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.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Trying to Live in Thanksgiving

A cold crisp November morning curled up in a cozy chair by the fire in Starbucks, piping hot coffee and my laptop open, my writing mojo strong and swift. I had even found an available outlet to plug in - both literally and figuratively. Tap, tap, tap, sip. The opportunities I have for writing these days are few and far between, so I was relishing every second, burrowing deeper into a scene in a French class at a boarding school.

It wasn’t a happy scene, and my lip started to curl in disgust, and that’s when I noticed the strong stench of urine behind me.

Sweet Jesus. I slowly turned around to look at the obstacle to my literary joy. It was a large elderly man wearing an olive green jacket. He was perching on a stool and looking out the window. I turned back around and tried to get back to my writing, but my olfactory senses had been assaulted and I couldn’t concentrate - I had to move.

The only problem with moving, was that he was sitting right by the outlet where my cord was.

The seat opposite from me was empty, so I unplugged my computer and moved my belongings, and then gingerly made my way over to the window to retrieve my cord from the outlet.

“Excuse me, I just need to get that,” I said, with a half-smile of apology.

“Oh I am so sorry!” this man said to me kindly, but he also sounded . . . embarrassed. He looked worried that he was bothering me - and my heart melted.

“No, I’m the one who is sorry!” I said as I got my cord and made my way back to my seat.  I opened my computer but instead of writing, I observed him. What was his story? I didn’t need to know it, only that there was a man who felt invisible, who was marginalized by society in so many ways, and he had just come into Starbucks to warm up. I wanted him to know that he wasn’t invisible, that I could see him. I could see that he was more than his story. I downed the rest of my coffee, still staring at him staring out the window. I didn’t think too much before I jumped up and went back over to him.

“Sir, I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee.”

I looked deep into his eyes while he registered surprise and he cocked his head as if to say “really?” and I kept eye contact with him - really. The corners of his mouth turned up slowly and he had the most stunning smile. “Yes, I will accept your kind offer.”

I asked him about milk and sugar and he nodded, smiling while he gave me his order.

I got back in line for a refill for me and a grande caffeinated beverage for my new friend and I delivered it to him, and when I went back to my seat I have to say that I watched him enjoy it, feeling so grateful for my own heart and its flexibility. In a matter of seconds, my initial disgust had turned to a genuine interaction with another human being. I felt so grateful for this man, for giving me hope and in my own feelings toward humanity.

I went back to finishing my scene with gusto, and a little later, he came over to me, and bent down a little bit to speak softly.

“You know - I am always grateful for whatever anybody chooses to give me. I am a lucky man.” And with that, he left.

I am a lucky man . . .

All I did was buy him coffee and recognize that his personhood. I’m not sure of the impact on him, but I know that for me, the positive impact of our interaction is still reverberating as I write this.

The key to “happiness” they say, is to practice gratitude daily, remain curious and open, and to share both of those things with others.

The fourth Thursday of this month is merely a reminder of all of these things, even in a world full of doubt and uncertainty, homelessness, mental illness, and wars. There is room. Let’s make room!

So here’s to daily Thanksgiving! (And lots of turkey/tofurkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes today!)

PS And thank you to Starbucks for serving a purpose for the larger community as a civic space.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Not Just For YA Book Club

Oh so many books, so little time! But us lovers of language must make time, yes? So when asked to moderate a book club comprised of accomplished Westchester librarians and teachers by the incomparable Z of Yonkers Riverfront Library, I didn't hesitate in the affirmative, even if it meant doing nothing else in my limited free time for the past few weeks other than reading, because I had to read not just one book, but FIVE - the YA books that were honored by the 2015 Printz Committee. .

But now the book discussion is tomorrow night, (tonight?) and I have to collect my thoughts! (Yes I read those five books, but intermingled in my mind is also two other books I have recently devoured: Ishiguro's The Buried Giant and a stunning book that I MUST reread by Ali Smith called How To Be Both.)

On the Printz List were: (the winner) I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, and my personal favorite, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith.

I read Jandy Nelson's gem of a book first, a beautiful story told in intertwining narratives between two twins, Noah and Jude. We begin with Noah when he is thirteen and discovering his attraction to other boys, his uniqueness in his art, his gorgeous relationship with his mother, and the competitive but loving relationship with his sister Jude. They are both artists - Noah paints his world and Jude communicates with the ghost of her grandmother, while making life size female sand sculptures on the beach. When Jude picks up the narrative, it is three years later - they are both sixteen and the family has blown apart - their mother has died. How did it happen? Nelson keeps us on our toes by time shifting back between Noah and Jude, keeping us guessing to the end.

