly on the other’s shoulder, their candid talk of romantic feelings was a revelation.
It was around that time that People magazine ran an article on British tennis champion Virginia Wade, referring to her “constant companion,” a woman. I’d always loved watching Wade on the court; she had the first really powerful serve in women’s tennis. Now her success—she won Wimbledon in 1977, as well as two other Grand Slam singles titles—reassured me that even though I was different, I could aspire to anything I wanted. It also fueled my interest in women’s sports as a focus for my research and writing. Female athletes inspired me in general, but I sensed that this was an area where I might learn about others like me.
Things are so different in 2010. LGBT issues now are front-page news and many gays and lesbians are out and proud. But that doesn’t necessarily mean growing up gay is easier than it was in the ‘70s. When I was a kid, the hate speech was whispered because people just didn't speak about homosexuality. Today it's shouted in glaring headlines and viral videos that demonize gays and lesbians who want to get married or serve in the military. Kids are impressionable. When they hear their parents rail against gay soldiers, it's not that hard to guess which scapegoats they'll target for their own frustrations.
Hopefully, the compassionate reaction to the recent tragedies will give hope to kids who are being bullied. The very presence of the "It Gets Better" videos is a sign that there is a community waiting to welcome them when they get through school. In the meantime, some folks who were inspired by Dan Savage’s project started the Make It Better Project with the aim of giving students the tools they need to make their schools better now. One of their first actions is to rally people across the country to contact their Congresspeople this Tuesday, October 12, and urge them to vote for the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act to end bullying.