Ways to Support Your Young Writer

A lot of parents are home with a lot of kids right now, trying to figure out how to fill the time. Relax. There’s always this weird adjustment period where the hours — no — where the minutes — no — where the seconds creep by. After a week or so you’ll fall into a rhythm. (Although, I know, that’s a lot of seconds.)

Here are some tips for encouraging young writers:

Make sure you catch Mo Willem’s wonderful “Lunch Doodles” every day. He has great crafts and advice for very young writers. (Although I admit that I wanted to print out the worksheet and make toilet-paper-tube people too. I still might go back and do that.) You and your kids will love Mo’s crafts.Start at the beginning. Earlier episodes are on YouTube. 

Young writers need to write. Strangely enough, learning to write fiction is not that different from playing soccer or an instrument. Practice. The more your child writes, the better they will become. (This is true for adults too!)

 

Beginning writers need encouragement. If your child chooses to share their story with you, focus on what is working. Remember that you never got to see your favorite writer’s early drafts. First drafts can be really rough. The more your child writes, the more characterization and imagery will begin to appear in their work. (Above is Ernest Hemingway’s first story.)

Model the behavior you want to see. Remember how your math teacher always worked the first problem on the white board? Consider writing with your children.

There is a place for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and that place is not in a first draft. When someone is being creative — and this goes for adult writers too — many of the ‘edit’ functions of the brain turn off. Or maybe they are overpowered by the sheer joy of creation. Let first drafts revel in their messiness. As Ernest Hemmingway once said:
“The only important thing about a first draft…is to finish it.”

Write about a stolen dog...

Write to prompts. This is one of my favorite activities. Starting May 20th I’m tweeting (@LoisBrandt1) a kid-friendly writing prompt every day. Write to a prompt with you child for 10 minutes. They can write longer if they’d like. Even those 10 minutes a day will improve your child’s writing.

On a personal note I’d like to thank you for parenting during these difficult times. My own parents were part of the Greatest Generation, who lived through the depression and World War II. And as I look at parents now, I see great strength and determination. We will all get through this together. We will be stronger. And our children will be better people.

Memorial Day

Seven years ago, I wrote this:

Our friend’s son was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. I did not know him. I have only a vague memory of him shooting hoops with his dad. I can’t imagine what it feels like, to have this empty space where there once was a son and a future filled with marriage and children and annoyance and beauty. Empty now.

I think of this young man who wanted to serve his country, who had so many other choices, all of which would have led to life. He chose to serve his country.

I don’t agree with this war or the one in Iraq. We entered these wars on the whim of a president who thought war was a game, who thought he was too important to serve in Vietnam.

Our friend’s son, this one young man, volunteered during a time of war.

I walked today on quiet streets. I stopped and talked with moms about how hard it is to go shopping with teenage girls.

My children have lived innocent lives, not worrying about a bomb going off or enemy warplanes. They live in safety because every day, some young man or woman wants to serve this country.

We don’t know these young men and women, but we owe them everything: every birthday party, every meal, every quiet morning and even every commute to work.

I don’t agree with this war. We as citizens have a huge responsibility, which we have shirked, to only send our soldiers into battles which directly ensure our safety.

No matter what my feelings about the war, my feeling for these young men and women is one of extreme gratitude. We are safe because of them. We complain about broken washing machines, the weather and traffic, because we really have few other worries. These soldiers are carrying us all on their shoulders. They and their families.

Our friend’s son died for our country yesterday. Because of him, my daughter at her track meet today and the students that I tutor tonight will give no thoughts to bombs or war. All because this young man and others like him choose to serve our country.

Now he is gone, leaving an empty chair at his family’s dinner table.

I owe him so much, and I didn’t even know him.

Talking to Your Children About Hunger During this Season of Plenty

This is the season of light, and as a child it was one of my favorites. The tree was surrounded by presents. We said a prayer before our Christmas meal, thanking God for the bounty in front of us.

I also had that child’s view that everyone must have this, loving parents, plenty of food, and annoying siblings. One day my warm view of the world was blown away. I opened up my best friend’s refrigerator to find that her family was desperately in need of food.

