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Teaching, Writing

Keep Writing

Today, May 6 marks the end of one writing project: creating a book of flash fiction with my fifth-grade students. They’re not really my students. But as part of the Taos Visiting Artists Program, I began working with Kathy Serna’s class for two hours a week beginning last fall.

The photo above is the book’s cover. The students chose its name: Superstar Writers of Ranchos Elementary. And, yes, to me they are superstars. Today at a reception the public can see that, too.

My life as a writer began in earnest in fifth-grade. Students from the town’s schools gathered on Wednesday afternoons to take an advanced course in science and creative writing. Guess which one caught my imagination?

I wanted to do the same for these fifth-grade students. I came for an hour on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. I began by reading aloud, some from other people’s writing, but mostly mine, actually from The Cousins/Los Primos bilingual series. Los Primos cover(More below on that.)

Then over the months we spent together, I gave them five writing prompts: A Picture Is Worth 750 Words; Along With Paul Revere’s Ride; Three Inches Tall; My Neighbor Is a Giant; and I Have a Superpower. The students were given a word count for each.

Their teacher and I worked alongside the students, encouraging them. A few, whose first language is Spanish, wrote in English. One boy wrote in Spanish.

Hopefully, this experience was as rewarding to the students as it was for me. Their teacher said her students wouldn’t have had such opportunities to write without this program.

Yes, I believe their creativity and confidence increased over those months. One student wrote a story about living in a sink of dirty dishes. Another told Paul Revere’s ride from the perspective of his horse, Brown Beauty. One student wrote a giant stepped on her father — but a potion save him.

Here is one called “The Battle,” by Elijah.

3-5-20: Have you ever wanted to join the ant army? Well, don’t. Let me tell you why. If you’re three inches tall like me and a human, then you are unlucky. I was a mad scientist’s puppet for a long time until one day he shrunk me and I got away. Then about three days later, the ants found me. The Midway Ants found me, I meant. They raised me, fed me, all the stuff a child needs to stay alive. I was always a little bit bigger than the other ants, but they didn’t mind. Neither did I.

When I was 16, I joined the Midway Ant Army. Now in 2020, there is another ant war. Midway vs. Fullway! It’s three days until I get sent to the army. My birthday is tomorrow.

3-6-20: Today is my birthday, but I have no one to celebrate it with because everyone is freaking out about the ant war. Well, I need to go train in base camp. I’ll probably document again tomorrow.

3-7-20: It’s 6:30 p.m. and I’m going to bed, so I can be ready for the war. God bless Midway!

Day of the War: Right now as I write, my left arm is not working, so this is pretty hard for me. I got bit three times and shot once. It hurts so bad. If anyone ever gets a hold of this, please send help. We are under attack. I don’t think I’m going to survive.

Midway Loses the War: Sgt. Elijah almost won the war for Midway, but Fullway had the upper hand. Now all Midway Ants are extinct. These are the last documents Sgt. Elijah took. God bless Midway!

This week, I visited the class this week to bring each student a copy of the book, plus cookies I baked. I got a huge welcome with cries of,“We missed you so much.”

Many asked me to sign their books. This is what I wrote: “Keep writing.” And I meant it.

Zia awardABOUT LOS PRIMOS: The bilingual kids books “The Cousins and the Magic Fish/Los Primos y el Pez Mágico” got some recognition when the New Mexico Press Women named it second runner up for the Zia Award. I was the author and Teresa Dovalpage, the translator. My son, Ezra, created the illustrations. Teresa and I were at the conference in Las Cruces to accept the award and read from the book. Jessica Savage, with the NM Press Women, is behind us.

 

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Writing

When, Where, and How I Write

I’m an early morning riser, so that’s the best time for me to write, a cup of coffee by my side and zero interruptions. Yes, I quickly check email and social media, but then it’s down to business for a few hours.

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My latest novel, The Sweet Spot.

