Model Teaching: Empowerment Through Multi-Faceted Instruction

I’ve been teaching for a long time — long enough to see the spin of the pedagogical cycle of strategies come full circle. What I have learned along the way is that there are some practices that work better than others when it comes to teaching writing.
In 2009, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a call-to-action report, “Writing in the 21st Century,” that stated clearly our need to recognize the importance of teaching writing in a way that aligns with our complex lifestyles interwoven with technology and multitasking.

In the report’s introduction, NCTE past president, Kathleen Blake Yancey, writes, “It’s time for us to join the future and support all forms of 21st century literacies, inside school and outside school. For in this time and in this place we want our kids—in our classrooms, yes, and in our families, on our streets and in our neighborhoods, across this wide country and, indeed, around the world—to ‘grow up in a society that values knowledge and hard work and public spirit over owning stuff and looking cool.’” (Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion)

She rallies teachers of writing to answer this “call to research and articulate new composition, [this] call to help our students compose often, compose well, and through these composings, become the citizen writers of our country, the citizen writers of our world, and the writers of our future.”

I could not agree more with Yancey’s call to action. What we need to do, as teachers of writing, is to find ways to integrate the various strategies that have worked over the years and apply them to real-world needs that empower our students to effect change. This is the most meaningful way to make writing matter to students who are already engaged in communication outlets and devices only dreamed of in sci-fi works a generation ago.

Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year, models this beautifully in a 12-minute feature with the Teaching Channel. This video, titled, “Making Learning Personalized and Customized,” empowers individuals in the classroom to write about real issues (many of their own choosing) that are relevant in their lives today and, most certainly, their future.

What makes McComb’s approach so authentic and applicable to the students’ lives is his development of this project.

McComb’s strategies are clear in this graphic that is presented toward the end of the video. Not only has he integrated technology through Skype sessions and Google interviews with real sources, as well as through laptops and tablets at various stations, he has integrated opportunities for individual, one-on-one, small group, and larger group collaborative activities that all work toward the publishing of original, genuine, and meaningful works for a larger audience.

In other words, he has taken the finest materials of our best teaching strategies, the recursive writing process, real-world issues, and publishing and has seamlessly woven them together to create a lasting experience for his students that they will be able to apply long after the last bell rings for the school year.
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Our opportunities to teach well and effect change in the classroom are still available to us as teachers of writing (and this applies to all ages and across all content areas). We need to rethink how we approach teaching, though, and create projects like McComb’s that have strong beginnings built on the foundations of communication and comprehension, solid middles filled with diverse opportunities for rigorous and highly applicable learning, and empowering endings that give the students the tools they need to succeed in real-world ways that improve their communities and allow them to fight confidently and appropriately in the acts of advocacy and equality.

To see the full video, click on the image below.
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Journaling: Your Greatest Investment

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 12.22.16 AMOne of the questions I am asked most frequently about the process of writing is which is most important: the writing or the publishing? It’s a good question, but like everything else associated with the practice of writing, it’s not an easy one to answer.

When we look at the process of writing, we can first break it into five simple, yet recursive, steps: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing.

In recent years, some writing initiatives, such as the 6+1 Traits concept, bring greater depth and meaning behind each step of the writing process. Those who apply this strategy toward writing are mindful of ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. The “+1” represents publishing in some format. When you lay the traits over the process, you begin to get a pretty exhaustive approach to writing with intent, and often with success in connecting with your intended audience.

So when I’m asked whether writing or publishing is more important, it’s not an easy answer; both are so interconnected with each other. Even if we rephrase the question and ask, “Which is more important: Process or Product?” we are left with two very generic categories that cannot be separated.

My answer, invariably, ends up turning some heads.

“Neither,” I offer. What I think is most important is what happens before we start writing for an audience, and certainly before we consider publishing for an audience beyond ourselves.”

When they ask me to explain, all I need to do is reach into my ripped and well-traveled book bag and pull out two, three, maybe even four books of various sizes, colors, and even textures. Within each book, the pages might differ as well: lined or unlined, heavy or light stock, glossy or coarse.

These are my Daybooks, my journals, my greatest investment in my writing, and my greatest investment in defining with authenticity who I am as an individual.

