Yes to School

I’ve just finished the first week of instruction of the Fall 2009 semester at San Diego City College. It was a great first week, filled with all the affirmations that have kept me doing my job with a lot of joy in my heart since I went back to teaching full-time about fifteen years ago. Here are some of those affirmations:

YES to students who believe in the power of education to change their lives.

YES to students who are full-time workers and parents, who manage to work it out so they can be sitting in classrooms ready to learn.

YES to students who WANT to go to school with people different from themselves.

YES to students who have never given up on themselves despite the stunning obstacles they have faced.

YES to students who don’t give up on themselves despite the stunning obstacles they face right now.

YES to students who come up and say “this class sounds really hard, but I like that.”

YES to students who think the same thing and keep it to themselves.

YES to students who believe they have a voice that should be heard, and know that learning to express themselves articulately and passionately will help make that happen.

YES to students who ask questions.

YES to students who’ve already started reading the book.

YES to students who respect their teachers.

YES to teachers who respect their students.

YES to colleagues who pull out all the stops to be the best they can be.

YES to staff who remain good humored when professors are flaky and disorganized (and sometimes downright rude).

YES to Fall semester 2009.

And, YES, I’m glad the first week is over.



United Through Reading

This from the website of UNITED THROUGH READING:

“What began as one woman’s vision for separated military families has now benefited over a half million people, both military and non-military, through the power of reading aloud. Today, United Through Reading offers parents separated from their children by distance or circumstance a opportunity to be recorded on DVD reading storybooks to their children from nearly 200 recording locations around the world.

“Imagine a US Army Soldier entering a tent in Afghanistan, dropping his gear and picking up a copy of Goodnight Moon to read to his son at home. Imagine a child, living in foster care while her mother is incarcerated, sitting down with a brand new copy of Go, Dog, Go! in her lap and being read to by her mother. Imagine a child getting to know his great-grandmother because, even though she can’t travel, she can read him a bedtime story from her local library. Now imagine doing that for over a half million people, and you have 20 years of United Through Reading.”

I can’t imagine a charity that could be more inspiring–or timely–as we experience war and social upheaval in our own lives. I recently became aware of this group when Dr. Sally Ann Zoll, CEO of United Through Reading, contacted me to ask if I wanted to donate my time as part of a silent auction item at the organization’s upcoming Storybook Ball. It will contain eight signed copies of THE FOUR SEASONS, and a restaurant lunch for eight with me coming as their featured guest to lead a book discussion. This is something entirely new for me–an honor of course, and what a lot of fun in an excellent cause!


Writing Scared

The Greater San Diego Council of Teachers of English website recently began advertising their fall “Promising Practices” conference, at which I will be both the opening and the closing keynoter. My opening talk is titled “Writing Scared,” a feeling any serious writer will understand perfectly. Writing IS scary, unless there’s no chance for growth in it, and in that case, why bother?

In the years I taught college composition, I used to tell my students that it was easy to think of a writing assignment, or indeed any challenge, in a way that would overwhelm them. The trick is to whittle down big problems in smaller ones that aren’t overwhelming and that can be handled one at a time. Is a ten-page paper on the Russian Revolution too scary? Well, how about one paragraph on the lives of serfs? And then how about a paragraph on how the revolution was supposed to improve their lot? Can do! And then, how about…well, you get the picture. Lo and behold, eventually you hit page ten.

In the years I wrote Young Adult (YA) books for Lucent Books I didn’t think about the 120-page length. I thought about writing 6 consecutive 20-page papers about various subtopics. That length of paper wasn’t too scary for me–after all I’d gotten through grad school, hadn’t I? Within that I asked myself, “Can you write a paragraph about Jomo Kenyatta? A page about colonialism?” Voila! A 120-page book took shape sentence by sentence because I was successful in never seeing it as a 120-page book.

A few years ago, the same thing got me through writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. An accurate and compelling portrait of the Jewish Partisan movement? Yikes! A contribution to the literature about the Holocaust? Double yikes! A page about the Nazi invasion of Lithuania? Yes. A paragraph about ghetto administrator Jacob Gens? Yes. A book? Eventually.

The fact that writing never stops being scary is tied to the fact that it never gets easy. The biggest difference between my attitude and theirs, I used to tell my students, is that I probably have more confidence it will work out well in the end than they do. And that’s true. I know I can write what I put my mind to. I just have to figure out the baby steps every single time.

I’m thinking about this a lot right now, as I finish up the first draft of my novel THE LAWS OF MOTION. After it’s really done (i.e. revised, edited, revised again, edited again, etc., etc.), I’ll be starting on another, based on an idea I’ve had for several years. The thought scares me as much as starting LAWS OF MOTION did. Some things never change. Can I write a novel about Sephardic Iberia? Wow, I don’t know about that. It’s pretty big, pretty scary. Can I whittle it down into do-able pieces? Awfully glad I think so.


