Archive for the ‘Vermont College MFA’ Category

Travels and the writing life

When I talk to young writers and when I have conversations with MFA students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts program, I like to imagine I can take a bit of the mystery out of words like “inspiration” and “imagination” by pointing to ways that details and scenes in my books have grown out of observation.

An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor.” Isn’t that one reason travel writing is so vivid and compelling?

When everything is off-balance, our senses go on high alert. When we can’t understand the language, we start relying on other ways of taking in information. I learned these things growing up in Ethiopia.

GermanWuha

I experienced the Icelandic truth all over again recently traveling in Guatemala and doing an author visit in Russia.

tuk tuk

Embarrassing as it is to admit, Guatemala was only part of a blur of Central American countries until we visited Brian and Sandi, Presbyterian social workers living there and working on issues of women’s human rights to things like safety and education and jobs.

girl with her basket

I listened. I learned. I saw connections to my books…

boy with pigeons

Boy with pigeons in the park

The biggest thrilldom in Russia was getting two days of talking to readers and writers there–Russian, American, Canadian, Australian, Jamacian, Czech…so many word people from all over the world. So much to soak up. So much to share.

 

library

And oh the stories! Who knows how these images and feelings will seep into my writing.

dragons

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Don’t leave home without it…

A team, I mean.

eoiiblog-book-pic4

Too many things go wrong on the road. People get sick or turn out to have needs or expectations that we were barely able to articulate ahead of time. Obstacles wave their tentacles until you can hardly think.  Even unexpected opportunities–like waterfalls–knock the day’s plans askew–let alone the day in Maji we suddenly got the chance to jump in the car and galumpf down the road that our family used every time we needed to meet or catch a plane when I was young.

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Ato Marcos

Ato Marcos, one of our hosts in Maji, told Caroline that he hardly notices the flowers around him, and he was surprised to see the artists taking pictures of them. “I thought, if they think this little flower is beautiful, what will they think of nifas bir?” he said to her.  Nifas bir. Gate of the wind.  A spot of childhood nightmares for me.

more nifas bir

It’s hard to capture vast landscapes…how narrow the road is in this spot…how far it drops on both sides.  Far in the distance, you can see a mountain beyond which is Kenya.  You can see down, down into the lands where the Surma roam and where Odyssey I unfolded.

We were willing to set aside our plans that day–a carful of artists–and just go. I got to see what it was like in the artists’ vehicle and how their driver was part of the team, too, used to stopping and having them all leap out and snap photos.

road to nifas bir

Just like in my childhood, the car got hung up on a rock and couldn’t move, at one point, so Stephanie Schlatter and I walked ahead.  I got to see nifas bir through the eyes of a painter for a few minutes.

nifas bir with Stephanie

amazing note

Sometimes a team is hard because everyone’s priorities have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, though, the team spurs you on and helps you see things through new eyes and gives you courage to carpe the diem and not miss something precious.

artist car

One of the most delightful parts of being on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts is the chance to hang around with fellow writers for 10 days every residency. And in Maji, I got to hang around with painters. I wish everyone the joy of being on a team with artists.

Stories circle the globe

http://www.ethiopiareads.org/ethiopian-odyssey-ii  I’m super jazzed to talk with my Vermont College of the Fine Arts students about how to think about the progression of a tale. I’m also super jazzed to see what this artistic collaboration can bring to some very simple, easy-to-read stories that can be used by Ethiopian educators, especially after they’re translated into various local languages.  I created this one from a story that’s told in Ethiopia and around the world…and Noh and Ellemae and I tried to teach ourselves a tiny bit about how illustrators work with perspective. See what you think.

01 turtle flower

She talked about flowers.

