Léna's Lit.Life

Léna (me): Lit, as in literature, Lit, as in light, Lit, as in a little kooky: Life.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hello Again, Scholastic Awards, and Meaning

Happy New Year? Dear Readers, I am still here - alive and kicking through this long, hard winter - in WritopiaLand, writing more emails and notes,  delving deeper into the worlds' of emerging young writers than working on my own noveling. (More about that later.)

My biggest project though, has been helping my husband Rob put together our regional Scholastic Writing Award Ceremony, which was held this past Sunday, March 16th in the chapel of Reid Castle at Manhattanville College.

Here I am right before the ceremony with my right hand woman, Anastasia Guadron, so happy and excited to celebrate teen writers, and to make their awards mean something.

And what's that?

Their words matter: they matter.

The ceremony was infused with meaning, and hopefully long-lasting impact. Wendy Corsi Staub blew us away as our keynote speaker with her humility and strength. Her messaging was clear about the hard work it takes to be a writer, but she also inspired us to make bold choices in both our own lives and on the page. She is definitely a kindred spirit, and a workhorse to boot, having written and published 80 novels in the past 20 years. That's more than my grandmother!

Daisy Jopling elevated the event to new heights by playing the violin for us, mixing up her unique blend of rock and classical.

The kids all came up on stage and announced their names and what they had achieved recognition for, claiming their voices, taking their seat at the table. It was hard for some of them, but it meant something.

They inspire me. Now I need to make the bold choice (thank you Wendy!) of jumping back into my own writing. More on that next time - adieu!

PS  Thank you friends and readers who have emailed and asked where I've been! xo

Monday, January 6, 2014

Damn You, Goldfinch!

The other night I had one of those dreams that ran in my head like a movie, or better yet, as a novel. I would not let myself wake up, for I was conscious enough that it was a great story and that I needed to remember it to turn it into said novel. It started with a phone call and a death, and ended with a young man smuggling a painting out of a museum.

Groggy, I force myself to half-sit and scrawl the dream down in my journal, excited about my novel-as-dream, dream-as-novel when it hits me - I am writing the plot of Donna Tartt's latest tour de force, The Goldfinch.

Damn you.

I had just devoured The Goldfinch over the holidays. I read, a captive audience, eschewing time with my family to snuggle in between the pages, to sigh with jealousy, admiration and awe at what writer's can do. The research, the in depth characterizations, the metaphors, the symbolism, the plot twists, the drama!




“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Developing Empathy through Writing

I've been thinking a lot about empathy, and that it is paramount to the survival of our humanity. The kind of empathy I'm talking about isn't just the ability to discern what someone else is feeling, but it's having  the empirical knowledge that the differences between self and others aren't as important as the similarities.

Last week I saw this kind of empathy in action when Writopia Lab hosted a life-changing event at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side of New York City.

We had thirtytwo teens come and perform their Spoken Word pieces including five of my Writopia "daughters" from Westchester and Connecticut, and my niece and other Writopians from NYC. One of our teachers has been bringing Writopia to treatment centers, and she managed to bring a few of those writers as well. The evening was nothing short of electric. The teens were all from extremely diverse backgrounds - we had every demographic covered, but we identified with every single one as they were speaking from their most authentic selves.

Look at those bright, shining, connected faces!

Those teens were the embodiment of empathy - they were living and breathing EMPATHY.

And of course it's the holiday season that brings about these ruminations. We're told that it's time to connect, yet so many of us feel disconnected. I grew up in the Christian tradition where empathy is the cornerstone, where the birth of Jesus reminds us that we all have God inside of us (Christian or not!). We are called to remember that we are all miracles.

However, the holidays are not miraculous for many people - commercialism is rampant and the divide between the haves and have nots is the greatest. They tend to bring out the best and the worst in humanity when expectations run high and everyone's sense of entitlement peaks.