IMG_2481I have been journaling since I was in 7th grade, when I started playing around with various essay formats on defining, of all things, love. When I would open my cheap spiralbound books bought at Woolworth’s for a few dimes, I felt an immediate rush of trust in this process of journaling for an audience of one — myself. I would jot down notes about my daily observations, my feelings about my experiences, and my philosophic ponderings about life and our existence. Even at the young age of 12, I allowed myself to tell the “Watcher at the Gates” guarding my thoughts to be gone. When it came to writing in my Daybook, there were no inhibitions, no rules, no exceptions. Just me and the page; that’s all that mattered.

Today, nearly 40 years later, I am still journaling as furiously as I did in my younger days. I now have many different journals dedicated to specific writing projects and purposes: some are for in-process novels, others are for Christian or spiritual reflections, and even more are are for my “Morning Pages” (a huge shout out to Julie Cameron for her inspiration in The Artist’s Way and other creativity books).

Most recently, I have started using specific Daybooks for art journals, which has been therapeutic in an entirely different way.

In every case, though, journaling/Daybooking has enabled me to invest in myself, in my writing, and in my understanding of the human condition. It is both spiritual and practical, theoretical and theological. When I am spending time in my Daybook, I am spending time growing, understanding, and experiencing humility, grace, patience, and service.

The many volumes of completed Daybooks that I have accrued are, at times, fun to look at and reflect on where I was at each stage in my life. But when I do take a peek at the past, I realize, over and over again, that these Daybooks are filled with words of what I needed to write, to say, at that time in my life. For the most part, 95% of those words never saw the light of day in published form; on the other hand, 95% of those words contributed significantly to who I am today.

And that is why I believe Journaling has been my greatest investment.

A few shout outs: First, to Dawn Herring at www.dawnherring.net. She’s a leading expert in the field of journaling, and she’s doing some great things for others with her #JournalChat sessions on Twitter. She inspired me to write about journaling, and I am grateful for the invitation.

Also, I use journaling and Daybooking with all of my fellow writers that I work with on a daily basis to help them find the courage they need to write their memoir. It’s never easy, and I’ve found that journaling is the best remedy to crack the ice and get to the heart of the stories still untold.

If you are interested in learning more about The LifeStory Lighthouse, check out this story about our plan to share the world’s stories, one word, one idea, at a time: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-lifestory-lighthouse/x/13401651#/.

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This Is Our Reality As Creatives

magnetic_poetry1_by_cassandra_tiensivuMany fellow writers and artists have been posting about the distractions we face in our creative lives, and how we can overcome them. One of those pieces was by an artist I just started following, Debbie McClure., thanks to another writer, ML Swift, who reblogged her post. McClure writes,

At some point, the rubber must hit the road for the car to move forward even one inch. It doesn’t matter what challenges you’re faced with, to move forward means doing something.

That’s pretty good advice for all of us. Here’s where I take it in my own writing life.

We know ourselves better than anyone. We are aware of what gives us energy, and what pulls it away. We know where we are strong, and we know when we are vulnerable. Our understanding of these forces, both around us and within us, grants us the opportunity to live our lives in greater control of how we exert our energy, utilize our experiences, and convert them into creative products.

This is our reality as Creatives.

I don’t pretend to keep everything in balance, all the time. Quite the contrary, and that’s what motivated me to write last night’s piece about being more authentic in my posts. The truth is, I struggle with this balance all the time, and for a number of reasons.

First, I have many interests, and I like to pursue all of them. Writing, reading, photography, music, nature immersion, abstract drawing, teaching, and journalism, to name a few. I’m also happily married and the proud papa of three beautiful children. I don’t like to slight any of these things. I am passionate about all of them. I have learned how to integrate these loves into my writing.

Second, I am, by my very nature, a people pleaser and helper. Now, knowing this has allowed me to be better about how I manage this. I get caught up in some pretty emotional issues that are close to me (depression awareness and suicide prevention, to name a few). But what I’ve learned is that, even though I care deeply about these issues, it isn’t my calling. There are ways for me to help, through my writing, that are in many ways more powerful.

Third, I am empathetic about global issues that can really pull me away from my work. Again — awareness of my empathy allows me to break away consciously and, in my writing, find a way to contribute to healing in some way.

I think Creatives are just like this. We are open to receive the world emotionally and spiritually; and through the relationship with have with the world — through that absorption of ideas and emotions, we churn out products that help us better understand what we experience. Through poetry, prose, artwork, or photography, we exhale what we absorb, doing our best to communicate effectively with our audience.

So, let’s stay aware. Let’s remember that our reality as Creatives is as fluid as our breathing. We take in everything, and we touch what we experience with insight, love, and wisdom.