01 turtle ants

01 turtle wanted to touch clouds

01 turtle eagle

01 turtle touch clouds

01 turtle flying

 

01 turtle last picture

01 turtle goat friend

 

 

The swirl of travel

As my Vermont College semester winds to a close, two new adventures loom in my imagination: the January residency, where I will be leading a workshop focusing on picture books, and a trip to Ethiopia where I will be leading–am trying to invent–a workshop for creating some super simple, playful, patterned, culturally appropriate books that can be used in the Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries.  I’ve been using examples from a project with a school in Tanzania to explain what the end result might look like.  Love the really basic questions that are bubbling in my brain: what is a book; what is a story; what is a good beginning, a middle, an end?  Where do flashes of creativity come from that help us put together essential ingredients in new ways?

1 sample cover

Whew!

DCIM100MEDIATeacher strike averted. So, so glad that people like my bro–who takes time to sing with his third graders and fills their brains with good books AND has built a donkey for an Ethiopia Reads Bring a Book Buy a Book project is on the job and not on the picket line.

One thing that kills me is that in my lifetime as a teacher, I saw a lot of schools go from places where kids sat frozen in desks doing worksheets to places where kids had classroom libraries and wrote books and did lots of hands-on projects to places where kids are sitting frozen in desks doing worksheets.

DCIM100MEDIAWorksheets and tests are the way we gather data.  But our utter faith in gathering data is getting in the way of good instruction.  Up with making donkeys and learning about kids who love books and school a half a world away!

100_0213The Ethiopia Reads horse powered literacy project reaches kids too remote (so far) to have access to school. Sometimes as many as two hundred kids gather to listen and learn.

I’m thinking about reading and writing and learning because, this has been a week where I put on my own teacher hat and respond to what my Vermont College of the Fine Arts MFA students are sending in their packets. It always fascinates me to think about how people learn to write dazzling fiction. How did I learn? What helped along the way? Some people would say it can’t be taught. I know from my own experience that certain skills and approaches and useful ways of thinking about the words on the page CAN be taught.DSC04782

I’m re-reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf–seen here at her desk. I got to talk with her briefly in her office at Tufts about a project she’s been doing in Ethiopia that’s pretty fascinating.

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506466/given-tablets-but-no-teachers-ethiopian-children-teach-themselves/

What are we all capable of learning and doing?

As a teacher said to me last year, schools have gotten pretty good at gathering data but we gather far more than we have time (or sometimes expertise) to analyze well and use to draw useful conclusions. In the meantime, it seems we forget the basics of what we already know–that young kids like to do what the beloved adults in their lives like to do; thus, there is power in modeling a passion for reading and writing.  That people will do the hard work of reading when they are gripped by a story or an idea, and we need librarians and teachers who know and love books and know and love students and can match the two up. That humans are innately curious and nimble-minded and will often grab the slightest thread in their eagerness to learn and grow.  Read the article and see what I mean!

ChrislibOf course, it won’t surprise you that I think books and learning WITH a great teacher is even better.

 

Teacher strikes

1 teachersEmotions are sizzling in Portland as the public school teachers–including my brother and sister-in-law–go on strike next week. Eeek.

Overpaid whiners? People actually write that? In public? These days? Eeeek.

I’ve worked with so many amazing educators–classroom teachers and librarians–in the past 10 years.  And of course I am a teacher. I’m on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA program. cookingI started my adult life as a teacher of writing in an alternative school–here are some of my students cooking up something to write about. And what I know is that teaching is hard. Exhilarating. But hard.

mishmash 009So much of what people think they know about teaching and learning comes from their own days as a student or from what seems as if it would make sense. Learning to read, for instance, seems to be a matter of associating sounds with letters…and for many (most?) people it does start that way. But everyone who has watched a person start to read knows that something mysterious happens, too. Skillful readers look at black marks on a white page and somehow absorb a lot of information in a flash–including context clues having to do with pictures and the other words in the sentence–that allows them to recognize words and also infer what’s beyond the words.