(We will have to discuss this line of Nelson's: “What is bad for the heart is good for art. The terrible irony of our lives as artists.”)

I felt more of a personal connection to Foley's The Carnival at Bray. It takes place in the early 90's in both Chicago and just outside of Dublin, Ireland, on the coast. I have never been to Ireland, but I was coming of age in the early 90's and spent some time in Italy. I loved the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, as does the main character, Maggie. (I am sure most of us will have a kinship to this era.) I also loved that every character in this book was some kind of an outsider, from Maggie herself, to her mother Laura (who has never "found" herself or come of age), to Dan Sean, the almost 100 year old man Maggie befriends (I could so see myself doing that!) and of course Uncle Kevin, an addict, foreshadowing the death of Kurt Cobain with his own. I love the way Foley handles mental illness and addiction - so lovingly and non-judgmentally.

I also enjoyed reading Hubbard's And We Stay - an homage to the writing and reading of poetry as therapy (Yay Emily Dickinson!) and This One Summer by Tamaki - which was the second graphic novel I have ever read.

But for some reason, Grasshopper Jungle was my personal favorite. "Good books are always about everything," Austin tells us repeatedly in his narrative. On the surface, GJ is a tour de force where giant genetically engineered bugs cause the end of the world. The bugs brilliantly represent teenage hormones and the drive to fight, fornicate and feed. Austin is obsessed with history, so he has set out to record everything in his journal, and as he does so he reminds us of the interconnectedness of EVERYTHING. I read some reviews where folks said that they found that distracting, but it just helped me to fall in love with Austin. Yes, he is terribly flawed - he is in love with his best friend Robbie and his girlfriend Shann, and he isn't fair to either of them, but he believes in EVERYTHING. (Personally, I am Team Robbie, and I think Smith may be too, because Robbie's character was much more fleshed out than Shann's.) I was distracted at first by the intentional use of repetition - Austin is constantly saying "shit" and talking about his horniness, but a third of the way through the novel I understood the artifice - history repeating itself and perhaps Austin is himself on the high end of the autism spectrum. But maybe this is just the male teenage brain? We're all on some kind of a spectrum!

The characters in all of these books use art or writing in some kind of way to manage their internal chaos. Austin writes his own history, Emily writes and reads poetry, Maggie listens to music and finds truth in song lyrics, and Noah and Jude paint and sculpt respectively. What would we as humans do without a creative, rich, inner life? How would we "come of age?" (I don't think we would.)

Has anyone else read these books? I am looking forward to a rich discussion tomorrow night with some awesome librarian folk!


Monday, March 16, 2015

Ode to a Ceremony: The Scholastic Writing Awards!

Yesterday marked the third annual Hudson-to-Housatonic Scholastic Writing Awards at Manhattanville College. My husband Rob and I took this on as part of our work with Writopia Lab and to enact Writopia's mission of spreading joy, literacy and critical thinking through creative writing to all kids and teens. Writopia Lab became an affiliate for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards to ensure that teens in our area would be celebrated with due aplomb.

And yesterday they were. They came from throughout the lower Hudson Valley NY, up into the Litchfield Hills, and over to New Haven CT. It was all due to the risks they'd taken as poets, essayists, and storytellers, and because their parents and teachers supported them and created safe spaces where these young writers could express themselves.

Here I am with three of my students and Gold Key winners: Elizabeth, Kaley, and Julia.

And here again with Julia, Isabelle, Kaley and Caroline!

I was thrilled by the outpouring of community support - not only did we have other Writopia staff on hand to help run the show, but we also had parents and students lend a hand. We had over 150 students come to the ceremony, and nearly 600 people filled the chapel next to Reid Castle at Manhattanville College, helping us acknowledge these extraordinary teens.

Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted) was our keynote speaker, and she captivated everyone with her no-nonsense writerly advice:  to cultivate patience (writing can be hard and SLOW), to be free to fail, and to ignore global criticism but to create a community where you can be critiqued fairly.

The most moving part of the ceremony was the kids themselves. We had them each take the stage and announce their names and what they have been recognized for, and many also declared aloud to the audience why they write.

