Teachers Write: Nurturing Creativity

Can you believe it’s almost October?  These first weeks of school are so crazy for teachers that you probably need some ideas for how to regroup and reclaim that summer creativity. Guest author Donna Gephart joins us today with some tips!

Now that you’re back to school, it’s vital to feed and nurture your creative spirit.  These tips, ideas and resources will help you stay creative throughout the year. 
1.  TAKE TIME OFF to renew, refill and relax. 
            Read a great book . . . or a trashy one.  Kick back with a fun magazine.  A comic book.
            Yoga and meditation encourage the brain’s alpha waves.  These alpha waves are linked to relaxation and creativity. 
            Get out!  Walk in a park or by the beach.  Paddle a kayak, ride a bike, climb a mountain!
            Make something – jewelry, a bird feeder, a pie.  (If you make a peach cobbler, please send it to me!)
            Take time off from screens.  Give your brain a break from the constant stimulation.  I enjoy screen-free Sundays whenever possible – no TV, computer, smart phone, etc.  On screen-free Sundays, I connect more with people, nature and books.  (And the pooches!)
            Anne Lamott, author of the well-loved book – Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life — called this initial failure crummy first drafts. (She actually uses a different adjective, but we’ll go with crummy. It’s a classroom-friendly blog.)
            Let go of that damaging mindset of writing something perfect the first time.  I don’t know a single author who creates a “perfect” first draft.  And if I did, I’d have to kill him (just on principle). 
            Nothing is written as much as it’s rewritten.  Get comfortable with your first efforts being messy.
            My friend, Donald Vaughan – a successful free-lance writer – once said, “I’d rather have a bad page than a blank page.”  Amen!  It’s much easier to work with a lousy page than an empty one.
            Don’t compare yourself to others.  You don’t need to be Shakespeare or Steinbeck.  Somebody already was Shakespeare and Steinbeck.  You simply need to be the most authentic you that you can be.  No one can write like you.  No one has had the same experiences or ways of looking at those experiences. 
            And by the way, a  “crummy first draft” does NOT indicate failure.  It indicates practice and doing the work.  It’s merely part of the process.  (No need to be so focused on the end result.)
            Imagine:  How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer dissects creativity. 
            My favorite part of the book was where he explained that after the most frustrating blocks, when all seems hopeless, creative ideas spring. 
            Listen to an interview with Jonah Lehrer on Katie Davis Brain Burps About Books KidLit Podcast.
            The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a staple on creativity.  Her idea of morning pages – writing when you first wake – changed my writing output.  I used to walk the dogs, exercise, eat breakfast and check e-mail before I wrote.  I squandered my best writing time! 
            Now?  I wake and write.  The number of pages I produce has jumped dramatically.  The dogs still get walked, the e-mails still get answered, etc. – just later in the day . . . or the next day.  (In fact, I wrote this entire post in a creative burst first thing one morning.)
            Read my blog post about 6-1/2 tips to stay creative from guest blogger, Paul Grecian, who is a professional nature photographer.  Scroll through the comments for more great tips and ideas about staying creative.  (Sorry, the giveaway on the post has ended.)
            a.  Join or start a writer’s group.  (Check out S.C.B.W.I. critique groups in your area.)
            b.  Go to readings, concerts, dance performances, plays, ethnic celebrations, local festivals, museum exhibits, etc.
            c.  Gather a few creative friends – artists, writers, performers – and discuss ideas, while enjoying snacks and beverages.
            d.  Watch a TED talk to become inspired.  I love this one by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity.  Of course, there’s the blog post about Kate Messner’s TED talk.  I love these lines from the post:  “Kids are naturally gifted world-builders. They have brave imaginations, wild fresh ideas, and are not afraid of messing up.”
Sometimes, structure and limitation don’t reign in creativity, but allow it to expand to fill the parameters.  With that in mind, have fun with this word-limiting creative writing prompt:
You’ve heard of six-word memoirs, right? 
            For this prompt, write a six-word description of yourself.
            e.g.  Will write for food.  Prefer royalties.
 Six more words for you:  Have fun.  Stay creative.  Write on!