Entitlement seems to be the opposite of empathy, doesn't it? And in this world we seem to be breeding more of the former and less of the latter. Entitlement separates us from others, separates us from our true selves. And our expectations are so often unconscious! I work hard so I deserve x - well, what if you don't? Who is the arbiter of what we deserve? And what if you don't get x, y, or z?

It's dangerous territory for me as well, and maybe that's why I am so passionate about nurturing kids and teens and their natural, budding sense of empathy, not only through their writing, but through their participation in groups with different dynamics and chemistry. Creating a microcosm of the macrocosm with 3 to 6 other peers. Peers who have the courage to be vulnerable.

If you are struggling, you are not alone. When I was 23 my sense of isolation and misplaced entitlement was life-threatening. It was only through self-discovery and seeing myself in others that I was able to fully come back to life.

And this is why middle school sucks - we desperately want to be like everybody else but we know that we're not, and that's when we start to develop the personas to get us through, and the masks can harden into something that's very hard to take off and we lose the sense of who we are.

So many of us are stuck in a middle school frame of mind!

Writing helps us come back to our sense of self and who we are. And I'm noticing both in kids and adults who are encouraged to write that their masks are more flexible as they grow up.

Don't you think "diversity" should be more of a unifying experience rather than something that separates and "divides" us?

The kids and teens I am privileged to work with remind me of that every day.

Write, breathe, unite.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Why Words Matter: Star-Studded Author Panel at FLMS!

We held a literary event last night at my kids' place of learning, Fox Lane Middle School. It was a veritable authorpalooza. Here I am with authors James Howe and Gae Polisner, gazing at Rebecca Stead.

Community is awesome, isn't it? Communities strive to find common ground and share values. One of our major tasks as human beings is to not only find our place in community, but to help it evolve, grow, and function.

For instance, when I moved to Northern Westchester just over three years ago, I became a de facto member of that community at-large, and have looked for my niches within the larger structure. There's my sweet neighborhood in Bedford Hills, the kids' schools, Writopia Lab and then there's the kid-lit community.

I was asked by another mom to find an author to host an event in December to coincide with the  Book Fair. (And I was thrilled to find out that the school would be using an independent book store, Main Street Books as the vendor.) Knowing my author friends and their beaucoup experience in this arena, I couldn't just ask one. Why not ask a few? We all like each other so much in our community, we love having an excuse to hang out!

And then this past Monday, I got nervous about people showing up. There didn't seem to be any buzz . . . until a few of us shouted out into the universe and people in our community and others helped with email blasts and Facebook posts.

Thank you! We had over 100 people show up - the room was full of not only kids, but librarians and teachers. Our principal, Anne-Marie Berardi was there as well as Superintendents  Jere Hochman and Drew Patrick. So much support!

What a treat to have Newbery Award winner Rebecca Stead, National Book Award winner Judy Blundell, the inimitable James Howe, Michael Northrop, Nora Raleigh Baskin and Gae Polisner. We were regaled not only with their humor, pathos and authenticity, but with their generosity of spirit in signing books and connecting with the audience - our community! I moderated a discussion on Why Words Matter and how reading and writing saves our sanity. So many kids went home with beaming smiles, their hunger for literature satisfied.
                                                           Here's Nora and Michael!

                                                                    Judy and a fan!

            Just look how many kids got to meet and interact with some of their favorite authors!

Thank you to everyone who came out last night to help make it a groundbreaking event at FLMS - we are sure to make this an annual event!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why Teach Creative Writing?

A high school senior in Texas is writing a paper arguing that creative writing should be an elective in schools. Because I teach creative writing, he asked me for a quote in defense of that profession: why does it matter?

I could explain how creative writing is ridiculously empowering. It is. I see this on a daily basis. Some kids come to me already self-identifying as writers. Others are reluctant, whether stemming from learning differences or a lack of confidence. All are capable of finding their own unique voices, and by that developing and nurturing their inner lives. When kids feel that they matter, they become better grown ups who help others to feel that they matter too. They are happy, grateful and joyful. It's one of those beautiful tautologies that make the world go around. Creative writing brings joy.