Knowing when to talk to your kids about difficult subjects is, well, difficult. You want to protect your children from the ugliness in life, but you also don’t want them to be blindsided and not know what to do.

Here are some ways to include caring for the less fortunate in your holiday activities:

Don’t talk: Act. Children follow where their parents lead. One of the most aggravating and encouraging traits children have is that they will do as you do, not necessarily as you say. I write checks to charities at the end of the year as part of our financial planning. That’s an essential way to help, but hard for kids to wrap their head around.

The trick is to make your charitable giving visible to your children. Take advantage of the numerous trips you will be making to the grocery and other stores during the next few weeks. Buy an extra can of food or a toy. Have your child choose what you get by picking from a short list. Drop the item at your local food bank or collection site for toys.

Discuss with your child the idea of helping others. Children want to know where they fit, what their role is. Let your child know that he or she can be part of the fight against childhood hunger. Give your child an example of a time when you helped a friend or were helped by someone.

I give kids the example of tying shoes. I was hopeless at tying shoes. (A rocket scientist could not have followed my mother’s instructions.) Then, one of my friends showed me rabbit ears. Wow! I was suddenly tying shoes like everyone else.

Ask your child to tell you about a time he or she helped a friend on the playground or in the classroom. Emphasizing the web of relationships we all live in will empower your child with a sense of community, even when facing large problems.

Keep the discussion upbeat and age-appropriate. You want to be honest, but you don’t want to share any fears you may have. This is, I believe, where your child will help you. Children don’t see the huge obstacles that we do, and they often see the path around an obstacle. Will dropping one can of tuna at the food bank eliminate childhood hunger in the United States? No. But teaching our kids that they are part of the answer, and letting ourselves be part of the answer, then we are going to see progress. Keep hope in the equation. Working together, we can beat childhood hunger.

You can find your local foodbank through FeedingAmerica.org ‘s website.

For toy donations, many churches and stores have donation boxes or you can go to Toys for Tots. 

Dream Peace on September 11th

 

Years ago I wanted to enter a fiction contest. The theme was to set your story in the future.

Now I grew up with Star Trek and Ray Bradbury. I could do future. Or so I thought. Then I stared at the blank page for hours and hours. Unusual for me because I love the open windows of a first draft.

I couldn’t see a future. Anywhere. For Anyone.

And I’m not alone. When I write with teens apocalyptic worlds populate my classroom. Evil wins, and the protagonist suffers.

And these are kids who live in the safety and peace of the United States.

If our children can’t envision peace, where do we go from here?

So now, each September 11th I spend some time writing about a future in which we live in a peaceful world.

Join me if you’d like. (Or…If you are a painter, paint your world. A musician, play your world.)

This is not as woo-woo as it sounds. The more we can envision peace, the easier it will be to draw a road map from here to there.

And if we can’t envision peace, where are we going?

The Racist Nextdoor

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I wouldn’t look into my bedroom or bathroom mirror at night if the lights were off.

There always seemed to be some murky ghost lurking in those dark reflections. Waaay too scary for me to examine closely. So I always looked at the floor or the opposite wall as I was walking by. Anywhere but into the heart of those dark mirrors. It was safer not to look.

A few weeks after the last presidential election, a good friend confronted me over coffee with the fact that the majority of white women had voted for Donald Trump. She said, “I now know that the majority of Whites wish I wasn’t living in this country.” My friend is a naturalized citizen. Her skin is several shades darker than my own.

I sputtered, because although I’d read a lot about the election, I hadn’t focused on the racial divide. Instead, I’d examined the cultural and educational chasm revealed by the vote. After I got home I did look up the statistics and salved my conscious with the fact that the majority of college educated white women, my safe little niche subgroup, did vote against Trump.

I didn’t consider myself that naive about white privilege. I’d written on this blog how my own ancestors stayed silent as food was stolen from the mouths of African American children.

During the election season I had already witnessed a white woman yelling at the sandwich ladies at my local Subway, accusing them of taking away jobs from Americans. (The sandwich ladies were American.) The woman did not use nice words, and only left when the workers picked up their phones to dial 911.

