Léna is also a Regional Manager for Writopia Lab whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in kids and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

"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 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.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One Week of Practicing Transcendental Meditation and . . .

I began my Transcendental Meditation training in Bedford Hills a week ago, the day after my 46th birthday.  To refresh your memory, dear readers, the center has been quietly wooing me since I moved to the 'burbs four years ago, it's song growing stronger every time I stopped by the cafe it sits above, and then even stronger once my best friend and husband started practicing in the city, reporting feeling refreshed and less stressed.

I had been reading up on TM and how far it had come since it's slow introduction in this country in the 1950's with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to it's blast in popularity with the "following" of the Beatles, turning some people off as being faddish, if not cultish. But it is the most scientifically studied and backed form of "treatment" for living in our modern society, to go back to the rhythm and flow of our own Nature, and it is most decidedly NOT a religion.

I was incredibly excited - as you all know, I am a seeker, fascinated with all things metaphysical. I thrilled at the thought of having my own personal mantra, and my own guide. Yet I was also feeling anxious about my overloaded schedule. How again did I think I could fit this in?

Yet taking care of oneself is a highly esteemable act. Although I consider myself  a  "happy" person, I am no stranger to bouts of anxiety, depression in my youth, and sleep deficits. And how about full brain potential? I know that I have more creativity,  intelligence, and executive skills to tap into. Who can't do with more flexibility of body, mind and spirit?  

So I approached my first of four sessions on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with both excitement and trepidation. Each lasting 90 minutes, the first session was a 1:1 with a teacher who has been practicing for over forty years, Melody Katz, a lovely, ageless woman. (She, along with her husband Sam, are the directors of the Bedford Hills TM Center.) I felt a kinship right away.  After some instruction and quietness together, Melody gave me my own personal mantra,  a sound-word-vibration.  I found it easy - easier than any other meditation I have ever tried. 
Twenty minutes a day, twice a day, preferably not after eating a full meal. I was told not to have a timer on - that I could peek at the clock to check the time and that gradually my body would recognize what twenty minutes meant. And then I would need to take two to three minutes to come out of it - that being jolted back to reality would be counterproductive. I had a very enjoyable experience sitting in my back yard that afternoon, meditating for exactly twenty minutes.

The next morning though, I was due at the TM center at 9am and it proved to be not quite as easy. I had a terrible night of sleep and I felt worn down. I started meditating at 8:30am, again in my back yard, and my thoughts were racing with my to do list, my increased anxiety about not sleeping. Although my stream of consciousness didn't stop, my thoughts slowed down and I did feel more peaceful. 

The morning was the first in a series of three group classes. There were two recent college grads, and two Wall Street commuters as well as myself. First we each met with our teacher privately to check our mantras. Everyone had a similar experience of a "busy" meditation and had to be reminded that this meditation did not involve any concentration or effort—and not to fight it. I was a little shocked by how stressed out I was in the morning and then after a day in the city, I settled down into a quiet calm and almost fell asleep during my second meditation right before dinner.

On Monday morning I woke up with a cold, but I had to be at work so I was determined to muscle through it. I had exactly twenty minutes until I hit the road, so I sat through twenty minutes of the racing thoughts and received some relief when they slowed down and felt more calm. 

After work and before our third TM class, I meditated before practicing yoga, and found my postures to somehow be more relaxing.  In this class we explored the connection to the body, and how the stress is actually released from the body. It's tautological - the more the mind relaxes, so does the body - the more the body relaxes, so does the mind. It is then that we can experience transcendence, which I am coming to understand as a merging of mind, body and spirit. We watched a short video of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and I was glad of the chance to finally hear him.

Unfortunately, by Tuesday morning, I was sick. I worked from home in the morning and meditated in a chair in my room. I went to work in the afternoon and meditated outside when I got home. Tuesday was also my last class at the TM center. We explored the lasting effects of meditation, and we each had an individual TM Checking. Even though it had only been four days and I was sick, I was a believer. It was a revelation to see the transformation on my classmates. They reported greater energy, increased clarity of mind and an overall calmness in the midst of their busy lives.

I have been sick all week - I have bronchitis AND a sinus infection, something that had clearly been building up for a long time. Yet, through meditation and taking the mornings off, I have been able to hold workshops in the afternoons and give my best to my students.

Part of me is wondering: what took me so long to do this? But I think that actually this came at just the right time. I am older and already comfortable in my own skin, fulfilled by my work and my family yes, but also knowing there is so much more within and without to explore. If I was able to accomplish this much this week when I was sick, how much more effective will I be when I am well? 
Here are the books I am reading now to help deepen both my understanding and my practice.
1.  Transcendence by psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal, MD 
2.  Transcendental Meditation by Jack Forem.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Life WAS a Cabaret at Studio 54

The irony was not lost on me as I watched Michelle Williams-as-Sally Bowles sing the title number from CABARET last night, capturing the essence of the whole play in that one song: What good is sitting alone in your room/ come hear the music play: the manic denial of the emergence of Nazi Germany and the denigration of difference, the seediness and despair that comes with secrets and living for instant gratification, the disquietude of hallucinating reality and the self-loathing that comes with it.

