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?

What About Maddi’s Story?

A few weeks ago I visited an elementary school in northern Washington State.

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The school held a food drive and collected 1600 food items before my visit.

I spoke to three assemblies and then led two writers’ workshops. At the beginning of 5th grade workshop, I asked the kids if they had questions about Maddi’s Fridge that didn’t get answered at the assembly.

One girl shot her hand up straight in the air. “Why don’t you do a second book, this time tell Maddi’s story.” What she meant was, tell Maddi’s Fridge from Maddi’s point of view.

crenshaw

I answered her by suggesting the class read Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, a middle grade novel told from the point of view of a boy who has an empty refrigerator.

I went on to the next question. The girl’s hand went straight up back in the air. After answering a few questions I called on her again.

“What I’m asking is, why don’t you write Maddi’s story?”

The reason I love school visits, the reason I love to teach, is that I am given so much more than I bring when I walk into a school. I am given the gift of looking at the world in new and thoughtful ways.

The girl was asking me why Maddi didn’t have a direct voice in her story.

At this point I need to back up and let you know that the school I visited, the school that brought in 1600 food items for their local food bank, has a school-wide Title 1 program. In this school 29% of the kids come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of 4. An additional 11% of the kids are in families that earned less than $44,000 a year for a family of 4. (If you wonder how such a student body could bring in so many food items, read my blog post “What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid.”)

Many children in that school were already familiar with a grim statistic. Over half of American children are raised in families living below the poverty level. Some of the kids I was speaking with were living with empty refrigerators and empty cupboards.

Why didn’t I write Maddi’s story from her point of view? Why was Maddi’s story told by Sofia, a girl who had plenty of food in her refrigerator?

The simple answer is that I wrote a story based on my own experiences. I was an observer of a horrific event, the indifference our prosperous county pays to the hungry children in our midst. My childhood anguish when I found out that my best friend’s family had no food was still paramount in my mind as I wrote Maddi’s Fridge years later. I wrote from my point of view.

Maddi

But what about Maddi?

There has been a lot of discussion in the KidLit community about diversity in children’s books. Maddi’s Fridge has been mentioned frequently as a diverse book because it has a character living in poverty. (Remember, that’s now 51% of our children.)

But Sofia tells the story. Is that right?

What a difficult and complex question.

Maddi’s Fridge is my first book and I wanted to, was driven to, tell that story through my own eyes.

However, one story is not enough. There are 12.5 MILLION stories of childhood hunger happening right now in the United States. Why aren’t these stories showing up in the books we are reading. Not just books about hunger, but mysteries, sci fi, romance, adventure, fantasy, etc. Why are some groups so hidden from our collective consciousness? Why are so many children underrepresented in the books we read? Not only as characters, but also as viewpoint characters?

That fifth grade girl was telling me that she wasn’t in Maddi’s Fridge. Yes, she felt a connection with the book, but what about the Maddis of the world? Don’t they have the right to tell their own stories?

I am very proud of Maddi’s Fridge. It pushed into an area that was rarely explored by picture books and has touched the hearts of thousands of children and adults.

But that young girl’s question was a reminder to me, a reminder to all of us who write stories, to pay attention to the stories we tell. Who have we hidden? What voices have we unwittingly silenced?

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

star trek

Several years ago the theme of the Highlights Fiction Contest was to write a story set in the future. I’ve always enjoyed entering this contest, and sat down to write my sci fi short story for young children.

The page stayed empty. Not for a few minutes, or hours, as sometimes happens. The page stayed empty for days. I thought of several dystopian story lines, but nothing suitable for very young readers.

It was a few years after 9/11, but I discovered that the hope I had always held for the future (I’m a huge Star Trek fan) was gone. It took me several days to calm my fears and find in my heart a story that envisioned our grandchildren and great-grandchildren living happily in a peaceful world. The story had conflict, of course, but not the dark images which had haunted my mind since the moment the towers fell and continued well into our generation’s endless wars.

Since that time I’ve stretched the ‘hope’ section of my brain by spending ten minutes each September 11th envisioning peace. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news? What games would our children play?

If we imagine what peace looks, smells, feels, sounds and tastes like, we’ll know how to get there from here.

You don’t need to be a “writer” to participate. Ignore grammar, spelling, all of those boogeyman that slow down even the most accomplished writers. Lock your editor in a drawer (internal, not the one at your publisher). Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can post your writing in the comments section here on my blog, or go to the event page on Facebook.

live long and prosper

Risk, Broken Bones, and Writing

In early June my son and his friend, both college students, were skateboarding on a Friday night in Portland. They chose a street that each thought the other had gone down before. As they picked up speed both realized they were in trouble. My son’s friend purposely headed into a wall of blackberry brambles. His was a good decision.

My son thought he could slow or stop. He came to a few minutes later with a broken collarbone and trouble speaking. His concussion cleared enough for him to ask his friend to call 911. His friend’s phone was shattered and the friend flagged down a passing motorist. My son spent the night on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room. He said that being in the hallway was a good thing. People were dying in the rooms.