This is our reality as Creatives. Embrace it, and keep doing the work. The world needs to hear, read, experience what we have to share.

It’s Time For Us To Get (Really) Acquainted

cropped-rvw-autumn-road.jpgHi.

I read a piece this weekend by a former student of mine and now fellow writer/author. Amanda, like a few others I know, is really digging deep and writing authentically (here’s the piece I’m talking about).

She made me turn the mirror on myself and see if I practice what I preach in my writing, or if I am one of those e-Posers, creating a false image of who I really am.

After thinking about it for the last 24 hours, I’ve come to this conclusion: I’m walking the thin fence, and I wobble a little to the left, a little to the right, a little too often.

What does that mean exactly? Well, to be honest…

What I Am Noticing

I believe everything that I write, everything that I preach, everything that I share. My mantras on love, kindness, wellness, and spirituality are all sincere — not just for you, but for me as well. All of that stuff is true.

The wobbles come in when we start talking about what I will call “selective posting.” Like Amanda writes, we’re all at least a little guilty of it, in some way. Right? We hold back the negatives that might cast a harsh light on our otherwise stellar lives. We keep in the backs of our minds our jobs, our family, our friends, our relationships. We are careful to walk that smooth line atop that fence, keeping our opinions in check, making sure that what we say, or write, or do does not become a misconstrued piece of evidence to jeopardize any aspect of our lives as we have crafted them.

In effect, though, we are becoming a mirrored image of the not-so-transparent people that we pose to be in our online worlds.

Do you get that? Do you see what is happening? In our effort to use social media to build ourselves up, we are actually using it to build nothing more than a superficial prototype of ourselves.

This is not who we are! And yet, the more we put in to that image, the less we can access that core of who we really are.

There’s another thing that happens, too: We spend a lot of time doing two things: logging in and logging out of the virtual world, and spending a lot of energy trying to get back to a place that we are losing touch with.

Thoreaus_quote_near_his_cabin_site,_Walden_PondThoreau called it the masses leading lives of quiet desperation. I think that, in this 21st century, Thoreau’s editor would change that to “…masses leading desperate lives of quiet superficiality.”

It’s sad, but it’s true. All it takes is a little mindfulness to slow it down long enough to step off the train and get reacquainted with who you really are.

Then hold on to that knowledge and never, ever surrender it.

What I Am Changing

Well, for starters, I’m going to use this space to be a bit more… uncut. My friend Steve has always liked these kinds of posts. He says that they are raw, real; something he can relate to. That’s what I want to share with you: more of the real side of me that isn’t always shown in a polished piece of writing. That begins now.

I’m also changing the frequency with which I write in this space. A good friend of mine, Jackie, writes a blog called the BaltimoreBlackWoman, and I find her words to be so encouraging and sincere as she embarks on this journey of online writing and publishing. Last month, she PM’d me and asked if everything was okay, as I had not been publishing much here at the Baltimore Writer. I assured her everything was fine, but it made me realize that I wasn’t seizing an opportunity to write more, share more, be authentic…more.

So that’s a big thing: Walking the walk while talking the talk. I want you to get to know me as a writer who freaks out about synthetics sucking all of the negative ions (and creativity) out of his soul, who charts methodically — obsessively — about every character’s nuances and every twist and turn of the story’s plot.

I want to share my more personal thoughts that are behind the polished pieces I write.

In essence, I want you to get to know me 3-dimensionally, where the struggles and challenges of living are made apparent in such a way that you can identify. That we can say we’re going through this thing called life together, holding hands, and taking our steps forward with courage and determination.

That we can say we knew each other more deeply than what was printed on the page, the screen, the tablet.

That we can say we appreciated the genuineness of our words, of our friendship, of our ideals.

That we can remember that we are not alone, that we are deeper than our social media avatar, that we are more loving, more gentle, more kind than we might have let on.

That we love, that we need to be loved, that we need to deliver love.

Those last few grafs sure sounded pretty plastic, I know. They sounded like the stuff I always publish, and maybe that’s the part of me that’s transparent. I believe in those things; I really do.

But what I believe in, just as much, is authenticity, through and through.

So there’s this:

I’m a writer runner, skipping over projects sometimes two at a time to get to the safer piece, usually without the deadlines, so that I can continue to feel productive. I am immensely deadline-driven, and I lose myself whenever possible in the non-structured wilderness of brainstorming, generating, and molding of ideas.