 Donna Gephart’s humorous writing has appeared on greeting cards, in national magazines and on refrigerator magnets.  Her middle grade novels have won a number of awards, including the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  Her newest novel, OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN — about a Jeopardy!-obsessed twelve-year-old — received excellent reviews, including a starred Kirkus review.  For free resources for teachers and librarians (and a funny singing hamster video), visit Donna at http://www.donnagephart.com.

Think Before You Thank: Writers & Acknowledgments

I learned something recently that I thought I’d share…because it saved me from doing something nice that could have turned into something uncomfortable.

If you’ve ever finished a novel and gone on to read the acknowledgments pages in the back, you know that authors are frequently thankful to lots of people. We thank our editors and agents, our copy editors, publicists and cover designers.  We thank experts who helped with research and gatekeepers who may have granted access to research opportunities. We thank our partners and friends and writing buddies, and sometimes, we thank booksellers, teachers, and librarians who have been champions of our work.  And all of that is lovely, but…

An acknowledgment in the back of a book is different from a quiet thank you note that arrives in a mailbox. It’s a very public thank you, and in some situations, it might not be comfortable for the person being thanked.

A museum employee or zookeeper who granted unusual access to records or an exhibit, for example, may have bent some rules in doing so.  A public thank you could make for an awkward conversation with that person’s boss.

A teacher or librarian who enjoys an author’s work might be delighted to see his or her name in the back of a book.  But what if that reader wants to be on a state or national awards committee and the author’s book shows up in the pile of titles to be discussed?  Suddenly, having that public thank you in the book is awkward at best and at worst, could create pressure for the person to resign from a great opportunity.

I’ll be honest – I wouldn’t have thought of any of this until a friend brought it to my attention recently.  Because what could be wrong with saying thanks?  Nothing…as long as the person has a heads up.

Here’s what I’m going to do from now on…  There are certain people I know are happy to be thanked – my critique partners, my agent and editor, my family.  But for others– individuals who have helped along the way by assisting with research or spreading the word about my books – I’ve decided it’s probably best to fire off a quick note first. Something like this…

Dear awesome person,

I wanted to drop you a note to say thanks again for (awesome things that you did).  If it’s okay with you, I’d like to say a more public thank you by including your name in the acknowledgments for (title of book that is awesome because of you).  Please let me know if that’s all right, and even if it’s not, know that I’m so very grateful for your help.




So I’m curious now.  How do other writers handle acknowledgments?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments!

Real Revision: Creating the tools we need

Necessity is the mother of invention, right? I’m not sure who said that (I think Plato gets credit for it sometimes) but I’ve found that the saying is true when it comes to revising a book.  So often, I’ll get to a stage in the revision process when I know I need to try a different strategy. But deep as my revision toolbox may be, I can’t always find the right thing. Sometimes, writers need to invent the tools they need to figure things out.

Which brings me to the Timeline-Treatment-Symptom-Belief-Emotion chart…

Last week, I was finishing up revisions on WAKE UP MISSING, my fall 2013 MG science thriller with Walker Bloomsbury, and I realized that I needed to do one more pass to check on the progression of some elements of the story.  The novel is about four kids with post-concussion syndome who leave home hoping for a medical miracle. But when they’re admitted to an elite neurology clinic at a former military base in the Everglades, things don’t seem quite right, and little by little, they learn that the clinic’s goals have evolved beyond curing head injuries.  The book takes place over eight days, and I created the chart above to track the changes that take place from chapter to chapter and day to day.  One thing that was important was making sure that the narrator’s concussion symptoms were consistent with her treatment.

On many levels, this book is about changes, so it was also important to make sure I understood how my main character’s beliefs changed and how her emotions evolved through the course of her experience.

Chapter by chapter, I read through my draft and filled in the chart. I noticed a lot of small things along the way, and I made a couple important discoveries, too . I kept a running list of changes to consider after I finished charting everything, and then I went back for one more revision pass.