A week after the crash, my son had his third orthopedic surgery in four years. (#1 a collision off of a snowboard jump. #2 a fall while bouldering.) My son is doing well now. His full recovery from the accident was faster than mine.

I spoke to my son about his general risk assessment skills. So did his professor (my son was working in a lab for the summer). So did most of his friends. Even for the 20ish crowd, three sporting accidents requiring surgery seemed extreme.

Here’s the strange thing: part of me was envious of my son and his broken collarbone. (I can publicly admit this because none of my children read my blog.)

It’s been an incredible year for Maddi’s Fridge. It’s been a tough year for my writing.

I have been slow, tentative, and reluctant to take the risks necessary submit finished picture books to editors and polish my current novel. My inability to take chances is pulling me under like quicksand.

I know that some of you will say “Unknown steep hill, skateboard, that’s a risk. But what’s going to happen to you? Is your laptop going to fall on your big toe?”

You are right. I am under no physical threat. Emotional fears, though, cause their own damage. Fear of losing self-respect though failure, fear of ridicule (you wrote what????) and fear of rejection can paralyze even someone with a few accomplishments under her bra strap.

Then I look at my son who stands at the top of a steep hill with a thin piece of wood, four wheels, no helmet, and is excited and happy to see what happens next. My son is modeling behavior for me.

I don’t want to be as physically adventurous. I do want to emulate his excitement and the willingness to leap.

For the record: I am not advocating that you or any member of my family skateboard, skydive, etc. But I’m beginning to realize that extreme sports are so popular because they show you both the joys and risks all in the same moment. You overcome your fears and the reward (or occasionally, the punishment) is immediate.

You will not find me standing on a steep Portland hill with a skateboard in my hands. Hopefully, you will find me rebuilding my excitement and enthusiasm for writing. If I can rediscover that passion, I know I will leap

skateboard

And yes, all thanks to my son.

A Girl from the ‘Dummy Class’ Wrote an ILA Award Winner

Maddi’s Fridge has just won the International Literacy Association’s Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for Primary Fiction.

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A picture book is a collaborative effort. In addition to myself, Maddi’s Fridge is the result of the hard work and exceptional talents of illustrator Vin Vogel and our editor, Shari Dash Greenspan.

The ILA award is especially meaningful to me because I did not learn how to read until late in 3rd grade.

lois 12 maybe

I vividly remember the day that my 3rd grade teacher discovered I’d been faking reading. She yelled at me that I was lazy. Over the next few days she got quieter, which was dangerous. She decided that something was wrong with me.

I knew my alphabet forward and backwards. I could easily sound out words and could read out loud like the other kids in class. But when I read, the words didn’t connect to form any meaning.

Rabbit horrible laughed widget coffee.

Imagine that everyone in the world except for you reads the above words and gets a clear and meaningful sentence. I could not read and get meaning. Even words that I knew became gibberish in my head and sentences never came together.

My 3rd grade teacher kicked me out of her class and transferred me to the ‘dummy class.’

The five of us sat in a row at the front of a large empty classroom. We didn’t have a teacher; we had a district employee. My fellow classmates and I were given worksheets and math problems that looked like they came from 1st grade. Before I had been removed from my class I was in advanced math. Now I was adding single digits.

Our vocabulary words were single-syllable. Our texts were Dick and Jane type mimeographs that made me despise books and reading even more.

A tubby boy with freckles and messy blond hair, who I’d seen on the playground but never talked to, leaned towards me. “You don’t belong in the dummy class. You’re smart.”

During recess my close friends commiserated with me for the first few days, but the rest of my former classmates drifted to other parts of the playground. No one played with the kids from the dummy class.

Fortunately for me, my mother was a Tiger Mom long before the term existed. She wanted my 3rd grade teacher to tutor me. I refused. I suspect the teacher refused too. By now I hated that woman. My mother then asked a friend of the family who taught kindergarten to tutor me after school. I agreed. I’d loved kindergarten and kindergarten teachers: no reading and lots of art projects.

I don’t remember how long I was in the dummy class, maybe a few weeks or months. It was long enough for all of my former friends to start snubbing me on the playground.

I do remember the day that my mother busted me out. I was making progress with my tutor, and Mom struck some sort of deal with my 3rd grade teacher. On a Friday the district employee announced to the five of us that I was being moved back to regular classes. The tubby kid with freckles and messy blond hair told me “I knew you were better than we were.”

Even as an eight-year-old I paused and looked back at him as we filed out of class. He hadn’t struck me as particularly stupid. I remember wondering what it would be like to be stuck in the dummy class forever.

I left the class thinking that I would play with my new friends at recess, but over the next week or so I drifted back to my original friends and classmates.

When people fantasize about time travel they often talk about stopping an assassination or, conversely, assassinating a bad guy, etc.