These events were all on my mind when I got a notice from Nextdoor, a neighborhood social media network. Notices about  car prowls, garage sales, and lost cats all show up in my inbox, along with the advertisements for services, which I find slightly annoying. I was about to delete an add by a woman looking for work cleaning houses when I caught that she advertised herself as ‘White’.

Why put your skin color in an ad, unless you want to be hired based on your skin color?

I thought about my friend, who was basically asking me why I hadn’t done more to confront racism. So…

I told the “White” cleaning lady, in a post, that I was upset that she was trying to get more business by saying she was White. I said that I hire based on work experience and references. Almost as an afterthought I reminded her that God is not going to judge us on skin color. We will be judged on our actions.

I was pretty upset to see racism seeping into my neighborhood social media.

I had no idea.

In the posts that followed I was called too politically correct. I was called mean and unchristian. I was asked to move to Canada.

My offer to meet any poster for coffee and discuss our differences was ignored. Those few who supported my opinion were viciously attacked.

Some of those posting hurtful comments I knew personally. Our children had gone to school together. One neighbor told me that African Americans are racist because they all voted for Obama. Another wrote:

“In fact, a significant number (and quite possibly the majority) of white people not only “get it” but appreciate and enjoy [white privilege] and are willing to defend it silently but ferociously.”

This comment, above all the others, was like a kick in the gut.

All of my life I just assumed that all Americans were fighting the same battle. That we were all trying to move towards a place where people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

I was naive. Ignorant. My friend was correct in her assumption that white women had not done enough to fight racism. I discovered that am the poster child for that argument. 

I also discovered that it was frightening to stand up against racists. One small post from me, and the shadows from dark mirrors slithered into my world, took on faces I knew, and said terrible things.

Truth be told, I’d like to avoid the entire situation. Walk by the mirror, and look at the floor or wall instead.

But then I think of my friend, and all those with a skin color different from my own. They walk by these mirrors daily, and aren’t allowed to look away. They hear the comments, don’t get the job or the apartment, and watch their children treated as outcasts in their own country. People of color meet the racists that many Americans are afraid to confront. And when they tell us stories of monsters oozing out of the mirrors, we don’t believe them.

Snafu! or, Should Writers Avoid the NYT Crossword Puzzle?

I’ve always been bothered by the New York Times crossword puzzle. Normally, I win at word games. I love words. I write words, read words, play with multiple meanings. If I were a dog I’d make myself a pile full of words and roll around, paws up, in ecstasy.

So why is the New York Times crossword puzzle so difficult for me and so easy for, say, my husband?

Now my husband is a pretty bright guy. Electrical Engineering degree followed by an M.D. But words…they are my greatest love. (Oh! Yes. Um. Of course. I mean after my husband, kids, other family members, and pets.)

Why do words fail me every Friday and sometimes even on Thursdays? Okay, I admit it, even the occasional Wednesday puzzle has a few empty squares. And, notice I don’t even mention Saturdays.

Recently I came across a Thursday puzzle where the clue was “a mess.” My penciled-in answer was chaos.

I have a particular love of the word chaos. I first came across the word ‘chaos’ while reading, and figured out the definition on my own. Chaos was, for me, a black roiling cloud that obscured the landscape and scattered and broke apart everything it brushed against.

When I left my home town of 1500 people and arrived at the University of California at  Berkeley, I tried out my beloved word in one of my freshman classes.

“It was chayoss,” I said to my professor and class. Blank looks. Finally I spelled it.

“C H A O S.”

“Kayoss” my teacher repeated.

“Oh, I said.” I knew that word too. I’d heard it. Kayoss meant a mess.

I discovered then that I had two vocabularies, one learned from living and one learned from reading. The same word could have different meanings in each sphere.

Back to the esteemed Thursday New York Times crossword. After much frustration, I puzzled out the correct answer to ‘a mess’: ‘snafu.’

That stopped me. An online dictionary agreed with the puzzle. One of the meanings of snafu is a mess.

I went to ink-on-tree-pulp dictionary. Snafu was listed right after ‘snaffle.’ Snafu was defined as “in characteristic disorder or confusion; mixed up as usual.”

I don’t quite agree with that one, either, but it’s better then “a mess.” (And yes, I do know the origin of the word, which I’m not going to repeat on my blog.)