They told us they write to connect with others, they write to know what they are thinking, they write to be masters of their own universes, they write to express their emotions, they write because if they didn't - they would go mad.  They told us they write because it's the only thing that's permanent, that they can make up their own rules, that they can express themselves in ways they can't in real life, in ways that would otherwise be impossible. They write because life is finite and the works they create are infinite. They write not to talk and still be heard, to explore their fantasies of who they want to be, for space to think, to learn more about themselves, because its NOT math! They write to create their own truth, to open up new opportunities and because it's the one thing they do for themselves and no one else.

And as Rebecca Wallace-Segall (Executive Director of Writopia Lab) pointed out at the end of the ceremony, not one of them said that they wrote to win an award.

Now that's something, isn't it?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

THIS SUNDAY: Great Books and Local Impact!

My friends - it has been so long since I have written, but look at what I've been doing! For those who live out of reach of this event, please consider helping us spread joy, literacy and critical thinking to children and teens EVERYWHERE!  Panelists are: Nora Raleigh Baskin, Gae Polisner, Wendy Corsi Staub, S. Chris Shirley, Barbara Dee, Lucy Frank, Julie Strauss-Gabel!

Writopia Lab

This New York Times article affirms the research-proven benefits of expressive writing: Writing Your Way to Happiness.

You can make an impact by providing opportunities for local kids to develop these skills. Join us at Sunday’s A Year in Books 2014.

Writopia Lab’s 2015 efforts to reach underserved students in NYC’s northern suburbs will be funded through this January 25th literary event. Last year’s Understanding the Books Your Kids are Obsessed With was a successful start, funding free summer workshops at the Yonkers Riverfront Library. For many of those students, it was their first experience with professionally led creative writing, and the impact was tremendous!

Buy tickets now to A Year in Books 2014, and encourage your friends and family to attend with you. This local event will feature an amazing panel of authors (and John Green’s editor/publisher extraordinaire). Books will be available for sale at below-retail prices, generously provided by publishers and authors alike to help us raise money.

Please forward this urgent plea to your personal contacts and social media.
  Writopia Fundraiser 

Writopia Outreach

In addition to our growing outreach work in communities north of the city, Writopia Lab acts as a regional affiliate for theScholastic Writing Awards, promoting access to the Awards, organizing its adjudication, and providing an annual recognition ceremony.

If you are unable to come but would still love tosupport us and donate, that would be greatly appreciated. We need your feedback: please let us know which programs you feel could be most impactful
  • Regional Scholastic Writing Awards
  • Programs at local schools
  • Programs at local libraries
  • Expanded programs at our local labs


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Movie Trailers, New York, and What it Means to Be Alive

Special guest blogger: Kaley Mamo!
Alecia Whitaker (Wildflower), Writopians Magda, Amanda, David Levithan, Writopians Kaley and Elizabeth at the Jefferson Market Library for Teen Author Reading Night!

Good evening my turtledoves - you are in for a treat as this next post is written by one of my favorite people, high school freshman and Writopian, Kaley Mamo. She is a brilliant and insightful writer and blogs for her high school under her moniker: Confessions of a Teenage Existentialist. Last night a few of us went into the city to go to a Teen Author Reading event hosted by David Levithan down in the West Village at The Jefferson Market Library.  Kaley is here to tell you how fabulous "breaking out of your comfort zone" is!

Going into the city is like watching movie trailers at the theater - the way there is just as exciting as the actual event, if not more so. There’s so much hype during the trip, especially when you’re on a train with your like-minded friends, feeling rebellious and alive because it’s a school night and you have that Global test the next day that you’re never going to study for. Then there’s the hot chocolate that you’ll grab from a deliciously sweet shop as you walk under the twinkling city lights, and you will be liberated by the steaming cup that nearly burns your hands. Suddenly you’re the star of your own teen TV show, be it The Carrie Diaries or Gossip Girl, as you saunter down the street, laughing too loudly and dodging passers-by. And you think of watching movie trailers, because you can feel it - millions of stories at the tips of your fingers, each a new pathway, a new setting and mood and character arc. It all depends on which way you choose to go.

Then you remember what you’re doing there in the first place - you remember you’re seeing a movie, not just the previews. Or in my case, you remember you’re going to a YA author panel to meet the very people that embody your aspirations. David Levithan (Will Grayson, Will Grayson with John Green, Everyday, Boy Meets Boy), Kass Morgan (The 100, now a TV show on the CW), Alecia Whitaker (Wildflower) and more - they’ll all be there. And when you arrive, and you sit and listen and admire and become inspired, you’re overwhelmed in the best of ways. It’s a breathtaking night, and the honking of cars and roaring of sirens as you walk back to Grand Central fuels you. On the way home, you nearly drift to sleep - but the adrenaline (not to mention your friends) keeps you awake.