I’d go back to my elementary school dummy class. I’d give the tubby kid and every kid in there a hug and tell them that no one is a dummy. That children learn at different speeds and that the speed we learn at is natural and right for us.

Time travel is not possible, but our world has changed for the better. The over 300,000 members of the International Literacy Association are performing little miracles every day as they guide reluctant readers into the transformative world of books.

I thank them with all of my heart for this wonderful award.

I can only hope that the fellow members of my dummy class somehow made it into the world of books. I know they had help. My mom went back to school and got her teaching credential. She became one of the first special education teachers our district ever hired.

The Blog Bullshit Meter

What I want to talk about is over-revising your writing.

Oh. Even at my desk in the Seattle area I can hear shouts from New York agents and editors: “Nooooooo! Polish your woooork!”

Ignore them. Some of us perseverate on manuscripts that we need to release. This is a real problem for me. I’ll sit on a project, anything from a picture book to a novel, and only reluctantly send it out because I know it’s not perfect.

I’ll share my favorite quote here on perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is an ugly thing, all stiff and rigid with pursed lips and beady little eyes. No one likes perfectionism. It comes from a stingy, mean-spirited place and serves no purpose except to make us feel terrible about ourselves and anything we create….Perfectionism would have God recast every sunset and chide Mother Nature for her choice of colors. If everything were left up to perfectionism, nothing would exist.” — Judy Reeves

lake kachess great

And even though I’ve read this quote to all of my students, my revisions get to the point where I am not longer polishing my imagery or strengthening my characters. I am creating a different story. And this one I will also find fault with.

The only reason I pushed to get Maddi’s Fridge published was that I read it in front of 70 people and they ALL loved it. That’s a really bad precedent. How often am I going to get 70 people in one room to approve of a manuscript?

Logically I know that I should let go. Illogically I continue to write and rewrite the same stories.

Last week, though, my blog told me to stop messing around. Not in so many words. I was revising a post, “A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts” that I’d been working on for six weeks. Yes. A blog post. Yes. Six weeks. And no, I still wasn’t happy with the shape of my writing.

Anyway, I noticed the number of revisions to the right of my WordPress page. At that point, it said 16 revisions. 400 words. 16 revisions.

If I believed that the afterlife came with a computer, or at least a pen and paper, maybe I could go on revising for that perfect story. But there’s a huge problem. Perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfect. Reworking and rewriting a piece can lead to stilted, dead language, and moribund characters. If you don’t allow yourself to stretch and make mistakes as an artist, you don’t progress.

What to do? Dot. Dot. Dot. If you’re looking for an answer to this problem, you’re reading the wrong blog.

One thing I will commit to: fewer revisions before I hit “publish” on my blog posts. This is good practice for me and the bullshit meter is sitting there keeping track, reminding me to let go. (Posted with only 6 7 revisions.)

The quote above is from Judy Reeves, “A Creative Writer’s Kit.”

A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts

They are in front of every store this weekend, but good cookies are just a tip of the iceberg.

In January I got to read Maddi’s Fridge to a local Brownie and Daisy troop. They were about to launch a food drive for their school’s food pantry.

I spoke to them about how Maddi’s Fridge was based on something that happened to me. After reading Maddi’s Fridge I asked the girls, about 20 of them, to write or draw their own stories. It could be about something that happened, or it could be fiction. These were pretty young kids, but for the next twenty minutes the room was absolutely silent as they created stories.

Brownies and Daisies working on their stories

Some were drawing their stories, some writing, all were pouring their hearts out onto a page. And yes, there were talking cat stories. And even though there have been thousands of talking cat stories (one or two of them my own), each writer was bringing her own hopes and experiences to the story, making it unique.

Kids need a safe place to feel valued and know their stories are important. The Girl Scouts provides that place. Their Girl Scout Law, said at the beginning of the meeting, almost brought tears to my eyes.

Visiting this group of Brownies and Daisies was a great moment and I cherish it.

And then, of course, I kicked myself.

When my son James was much younger (he’s in college now), he was a Cub Scout and I was a den mother (do they still use that term?). At the time, the Boy Scouts of America strengthened their policy of denying membership to boys who were gay and questioning. And even though my children identify as straight, I didn’t want them to belong to a group that excluded children because of who they were. We finished the year and left scouting.

I assumed, without checking, that the Girl Scouts had the same policy. When my daughter asked to become a Girl Scout, I said no. That decision was not one of my finer moments as a parent. Girl Scouts are incredibly inclusive.

Oh well. I suppose this is why grandparents are so brilliant. They know firsthand the mistakes to avoid.

If you have a young daughter and have not considered joining the Girl Scouts, please do. They will help you in molding a strong, independent, and self-confident member of our society.

And the group of Daisies and Brownies I visited? They collected 1,621 items during their food drive. Theirs are the small powerful hands that will shape our future world. Wouldn’t it be great if all girls could join them?

Girl Scout Troops 44098 and 45370 with author Lois Brandt