I know people who write in coffee shops and libraries. Some go on retreats. My place is a room of my own in our home. I am fortunate to have a desk built by my husband, Hank, from black walnut boards somebody was going toss. He also built me desktop shelving units to store papers, cords and other tools. Then, there’s the view out my large window of the Taos mesa — if I squint I can pretend the sagebrush is the ocean — and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, its peaks still snow-covered in April. I keep my office area neat and uncluttered. I’d like to think my mind is the same way, ha.

When I first began writing fiction, I was an editor at a daily newspaper. I left for that job promptly at 6:10 a.m. So, I wrote at night after dinner, printed whatever I wrote, and marked up the copy at lunch. Ten years ago, after I moved to Taos and worked at a paper here, I got up very early to write before heading to the newsroom.

Of course, there were the weekends.

After leaving my post as a newspaper’s managing editor nearly a year ago, I maintain my early morning writing spree but also gleefully find time during the day when the spirit moves me. (I now have teaching, editing, and book review gigs.) I sit at my laptop whenever and let it fly.

When it comes to writing fiction, I don’t use outlines or notes. It just comes from my head and somewhere else, I often believe. I feel blessed. (Oh, yeah, there’s rewriting, lots of it.)

As I’ve gained confidence in my writing, I do less printing as I go along. I usually wait until my novel has some real heft before I print anything, maybe halfway through.

And, yes, I back it up, back it up, and back it up.

I don’t belong to writing groups. It’s not my thing. I don’t even show people what I write until I feel the novel is ready. However, I made an exception for a mystery I’ve just finished. I let my author friend Teresa read the chapters as I finished them. She gave a great deal of encouragement along the way. I finished that novel in less than five months. Hmm, I might be onto something new.

And here is the link to my latest novel, The Sweet Spot. No aliens, vampires or zombies. Just real people doing real things and getting into trouble for it. And thanks to those who are keeping my five-star streak alive. The Sweet Spot on Amazon

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: This walkway along Paseo del Pueblo Norte in Taos caught my eye the other day.

 

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Writing

The Serial Comma on Trial

The comma became a recent internet sensation when a court in Maine kept a lawsuit alive in which dairy drivers are seeking $10 million in overtime pay. I’m rather proud to say the comma was a key piece of evidence for my suit in small claims court although at a much, much smaller amount.

In the Maine suit, the ruling rested on the lack of the so-called serial comma, which was missing between “packing” and “or” in the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution.”

What’s a serial comma? It’s the one used after the second to the last item in a list of three or more.

David Baron, the circuit judge in Maine handling the case, is quoted as saying, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

I was amused because I used the humble but meaningful comma to my advantage. I claimed the insurance company that sold us an extended warranty should cover the cost of repairs after the engine block on our Subaru cracked.

Naturally, the company said no. It wasn’t going to dish out the nearly thousand bucks we paid to get the car back on the road.

That was years ago, but I recall blowing up a photocopy of the contract — with the significant comma — as evidence the repair should indeed be covered. Yes, it came down to a serial comma.

The judge at the small claims court agreed with me.

I guess the company saw the error of its ways because it sent someone with a check to the hearing.

(I also brought along the cracked engine block. The mechanics were amused but supportive when I asked for it.)

During my 30-plus years as a journalist, I will admit to having a very casual relationship with commas. They don’t appear in news stories as often as they do in other types of writing.

That includes serial commas, which are not used except when absolutely necessary. My theory is that long ago the guys in the pressroom decided to save on ink by eliminating most commas.

Admittedly, commas have a more important role in my fiction, which has taken over my writing life. It meant I had to study their proper usage. Fortunately, I found numerous online sites. Yes, I have the venerable “The Elements of Style.”

I refer to them when I find myself slipping into my old ways.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That was a delicious cake Betty at Op. Cit. Books in Taos had at my reading March 25. Yes, she had the bakery put the title of my new novel, The Sweet Spot on the top. How fitting!

And for those wanting a copy of The Sweet Spot here it is on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

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characters, Writing

Crusty Old Coots

I like characters who are crusty old coots. My next novel, The Sweet Spot, has good one. His name is Alban Sweet.

