Slice of Life: Writing Role Model

Slice of Life“Can we read your story?”

My students know that I’m a writer. The last week of NaNoWriMo is crunch time, and with December looming and fifteen thousand words between me and the fifty thousand word goal, I was getting desperate, squeezing in a few hundred words here, a page or two there during my lunch break. Some of my library regular saw me, and immediately bombarded me with questions: “What’s it about?” “Who is the main character?” “Can we read it?”

I told them it was about ghosts, the main character is a young widow, and no, you can’t read it. I was too embarrassed about the sloppiness of my handwriting… and my prose. So one of the girls kindly offered to loan me her personal copy of Writer’s Digest Guide to Good Writing during the editing stage.

I left my manuscript at home today, but I’ve already started a new story, and they were begging to read that, too. I like this story better, so I let them read a page from my notebook, the opening to a Sleeping Beauty retelling starring two mischievous twins. Five students clustered around my desk to share my notebook, and after that glimpse at my story, students were eager to share their own ideas: a story about a girl who finds out that she’s secretly a direct descendent of Leonardo da Vinci, a fantasy epic about a girl who can talk to animals who is adopted by the good queen but is secretly the daughter of the evil queen.

These were my usual suspects, and their enthusiasm during snack time brought over curious visitors, just there to drop off an overdue book or swap it out for something new to read. By the end of their twenty minute recess, I had copied out the URL for the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Project onto several sticky notes and had students asking me to run a Camp NaNoWriMo club in April 2015.

When I told them I finished my story over the weekend, one student said to me, “I hope it’s a best seller.” Another asked, “Can it be a 2016 Sakura Medal book?” Their excitement motivated me to keep writing, even when I was sick, even when I was slogging through. I want to give them back the same faith and enthusiasm, and the time and space to tell their own stories.

NaNoWriMo 2014 Winner


Slice of Life: “A Bit OCD”

Slice of Life

Content note: OCD, in some detail.

Internet, we have to talk.

A preference, even a strong preference, for tidiness and organization is not “a bit OCD.”

Always running late because I have to check if I’ve turned off the stove, or locked the door, or closed my window is “a bit OCD,” especially on days when I haven’t either used the stove or opened my window, but I have to go back anyway, just in case. What if I opened the window and forgot about it? What if I opened the window last night and didn’t close it before bed? What if…

Sometimes the thought strikes before I’m even out the door. Those are the best, because they’re easiest to fix. I walk through the house, saying, “off, closed, locked” and pointing to the stove, the window, the door as I go. “Check, check, check.”

Usually, it hits me at the intersection near the barber shop. “Oh, shit. Did I…?” and then I have to turn around on blisteringly hot summer days and trudge back, or run, shivering in the icy winter, back to my apartment to check. “Check, check, check.”

On really bad days, it occurs to me a stop or two away from my station, and then I’m really late. I have to wait for the next train back home, walk from station to apartment, “check, check, check.”

I’ve never left the stove on, the window open, or the door unlocked, but some days, I’m afraid that this is the day. This is the day my apartment building will burn down, or my papers will all blow away, or bandits will come in through my unlocked door like an invitation and take my laptop, my compass, my mom’s silk teacher scarf.

I have to go back and check. If I don’t, something bad will happen. So I go back, and I check, and I send apologetic text messages about forgotten train passes. It sounds better than the truth.

The truth is, I’m “a bit OCD.”

It’s only a bit OCD. My mental health problems aren’t debilitating, but they aren’t a picnic, either. The need to “check” fluctuates, as does what needs “checking.”

Lately, it’s my stove, windows, door, or how recently my mother posted to Facebook or emailed me back, and I have to end every conversation with some sort of promise or plan we’ll talk again soon. “Let me know what you want for Christmas” will do, because it’s implying that I’ll hear back from her. This is a major step in the right direction from when I was more than “a bit OCD.”

Back then, in high school, I had to end every parting with, “Goodbye, I love you, I’ll see you __________.” I’ll see you after school, at the library, when you get home from the grocery store, when I get home from the mall. I’ll see you.