In my head the word ‘snafu’ is related to ‘slingshot.’ For me they are sister words. ‘Snafu’ means you take aim at something, pull back the large rubber band, and when you let go all hell breaks loose. Nothing is as you expected. The rock hits a car window or gets stuck in the rubber band and snaps back into your face. Your carefully planned shot is ruined and life is a lot more painful and confusing after you executed the plan that was supposed to make life a little less painful and confusing.

Back to my super-smart husband. He went to a large Los Angeles high school, and took English classes that I can only dream of. I’m someone who learned vocabulary less in a classroom and more by reading. My rural high school had no college prep courses. By junior year I was writing my own curriculum.

So when the New York Times’ Thursday crossword defined ‘snafu’ as ‘a mess’ I finally connected the dots and understood why I’m struggling with these puzzles.

The dictionary in my head has often ignored even ink-on-tree-pulp definitions. Standard dictionary definitions are narrower, drier, and haven’t been tempered and expanded by the elation you feel when you pull back a slingshot or the confusion you feel on a dark cloudy night. Dictionary words are on-the-shelf clean. They were once lived by humans, but have been sanitized.

I’m slowly getting better at the New York Times crossword puzzle, and now find that worrisome. (Worrisome is my mother’s wrinkled forehead, a slightly sad look in her eyes.)

There are some obvious benefits to the puzzles; there are new words to learn (some of them ridiculous repeats like ‘tam’ that don’t show up much in literature). I’ve revived my interest in Roman numerals and have picked up some Greek.

But by learning someone else’s definitions, an ‘authority’s’ (police officer with arms crossed), I may be strangling my own, experiential, in-mind vocabulary.

Writing is a combination of precision (just the right word) and elasticity (exploring meaning). If I lose that careful balance between the two then, well…I’m just a dictionary. (Black book, dogeared pages, red underlines, sitting on the shelf behind me.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this new realization. The New York Times crosswords are addictive. Maybe I’ll continue, but beat myself up a little bit less about empty squares.

Or maybe it’s the filled-in squares that I should be worried about. When I, finally, complete all of the squares in a Saturday puzzle, does that mean that my own metaphoric definitions have been overwritten?

Plugged and Unplugged

At a school visit a while back an elementary was finishing up on a food drive. They got an impressive amount of food in, and had a closing assembly where the fifth grade team leaders described going to the local food bank, taking a tour, and helping out.

I don’t have the words to adequately describe how happy and fulfilled those team leaders looked. Imagine being a fifth grader and learning, for the first time, that you can make a difference.

One of the writing exercises I do on school visits (which can be found on my website) is that I ask children to write about a time they helped someone or someone helped them.

I divide the class in two, helpers and helpees, and it soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of helping going on in our world, from feeding the family dog, to teaching a friend to shoot baskets, to having a friend take you to the office when you skin a knee or bonk your head.

Sometimes a child will stare straight ahead and can’t remember any time they helped someone or had been helped. I ask about their sports activities, siblings, and pets to get to the story, that they can’t remember, about helping. I’m pretty successful at coaxing out those stories, but during my visits I’ve found a few kids who spend their after school and home time playing video games. On weekends they play video games or stream movies.

The saddest thing is that these kids know they’ve been shut out of community. They are lonely.

Elementary kids have these active minds that are always engaged, minds that can be a source of pride and frustration for teachers and parents, often simultaneously. We need to respect this biological imperative to explore the world and interact with people.

I’ve never been so exhausted (and I might as well add broke and pressed for time) as when I was working full time and had small children. I know that it is very tempting to hand a child a phone to give yourself a minute’s peace. But why not invite your child to help you in your busy life?

You won’t succeed all of the time; you don’t have to. Even a few minutes together cooking, raking leaves, setting the table, or folding laundry, will empower your child. Small moments lead to deep memories.

These small moments also, temporarily at least, unplug your child from mind-numbing electronics.

My wish for every child is to have the feeling of empowerment like the kids did at the elementary I visited. That spark of sudden knowledge and pride that your life matters to other people.

You just can’t get that from a video game. Let’s give our kids a chance to matter.