The Sweet Spot is the first of my hilltown books to be launched, this one in January. As I’ve explained before, they are set in a rural stretch of Western Massachusetts, where my family and I once lived. I also reported on it for a local daily.

The town of Conwell and the characters in my book are fabricated although, heaven knows, those little towns (population 1,200 and fewer) are full of characters. Alban Sweet, who is known as Benny to most everyone except his late wife, his sister, and a few of the old-timers, would feel at home.

He’s Pop to Edie, his daughter and the novel’s main character. His granddaughter calls him Poppy.

Alban is a rascal of a guy who has run the town dump for about 35 years. (The novel is set in 1978.) He brings home the stuff people toss out that he feels still has some value. The outbuildings behind the home he shares with Edie is full of the junk. Yeah, he’s a bit of a drinker.

And he has a notorious feud with the town’s road boss because he keeps borrowing stuff from the highway department without asking. In keeping with a good feud, the road boss makes sure his dirt road is plowed and graded last.

Alban loves his daughter and granddaughter, Amber. (His other two daughters won’t have anything to do with him.) He would do anything for them. His love is true.

By the way, Alban is made up and not based on anyone real although I will admit I have met more than my share of crusty old coots. And, yes, my other hilltown novels have them.

Here’s a scene from early in the novel. Edie and Amber have just returned from a Memorial Day party at her in-laws. Earlier that day, the town has a ceremony to honor the soldiers who died in war, including Edie’s husband who was killed in Vietnam. Alban wasn’t invited to the in-laws’  because he got stinking drunk one year and insulted one of the guests. So, Edie and her daughter brought Pop a plate of chicken and the fixings from the party. By the way, the character, Harlan Doyle, has a significant role as the book moves along.

Edie watched her father eat. His thick white hair fell in front of his eyes. She needed to cut it again.

“What’d you do today?” she asked.

Pop ran a hand over his whiskers. He grunted.

“I straightened up the place,” he said.

“That so?”

Edie laughed because the room was filled tightly with junk. The kitchen sink was stacked high with dirty dishes. She and Amber would have to wash them tomorrow.

“When I got sick of that, I got the mower started and tried to cut the grass, but it’s gotten so goddamned high. I’ll have to use the weed whacker from the highway garage.”

Pop cut two short rows in the grass before he left the mower next to the old doghouse filled with gas cans. Edie wasn’t surprised. The closest distance between two points for her father was usually a crooked line.

Edie planted a hand on her hip.

“I saw how far you got. It couldn’t have taken very long,” she said.

Pop ignored her.

“I tried to take a nap on the porch, but there was too much hammering next door. Bang, bang, bang, that’s all I could hear.”

“At Aunt Leona’s?”

“Nah, the other side. Doyle’s.”

The Doyle place was located at the bottom of their dead-end road, closed up after the last Doyle, Elmira, died, and the family who lived elsewhere couldn’t decide what to do with the property. It must have been three years ago, and Pop got a few bucks keeping an eye on the place.

“Somebody moved in? Elmira’s house has gotten really rundown.”

Pop glanced up from his plate.

“I went over to see what’s what and met the fella. Damnedest face I ever seen. Scars up and down like somethin’ clawed him. He walked with an awful bad limp.”

“What clawed him?” Amber asked.

“Didn’t bring it up. It’s not polite, honey. I’ll let your Aunt Leona do it.” Pop grinned at his crack. “Friendly guy though. Name’s Harlan Doyle. His father, Aldrich, grew up next door. Elmira’s boy. He went to Japan in the war, and when he came back, he married a woman and moved south to be with her people. They used to visit the old folks here once in a while. Says he remembers me.”

“I saw a man at the ceremony today,” Edie said. “He wore sunglasses, but they didn’t cover the bad scars on his face. He’s tall, but his body was crooked like somethin’ wasn’t holding him up.”

“That’s him.”

“He says he’s gonna fix up the place?” Edie asked. “Is he really planning to live there?”

“That’s what he says. Maybe I’ll get me some work out of it.”