This was not just “a bit OCD.” This was me hyperventilating and sobbing at school, calling my mom’s workplace from the secretary’s phone in the main office while curious onlookers, kids I didn’t know, watched out of the corner of their eyes, confused. We fought that morning, I hadn’t said it. Or maybe I had, but then I forgot? I couldn’t remember. I had to call and say it, just in case.

We heard a siren on our way to school. An ambulance passed by the bus. I didn’t think it was heading in the direction of my mom’s workplace, but I had to “check.”

If I didn’t, something bad would happen.

It wasn’t just “a bit OCD.”

It wasn’t just “a bit OCD” when, during undergrad, I had to keep saying the Lord’s Prayer or God would kill my cat. I said it over and over again to myself, all day and all night. I wasn’t allowed to think certain thoughts, say anything unkind, fail to hold open a door or pick up a stray napkin and chuck it in the bin, because if I racked up enough strikes against me, enough bad karma, God would kill my cat.

I don’t even believe in God.

My cat passed away that summer.

CleoIt wasn’t because I thought something mean about a stranger on the train. It wasn’t because I only said the Lord’s Prayer because I don’t know the whole Rosary, the Hail Mary. God didn’t kill my cat. She passed away because she was old, and sick, and that’s what happens to pets when they get old, and sick, and even all the Hail Marys in the world couldn’t have saved her.

When I held her in my lap on the day the vet came, I knew that was the last time, and I knew I hadn’t killed her with my bad deeds, because that doesn’t even make sense. I knew that then, and I knew it in the months leading up to that moment. I knew that it didn’t make sense, but how could I live with myself if I slipped up and put my recycleables in the trash bin and God killed my cat to teach me a lesson about sustainability? I had to be careful, just in case, even if it didn’t make sense.

But OCD doesn’t make sense. OCD tries to make sense out of a senseless universe. Even knowing that it doesn’t make sense, you have to “check.”

This is what it’s like to be “a bit OCD.” No matter how senseless, embarrassing or strange, there are some things I have to “check.” I know I locked the door, but I have to “check.” There’s nothing I can do about the exchange rate, but I have to “check.” Mom hasn’t posted on Facebook for a few days, so I have to “check.” In my last email, did I say or imply that I wanted to hear from her?

If not, time to think up an excuse that doesn’t sound crazy, doesn’t make her worry, so I can sign off with, “Talk to you soon!”

That’s “a bit OCD.”

Slice of Life: NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo 2014 CalendarThis is what I’ve been up to this month, why I’ve been blogging even more sporadically than usual: November is National Novel Writing Month, and I’ve been busy squeezing writing into my days here and there wherever I can find time.

It’s been exhausting. I just finished scribbling down my 1,667 (or so) words for the day – I’m writing by hand this year. Yesterday was like pulling teeth trying to get those words out, but it was the best feeling, falling asleep knowing I wasn’t too far behind.

I had three hundred or so words left to go, but that didn’t feel too daunting, considering I somehow managed to write almost ten times that – and on a work day, no less. Somehow, by squeezing writing in before work in the morning, and during my morning break, and while I ate lunch, and then settling down in bed with A Knight’s Tale, I had written three thousand words.

I had also gone to work, taught classes, shelved books, located resources, done my job, cooked lunches and dinners, washed the dishes and brushed my teeth. Then I collapsed into bed and did the whole thing all over again today.

Slice of Life… and I’ll do it tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, every day until the 30th, when I will scrawl those two blessed words, The End. Right now, it seems like a long and exhausting way off, but it’s exhilarating, too, feeling a story form under my fingers from fragments of words and images and half-formed ideas. I never outline for NaNoWriMo, I just run with whatever idea strikes on Halloween or so.

Now that I’ve got my groove back – if I win this year, it will be for the first time since 2007, in my first semester of undergrad – I want to bring this to my students next year, this exhausting, exhilarating, writing life.

… but first, I need to get some sleep.

Slice of Life: Golden Compass

Slice of Life“That’s the duty of the old,'” said the Librarian, “to be anxious on the behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.”

I first encountered The Golden Compass at summer camp.

I didn’t realize the significance of the book my mother handed to me. This was TDI, and I was in fifth, maybe sixth grade. That year, they ran a strand for grown-ups, teachers I guess. It was my first ever time at sleepaway camp, and my mother and I shared a dorm. I went to an outdoorsy day camp for a few years, but I never adored it, not the way I loved TDI.

