Thursday, August 30, 2007

Wayne Avenue School Tells Stories

For the past two days I've been hanging out with teachers at Wayne Avenue School in Dunn, North Carolina. That's not the school to the left, it's the view outside my hotel window. I came to Wayne Avenue to attend a tea party and share some thoughts about personal narrative writing with young children. I spent one day working with 5th-grade teachers and the next with the 4th-grade team. This is some of the most rewarding work I do -- I learn as much as I share.

We mined our lives in search of stories -- personal narratives. We used children's literature to help us. I hope teachers will go back to their classrooms inspired -- we surely laughed a lot and worked hard. I know these good teachers will inspire their students to discover and write their stories as well.

We won't name names, but for two days we heard childhood stories about making change in the collection plate at church (you know who you are), forgetting the day of the party and bringing an old toy (in a paper bag, no less) for the Christmas gift exchange, being scared to death of chickens in the back yard, meeting a preemie baby sister for the first time, listening to the sermon that never should have been preached, watching Grandma scarf the prized Goldfish -- surprise! - with the smiley face, and many, many more personal stories -- what storytellers! What writers!

This is the 5th-grade team with moi. Librarian Karen Tutt is in the black-and-white top -- she worked hard to make sure our staff development days flowed smoothly. And she makes great Earl Gray tea.

The highlight at the end of the day was being invited to 4th-grade teacher Lynn Boyle's classroom to read chapter three of EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS to her students. What a pleasure to see rapt faces waiting for the next chapter in a book that Lynn started reading with students this first week of school -- a book I wrote. Oh, my.

Happy sigh.

I'm in the airport now in Raleigh, NC, with flight delays -- bad weather in Atlanta. I'm thrilled it's raining there. We've had hundred-degree days with no rain for over a month. I'll happily (almost) wait in the airport while the storms clear. Thank you to everyone at Wayne Avenue for two wonderful days of sharing stories and writing together.

I'm laying low for the Labor Day holiday. The All-Stars book tour shifts into second gear next week when I'm off to Happy Bookseller in Columbia, SC on Thursday, September 6. (See complete schedule to the left.) Andy and Carrie -- here I come! Happy weekend, all! Don't labor too hard.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sandy Koufax and The Aurora County All-Stars

Sandy Koufax. There has never been a baseball player like him. Koufax pitched a no-hitter each season from 1962 to 1965, including a 1-0 perfect game against the Cubs. He led the Dodgers to pennants in 1963, 1965, and 1966, and won the Cy Young Award each year. And in all these years he was plagued by serious injuries to his throwing arm, yet he pitched though the almost-unbearable pain -- at one point his trainers were afraid gangrene was setting in. In THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, House Jackson, "age 12, Crackerjack baseball pitcher, obedient son, and keeper of his own counsel" wants to be just like his hero, Sandy Koufax. He's a lefty, like Sandy. And his throwing arm has been out of commission for a year... thanks to a girl.

Koufax was my baseball hero in the 1960s. His pitching was not only masterful, it was beautiful... as was Sandy. I was in love with Sandy Koufax. I dreamed of him noticing me in the stands one day and falling madly in love with me. It didn't happen that way. But I did get to write about Koufax in ALL-STARS. You'll see. He was and is an amazing man, a stellar human being; my love was well-placed. Read Jane Leavy's biography of Koufax, and watch this wonderful clip on YouTube of Koufax pitching, from the PBS Baseball series.

Takes your breath away, doesn't it?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Only Way Out is Through - Shirley Jackson and the Book Tour

I've been thinking of Shirley Jackson this morning. Maybe you know of her through her short story "The Lottery" or her novels THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE or WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. I didn't read "The Lottery" until I was well into my adulthood and have never read the novels. I came to Shirley Jackson through two of her books of collected magazine pieces: RAISING DEMONS and LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES, hilarious accounts of raising her four children with her husband, critic and Bennington professor, Stanley Hyman, in the 1940s and '50s in rural Vermont. Above is a photo of their children taken by Lloyd Studio during a 1952 photo shoot for SAVAGES.