Pop made smacking noises with his mouth. He pointed toward the hutch.

“I almost forgot. I got a present for you, Amber. Go see over there.”

Amber went to the hutch. She held a wooden box when she twirled around.

“This it?” she asked.

“Yup, darlin’, bring it here.”

Pop’s eyes grew bigger as he told Amber to twist the crank on the box’s bottom, and after she did, the workings produced a tiny, tinny tune. Edie shifted in her chair to give her daughter room. Amber opened and shut the lid. She smiled at the gift and at Pop.

“Thanks, Poppy.”

Edie hoped her daughter would never be ashamed of her grandfather. Even though Ma got mad at Pop, she always defended him for working hard for his family. “Somebody has to take care of the dump,” her mother said when her sisters complained how horrible their father smelled.

When Ma got sick and after she died, Pop took Edie to the dump when Leona was not available to babysit. She stayed close to her father, or if the weather was bad, she waited in his attendant’s shack when he went outside to help a customer. Some people stared, wondering why Benny Sweet brought his youngest to such a place. Afterward, Pop told her about a treasure he salvaged from their load of trash. “People don’t realize what great stuff they throw away” was his motto. Or he’d reveal an observation, say “how the widow living near the store was dumping a lot of vodka bottles lately.”

Pop chuckled.

“Do you like the box?” he asked Amber, and after she said yes, he pulled himself upright. “By the way, next time you see Marie, you can tell her for me the chicken was a little dry this year. I’m gonna need a coupla beers to wash it down.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yes, it is late November and I still have kale — and chard — growing in my garden despite very cold nights. Being a good Portagee, I have to grow kale. I make kale soup once a week, enough to last three days.

FINAL NOTE: Here is the link to my first novel Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon. If you live in Taos, you can find it at the local book stores.

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kids, Taos, Writing

Teaching Kids to Be Authors

I have added another gig: teaching creative writing to fifth-graders. It’s part of the Visiting Artists Program at the Taos municipal schools.

Others in the program are bringing what they do creatively in real life into the district’s classrooms. I work with Kathy Serna’s twenty fifth-graders at Ranchos de Taos Elementary School. My focus is on flash fiction, which I believe fits their writing level and the time I will spend with them — one or two hours a week.

I remember a similar opportunity I had when I was a fifth-grader. That year, a few children from each elementary school in my town — there were several then — attended an enrichment program on Wednesday afternoons. We were taught advanced science and creative writing.

The science was fine. Creative writing, taught by Mr. Graves, was definitely my favorite. I learned about expressing myself using similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech. At that early age I was inspired to do what I have done as an adult — write creatively.

I hope I can do the same for these kids.

My first day was last week. They got to know a bit about me, and I asked them to tell me about themselves via a writing assignment. (I admit I will have to work hard to remember everyone’s names given the short amount of time I have in the room.) I explained about flash fiction and how we will be publishing what they write in a magazine format. We read samples together.

On Thursday, I let them choose a photo  from the pile I cut from magazines. Tell me a story, I asked them. They had pictures of people and animals in a variety of locations. The animals, especially the coyotes were popular. One boy flipped his page over and decided to write about a couch in an ad. It’s a magic couch, he told me.

This time they worked on the computer although some preferred to write their first draft in longhand.

They are a great group of students, eager and polite. Several are bilingual or their primary language is Spanish. Their teacher called them “the best of the best.” I believe Kathy. She’s also a dedicated teacher. I am learning from her as well, like when she said to talk and read with them at the rug area rather than have them sit at their desks. You can lose them there.

I am also eager to learn what these students will teach me about writing.

On Tuesday, the students worked more on their stories after a brief lesson on onomatopoeia. (You know words that sound like the noise they make, like crunch and howl.) A group of girls are including each other in their stories. The same goes for a pair of boys. Kathy and I help the students as needed.

The hour flew by. Kathy told the students they could get together and share their writing with each other. They gathered in the back corner of the room, chatting excitedly when I left. Now that made me feel good.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: The students wrote about themselves on those sheets of paper.

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