Or I could explain how creative writing fosters critical thinking. Having a space where kids are encouraged to explore tangents of thought, to analyze structure and emotion, and to problem solve the biggest riddles of life…  that doesn't just help them grow as human beings, but also as students. Creative writing isn't just vomiting words on paper - it's a process of restructuring the world. Stories need characters with strong objectives and corresponding obstacles that stand in their way. Stories can be fantastical, silly, or dark, but they need rhythm and order, or they don't work. Creative writing broadens critical thinking.

Maybe instead I should explain how creative writing stokes and sustains literacy. What I observe as a teacher is that when kids feel their thoughts and feelings are read and understood, they are motivated to become more effective communicators. They inevitably care about the mechanics of their writing; you don't have to drag them to it. They become more careful readers as they learn what they like, and seek to emulate the best that's out there. They learn to ask deeper questions; not only the "what if?", but the "where?", "what?", "when?" and "why?". They fall in-love with the possibilities of language, as inventors and architects of grammatical, structural, psychological, and cultural landscapes. Creative writing is fundamental to excellence in literacy.

Those three things, joy, critical thinking, and literacy, are behind the core mission of Writopia Lab, the non-profit for which I work as a program manager and instructor. But maybe I'm too close to it. Maybe I'm just grasping at straws, wanting to justify my work. Maybe all of those reasons aren't enough. 

If so, then creative writing can matter because test scores need it, because college admissions officers are looking for it, and because eventual employers need it. After all, the thing any good teacher (or even the new standardized tests) want to see from students is a demonstrated ability to project themselves on the page. Tests are a place to showcase critical problem solving. And critical problem solving comes from the development of personal voice, which happens through creative writing. College admissions  are constantly looking for unique voices. They want the prospective collegian's voice to be palpable in their essay. They want enthusiasm, commitment, and joy. Then there's employers. Surely they don't care about creative writing. Right? Except when they want convincing proposals, briefs, research, and all of the other tangible demonstrations of a flexible mind.

When I teach creative writing, I'm coaxing kids into realizing and then remembering that they can and should always demonstrate their own personal voice on every page they write. Everyone who grades, appraises, accepts, and hires tacitly agrees with me.

So Ian, here is my quote for you: No writing is effective without a personal voice. And every reader wants that, whether they are a friend, a fan, a teacher, or an employer.

Monday, September 30, 2013

I Held Hands with Judy Blume!!!!!

There aren't many people I would drive through two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic to see, but when my sister suggested I meet her at the main branch of the New York City Public Library on 42nd Street and 5th avenue to see Judy Blume and Eric Carle for a special reading and panel discussion celebrating the NYPL's first ever list of 100 great children's books of the past 100 years, of course I said YES!

(And yes, my grandmother's A Wrinkle in Time is on that list . . .)

And . . . I was late. (Because of said traffic.) But what a treat! The woman is 75 years old and looks thirty years younger. Every fiber of her being is attentive and completely engaged. She talked about the joys of revising - yet another reason why I love this woman! (Not just for Are you there God, It's Me, Margaret, Deenie, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great and the mind-blowing FOREVER.) She read a snippet from Double Fudge and every word was GOLD. She had us in the palm of her hands!

Leonard Marcus as the moderator was fabulous as usual. Eric Carle was adorable, and read his brand new book called Friends, but Judy was a childhood idol. Judy wrote for ME. She understood - she knew what it was like - she could read minds!

And I never got to meet her, to hold both of her hands and tell her what a difference she made in my life.

Until this morning. (She kept holding onto my hand as she high-fived the elementary school kids who were in the audience. So gracious!) I did not not ask for a photo or an autograph -

The hand-holding was more than enough!

Afterwards, my sister and I were treated to a private tour of the NYPL's acclaimed exhibition The ABC of it: Why Children's Books Matter which I urge you all to RUN to. It was also curated by Leonard, and he and the librarians and the conceptual artists did an amazing job. (Yes, A Wrinkle in Time is included, in the Banned Books section.) Look! There's the car from the Phantom Tollbooth! And the Wild Thing! And the Secret Garden! And, and, and . . . Just GO! You won't regret it. Tell them I sent you!