This is messy stuff and probably doesn’t make much sense to you as a reader, but as a writer, I can step back and see the bigger picture here — just what’s happening, just where things are moving too quickly or not quickly enough, just where a shift in view doesn’t sit quite right, and that’s where the text needs work.

Because I am a revision geek at heart, this was a deeply satisfying process and — I’m just going to say it — really, really fun.  But even if you don’t love revising, getting out the big paper and colored pens can help you see your story in a new way.

Sadly, I’ll probably use this particular revision tool just once in my writerly life. After all, how many books can an author really write that might make use of a timeline-treatment-symptom-belief-emotion chart?  But the experience has reinforced one lesson for me — that every book demands new tools, and if they don’t already exist in your bag of tricks, you just may need to invent them.

Teachers Write: Sometimes, when I write…

Saturday, October 20th is NCTE’s National Day on Writing.  How will you celebrate?

It strikes me that this is not only a great excuse to hunker down somewhere with a big mug hot chocolate and notebook or laptop but also an opportunity to share.

If you’re a writer at heart, it’s tough to understand how anyone could live without putting pen to paper or clicking away some at a keyboard each day.  But plenty of people — lots of kids — can’t understand why we’d want to do that at all.  On October 20th, might we open a window into our writing lives so that people who don’t understand the value can have a glimpse of what this world is like?

Today: You can write whatever you want — a free verse poem, a memoir, a short story or monologue, a letter.  Start with this line:

“Sometimes, when I write..”

See where it goes.  Think about sharing this one with your students and inviting them to do the same.  The week of October 20th, we’ll be celebrating writing with a special project on my blog. This will get you (and hopefully your students!) thinking in the right direction to join the celebration.

For today, feel free to share a snippet in the comments if you’d like!

And by the way, you don’t have to be a teacher or librarian to join us in sharing today… We’d love to hear from authors and kids and nurses and accountants and everybody, too!

Thank You, Bear Pond Books!

When Jane Knight at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont asked me if I’d like to be part of an author event especially for teachers and librarians last weekend, I jumped at the chance. Bear Pond is a terrific indie bookstore, teachers and librarians are some of my favorite people, and some of my other favorite people were part of the event, too.What’s not to love?

Author Linda Urban shared writing stories and some great thoughts on point of view in novels.  She told us how she came to write her wonderful middle grade novel HOUND DOG TRUE in third person. Author Jo Knowles talked about her latest and much-acclaimed SEE YOU AT HARRY’S as well as her other titles. Jo also showed everyone the storyboard strategy she uses to revise her novels, drawing a little thumbnail picture to represent each chapter.

And this…is my only photo from the event, even though I am usually a big picture-taker. You know how sometimes you get so wrapped up in the conversation happening that you forget you meant to snap a few visual memories of the day, too?

It was one of those days – and such a great one. It was absolutely energizing to be in the company of so many teachers and librarians who are concerned with Common Core Standards, for sure, but even more concerned with getting great books into their students’ hands and creating a community of readers. I’m so thankful I got to share my morning with them, with Jo and Linda, and with the great folks at Bear Pond. Read on!

Teachers Write: If Characters Ruled the Land

If you’re new to Teachers Write, you can read all about it here. Then join us for today’s prompt!

Even the true political junkies among us need a break from Barack and Mitt now and then, so we’re going to talk a different kind of politics today. I love the Horn Book’s KidLit Election project, where they’ve invited folks to nominate their favorite fictional characters as Democratic or Republican candidates for the U.S. Presidency.  Personally, I’m partial to this one…

From The Horn Book, http://www.hbook.com/2012/09/blogs/out-of-the-box/kidlit-election-2012-democratic-primary-results-are-in/

But there have been many great arguments made for not only spiders but also slaves and ADHD kids in the Oval Office. Which brings me to this week’s writing prompt.

