Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What have I learned in this course?

I have truly enjoyed being a participant in this advanced institute. I've always known that creative nonfiction is my genre of choice and that has been reconfirmed over the past few months.
I've made a list of some of the things I've learned, to share with you:

  • Show, don't tell- This has been a really hard lesson for me to learn, but I'm really becoming more aware of putting my audience directly in the action I am writing about rather than just telling them about it as an outside observer. It's the mantra that plays inside my head as I reread what I've written- Show, don't tell. Show, don't tell.
  • It's okay to write for pages and pages and then throw the first 500 words away. For me, the best part of the story usually starts in the middle. Aah... revisions :)
  • Response groups are a writer's best friend. I always love the amazing feedback other writers are able to provide to make my writing better. Thank you!
  • "Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events" - William Zinsser (Inventing the Truth, 6) This is so true and so tricky (and I think I have a pretty good memory!)
  • "Writers have to cultivate the habit early in life of listening to people other than themselves." -Russell Baker (Inventing the Truth, 26)
  • "Often there is a human tendency to obliterate happiness-to live in one's painful memories." -Jill Ker Conway (Inventing the Truth, 54) I find this to be really true with me. So many of my journal entries and free writes are about such depressing events. I suppose I use writing to work through those memories.
  • It's really helpful if you keep journals and then look back over those journals years later for ideas to write about. I am so grateful that I kept journals at different periods in my life.
  • It's never easy to be a writer. You just have to keep doing it and keep trying and have faith in yourself as a writer.

"Teacher Man" Book Review

As I try to write a review of this book, I realize I've started and stopped and started and stopped several times. I don't really know what to say about it. So- I guess "Teacher Man" by Frank McCourt is not a book that really grabbed me, or one that I would recommend to my friends. In this book, McCourt uses his crass cynicism to share his experiences as a teacher. Through blunt storytelling, he takes the reader on his journey from raw newbie at McKee Vocational and Technical High School in Boston to experienced educator at Stuyvesant High (a successful college prep school). He often climbs atop his soapbox but the message seems too depressed and downtrodden too much of the time.

I thought this book was an interesting read because I've always been intrigued by Irish culture, and McCourt's Irish upbringing is a major influential factor in his life and his career as a teacher. It is a quick and easy read and inspiring in the sense that the reader gets to see just how important the influence of one teacher can be in the life of a student. His strong language and brilliant dialogue place the reader right in the middle of his tales and it is easy to visualize his adventures.

I keep coming back to the fact that the tone is just too negative and depressing. Teaching is a hard, underappreciated profession. When I'm at home and reading to relax, I don't need anyone else to tell me that. I know teaching is hard! I know it's a difficult profession. I guess misery loves company, but I'm really not too interested in hearing McCourt's whining. His experience is really not that remarkable or unique. There are thousands of teachers just like him out there, teaching each day without recognition. MCourt puts off a humble air, but as I was reading it, I began to think McCourt doesn't even believe in and value himself, so how do I as the reader develop an appreciation for him?

This is not the book to read if you are looking for a light, feel good education story. I would not recommend it for new teachers or teachers contemplating their place in the profession. Frank McCourt successfully reminds us just how messed up the US educational system can be and just how much a teacher has to defend himself to reach his students. He did reach his students and for that I commend him. It's difficult for me, however, as a teacher, to read about his stumbling path he took to get there.

There are more enlightening educational memoirs available. As for McCourt, stick with "Angela's Ashes" or "'Tis".

My First Submission!

Today I submitted my first submission! I decided to send my story about my grandfather and my connection with him later in life as I worked in the operating room- "Triple A". I decided to submit this piece to Chicken Soup for the Soul. It didn't fit any of their exact calls for submission, but none of my work did :) I thought it would be a good Chicken Soup piece because it is a touching story about second chances, at least perceived second chances. I think the nature of it would appeal to Chicken Soup readers.
I still want to submit my story about Clara- "Selectively Silent"- but I want to do some more work to it first. I think my spelling bee story may work, too :) Submit once and now I want to do more- and I haven't even gotten the rejection letter yet :) We'll see what happens...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"You and Yours" FINAL draft

I've had a hard time adjusting this piece. It's been hard to relate the vivid memories in my head into words on the screen. Here's my final attempt for now...it's something I plan to keep working on.