I don’t remember why I climbed into the dorm-room wardrobe to read. Perhaps I wanted to be like Lyra, who we meet just before she climbs into a wardrobe herself to hide.

I do remember that I didn’t “get” it, not at first. It was a struggle. I didn’t understand what was going on. What were dæmons? What was Dust? It was tough, but I was determined not to give up. Maybe it’s just because I was at a summer camp for “gifted” students and I wanted to prove that I belonged there, too. I don’t remember; at the time, it didn’t seem like a life-changing thing, so I didn’t give it any more or less thought than any of the numerous books I read.

I wish I remembered better, because it did change my life. More than Redwall, more than The Lord of the Rings. Maybe even more than Harry PotterHis Dark Materials changed my entire reading life.  I’m glad I pushed through my initial confusion, because by the time Lyra stood on the bridge to the stars, I was hooked. I had to know what happened next, although (you may remember) I waited all summer for The Subtle Knife to come in at my local public library. (I begged my mother to use her Johnson State College library card to get it for me, but that was far from where we lived.)

I never wrote fanfiction about it. I was never part of the “fandom,” exactly, but I debated my friends fiercely on the finer points of dæmonology and Dust, online and off. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I never really did. When I went through a bad friend break-up, these were the first books I returned to during what turned into months and months of rereading, and it was like coming home.

We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.

Every time I reread, I find something new, another piece of wisdom I’d missed, another understanding I uncover as I grow older; this is the power of children’s literature, and rereading – two of my favorite things as a reader.

DEARStill, these are hard to introduce to my students. They are difficult books. I suggested it to one student, one of my highest readers, and when I asked if she liked it, she said it was “too weird.”

I tried not to take it personally. I fretted to my mother, who first put this book in my hands maybe fifteen years ago, that I had ruined the experience of this book for my student by suggesting it too early. Maybe all this student will remember is the struggle to get into a book that was “too weird” for her.

I tend to be a book evangelist in my daily life – aren’t most librarians? – but there’s something extra special about this one. I don’t suggest it willy-nilly to just anyone. It’s not that kind of book. I worried that it was ruined forever in this student’s mind.

But my favorite books don’t have to be my students’ favorite books – or vise-versa. It’s not that I hope to get this book into their hands. It’s that I want them to find their golden compass, the book that points the way, that tells them the truth.

Tell them stories.

Slice of Life: Desert of Our Love

Slice of LifeDuring study abroad, I stopped reading fiction.

I didn’t do it on purpose. I had so much else to do. There were papers to write and kanji to cram, but it wasn’t just that. I had all of Tokyo, all of Japan, to see, and only ten months to do it.

This was in 2009-2010. iPhones had been invented two or three years ago, but they were expensive and smartphones weren’t ubiquitous. I didn’t have an ereader.

The study abroad center had a small library, but it was all nonfiction and a very small selection of translated Japanese literature: The Tale of Genji, probably some Haruka Murakami, that sort of thing.

I hate to say it, but I was Japan’d out. (I wasn’t too burned out on it, because I moved back a year later and I’ve lived here ever since.) I stopped listening to Jpop, too.

During the semester, I had enough to keep me occupied, so I didn’t really miss it. That was a particularly good year for anime, too. I remember a lot of time spent debating and predicting what we thought would happen next in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Durarara!!. So I wasn’t completely starved for stories, until I realized how long it had been since I read a book.

6476120I asked my mom to send me Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, on the recommendation from a friend who really loved it. She packed it in my next box of candy (do you know how hard it is to get Twizzlers here?), and I was hooked. I bought the rest of the series as I got to them, and read Dark Tower all over the world: in Tokyo, in Vermont, in Boston, in Seoul. I started it in a tiny room I rented in Tokyo, and finished it in, you guessed it, a tiny room I rented where I lived in Boston, about a year and a half later.

I read other books in the meanwhile, but I remember the weight of Song of Susannah in my purse, pulling it out while we ate breakfast at the study abroad hotel in Seoul. I loved the soft feel of the pages as I read the end of The Dark Tower back in Boston. It took me months to finish (yours truly reads very slowly), and the book was in pretty rough shape.