But for me to be successful, I have to stay close to the core of who I am. That’s a daily struggle as a writer. I have enough freelance gigs now that I can hop from story to story without feeling too guilty. Hey– I’m writing all the time; isn’t that what this life is all about?

Yes and, well, no.

The stuff I’m writing isn’t deep enough. I have to stay closer to the core, and more often, to really capture the words to express what I am thinking, feeling.

It’s not about hopping from deadline to deadline; in fact, it’s the complete opposite. It’s about crafting pieces deeply and then finding homes for them afterward.

It’s also about being genuine with myself, more often.

And that’s what you will be hearing from me, more often, here at The Baltimore Writer.

 

 

Answering The Call To Adventure: Part 1. Discovering The Writer Within

A91-179982A few days ago, a close friend passed away rather suddenly. I think the shock of her death gripped many of us in those first hours, where we didn’t know exactly how to react. We searched for meaning, we tried to make sense of the fact that she was here in one moment, and gone in the next.

I posted the following on Facebook to express that yearning for understanding:

When a friend dies, you search. You look for meaning in your own life, seek out understanding in the loss, and rummage through old words shared. In that search, you find yourself laughing and crying, wishing and regretting, loving and hating. Gretchen, I have done all of these things in the past 5 hours, and none of it brings me any closer to finding illumination in a loss as great as yours. There were too many stories untold that we were to share over coffee. You, Gretchen, will always be a merchant of smiles to the masses. We love you, and we will miss you greatly.

The morning after I posted it, a person I did not know on social media commented on it and asked if, many years ago, our paths might have crossed. It turned out they did – for the entire year of third grade, where she was my teacher.

Other elementary school classmates joined in, and within moments words of grief had turned into a celebration of life and gratitude. In Gretchen’s passing, relationships were rekindled, brought together for profound, yet simple purposes: there is an appreciation of life in this moment, and wherever we go, we can discover the beauty of others that swirls around us endlessly. There is no limit in the abundance of love.

holding hands 2In talking with my old teacher and new friend, I found myself returning to two memories from elementary school. The first was when I was in first grade, and I had written a little tribute to Abraham Lincoln for Presidents’ Day. In that brief piece, which I read to the whole school during the afternoon announcements (talk about publishing at a young age), I remember distinctly calling Mary Todd, Lincoln’s wife, his “beloved.” The principal snickered and suppressed a laugh as she held the microphone in front of me. I guess this was the first review I had ever received of my writing.

Jack Delaney1The second memory was of another teacher I had in elementary school. Jack Delaney was my sixth grade language arts teacher. He passed away 11 years later in my first year of teaching in 1988. Jack assigned us weekly writing projects, which I absolutely loved. What Jack did differently, though, was he had us go through this thing called “the writing process,” where we would draft stories, workshop them, edit them, and then share them with a larger audience.

Perhaps that was happening all throughout elementary school and I just don’t remember it. I certainly don’t remember workshopping the line about Abe’s “beloved” wife Mary.

The point is, Jack gave me a chance to breathe as a writer. He gave me the space to explore writing and take risks as that writer. Since that year, I have journaled on a near-daily basis. And in those journals, I have discovered the writer within.

magnetic_poetry1_by_cassandra_tiensivuWe don’t all have those lucky moments where we are given, directly, the chance to discover who we are as artists. In fact, in too many instances (especially today), those opportunities no longer exist. There isn’t time in the classroom, or we are too caught up in other aspects of life to give ourselves the time to discover that writer or artist within.

But inside you, the artist resides. You have to make the time, create the space, provide yourself with the license to write for no other purpose than to discover your voice and see yourself for the artist you have always been.

Maybe you journaled a little when you were younger, and you had to pass it up for reasons that, even today, might make perfect sense. What makes greater sense, though, is reconnecting with the artist inside you, giving that artist the chance to breathe, and allowing that artist to resonate more confidently through you.

In Part 2 of my series “Answering The Call To Adventure,” I will address how you can create a vision – an authentic direction – as that writer.

Three Little Reasons To Write in 2015

IMG_24801. Writing provides discovery, clarity, cleansing, understanding, epiphany, courage, belief, hope, and love — all for yourself as well as for others.

2. Writing keeps you focused on what is most important for you; it’s a natural journey that keeps you moving, keeps you going, keeps you clarifying and refining that journey. When we write, we move.

3. Writing stimulates your creativity, energy, desire, will, and motivation. It reminds you of the courage and energy residing within you, at all times, and at the ready for you to tap, use, and apply.

We write to change our own world before we can change the world around us.