It’s nights like those that keep me alive. It’s not that I only live for adventures in the city, not that I hate doing anything but pretending I’m an elite, professional twenty-three year old writer who doesn’t have to go to three and a half more years of high school. It’s that to really, truly feel alive, I have to step outside of my comfort zone. My comfort zone being Katonah, or course. When I walk down the New York City streets with my writer friends on my way to an author reading or a poetry performance at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, I feel the deepest parts of my spirit shake off their early-November sleep. I am a writer of Manhattan, and there is never a time that I feel more like myself than when my friends and I are discussing our latest works and the struggles of writing and life and boys and family and trying, desperately, to live. But we are electrifying our souls as we absorb the arts of the city, the impromptu music underground in a grungy subway, the exquisite accent of our waiter at the diner, the dark mystery of the sky out the window and the way the train shakes with unknown quakes and tremors. (Side note - I’ve decided trains are the most magical form of transportation. Perhaps there will be a blog post about that one day.) And when we discuss the night, we think of movie trailers, because we saw so many snippets of what could-be. We basked in them, and almost forgot the main event. But the trailers have always been my favorite part of going to the movies.

It was an absolute awakening, to realize what made me feel alive - what made me realize that yes, I am a human being. I am a human being with a limited time on this earth, and I understand that I must find what I love, and I must spend every minute that I can doing whatever it is that makes me feel alive. It’s times like these that I don’t feel the overwhelming pointlessness of life that comes with being an Existentialist. I can, for the moment, flick off that pessimistic switch and think of doing the good things, rather than anxiously awaiting all the impending bad that will inevitably come. I listen to the inner clockwork of my mind, hear the ticking that picks up in pace when I write and walk through the city, feel the whirring and explosion of consciousness that comes when I finally feel alive. I am awake, completely awake and aware and I see those movie trailers all around, whispering in my ears that there are so many more stories out there, so many I have yet to discover. So many I will discover with another trip into the city.

Breaking out of your comfort zone is hard. Maybe you’re trapped in your town, or your family, or your friends or class or sports team or your own head. I know I’m trapped in school (see my previous post, Zombie Apocalypses and the Art of Wanting Something More), but there are fleeting moments when you will feel absolutely liberated. Take to the streets of Manhattan and start looking - because believe me, one day you will find them, whether they’re hiding in a cafe or a library or a stadium or concert venue. And even when you have found those moments, the search never really stops. There are always more movie trailers to watch.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Help Me Celebrate Five Years of Working with Young Writers!

Greetings my loves!

I’d like to enlist your help in promoting young writers.

As you all know, I started wading into the world of writing as a child and have been swimming with words ever since. I believe in the power of creating, of linking disparate concepts together, of healing through words, through developing, conjuring, and discovery. I believe in the power of writing to transform and help us grow into empathic, compassionate human beings.

Most of you also know that Rob and I run a not-for-profit writing program called Writopia Lab in the suburbs of New York City in Westchester and Fairfield Counties. Our mission in life is aligned with the mission of Writopia Lab: to foster joy, literacy and critical thinking in ALL young people from all walks of life. Contrary to the stereotype of the suburbs, this area includes small cities hit with urban blight and pockets of rural poverty.

Just over five years ago, I was introduced to innovator and thought-leader, Writopia Lab founder Rebecca Wallace-Segall by Susan Cain (NYTimes best selling author of Quiet). Not only had I met another kindred spirit, but I found the program I had always wanted to be part of, a program to give structure and context to my passion for writing and for teaching.

Three years ago we became the affiliate for the scholastic Writing Awards in nine counties north of New York City. This means that we encourage and promote teen writing by both providing a ceremony and by adjudicating the awards regionally. It is the nation’s longest-running, largest, most prestigious recognition program for creative teenagers. Over the past 92 years The Awards have given teens involved in the arts a level of recognition and reward typically reserved only for athletics.

I didn’t know about the Scholastic Writing Awards when I was a teen, nor did I have access to a program like Writopia Lab. How I would have thrived! But I remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Fitzhugh, who believed in me. I channel my grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle, a wonderful writer, teacher, thinker, who alway claimed that I was an artist, “like her”. And I think of my mother and father, who passionately championed that I could be anything I wanted if I followed my own path.

