In front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer Interview with Nikki Loftin

I remember being particularly impressed when I met Nikki at the 2011 AROHO Retreat.  Here was a woman who had made the journey from teacher to writer - and a writer of books for middle readers, no less.  This is a genre with which I am quite familiar. As a middle school teacher myself, I have read many a book written for young readers.  I always admire those writers who are successful at capturing adolescent readers' attention without sparing language or depth of subject matter.  Nikki's book The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy fits that ticket.  I enjoyed hearing some of her work at the retreat and am now in the middle of finding out for myself just what makes Splendid Academy such a sinister place.  Yesterday I told my seventh graders a bit of the story, and they seemed hooked as well. So it was with great pleasure that I got to know Nikki a little better through this interview.  I hope I can find out the real truth about just what rules she broke at Ghost Ranch - maybe at next year's retreat!

How did you make the transition from teacher to writer?

Well, I had a few years between as Director of Family Ministries int he Presbyterian Church.  So, I spent my time equally working with children and thinking about God, grace, redemption, know, the small stuff.  I think it flowed naturally into living my writing life.  Those sorts of thought patterns form narratives of their own, and reading great texts, like Thich Nhat Hanh's writings, the Bible, and so many more, nurtures a response life. My response was in my writing.

What made you decide to focus on middle reader literature for your first book?
I didn't choose it - it chose me! I had gone to school in literary fiction, and thought I might try my hand at creative nonfiction, but when the stories came to me, they were all suited for younger readers.  Of course, this works well for me, as I have two very keen middle grade readers at home to try my new material out on!

Nikki Loftin lives with her Scottish photographer husband just outside Austin, Texas, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and small, loud boys. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, is available now. You can visit her online at   twitter: @nikkiloftin
  To read more of my interview with Nikki, visit AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Child's Garden of Poetry

Listen to a young girl describing the effects of how poetry "zaps into your takes you somewhere." Or another child who tells us that through poems we can "find something that will stay with you forever." And what better writing advice could any poet get than to write your words in "a soft, drifty way."  These are just some of the words of wisdom spoken by the children interviewed in the delightful HBO documentary titled A Child's Garden of Poetry.

Yesterday I watched this short film.  Produced by HBO along with The Poetry Foundation, the film makers have combined clips of young children detailing the joys of  poetry and recitations of famous and some not-so-famous poems.  Some of the poems are read by actors and singers such as Dave Matthews and Julianne Moore.  Three were recorded by the poets themselves: E.E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg.  Along with lovely animation to accompany each one, the poems come alive on the screen. 

Another delight is footage of children performing Romeo and Juliet and middle schoolers performing in a poetry slam.

Poets included are:  Li Bai, Matsuo Basho, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Mary Ann Hoberman, Langston Hughes, Edward Lear, Claude McKay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats

Any teachers interested in using this video for their classrooms will be happy to know there is a downloadable book of the poems so students can follow along.  I know I plan to use this in my classroom.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What is “Real” Writing?

For the last year I have indulged in a subtle form of self-flagellation by keeping a calendar of my writing days.  On days when I write, I get a green star on the calendar. On days without writing, the blank white calendar square stares at me reproachfully.  A few days ago, feeling guilty about one more day away from my writing desk with no poems drafted or revised, no blog posts written, one more day when I could not put a star on the calendar, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just spent the last three days working for hours on curriculum for my upcoming classes. 

For that curriculum I created writing prompts for my students to follow, crafted sentence frames to help them generate ideas, researched sources for them to use, wrote my own examples of assignments to model for them and then revised my ideas until I felt they were ready to give to  students.  Let me see, the words I just used were “created,” “crafted,” “researched,” “wrote” and “revised” – all words that are used by people who write.  So why – after all these years – have I never seen the writing I do for my teaching job as real writing?  This led me to the question – just what do I mean by “real” writing? 

As with most people who call themselves writers, I have a day job that earns me the money that allows me to keep body and soul together (and have a comfortable middle class lifestyle – no artist in the garret for me!) so that I can write.  However, unlike many writers – and unlike myself for many, many years before becoming a teacher - my day job is not just something I do because of necessity.  My day job is something that I love and find incredibly rewarding and creative.  In fact, I have never thought I really wanted be a “full-time” writer – to be truly fulfilled, I need to teach as well as write.  So if I think teaching is so creative – truly an art – then why do I ignore the writing I do for that art?  Instead of saying I hadn’t written for the last three days, why didn’t I just name what kind of writing I did – educational writing?

The day of that revelation I had lunch with my friend Barbara Ann Yoder, a fellow writer and writing coach.  Barbara has written a book about writing primarily aimed for women who have trouble slaying their writing demons.  I met her at the AROHO Retreat in New Mexico last August, but luckily for me she also lives in the Bay Area. We’ve started to meet now and then to talk about our writing lives -- and our demons.  That day, sitting outside the Ferry Building on one of those sunny days so rare for summer in San Francisco, I told her about my new conflict. She suggested that perhaps my writing calendar couldn't tell the truth of my writing life.  Just having a small space to show yes or no – so black and white, so unlike my writing life that ebbs and flows, has fits and starts –doesn’t let me tell the whole story.

Barbara gave me a tip that she has shared with some of her clients: keep a writing journal in which I record what I create - or don't create - each day as well as a short reflection about my thoughts and feelings about that day's work.  This idea resonated with me.  I know how important self-reflection is for my own students.  I have them reflect about their writing all the time. Why didn't I think about it for myself?  I had nothing to lose.  Besides, it would give me a chance to buy another journal to add to my large collection.

After several days of online research looking for the perfect tool for this new way of recording my work, I found what I wanted at Journals and Notepads (coincidentally owned by Deonne Kahler, another AROHO friend!): a weekly calendar that would give me a small space to write about each day with a place to list plans for future projects. I wanted to keep my notes brief, otherwise I would be tempted to spend all my time writing about writing instead of actually writing. 

Since the day my journal arrived, I have recorded my progress each day.  I still have conflicting feelings about the days when I don't work on what I'm now calling, for lack of a better term, my artistic writing.  However, being able to record the events or emotions of a day when I haven't been able or willing to sit at my desk has helped me feel better about my work. I also can give myself credit (doesn't that sound like a teacher?) for my educational writing. 

I still keep my calendar as well, and  only give myself a green star for a day with artistic work. After all, even though I know I work with many kinds of writing each day, the words that make me feel like a writer are the ones in a poem or memoir or this blog. 

So, I thank Barbara for giving me some better tools to sustain me and supporting me to get a little clearer about how I think of myself as a writer.  That journal has already helped to keep me from derailing myself when guilt or doubt creeps up.  Unfortunately, I'm the still only person who can get me back to the writing desk - even the best writing coach in the world couldn't do that.