Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Nonfiction Writer's Roots: HALF-HOUR REPORTS

I guess an elementary school teacher never knows what activity will stimulate a particular student. When I was a little girl, it was Mrs. Ottewell’s half-hour reports at the Montessori School of Greenville. Here’s how they worked. First, she went to the shelf and pulled down The Topic Box. We reached in and each pulled out a folded slip of paper. On the paper was a topic. We had one half hour to find some books in the well-stocked shelves, read something about that topic, and write a report. It was a wild and crazy knowledge race.

The first attraction of the half hour report was that Topic Box. Oh, how I loved the surprise, the uncertainty, of pulling a paper out of the box. It was like an eight ball, that fluid-filled prediction toy. I never knew what topic I might nab. In a time before Internet use, randomly generated, wide-reaching information was wild and stimulating. It appealed to my sense of rebellion. If I had been told what to write about, I might have balked. But when I pulled it from the box, it was magic, it was organic, it was my choice, yet not my choice. It was destiny!

Through half-hour reports, I sampled the world. I tasted a bit of Russia, spent a few minutes with minotaurs, and found the Himalayas on a map. That was the magic of Mrs. Ottewell’s room.

Now, as part of my career, I have written two children’s books on each continent. I have written a book on each biome, from rain forest to taiga, from ocean to coral reef. I have the luxury of slipping from one topic to another as I shift from book to book. For articles, I may research the geography of China, the shape of rivers, or fish in the Amazon. I follow leads, I do interviews, I am free to pursue my curiosity where it leads. It’s like those half-hour reports. I am free to think and explore and report back, only now it’s to the reading public instead of to the class.

A few years ago, my husband and I visited Mrs. Ottewell at her home. We began to discuss fellow classmates and a friend who had married someone from Egypt. We began talking of Palestine, politics, and the greater world. A question came up. Right there in the middle of the conversation, she stood up and pulled out an atlas. Soon we had a dictionary, too. By the end of the conversation, we were poring over maps and encyclopedias.

You know it has been a full conversation when you end it with books and maps spread out and your mind opened somehow as well.
Thank you, Mrs. Ottewell.
The passage above is part of a chapter in my book for grownups:

Unfold Your Brain:
Deepen your creativity, expand into new arts, and prosper as a writer, musician, or visual artist

Unfold Your Brain is a workbook/think book about how to deepen creativity. Early chapters are suitable for those just beginning to explore their artistic side; later chapters delve into the arts/publishing business and give hints about marketing, public speaking, and revitalizing creativity mid-career.
You can order Unfold Your Brain from Here is the URL address:

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