Well this is my path folks! So I invite you to help me celebrate my fifth anniversary of working with Writopia Lab by donating $5 or more  to this Indiegogo campaign to fund three scholarships to graduating seniors who are regionally recognized by the Scholastic Awards for an essay/memoir piece, a fiction piece, and a poetry piece.

As my young colleague Gaby Boland says: “To me, funding these scholarships isn’t even about the money. It’s about recognizing the light inside a young writer. About saying, you have a voice and we hear it. You have a skill, a gift, and we want you to go forth and use it.”

And if you are so inclined as the fiscal year comes to a close, Writopia Lab itself is a wonderful place to support. Writopia Lab is a 501(c)3 non-profit that operates with limited resources, relying heavily on support from the community to sustain our programs--over 95% of our funding comes from the community in the form of these workshop and membership fees. Go to www.writopialab.org/donate to find out more.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Next Generation of Authors Visit with John Green's Publisher!

How would you describe the world of publishing dear readers? Some look at it as merely another business, a process of supply and demand. But to aspiring authors, it is a world in which they yearn to belong.

So how does one begin?

At Writopia Lab, we focus on discovering and uncovering personal voice through memoir, fiction, dramatic scripts and poetry. Kids and teens work with published authors such as myself who support them in that process.

Writopians are both avid writers AND readers, honing their critical thinking skills through both practices, through delving into other worlds, developing empathy by creating and appreciating complex characters. They have their favorite authors, and of course may dream of being legit published themselves.

"I usually know if a manuscript is for me by the first two sentences," Julie told us late last Friday afternoon. Julie is the one and only Julie Strauss-Gabel, Penguin/Dutton publisher and editor to literary stars such as John Green, Lauren Myracle, Adam Gidwitz, Nina LaCour (and more!)

Julie is a friend and neighbor, and when I had casually asked if I could bring in some of my Writopia teens and college interns for a visit, she was more than game. (She is a veritable star in her own right, and her hyper-intelligence would make her daunting to have as a friend if she wasn't so down to earth and funny.)

"It's all about personal voice." How perfect for her to say to us?

After a quick tour of Penguin's Children's department, encompassing two floors, Julie spent two generous hours talking to us in the conference room, first walking us through the trajectory of her own career - Amherst grad, child development major, internship at Sesame Street - never considering publishing until the first job she got out of college was in subsidiary rights at Disney-Hyperion. She was a new editor at Penguin/Dutton in 2003 and was given a manuscript called Looking for Alaska by a 25 year old unknown author called John Green, and the rest is history!

(And yes, even though my teens are rabid John Green fans, they behaved themselves!)

She walked us through the lengthy process of making a book - from acquiring to several revisions with the author followed by a line edit and THEN copyediting, discussions on book jacket art and then marketing! Anna Jarzab, a colleague of hers from marketing and a published author herself brought us deeper through that maze that usually needs a year of lead time.

"What are you working on right now?" we asked.

Julie smiled slyly. "What am I NOT working on?" She has an armful of books at any given time in different stages of the publishing process. Julie only publishes about nine or ten books a year and is also constantly managing her authors' successful backlists. Publishing so few books a year, she very rarely takes on a new author. Her reputation is as a hard editor, but that is the dream - to find someone who takes an author's talent seriously enough to make them work hard and get the best out of them. After all, that's what I aspire to as a teacher, and what I hope for in an editor myself!

I think that her personal manner inspired my writers more than anything else - Julie talked to her teen and young adult visitors with the utmost respect, as though there was no place she would rather be.

AND she let them choose ARC's to take home! (You're our hero Julie!)

I really wanted to steal all the books there. Plus, I gasped out loud at seeing books I’d been anticipating for years and were not published yet. It was terrifying and thrilling to meet some high-end publishers and learn about the publishing process. -Maxine

Going to Penguin Publishing and meeting Julie Strauss-Gabel was absolutely fantastic. It was intimidating and extremely exciting to learn all about the publishing process - after Friday’s trip, I started brainstorming ideas for a possible novel! I loved getting an up-close look at publishing, and I learned what it takes to become a published author. The trip was so helpful and inspiring. --Kaley

And what about me?  I've published one, written others, and have yet to publish that second novel. Yet I keep my seat at the table not only because of the contacts I've made, but because as I age it becomes less about me and more about others. My dreams and passions have morphed and changed to empowering my students, to arm them with compassion and confidence, to help them on their journey. My friends - fellow authors and editors alike - love that about me.  And they know that I value friendship over publishing. Yes, having another novel out there would be wonderful, but it would be icing on an already rich, delectable cake.