Saturday, May 25, 2013

My Teaching Years

I’ve been posting pieces about my writing these past few weeks, and let me be honest here:  that’s been easy.  Writing is most often a solitary pursuit.  If I’m not enjoying myself as I’m writing, I’ve got nobody to blame but myself.

When I look back at my teaching career, my feelings are varied and complex.  Schools are ever-dynamic places.  Special education teachers are at the center of a wheel with spokes that reach out to include parents, principals, special education administrators, and support staff like speech therapists, occupational therapists, adapted physical education specialists, physical therapists, adapted technology specialists, school psychologists—gee, am I leaving anybody out? 

Well, of course, there are the instructional assistants.  Most special education classes are assigned at least one or two full time aides.  In other words, as a teacher I generally had one or two other adults with me and the kids nearly all the time.  These people are tremendously important.  If you get along well with them, your workday is pleasant, your lesson plans run smoothly, the kids are happy, and life is good.  If you don’t get along with them, life is hell.  That’s all.  It’s hell; trust me on this.

Also I can’t forget custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers and noon duty playground supervisors.  There may even be after school program teachers and aides.

You see, when your students need extra help and extra supervision everywhere they go, a teacher’s got to grease the wheels by fostering friendliness wherever she goes.  On this front, some days I did better than others.  But for a very shy introvert like myself, some days it was damn hard.

But I can honestly say that being with the kids was a joy.  Not every day, and not all day—but most of the time, we had fun.  I couldn’t have done it for so long if we didn’t.  More next week.

How do you feel about your job?  Is it a joy or a burden or something in between?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Writing the Amherst Way

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of writing in a workshop with Pat Schneider, the author of Writing Alone and with Others, and the recently released How the Light Gets In:  Writing as a Spiritual Practice.
Pat developed a workshop method of writing together in community, which came to be the Amherst Writers and Artists Method.  Pat says the method is “nothing but common sense and kindness.  But we’re so short of that today that we require a ‘method.’”

It’s really pretty simple.  We get together to write.  The leader gives a “prompt.”  It may be a word, a phrase, a quote, a photo or other form of visual art, an object or a guided visualization.  The prompt is not an assignment, but a jumping off point to get each writer started.  We can write about the prompt or write about something else.  Often the prompt will get us started, and then lead us down a path where the real story lies.

After we finish writing, we share.  No one is required to read, but most of us do—especially if we’ve been writing together for a while.  Since we’re sharing brand new baby writing, only positive feedback is given.  No one is allowed to be harsh to vulnerable new writing.  But the feedback is helpful.  It focuses on what is strong and what we remember, i.e. what stands out. 

One more rule:  we pretend that all writing is fictional.  If written in the first person, listeners will refer to the speaker as “the narrator,” rather than assuming that the author is writing a tell-all memoir. 

I love this rule!!  Decades ago, in the first writing group I joined after college, the narcissistic drama was thick.  Someone would read a poem or story and people would blurt, “Oh, my husband (or boyfriend or partner) does that too!—blah, blah, blah. . ..”  The writing would be forgotten as everyone began gabbing about her own problems.  Such a relief now to write with people who want to focus on writing!

But despite this seeming restriction, the Amherst method is often therapeutic.  The creation of a safe space and the promise of anonymity allow the writer to dig deep and share hard truths.

At our workshop last month, Pat described writing as a version of the hero’s journey.  She said when we dig deep to confront our fears, we will come to a cave and confront a metaphorical dragon.  Know that the dragon is guarding a treasure, but realize this:  the dragon is guarding the treasure not FROM us, but FOR us.

You may have guessed that Pat lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, but there is a very active chapter of Amherst Writers and Artists here in Sacramento and northern California.  For more info, check out this link:

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Next Big Thing!

Thanks to my friend June Gillam for “tagging” me to promote The Next Big Thing!  In June’s latest blog post she wrote about her upcoming thriller, House of Dads.

Now it’s my turn to tell you all about my novel.

What is the title of your book?

Welcome Stranger

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Years ago (or maybe I should say Once Upon a Time) while on a field trip with my special education class, one of my students--a Hmong boy born in a refugee camp in Thailand—struck up a conversation with a homeless man sitting at the Regional Transit bus stop on L Street near Downtown Plaza.  I was so touched by the man’s patience and humor as he spoke with this child and me that I began writing about him as soon as I got home that night.  The episode became a poem, then a short story, and now a novel.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Amy Adams has the range to play a woman who is intelligent yet na├»ve, so she’d be my first choice for protagonist Cassandra Apple.  Cassandra’s love, Harvey Random, is a combination of Eli Stone’s sweetness and Sherlock Holmes’ quirky intensity, so Jonny Lee Miller (who’s played both characters in recent TV dramas) would do well as my novel’s male lead.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Shy special education teacher Cassandra Apple falls in love with the gregarious, ivy-league educated yet homeless Harvey Random.  (Not your typical Rom-Com!)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m currently shopping Welcome Stranger, seeking representation.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Since this was my first novel, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing, the first draft took approximately 24 years and 5 months.  Subsequently, I’ve learned to whip out 50,000- word first drafts in 30 days or less every November during National Novel Writing Month, i.e. Nanowrimo.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I would humbly liken my work to the novels of Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Lamott, who both write stories featuring strong female protagonists and spiritual (though not necessarily religious) themes.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It has been a dream of mine since high school to write novels, and I am very grateful to see my first book manifest.  I must give credit to my late mother who was always my biggest supporter.  I have a wonderful circle of friends and fellow writers who have also encouraged me.  The insights of my friend and spiritual guide, Craig, have also offered me amazing inspirations for my writing.  Finally I would be remiss if I did not mention HC, who has been the perfect muse—annoyingly elusive yet enchanting—lo, these many seasons.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Welcome Stranger explores issues such as homelessness, mental illness, emotional abuse, and the state of our public education system.  But at its core, it is the story of Cassandra’s spiritual journey.  Harvey becomes Cassandra's lover, but he is also the holy fool who leads her to a greater understanding of her own soul. 

And now it’s time for me to tag a wonderful writer, friend and mentor, John Crandall.  You can find John at