Monthly Archives: June 2017

Finding My Tribe

This morning I’m in a fog, caused by a mixture of exhaustion, joy, and inspiration. I’m still processing my week at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference (SBWC), five and a half days of workshops, panels, speakers, and networking.

 

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The Hyatt Santa Barbara – host to the SBWC 2017

 

Going to the SBWC has been on my to-do list for a long time. I had been a storyteller since I could talk, but I stopped when traumatized by the critique group for a creative writing class in college. In November of 2007, a friend dared me to join her for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and complete a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in thirty days. Flash forward to November 2010, I went to an event with my husband and took my notepad with me, after all, I had to get my 1667 words done that day. I planted myself in the corner of a couch and scratched away. With my nose buried in my words, I was unaware of a man’s approach until he spoke. “Young woman what are you doing and why aren’t you enjoying the party?” I look up, and it was Ray Bradbury. I had met Ray at other events and had found him easy to talk with. I told him about NaNoWriMo, my word goal, and my story. He smiled broadly, complemented my plot, and then said, “When you’re serious about your writing, you need to go to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.” He made me promise I would go one day. Ray, I kept my promise, and I’m glad I did.

I know that most think of writing as a solitary endeavor. While the actual writing is often done holed up somewhere and shunning the world, writers are very social creatures. Writes go out into the world to gather information, observe, and get ideas.

At a conference, it’s finding like-minded people.  When you discuss writing with non-writers, after the initial expression of admiration or surprise if you continue to talk about writing their eyes glaze over or they begin looking around the room for an escape.  When you talk writing with writers, they nod in understanding, sympathize, and celebrate. You understand them and they you.

As I sit sipping Sweet Tea with Lemon (What else would I be drinking? It’s ten in the morning, and it’s already 101o F), I reflect on the past week and realize have found my tribe, as it was described by Grace Rachow, Director of the SBWC. Among a group where I’m not thought of as weird or a few degrees of center because this is family and they understand.

When I looked at the schedule for the week, I became overwhelmed. Even conferences for my pay-the-bills job were this full of choices. The day ran from 9 AM to 9 PM, and beyond. After I started to breathe again and Grace’s reassurance that I didn’t have to nor should I try to do it all that I came up with a plan.

 

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Bill helping me review the schedule.

 

There were two sets of workshops – morning and afternoon – with ten to fifteen choices each. Some ran the whole week, other just one or two days. I chose to spend most of my mornings in the Mystery Writing with Leonard Tourney. Leonard’s novels can be described as Elizabethan Mysteries. I’ve read The Bartholomew Fair Murders, I enjoyed it and can recommend his books.  My afternoons were spent in Crafting Short Stories with Yvonne Nelson Perry. She is the author of many short stories about life on the Pacific Rim. I also attended two one-day workshops, Submitting Short Stories with Mac Talley and The Art of the Query with Trey Dowell.

Lecture was limited, the workshops were mostly discussion and critique. For me, there were several key take-home points.

  • The reader participates in the creation of the story in how they interpret the images, actions, and voices in your story.
  • Even in a plot-driving story (such as mystery or fantasy), it’s still about character. If your reader doesn’t care about your protagonist, they’ll stop reading no matter how wonderful your plot is.
  • Dialogue has two purposes, to give information to the reader but mostly to help define the character.
  • Every scene must have a purpose, if it doesn’t move the plot forward, cut it.
  • Follow the directions of the agent/publisher when submitting.
  • Query letters should be mostly about the story and less about the author.

I’ll admit I was a little nervous about the reading my work in front of (what was then) strangers. My college critique group was more, “let’s see how many we can make cry today.”  My critique group back home in the high desert cut me no slack and were hard on my stories. I would sometimes go home licking my wounds, only to review  it a few days later and saying, “Damn, they’re right.” The critiques during the workshops were spot on but very gently delivered. I have some changes to make, but I will have a better story in the end.

In the afternoon and before the dinner break, there were panels with agents, new authors, navigating Amazon’s publishing platform, and Catherine Ryan Hyde, an SBWC alumna and author of Pay it Forward. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear her speak, I was taken out for the afternoon by friends who lived in the area.

One of the highlights of the day was the evening speakers.  Each had an inspirational message about writing and our role in the universe.

  • Fannie Flagg (The Whole Town’s Talking) “If you can’t not do it, you’re a writer.”
  • David Brin (David Brin Presents Chasing Shadows) “I’m paid to be interesting, not right.”
  • Lesley M.M. Blume (Everybody Behaves Badly) “There was a time when Hemingway was a struggling writer among other struggling writers.”

Of course, it wasn’t all work and not play. There was time to socialize and network. I enjoyed the Opening Banquet where Monte Schulz (Crossing Eden) told us, “I want you to be persistent. I want you to be passionate.” Midweek, as we were “hitting the wall” there was a poolside cocktail party. The event closed with an Awards Banquet, where the best work presented in workshops were honored.

Even though each day’s events were officially over at nine, it didn’t stop there. At 9:30, the Pirates came out to play. The Pirate sessions were time to workshop stories into the wee hours of the morning. I joined the Pirates let by John Reed most nights, getting an average of five hours sleep each night, which explains why I’m so tired today. It was interesting to hear works from writers that were not in my daytime workshops. Even when I wasn’t reading my stories, I was learning from the techniques and comments of the other writers in the room.

There were a few times I wander away from the conference. Most morning, I took a leisurely walk down the beach and ate breakfast at the East Beach Grill. It was pleasant sitting on a patio just feet from the shore, watching the waves roll in, and the birds fly by. One morning, my walk to me past the bird sanctuary. The sound of large cat announcing its presence startled me until I realized I was by the back fence of the Santa Barbara Zoo.