Selectively Silent


The blonde, blue-eyed beauty peeked out from behind her mother’s blue jeans. I smiled. “Hi, I’m Tara. What’s your name?” Her slender knuckles whitened as she gripped tighter to the jeans. She tucked her chin into her pink sweatshirt and cast her eyes to her feet. I assumed she was shy.
Clara was in my new class. I soon discovered that she talked, giggled, shouted, and whispered at home, nowhere else. She was a challenge. This beautiful, bright six-year old who could not share her thoughts or questions compelled me.
From the first day I met her, I loved her. Her speculative eyes and the mystery of her silence whispered to me, urging me to explore the girl hidden inside. She joined the circle of children, reluctantly held hands when prodded, but her lips did not move. She didn’t sing “The Hokey Pokey” when we sang as a group. She moved her hips just enough to let us know she was participating. She cracked an occasional smile, but more often revealed a deep, contemplative look. She did not laugh aloud.
Nor could you trick Clara into talking. I tried. I asked questions I thought she could not resist, “Would you like some of this extra snack? What are you doing for your birthday?” She did not slip. Other children noticed her absent voice. They didn’t seem to care. They played together and chased each other. The children seemed to find it totally reasonable that Clara didn’t talk. To them, she just didn’t speak in words and that in itself was reason enough for her silence.


I began to make my first real breakthroughs with Clara on the playground. I talked with her every day and addressed her just as if we were having a conversation. I nodded and said, “Oh really, so that’s how you feel?” She giggled. As she became more comfortable with me, she began to grunt. Guttural noises seemed to just slip out. On the outside, I did not make a big deal about the noises. In my heart, I celebrated. As Clara grunted more and more, it became almost like a game. I mumbled back, some nonsense of my own, or yipped like a dog when she responded to me with a grunt. She laughed and muttered back, more and more often.
“Clara, I’m dying to hear your voice. I’m so curious. I wonder what it sounds like. I bet you have a loud, booming voice like a man. Don’t you?”
Clara smiled.
“I really want to know what you’re thinking, but I can wait until you’re ready.”
I wanted her to know that it was okay to take her time. I could wait. I did not want her anxiety to become worse. I offered her opportunities to whisper in my ear. Sometimes she cozied right up to me, her lips centimeters from my ear, but inevitably she just grunted or laughed. Baby steps, I reminded myself. We were building a bond.


Through the winter, I continued to develop a relationship with Clara’s parents and little brother Jack. They were so supportive. They taped her reading at home so we could monitor her progress. Only through the tapes did we discover that she was a great reader! From time to time, Clara even addressed me personally on the reading tape. “Tara, don’t you think that was funny?” or “Will you read this book to me at naptime tomorrow, Tara?” Those were exciting moments. She also drew pictures at home and brought them in to share. She was developing a growing repertoire of ways to communicate without talking at school. I was getting to know Clara.


As spring flowers blossomed, so did Clara. Silly grunts slowly transformed. They weren’t really grunts anymore but not quite words either. She made noises that were beginning to sound like unintelligible mumbles, but only in one-on-one situations. Responses so faint and quiet they could have been mistaken for a buzzing mosquito. Her silent lips were beginning to move when we sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” as a group. She cracked a sly smile as she stretched her arms to the sky and then touched her toes. I still spoke to Clara as if she was responding aloud.
One afternoon, we were perched at the top of the playground equipment so I could watch over my whole class as they played. I asked Clara a simple question, just as I always did. “So, are you going to read to me today at naptime?” She leaned over near my ear and I was so used to her silliness that I didn’t expect anything but a grunt or a giggle. She whispered, “Yes.”
Clara spoke! At school! I was thrilled. I struggled to restrain my excitement because I did not want to scare her or discourage her from speaking again. I squeezed her tight. A smile lit my face. Clara spoke at school. To ME. The excitement coursed through my body. One little word, yes, but it had such an impact. I awaited her parents’ arrival at pick-up time so that I could share the exciting news. We were good friends now, and I anticipated their delight. As they pulled up in their station wagon, Clara and I both raced over to share our breakthrough. As young as she was, Clara, too, knew this moment was special. “She did it! Clara spoke! She said ‘yes’.” The four of us relished our joint success with exhilaration and relief.
From this point on, Clara changed. She whispered answers in my ear consistently. She only said one or two words at a time at first- “Okay” or “I do” or “Not me”- but soon she used complete sentences. She transitioned from whispering to combining quiet talking in her responses. She began singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with the group, her voice clear among the others. Other adults in our school were now confidantes as well. Clara was breaking free from the shell labeled selective mutism.