So write for yourself, and see the immediate manifestation of these three little reasons.

The Story Had To Be Told: On Writing The Christmas Rose

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday, I published my short story, The Christmas Rose. It’s been less than 24 hours since I shared it with my readers, and I wanted to answer a few questions about why I wrote it.

Q: The story is pretty long — almost 8,000 words. Most people aren’t reading pieces that take more than a few minutes to read. Why didn’t you cut it down to under 5,000 words?

A. It is one of the longer shorts that I’ve written. Most are around 3,000 words. I’ve been trained well by the competitions and requirements of the print journals where I submit most of my work. I knew this piece was going directly to the web and to an eBook format, so I worried less about the length.

There’s another reason, though. First and foremost, the story had to be told, and I couldn’t hold any part of it back to fit a generic reader’s tolerance for a sustained reading. In other words, it doesn’t fit into the criteria of a social media read (that’s one of the reasons why I created a PDF of the manuscript so readers could download it and read it at their leisure).

Q: Aren’t you afraid that it won’t get more widely distributed then? It seems like the length is a real roadblock to it taking off.

A: Then so be it. I know the formula of what makes things go “viral” in today’s fast-paced world. Maybe this is an “anti-viral” piece. I’ve stopped caring about that. I’m going to be 50 years old in a few months, and I have a lot of stories to share before I go. I’ve stopped worrying about what works in this immediate world. If my story is 50 words or 500,000 words long, then that’s what it is. I’ll let my present and future readers decide what they want to do with it.

Q: How long were you working on this story?

A: Not terribly long at all. The basic premise came to me about 3 weeks ago that “believing” in something, like Christmas or Santa Claus, is not just for kids. We have a responsibility to continue our efforts to believe in our power to change the world — whether that is the “world” in our local town or community, or an entire nation or nations.

In the middle of writing the piece, we took a trip down to 34th Street to look at the lights in Hamden in Baltimore City. We never made it because a flash mob shut the streets down as they sung “Silent Night.” I thought that was the greatest thing to happen. Shut everything down with music. Stop driving by the world and take a few minutes to celebrate the beauty with friends and strangers alike. Wonderful stuff.

Here’s the video that was released from that special night:

After I wrote the first draft, I knew there was very little I wanted to revise. It’s a Christmas story, all right, but it’s so much more about what we can do for others. Our nation is in a stressful place right now. We can focus on the pain, or we can focus on acts of kindness for all that can begin a genuine and long-lasting healing.

Q: Is any of it real?

A: None of it and all of it. Luther’s Village is a micro version of historic Lutherville; Hunter’s Valley is Hunt Valley. Emily Starling is an extension of the kind elders I knew in my neighborhood in Loch Raven and Towson who gave so selflessly to others.

Q: What about the Christmas Rose?

A: The Christmas rose itself (Helleborus niger) is not very “rose-traditional” looking. And, more importantly, it is poisonous. I loved the story behind the flower, but using this exact plant for my story just wouldn’t work. The hybridization of flowers happens all the time; it is not unrealistic to believe that Emily was able to create a hybrid that would be safe and offer a nice fragrance.

I think planting and giving flowers is the greatest gift we can give to others, both for now and for the future. I’ve always enjoyed the stories about the hope flowers bring. It doesn’t take much to bring a little color and hope to others, does it?

Q: How can I read “The Christmas Rose”?

A: You can read it online HERE.

You can also download the eBook (PDF) to enjoy on your phone or tablet: Christmas Rose Story.

Thanks, readers, for reading and, possibly, sharing my story of The Christmas Rose with others. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

as always………………………….rvw

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Our Need To Endure

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a good hour at my local library researching topics that interest me greatly: spirituality, love, peace, and writing. You see, I’ve had some pretty good plans lately for new publications. Most of them center on improving your life through mindfulness and spirituality, using writing as a vehicle to living a more inspired and authentic experience.

By the end of that hour, I was caught between a three-way reaction; I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just quit altogether.

Every single idea I had — creative ideas, no doubt — had already been done, ad nauseum, by scores of other writers, spiritualists, and self-helpers out there in our shared universe.

When I returned home, I jumped on the internet and did a more global search through Amazon and other booksellers. What I discovered was even more disturbing.

Everything is available. To everyone. Anywhere. Anytime.

I considered my three reactions once more: laugh, cry, or resign. I felt the smile push my already-round cheeks closer to my eyes, and I began to laugh.