One dinner break, I walked toward Sterns Wharf. It was much further than I thought so I was late getting back but it was worth it. I found a Louisiana-style seafood place, The Drunken Crab. I had a lovely bowl of King Crab Bisque. The staff was welcoming and attentive. Nothing fancy, but it would be a good place to go with friends.

Before driving home, I made one last stop. I went to Sambo’s by the Beach. The original and only remaining Sambo’s Restaurant. There was one thing I had to order – pancakes of course. Looking at the decorations brought back a memory from 1979, the last time I ate at a Sambo’s. Following my senior prom, a group of us were hungry and stopped to get a bite to eat. Situated across the street from the beach, it has a beautiful view of Stern’s Wharf and the marina. That morning there were also runners as the annual 5K /10K Solstice Festival was that morning.

At the Awards Banquet, I was asked if I would come back next year. Ray Bradbury once said, “First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”  I jumped off the cliff, and I not only found some stronger wings, but my tribe was there to catch me. I’ll be back.

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The Bridge to Summer Break

Summer is here, school is out, and the kids are home all day long.

When I was growing up that meant fun and adventure. We’d get up at sunrise, have breakfast, and then we were out for the day running around the neighborhood, riding our bikes in the canyons, and eating lunch at whoever’s mom would feed us that that day. If my mom had the day off from work, lunch was at our house. Everyone knew if we played our cards right, she’d let us hang out in the family room and play cards or watch television until time for dinner. We thought we were getting away with something – but the truth was she liked having us around.

As we got older, we could take the bus somewhere for the day. The beach, the zoo, or the library were popular destinations. Occasionally, it was a day at the mall and the afternoon matinee.

As the school year wrapped up, I asked my students (high school age, most receiving special education services) what they planned to do over the long break. Most responded, “nothing.”

Being the “speech teacher,” I would inquire for more detail, working on one last chance to teach better communication skills. “Define – nothing. Are you sitting on your bed twiddling your thumbs? Or sitting on the floor with your fingers in your ears?”

They give me polite laughter at the attempted joke.

Nothing means playing video games all day. Things have changed since I was a kid.

The moment they say admit that they have no real plans for summer, students that have been with me awhile know what is coming next.

We just spent the last five months reading a novel together as the platform to work on their language goals. This year we read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson.

We talked about the main characters, Jesse and Leslie, spending time stretching the wings of their imaginations bringing Terabithia into existence. It was in this land of their making, they learned the power of friendship, how to face the giants in their lives, and how it was important to give back to the world what they had learned. The ending is bittersweet, there were a few wet eyes and sniffles as we finished the reading.

Before we get back to how this relates to my student’s summer, let me explain why I read to my students.

I am not a reading teacher, my pay-the-bills job is providing Language, Speech, and Hearing Services to high school students. I use reading as a platform to meet their goals. It is through reading, I can introduce them to vocabulary and grammar in context. The stories demonstrate the use of critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a wide variety of settings. Most importantly, it is through reading we learn how to deal with strong emotions in relative safety, especially empathy.

Now, back to our main topic – What are you doing during Summer Break?

After they have told me that they plan on spending their summer in their dark, probably smelly, bedrooms staring at a monitor for two months, I take a deep breath and smile. “Is that the best you can do? Where is your sense of adventure? Where is your imagination?”

They roll their eyes.

“Are you ready for your summer assignment?” I continue.

From the freshman, I get wide-eyed looks of disbelief – homework over summer? The older students roll their eyes again and say, “We know, we know – read.”

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This is their assignment, printed on stationary –

Dear Students,

It’s time to say goodbye to another school year. Where did it go? These past ten months have gone by too fast. I have watched you learn, discover, and become young adults.

I’m going to ask you to do three things over the Summer:

  • Read every day for at least thirty minutes (longer would be better). Read anything: sports magazines, comic books, the manual for that new video game, or novels. You don’t need money to do this – the public library is free. The librarians will be glad to help you find something of interest at your reading level. Take advantage of the library’s summer reading program and book browse. (To browse a book – pick up a book and start reading. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish it. Return it and get another book. If you like it, finish it and then ask the librarian to help you find other books by the same author or in the same genre.)
  • Get some sun on your face every day. That means – go outside. Play basketball in the park. Go for a walk. Ride your bike. Have fun.
  • Come back to school in one piece. I don’t want to see any broken students in August. I want you back safe, healthy, and ready to learn.

Take care and have fun. I look forward to seeing you all in the fall.

Students that have done my summer homework report that they had a fun break, learned something new, and were ready to be back at school. Those that didn’t report they had an okay break and are not ready to be back a school.

If you have students at home for the summer and they’ve decided that hibernating in their bedrooms and vegetating is how they are spending their break, might I make a suggestion?

Encourage them to come out of the dark and join you in the sunshine. Make it a family activity to go to the library, take a hike, or do something new.

I have no children at home. It would be easy for me to park myself at the computer and surf all day. But I know that I’d be hurting both my physical and mental health. So, I read, write, take the dogs for walks, borrow my friend’s children for a day, and plan adventures. In other words, I follow my own advice to my students.

I’ll admit those last few weeks of the school year I was so looking forward to a break from getting up at 4:30 in the morning, being responsible for a hundred plus students, and facing the daily pile of paperwork on my desk.  But I also know that come the end of July, I’ll be ready to cross back over the bridge a start another school year.

I wish you all, my beloved readers, a happy and safe summer. And don’t worry, I’ll be posting my adventures so you can share in the fun too.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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