By the end of the year, an outside observer could not have picked Clara out of the crowd. She was a vivacious, talkative kindergartener. Home was no longer her only sanctuary. She laughed, played, and conversed with friends. She chatted on the phone. She gossiped on her nap mat at rest time. Clara babbled endlessly. She discovered her voice and the freedom to share it with the world. I felt confident…Clara would make it.

"I" Piece- FINAL draft

Triple A

The closer I got to the hospital, the more electrified I felt. The call came in at a little past nine. It was my turn. An older gentleman was en route to the operating room at University Hospital. Triple A – abdominal aortic aneurysm – a case I saw more than any other. I knew what to do…I’d run the cell saver on several of these cases already. I anticipated the situation and wondered what the outcome would be today. Had the aneurysm burst yet? Would we help him in time? Would there be massive blood loss? I hoped not, but I knew through experience that this might be a long, messy night. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. Scooting into my baby blue scrubs, I hurried to change out of my street clothes.

Standing on the sidewalk, my tiny hand grasped my mother’s hand securely. The further we walked, the more implanted my feet became, harder and harder to lift as if I were dragging concrete blocks, not my feet. Like ivy, my limbs entangled themselves in my mother’s long legs until they intertwined so tightly there was no opportunity for me to move.

I rushed through the halls of the hospital, through winding and deserted underground tunnels. I had one goal in mind: get there in time. With a brief glance at the scheduling board, I noted my case, operating room 2A. I grabbed my cell saver machine, whispered a silent prayer to myself that the aging beast would not choose today to malfunction, and rolled into the operating room. A gruff voice greeted me, “Hook that up quick. I expect we’ll need you today.” The patient was not yet in the room. A sigh of relief; I wasn’t too late.

The red and blue lights blinked and circled, turning heads as pedestrians passed. I began to sob. I did not want to go. It was too late. No amount of reassurance from my parents, grandparents, or the police officers themselves could convince me to climb into that car. I had no logical reason to be afraid. Perhaps, at some deeper level of intuition, my three-year old self understood the symbolic implications this ride to the airport would later have. All cajoling was to no avail. I would not ride in that police car.

Just as I finished attaching the saline and unwinding the yards of suction tubing, the two-way door swung wide open. A large man grunted as the bed skated into the room. He was conscious and talking, both encouraging signs. He clasped a small paper to his heart. As the nurses prepped him, his fingers massaged the paper’s corners. A friendly young nurse wondered, “What do you have there?” All of the preparatory action seemed to suspend in time. I guess we all wondered what he was holding so dearly. “This here’s a picture of my grandbaby,” he boasted. “She’s the light of my life. I wanted all of you to see it so you’d know who was waiting for me to come home.”

As they loaded the car, I can imagine there were tearful hugs, sobbing goodbyes. Grandpa’s heart had gotten worse. They were no longer able to help him in St. Louis. I shared my love and good luck wishes, my reassurances that I would see him soon. I gave him one last hug. I waved as Grandpa rode off in the police car. The plane was awaiting his arrival at Lambert International for the flight to Houston. He needed the surgery, now, if he was to survive.

Today, I was determined. The same triple-A would not rob a grandfather from the beautiful girl whose photograph was clutched in this man’s shaking hand.

Pictures in an old shoebox of my Grandpa as a World War II airman. He was a proud Army man, a member of the 101st Airborne Division. He jumped from war planes over the coast of France and escaped heavy artillery fire over Germany.
His uncanny resemblance to Robert Duvall. One afternoon I was watching a Duvall movie and I had an unnerving feeling, he reminded me so much of my grandpa. I could not shake the sensation. I called my mom and relayed my emotion. She was very quiet. “I always thought they were so alike, too. He looks and sounds just like him. I can’t believe you remember…that’s just how he sounded.”
His hidden stash of my favorite butterscotch candies, special for me, for when I would stop over. Without fail, every time I’d visit he would slip me a butterscotch and every time I’d choke on it. He would flip me upside down, dangle me by my feet, and out that yellow disk would pop. But every visit, I would come back for more.

Grandpa died when I was barely three.

I knew nothing about this man splayed out before me…but he was this girl’s grandpa and, like my own, he faced surgery with a failing aorta. That was enough. Today I could change history.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007