My Dark Tower books are now among the only print books I have in my apartment. There’s just not space in this shoebox for everything, but I just had to have them here again, a reminder not to starve myself for stories again. I remember how it felt when I started reading fiction again, the way the words poured into me, and then out of me – I wrote fiction for the first time in months within hours of starting The Gunslinger.

It’s a lot easier for me to access fiction these days – the Nook app on my iPhone is my favorite, and I’m a librarian – but those books sit there and remind me that we carry our stories with us, anywhere in the world.

Slice of Life: Miss Honey

DEAR-holding_03Every year, my school has a “Book Character Dress-up Day Parade” to kick off our annual, month-long Drop Everything And Read (D.E.A.R.) event. Once a week, the whole school – students, of course, but also teachers, admin, even the custodial staff and visitors – “drops everything and reads” for twenty minutes.

(The only people who miss out on this? Your friendly neighborhood librarians. We go about and photograph this, instead. Bummer!)

The parade is a big hit. All of the elementary students and teachers dress up as their favorite book character, and while the little kids really love it, sometimes we have a harder time motivating the big kids. Last year, the Teacher Librarian came up with the idea of a contest for students, which has now been extended to include staff, too. The art teachers judge the most creative costumes, and students win (what else?) books.

Our parade is on November, but posters go up early to get students thinking… Oh boy, are they thinking. Especially now that they know there will be a prize, the bigger kids are eagerly planning their costumes.

The Little PrinceOne student comes by every day after school for new books, and lately she’s been sharing her plans with me about her costume. She considered Violet, from A Series of Unfortunate Events and today she said maybe Paper Bag Princess, but her favorite idea so far is to be Matilda (from Matilda, of course).

Today, she told me about her Matilda costume plans. She has a blue dress and white bobby socks and red ribbon. I told her I thought it sounded like a great idea, and she asked what I planned to do.

Last year, I was The Little Prince. I told her I might wear that again, because I like it. I like The Little Prince and I read it to my fourth and fifth graders last year, so they’ll recognize the character.

My student said that would be “boring” (oh, honesty) and suggested that I be… Miss Honey!


Matilda was one of my absolute favorite movies as a kid. (I didn’t read the book until I was older. Naughty, naughty.) I loved Miss Honey and I always hoped that I would gain magic powers from boredom at school. (It never happened.)

I wanted to be Miss Honey. I still pause and ask myself “what would Miss Honey do?” sometimes during the day.

I’m so flattered that this student would suggest this as my costume. Not only do I love and admire Miss Honey, but that she would suggest we chose a pair of characters – a clever girl and her favorite, wonderful teacher – just filled me with joy.

This has been a post for Two Writing Teacher‘s Slice of Life Challenge.

Slice of Life: Elvis Presley and Jackson Pollock

Slice of Life I have a little gaggle of regulars who stop by the library almost if not every day for new books, or just to hang out and chat. These afternoon visits are the highlight of my day.

First, one of them picked up the Horrible HistoriesDead Famous” Elvis and His Pelvis. She asked me about the joke. First, what’s a pelvis? so I explained, using Mr Bones, the skeleton model hanging around the third grade classrooms for their current Unit of Inquiry, Who We Are.

Mr BonesThat was the easy part. So how do you explain why Elvis wasn’t allowed to dance on TV without talking about moral panics or using the word “sexy”? I was at a loss, so I just pulled up YouTube and found a video of Elvis singing Hound Dog live on TV. She didn’t get it.

I guess it’s hard to see what’s so objectionable about a little dancing when you’re used to dodging pornography at the convenience store down the street from school where all the kids like to get ice cream. So we talked a little bit about how the media ups the ante to get more attention in an increasingly crowded landscape.

She didn’t take Elvis and His Pelvis after all, even after I told her that Elvis is “The King” that Lilo loves in Lilo & Stitch. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t take it. What matters is the conversations we have and how useful the internet is as a teaching tool.

After this conversation, I had some pre-K art on my desk. One of my other students said it was very scribbly. She is very into fine art, so we Googled some Jackson Pollock paintings and talked about scribbles as art.

Neither of these conversations are earth shattering, but it’s these little things, expanding students’ world views beyond what they’re learning in class. They’re learning lots of great things in there, but I relish the opportunity to teach them these little things they might have otherwise missed.