PS Whose hands would you like to hold?


Monday, September 16, 2013

Italians, Arches and Getting Older

I may not be a Delicate Arch, but I am forming over time.

We pull up to the Moab Valley Inn and there's a group of about twenty Harley Davisdson's in front.  We have already been dazzled by our drive through the Rockies and then winding around the Colorado River on 128. I am still feeling that sense of surreality I felt over seventeen years ago when I first landed here, in Moab, Utah, so the motorcycles fit right in with my out of body experience.

In my '20's and '30's, I thought that time was linear, but more and more now I am realizing that it's not: time is fluid - I am every age I have ever been. The good news is that the bull*&^* is what's eroding, leaving room for my authentic self.

I pass the riders on my way to check in and have to stop myself from gaping - they are all in their 60's and 70's, the sounds from their mouths sounding like bubbles from a stream: Italians.

My past, present and future are commingling - yes, being an elderly Italian tourist on a motorbike is in my future. Why not?

Yet I have no time or wherewithal to stop and make friends, to practice my rusty Italian - I am on a mission - to get my family of five settled so that we can blaze trails up and through the red rocks of Arches National Park.

The last time I was in Moab, the kids were barely a twinkle in my eye and I still had a lot of growing up to do. Now I am 45 and I have an 8, 11, and 13 year old. They have never been to Moab. I haven't been back either, and if you've read my book Edges, you can feel my love for the area - setting as character.

Back to the car and the motorcycles are gone, and we are off to the trail head for the 1.5 mile hike to Delicate Arch. It is 5pm, and although there is no direct sunlight making the 90 degree weather bearable, the light on the rocks turn them into the color of bright watermelon.

We have company on our journey, and the voices we hear are not just American: they are Hebrew, German, mostly French . . . Italian! The hiker's ages range from twenty to seventy, in various shapes and sizes.  Scarlett at 8, is the youngest hiker, so we can forgive her the occasional "are we there yet?" sighs.

The wonderful thing about this hike is that as massive as Delicate Arch is, you can't see it until you get there. You have to trust, have faith.

I am moving in that faith, in the present.

Hiking through the rocks and then the steep slick rock, then up and up (vertigo!) and around corners, steep drops and . . .

"Che bellissima!" Indeed. The kids are enchanted, as I knew they would be.

The vertigo is new for me: a sign of age? Yet it's not annoying or frighting, it just adds another dimension and I take deeper breaths and exhale more slowly.

The kids are exhilarated hiking back, feeling a sense of accomplishment. We have a late dinner at the Blu Pig, and a group of elderly Italians have the table next to us. Were they the ones on the motorbikes? Were they the ones on the hike?

We see them for sure at breakfast the next morning, and on another long hike we do in Arches to Devil's Garden. There are so many things to do, how can we have the same itinerary?

Rob helps some of them through a stream the next day when we are hiking in Negro Bill Canyon.

Although they are older, they are vigorous, they are inspiring. They are curious and delighted.

Finally, on our last morning, I get the courage to speak to some of them. I have been saving up all of my Italian until this moment. They are from Milan, and flew to Phoenix, renting the bikes there. They only laugh when I ask them what they think of American coffee.

"Ciao!" they shout, and vroom off.

But our adventures are not finished! Our next stop is Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. It is mid afternoon and we have a tour of Cliff Palace at 4, but the drizzle makes us bide our time in the museum, where four of the Italians are! We greet each other like old friends - and I again am reminded of the fluidity of time.

I may not be a spring chicken, but I have learned and am still learning what it takes to practice radical self-care, and not to give up on any aspect of my life - be it physical, mental, spiritual. I may NOT be Italian, but I will be an older person who is a voracious lover of life, just like these powers of example.

I may not be a Delicate Arch, but I am forming over time.