The pressure was gone; the anxiety released. I didn’t need to save the world, after all. Scores of life-savers have already taken care of this burdensome job for you, me, and, well — all of us.

Everyone. Everywhere. Anytime.

So what’s the point, then? Why write? Why publish? Why do any of it if it’s already been done?

The books that I mentioned were ones that I never knew existed. I have been doing this for a long time, and I was surprised how many titles were not on my literary radar. They were all legitimate titles, too. None of this Kinko’s-copied, let-me-wrap-a-spiral-binding-around-it kind of publication. Strong authors. Solid publishers. Recent pub dates.

It’s like when you’ve been following a musician for a long time, and you do a quick search and find out he released a new CD 3 years ago. How could this be? In this age of hyper-turbo instant info that goes streaming by your smart-phone-tapping thumbs on a dozen different newsfeeds, you would think that such a release would not get by you.

It did, and so does so much more, which is the whole point.

In a time where instant communication has broken through all geographic, cultural, political, and spiritual barriers, we still find ourselves missing the things that matter the most to us.

This, my friends, is our need to endure: close friends, loved ones, and the members who make up our small, seemingly tight-knit communities, the people and places we frequent the most.

This is our audience, our group, our family. And in this little circle, we need to hear each other’s voices, and often. Beyond us is a cacophony of words, sounds, images, and ideas streaming by us at speeds we can no longer fathom, a flow of information that we can no longer adequately absorb. It is just too much to take in.

But in our own community, we can contribute great things to each other; we can offer and value the sanctity of ideas, regardless of what might exist (ad nauseum) outside of our little village.

We have the need to endure, not for the masses, but for the villagers next door, across the street, or down a little ways along the virtual highway who have aligned with us.

It is for all of you that I write, that I share, that I post, and play, and pray. If it goes beyond the village and is appreciated by others, I am delighted.

But to endure, I write for you first. Always.

Moving Day

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This moving day was long overdue.

For the last week or so, I have been planning the best way to simplify and streamline my writing and my social media experience. Many years ago, I decided to use BlueHost to handle my various sites. At that time, it was a good decision; the difference between free and paid blogs was extensive. That’s not the case anymore.

So… The following sites have been moved:

rusvw.net –> baltimorewriter.wordpress.com

rusvw.net/blog –> baltimorewriter.wordpress.com

linesoflove.net –> iamalineoflove.wordpress.com

The baltimorewriter.wordpress.com address will house everything I am doing as a writer. It now includes the archives from my other two sites, dating back to 2005.

The Lines of Love address will continue to provide resources for those in need. In addition, I will be expanding our outreach to other groups, including the homeless and victims of domestic violence. Lines of Love is “growing up” and will move beyond the club level at area high schools.

Finally, look for Maryland Voices (creative nonfiction journal) to make a comeback in the fall, with a slightly new look. It, too, is growing up and will be a “journal of literary advocacy” to bring greater awareness to issues of social (in)justice and offer strength to those who are in need.

To all of you: I thank you for following me and supporting me through the years. I hope that these changes will simplify my efforts to share my writing and advocacy with a larger community.

 

Neil Gaiman and Making Good Art

neilgaimanMark, a friend and fellow artist and educator, walked in to my classroom yesterday, just before noon. I was talking with Andrew, an alum from ’05 who is a fascinating individual and filmmaker.

“Make good art,” is what Mark said.

He stood there, smiled, and said it again.

“Make good art.”

Andrew and I looked at each other, and Mark asked us if we had seen that Neil Gaiman lecture that’s circulating through social media.

Andrew immediately knew what Mark was talking about, but I somehow remained ignorant.

Make good art?

I listened intently as Mark and Andrew talked about Gaiman and his writing and passion for the arts. I said that I would check it out later, and when I got home last evening and did a little research, it didn’t take long to fall in love with Gaiman’s words and support for reading, writing, and creativity.

So…If you haven’t heard of Neil Gaiman yet, I’ve taken the liberty of capturing some excerpts from a lecture he gave just a few days ago. In this talk, Gaiman explains why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens.

Thank you, Mark, for turning me on to Neil Gaiman. It is empowering for us to have the support and the encouragement to “make good art” every day, in all that we do.

On Reading and Writing Fiction

Fiction… builds empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

On Imagination

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

The Obligation of Writers

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are.

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading.

And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

The Obligation of All Individuals

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

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These excerpts are from an edited version of Neil Gaiman‘s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London, and published at theguardian.com on October 15, 2013.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming?CMP=twt_gu

The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.