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The Power of the Pen

Thirty-five 6th graders shuffled into the room and sat in groups of seven as directed. They gathered in this big school cafeteria-sized room to participate in a one day writing workshop, Power of the Pen, and had ridden busses from the five Putnam County Middle Schools to a meeting place new to them.

            To participate, each student had written a short story based on a prompt: As you’re paying for your groceries, you mention to the clerk, that there’s a mess in aisle 16. They give you a puzzled look and reply, “There is no aisle 16.”  The students’ stories covered every genre from science fiction to mystery to humor to fantasy. 

            I had been invited to be one of five authors to share the day with these students.  We were a varied group: a published novelist, a poet and short story writer, a songwriter, a motivational and inspirational writer, and newspaper columnist.  The students, in their small groups, met with each author and our task was to encourage these young writers.

            A day away from school might be enough to make students smile, but these are 11 and 12-year-olds who aren’t prone to look happy.  I remember these students well from the years I taught 6th grade.  Each morning, I stood at my classroom door to welcome them and they would walk past me, not even acknowledging my greeting, but the next day they crawled under my arm for a hug.  Like two-year-old toddlers, they want to be independent and need assurances.  They need to know that what they say is heard and accepted.

            During the thirty minutes I met with each group, we imagined that we were in charge.  We read Judith Viorst’s poem, ‘If I Were in Charge of the World.’   According to her writing, Ms. Viorst would cancel oatmeal and Monday mornings.  She wanted healthier hamsters and basketball baskets forty-eight inches lower. She wouldn’t have lonely or clean or bedtimes.  A chocolate sundae would be a vegetable and a person who forgot to flush would still be allowed to be in charge of the world. 

            The students wrote their versions of this poem. I won’t share all their writings, and I vowed not to name names.

            They cancelled tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, raisins, and any cookie with oatmeal. War, fighting and hunger would be eliminated.  All children would be safe.  Everyone would be kind, follow rules, and there would be peace everywhere. Cancer would be wiped out.   

            A double-stuffed Oreo cookie would be a vegetable. Chocolate would be medicine.  Reading would be exercise.

            One student looked to the classroom teacher who accompanied his group.  “Can I say something…” he hesitated, but continued when she encouraged him, “something religious?”  The teacher nodded. “If I were in charge of the world, all people would pray and trust their God.”  

            At the end of the workshop, everyone waved good bye, most students smiled, and we all wore gray tee shirts with the words Power of the Pen.  These children had shared their written words.  That is powerful.

There’s Always Something

Do you ever run out of something to write about?  If I had a quarter for every time I’ve been asked this question, I’d buy all my Grands ice cream cones every week.  

            When I committed to write this weekly column eleven years ago, I had many stories about my young Grands.  My friend, writing mentor, and fellow Herald-Citizen columnist, Jennie Ivey, told me that when I ran out of those stories, I could look around, listen, and read, and there would always be something to write about.  Jennie was right. 

            The problem is too many things.  Topics swirl in my head and I sometimes begin several columns before choosing one.  But this week, that didn’t work.  Bits and pieces keep churning in my thoughts.

            Last Monday for the first time our oldest Grand, age 16, drove alone to our house, and my eyes watered, a lump filled my throat.  Samuel came to spend the night with Husband and me. This Grand began staying overnight when he was a toddler.  By the time he was three, he stayed one night a week.  Thru the years, he and his siblings have taken turns – each week one spends the night at our house.

            The next day, before Samuel drove his family’s little red truck out of our driveway, we hugged and he said, “Thanks, Gran. I had lots of fun.”  Right now, this Grand knows love through food.  When we feed him, he’s happy. I’m thankful every time he takes his overnight turn because there’ll be the day when he’ll say, “It’s okay.  You can skip me.”  Then I’ll wipe big tears.

            You know that June is National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable month, don’t you?  I thought June was Dairy Month.  According to nationaldaycalendar.com, this month also celebrates cats, the great outdoors, country cooking, turkey lovers (shouldn’t that be November?), zoos and aquariums, accordion awareness, and more. Twenty-five in all. 

            I could write about fruits and vegetables.  About garden-fresh green onions and lettuce available now and buying produce at Farmer’s Market. My mouth waters for summer tomatoes and a mess of green beans. 

             Bird-watching is entertaining.  When birds began building a nest in my new bluebird box, I was as excited as a first-time daddy who passes out cigars.  From a distance, I watched birds dart in and out of the small hole and thought they were really brightly colored bluebirds. Using binoculars, Husband identified them as tree swallows.

            I studied tree swallows and blue birds in my bird identification book and then discovered that for years I’ve called House Finches by the wrong name: Purple Finches. I learn something every single day.

            It’s time for the WCTE Great TV Auction!  Check it out at https://wcte.givesmart.com

            Why is it that minutes after I carry my laptop computer outside to write my neighbor starts mowing his yard?             Grands. National Days. Animals. Local happenings. There’s always something to write about.  And for backup, there’s a bulging folder labeled ‘Possible Columns’ filled with notes beginning 2011.

Try, Try Again

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As a teacher and as a mother, I’ve said it a thousand times.  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.”  I’ve stood over students’ shoulders and said, “You almost got that problem right.  Check your addition and try again.”  And I remember when each of my children learned to ride a bicycle.  I held onto the back of the bike seat as my child peddled.  I ran along beside the bike and when I let go, the bike wobbled and fell.  “It’s okay.  Try again!  You can do it,” I said.

Words that flowed easily from my mouth.  Try, try, again. But when those words were aimed at me, I wanted to chomp them and spit them out.

About three years ago, I shared with friends a family Christmas story that I’d written, and they said, “That’s a Chicken Soup story.  You’ve got to submit it!”  I was familiar with Chicken Soup for the Soul books.  I’ve had one on my bookshelf for twenty years.  According to its cover, it includes 101 stories to open the heart and rekindle the spirit.  And I knew that several local writers have published stories in a Chicken Soup book.  From looking at the Chicken Soup website, I learned that as many as ten books, on different topics, are published each year.

I submitted my story.  And never heard a word from the publisher.  “Try again,” my friends said.  I did.  I sent a dog story and a cat story and didn’t get responses.  “Don’t give up.  Keep trying.”  With little enthusiasm and less confidence, I submitted a story about mother/daughter relationships and received an email that said, “Your story has been selected for the final selection of Chicken Soup for Mothers.”

“Aren’t you glad you kept sending in stories?  You’re in!  Congratulations!”  my friends said.  I sent the required release form to the book editors, and I gloated a bit.  And then, a month before publication, I received an email, “I regret to inform you that some of the final selections have been cut…blah…blah…blah.  We hope you will try again.”

By then, I was determined.  I hung a poster beside my writing desk that had hung in my school classroom.

It’s okay to try and fail and try and fail again. 

            It’s not okay to try and fail, and fail to try again.

I submitted a story about my first house and one about friendship.  No responses.  I revised a story about being a parent and emailed it on the deadline date for submission.  Many months later, I received an email stating, “Your story has been selected for the final selection……”  I read the rest of the message with great skepticism.  I’d believe it when I saw it.

And, now six months later, I believe.  Chicken Soup for the Soul, Parenthood is now available to buy and there’s my story entitled “More to Life than Basketball.”  Way in the back of the book, under the heading Giving Them Wings to Fly.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.  Those words taste sweeter today.  Chicken Soup is now accepting submissions for a proposed book entitled Reboot Your Life.  I surely have a story for that book.