We’re Ba-aack!

There’s something really exciting about the first signs of fall. Here in coastal Southern California I’m not talking about leaves turning color or clouds of breath billowing in the crisp air. Instead, for me the unmistakable sign of fall is the start of school. So many things seem to go on hiatus for the summer, including book clubs and other organizations interested in hearing from authors. Since last spring I’ve had a few things on my calendar that were months away, scheduled for “when everybody gets back.” And now what was once too far away to think about is right around the corner.

So hello to Tracey Crawford and Tricia Guerra of Oceanside, California–can’t wait to check out what Tracey calls their annual firepit/marshmallows/s’mores book club meeting! And hello in El Cajon to Anne von der Mehden, founding mother (with Mary Barr) of the San Diego Area Writing Project, and all Anne’s fellow book club members and Helix High School faculty buddies, who traipsed down to my reading at Bay Books in Coronado last spring and got the idea to have me spend an evening with them “when everybody’s back.” And hello to Hatikvah Hadassah in La Mesa, who are having me as a guest at their study group in September. I’m excited to meet you all and talk about my work as an author, past, present, and future.

Oh yes–I almost forgot. I have a job! Next week it’s back to campus for faculty in-service before the start of the fall semester at San Diego City College. I am so blessed to

With two City College friends, June Cressy (middle) and Elizabeth Meehan (right) at the San Diego Book Awards in May 2009
With two City College friends, June Cressy (middle) and Elizabeth Meehan (right) at the San Diego Book Awards in May 2009

have work I love. It may still be August, but as the late writer and commentator Eda LeShan once said, the first day of school is another kind of New Year’s Day. Hello to all my colleagues and friends. I’ll see you in the mail room! Love, Laurel


Writing Bareback

I admit it–I’m a big fan of Professional Bull Riding. The bulls are doing what they are born to do, and they trot out of the arena so quickly they must be expecting a sweet reward after they’ve left some cowboy clinging to the fence. (That’s the aptly named Ryan Dirteater in the photo to the right–a young Cherokee rider who’s the latest sensation.) It seems to me to be the fairest contest between “man and beast” in sport–and no, it isn’t true that the bulls’ pbr-bull-riding-in-st-louistesticles are cinched to get them to buck–that part of their anatomy is far too valuable to mess with! I also have to admit that I don’t like women’s gymnastics very much, despite the incredible things gymnasts can do, largely because so many of the contestants look like sad and stressed-out little girls.

I’ve been thinking about an article I read recently, raising the question of why writers tend to whine so much about what hard work writing is. I’m not sure they actually do, but if so, one possible explanation is that a lot of non-writers seem to think there’s not much to it. Some may think that “having a book in you” is really the important thing, and all that remains to be done is throw down the words on the page, which pretty much anybody could do if they had the time, or knew someone who could give them some advice about how to get started, or had a ride to the local college to check out a creative writing class. It seems as if we’re all pretty much equal–the ones who have done it and the ones who are going to do it some day. “You wrote a book? Hey that’s cool–listen to this great idea I have!”

So what does this have to do with vaulting and bull riding? I think a far bigger reason writers feel misunderstood is that we make it look easy. The writer’s goal is to disguise all the hard work under a smooth flow of words and ideas, to make it seem delivered from Plato’s world of perfect forms by a toga-wearing muse. Gymnastics is like that too. Perfection is the goal–a flow of movement without any glitches. Rather like a flow of words without any glitches. We all know how hard gymnasts work to deliver that short burst of visible effort, but I wonder whether people understand it’s really like that for writers too. On the other hand, bull riding is about handling glitches while a crowd watches. A rider scores by staying on for “only” eight seconds, but the bull’s score is added to that, based on how tough the glitches were to handle. It’s not always pretty, and no one would ever say it looks effortless.

Being an author is a bit like lettering in both sports. Writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and THE FOUR SEASONS took, I calculate, approximately 2000 hours of time apiece, spread out over a several year period. That’s an entire year of forty-hour work weeks, with two weeks of vacation. And quite frankly, I think that’s an underestimation. And then, when it’s there on the page, it seems as if it all poured out, with little more effort than it takes to read. I’m noticing this particularly right now, since I’m finally satisfied with a passage of about 1500 words from THE LAWS OF MOTION that took me just three hours to draft, but more than ten to revise. Okay, I hear myself whining. I guess the guy who wrote the article was right.

Serious writers bring everything they have to the task–their life experience, their passions, their research, a lifetime of learning from reading, their past successes and failures with the written word, and mountains of stubborn willpower to make it all come together on the page. We lay it all out there while we’re sitting in front of that computer screen, and sometimes it’s just as intense when it looks as if we’re doing something else entirely, like staring out the window or going to get the mail. A cross between bull riding and gymnastics. Now there’s a sport for you!