Imagine your favorite fictional character running for President (or Prime Minister, or whoever’s in charge where you live).  Write his or her (or its?) speech to accept the nomination, being sure to both inspire supporters and outline a clear platform of beliefs and promises.Keep it positive (the Horn Book made this rule, and I like it… let’s not have Voldemort representing either party, please).  And consider what kinds of beliefs your character has and how those might shape political policy. Have fun, but be thoughtful, too.

You may also want to try this with a character from one of your own works-in-progress. Running for office really forces you to examine what you believe and how far you’re willing to go to fight for it, I suspect. Interesting stuff to ponder, wearing our characters’ shoes.

Feel free to share your speeches in the comments. I’m guessing some of you may want to try this one out in the classroom once you’ve played around with it yourself, and I’m sure kids will enjoy your examples, as well as those posted on the Horn Book’s site.

Wells Memorial Library – What a Difference a Year Makes

Last September, after Tropical Storm Irene tore through the Adirondacks, the children’s section of Wells Memorial Library looked like this.

The storm sent flood waters surging into the library’s basement and first floor children’s room, and they lost their entire children’s collection.  I took photos and blogged about it here, and I tweeted and Facebooked, along with a lot of other folks,  to see if people wanted to help.  They did.

Donations poured in — books and money from all over the United States and beyond.  The Bookstore Plus, a nearby indie, hosted this fundraiser that raised even more funds for the devastated library.  And today, the Wells Memorial Library children’s section looks like this.

My daughter and I stopped by to visit on our way hiking last week, and we were just amazed by the transformation — the result of many, many hours of hard work from volunteers, board members, and library director, Karen Rappaport.  Here’s Karen with all the new books…

She says a HUGE thank you to all of you who donated books and money and helped to spread the word of a library that needed a hand. Thanks to you, this library is back on its feet and sharing even more books with readers.


Teachers Write: Baby Steps Back to Writing

So…how have your first days of school been?  Crazy and wonderful, stressful and joyful, and everything in between, I’d be willing to bet. And I’d also bet that you haven’t found too much time for writing amid the seat charts and get-to-know you papers of September.

 But let’s see if we can find our way back to that place…

(If you’re just finding us, you can read this post about Teachers Write to learn what we’re all about…and if you click here, you can check out all the prompts, mini-lessons, and assignments we’ve had so far.)

 We’re going to kick off our 2012-2013 school-year Teachers Write with a quick-write. Even if you can only find ten minutes, give it a try. Some time this weekend, or in a quiet moment next week, write a memory about one of your parents.  Choose something specific, something that maybe didn’t mean much at the time but does now….like this story about my dad and the carnations.

If you’re writing fiction these days, try this activity from your main character’s voice…or your antagonist’s point of view.

Share an excerpt in the comments if you’d like.  Or just keep this one in your notebook if that feels more right.

 But one way or another, try out the assignment, okay? Get those writing muscles flexing again, and we’ll be back next Friday with a mini-lesson on craft that you can try yourself and then share with your students.

“What We Have in Common” A poem for election season

I don’t talk politics much here, but if you know me in the real world, you probably know that I have strong opinions. These opinions are not shared by everyone I like or by everyone I love – and that’s okay. I enjoy a good debate. But I feel like election season in the age of social media has made the dialogue that’s always taken place a little more pointed, a little more sharp-edged. It got me thinking…


What We Have In Common

by Kate Messner, Copyright 2012


For just a minute, let’s look at the leaves together.

Do you see how this one blushes pink around the edges?

How that one is all red, its neighbor halfway gold?

I like the way it is leaning toward autumn

But isn’t quite ready to leap.

And you know, I love the smell of pencils in September

I remembered just how much

When I saw that first-day-of-school photo you posted,

Your kids with clean faces and heavy backpacks.

I can’t believe how they’ve grown.

Mine have, too.

This afternoon, while they’re doing homework,

Maybe we can share some tea and chocolate,

Turn off the Internet and remember

What connects us.

Good books.  Bonfire smoke and  s’mores.

Fireworks and full moons,

Bare feet on chilly grass,

Kids playing kickball too late into the night,

While we lean back and notice the stars,

Breathing in and out

This air that we somehow share

Without coloring it red or blue.