In the midst of piles of dishes, broken refrigerators, constant mayhem and dishevelment in an ancient 21-room house; in the days that were laced with Sally's imaginary friend Mrs. Ellinoy, Janney's raucous overnight birthday parties, Laurie's fervent trumpet playing, and little Barry's turn as "Mr. Beekman," Shirley Jackson managed to write both memoir and fiction while sardonically and efficiently dealing with her husband's overzealous students and the school-mom populace which seemed to roil with its rules of propriety, all the while fending off a very real sense that she was not doing a good job at any of these endeavors, that she had never been pretty-enough or interesting-enough or just-plain-good-enough, AND while battling increasing difficulties with alcohol and prescription meds.

I can relate.

Surprised? Me, too. I don't have the same life history as Shirley Jackson, but I did (it seems so long ago) raise four kids while trying to write and be a PTA Mom, soccer parent, choir director, Brownie leader, child nurturer, good wife (what does that mean?), daily cook, seasonal gardener/canner/freezer, freelance editor, and did I say writer? Who was this person? I know so well the feelings of trying to raise a family and loving it, while knowing that there is something else you feel called to do as well, and trying to make time for it outside the social graces, while the swirl of community or family (and this may be mostly in your head) says, "not good enough" the way Shirley Jackson thought it did.

And what if you're not good enough? -- Oh, I know that feeling, not only with my writing, but with my parenting, my "fitting in" to the family I grew up within, the marriage I chose in my twenties, the marriage that I fell into by accident at 18, and more. I think of Jackson often because of a biography about her I love written by Judy Oppenheimer: PRIVATE DEMONS. It's a generous, poignant look at a gifted, tortured soul.

I tend to believe that we all have -- or have had -- our private demons. They don't have to be the deepest, darkest secrets the world has ever known. Maybe they are just the things that consistently trip us up as we try to live our lives... maybe that's the "not good enough." And maybe, if we are lucky, we learn to make friends with those demons. I wonder if we can ever banish them. Perhaps what we can do is learn to understand them and live peaceably with them.

Shirley Jackson died wrestling her demons in 1965. Her children were still young. She was 45 years old. She wanted to be true to herself and her stories, and she was afraid of the spotlight. Sort of like me. Her husband said after her death, "She consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements." I wonder what she would have made of going on book tour? I wonder, if she had been able to make peace with her demons, if a book tour might have alternately thrilled and petrified her? Sort of like me.

THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS book tour dates are listed to the left of this blog. Y'all come see me in September if you can... I know to my bones it's going to be wonderful -- I know it! I'm excited about the possibilities, and I'm looking forward to all the folks I'll meet. I'll take photos, I'll write about each day and I hope that you'll write me back -- I'll bring you along with me. I hope you'll come.. I'll need all the demon-bashing support I can get.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Aurora County All-Stars is Here!

"It's an American novel!" says Pat Grant of Windows, A Bookshop in Monroe, Louisiana. She is interviewing me for THE BOOK REPORT, a syndicated radio program Pat and Elisabeth Grant-Gibson host each week.

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"Well, it's obvious!" says Pat, incredulous that I haven't picked up on this. "It's got baseball, Walt Whitman, Thornton Wilder and 'Our Town', the integration of baseball, the Fourth of July, a town pageant, community, family... baseball!"

"Oh," I say. "I never thought about it like that."

Isn't that the way it is. If I'd sat down and tried to write "an American novel," I'd have failed. I wrote a story about friendship, connection, community, baseball, the arts, love, family... and kids who made me laugh. A dog named Eudora Welty. Mamas who want their boys to dance. Boys who want to play baseball. And Pat Grant, discerning reader, saw "an American novel."

What I really wanted to do was tell a story to ten-year-old me. I wanted to be honest. I wanted to touch the deepest place I could touch. I hope I did that. I wrote an American novel, according to Pat. I like that. Let's say she's right:

Who are we, then, we Americans, we human beings? What do we value? And will a six-year-old girl named Honey get to tap dance? Will a 12-year-old pitcher with a newly healed elbow get to play ball? Will the mystery of an old man's identity -- and another old man's sacrifice -- be revealed? And what does that say about PeeWee Reese and Jackie Robinson? What about Sandy Koufax? What about Leaves of Grass?

"I celebrate myself and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

I gave myself a challenge when I wrote this book. I tried to write the symphony true.