No use permitting some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away.

Studio 54 was New York's answer to Berlin's Kit Kat club. Although we weren't on the brink of WW2, the late 1970's began a stark period of disillusionment with ideology - we had punk on the left with it's angry young men and anarchic message, and disco on the right with it's feel-happy vibe and exclusivity. (And obviously, all eras have their fair share of pills and liquor.)

The first time I went to Studio 54 on 254 West 54th Street was when I was fourteen, maybe fifteen. It was on one of those rare occasions when I was home from boarding school, and I was spending the night with one of my best childhood friends, who had moved from our neighborhood in Chelsea to Queens. One of her neighbors worked at Studio 54 as a bouncer, and had agreed to bring us to work with him, and take us back home. (Is this true Johanna? It's what I am mining from my memory . . .)

I "borrowed" my mother's chocolate brown Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress which made me feel like a grown up. We didn't drink, but we danced, and giggled and ogled. It definitely was the beginning of my fascination with nightclub culture and a particular kind of performance art throughout my late teens. I went from wrap dresses to vintage clothes, ripped jeans and combat boots, favoring Danceteria and CBGB's as a junior, to the Palladium, Limelight and Paradise Garage as a senior in high school and a freshman in college. (A true punk/disco baby!)

It became boring and even a bit scary - I saw Sally Bowles everywhere - and I didn't want to become one of those girls like her - a third rate performer in a sleazy nightclub who pops pills, drinks booze and sleeps with anyone and everyone, who mirrors the negative aspects of the world by destroying herself.

Michelle Williams embodied that Sally Bowles I was so scared of. She starts off fun and shallow, but god, does she become brittle and cracked by the end. Studio 54 didn't need to do much to make one imagine a seedy nightclub, but it did a fabulous job with the cabaret seating and staging. (And I could do a whole separate blog post about Alan Cummings but I'll leave you with one word: DIVINE.)

Ms. Williams as Sally had tears in her eyes as she was singing Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret!
and I did too - grateful for the memories, and grateful for my belief in mirroring the positive aspects of the world instead - not by being a Pollyanna, no, but by embracing life and all of it's primordial ooze.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Everybody's Doing It . . .

Everybody's doing it.  David, Lynch, Martin Scorcese, Oprah, Ellen, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Vedder, Moby,
Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham,  to name a few. There are pilot programs for it to be taught to highly stressed populations in jails and inner city schools, and to veterans returning from the Middle East. People might do it for different reasons, but all of us want to be calmer and have access to more of our brains - who doesn't want reduced cortisol levels?

IT is Transcendental Meditation, and I am preparing myself to embark on this journey as a birthday present to myself in late June. Last night I finally went to the TM Center near my home in Bedford Hills, NY. It has quietly been pulling me towards it since I moved here four years ago, being right above one of my favorite coffee houses and organic markets, Table.

I have always been attracted to meditation, but never have had a very disciplined practice. I've stared at candles and counted sheep. I've pondered the great metaphysical questions. I practice yoga as a moving meditation, and lately, after reading Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, I have been practicing the meditation outlined in that beautiful, brilliant book. But it was conversations with my bestie - who just started her own practice  - that woke up the dream inside of me, and made me call the TM Center in Bedford Hills.

I walked up the stairs of its entrance on Babbit Road and was greeted with a warm smile and an offer of herbal tea. I started to say no, but then the saying of yes, even to herbal tea, opened my heart. I walked into a room with two other people: a youthful grandmother who had no previous experience, and a young handsome Dad from the Bronx who had just moved to Northern Westchester. He, like me, was interested in having a guide and a more structured practice.

The director, Sam Katz, took us on a journey through the science of brain waves and the benefits of TM, but he was preaching to the choir. We all wanted to sign up! The requirements are to have four consecutive days to be "trained", two hours each day, then to commit to coming in twice a month for at least four months. The other requirement is not to have taken any drugs for 15 days prior, (but I don't need to worry about that),and last but not least, there is the financial commitment, which is what I was worried about.

However, as I myself help run a non-profit that is committed to not turning anyone away based on their ability to pay, I was reasonably confident that a fellow non-profit wouldn't turn me away.

So even though I was in a hurry to get home, last night, I filled out an application form and spoke privately with the Director. The cost of $960 may not seem like a lot for a lifetime membership, but it is for my family. Still, I don't want to ask for financial aid - I like to barter services when I can.

I absolutely LOVED Sam's response: "Well, you're a writer, and we could use help getting the word out there. Why don't you write an article?" My face lit up. "Yes! And the angle should be writing about my experience of learning it - that would be more interesting than a straightforward journalistic piece, right?"

Hopefully, this will be something that a magazine would be interested in publishing, but Sam seemed confident that we could work out the financials, so I am, and it made me feel 150% positive that this is my next step in my personal growth. I know that I have so much more reserves of creativity and intellect within me!

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