Brain research shows that information that comes associated with emotion tends to stick.  Stories, anyone?kids with netelas

And yet a lot of educational policy is constructed as if teaching and learning were simple. As if it didn’t take innovative, thoughtful, patient, hopeful people with lots and lots of different skills and the willingness to try and adjust and re-try and be kind in the process.

Chris readingMy brother and I have taught together, done author visits together, taken teacher groups to Ethiopia to share skills and ideas with educators there. I trust him to make learning interesting and fun.  I know him to be someone who never stops thinking about how to be a better writer, a better reader, and a better teacher.

KSGreat educators–like this Kansas librarian who has helped with Ethiopia Reads and with the research for Anna Was Here–know books and know kids and know how to connect them. They know what’s working and what isn’t in schools. Are we listening?

As an Oregon parent wrote in her blog, it’s great to have lots of ideas about how to make things better for kids in school everywhere. “However, no matter how we envision public education in this country, one thing seems obvious to me: teachers are the heart of our system. If you’ve gone through school—any school—you know this is true: for a student, a good teacher can make any school situation bearable, and a bad teacher can mar the best of institutions. You can have all the ‘extras’ you want: money for athletics, art programs, and gyms, and even a healthy budget (what’s that?), but if you don’t have well-qualified, talented, inspired, and happy teachers, you have nothing.” http://amywhitley.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/medford-oregon-teacher-strike/

Parents, teachers, grandparents unite! If we don’t have good teachers who are given reasonable resources and who are given room to do what they know how to do well, we don’t have anything!

Elise

Crowdfunding, teamwork and beating the blues

As 2013 draws to an end, I’ve had the crowdfunding blues a bit.

I’ve joined the crowdfunding team in the past year or so, but only as a contributor.  Here and there, I’ve pitched a few pennies toward projects launched by friends of mine.  Mostly I do philanthropy the old-fashioned way.  I write checks.  I buy copies of my books and donate them or give them away.

2013-12-14 18.05.19

 

Mostly, I tell stories.  Sometimes those stories inspire other people to give their money to help spread reading in Ethiopia.  So what possessed me to try raising money through crowdfunding?

http://www.gofundme.com/Painting-Joy-in-Ethiopia

Mostly, I encourage people to put their money toward administration and staff–the things I support with my own money–because, as friends and I agree, it’s the UNFUN money to raise and administration, when it’s good, makes everything shine.

2013-12-14 18.05.43

 

Volunteers can’t be volunteers without someone to guide and coordinate them.

But late in 2013 I lost my heart to a project.  School Power through Painting Joy.

1 Stephanie

 

Part of the pittery pattery of my heart for this project is that pity makes me squirmy.  I’ve seen it do screwy things with families and communities even when intentions are good.  And as an Ethiopian friend said this fall, when she hears a lot of people talk about projects in Ethiopia, she starts feeling smaller and smaller and smaller.  But collaboration?  Sharing what we love across boundaries.   That makes us all bigger.

Stephanie is joyful and she shares joy where she goes.  Even though she says she hates fundraising, she’s good at it because people tend to follow the energy.  I want her on our team always.

1 first year focus on reading at the merkato kindergarten

 

I love the way Stephanie returns from Ethiopia with stories and pictures that help us all see the impact of our hard work.  I want her telling the stories of southern Ethiopia and the Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries there.  Her team this time has three other artists, one American and two Ethiopian who will build on ancient beauty and traditions to talk about what’s strong in southern Ethiopia including Kololo School.

I am significantart project

 

The project also has my heart because I grew up in southwest Ethiopia.  Young men worked in our house to earn money for school supplies because they were getting a shot at school for the first time.  They were like big brothers–even to teasing us and threatening to cut off our ears if we misbehaved.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve known some of those guys all my life.

Now I see girls in Kololo School who are 15 years old sitting with the little kids.

15 year old getting to go to schoolKololo classAs one of the teachers at Kololo School says, in this rural area 12-year-old girls are  forced into marriage.  But when a woman is educated, all of her children are, too.

kids around Ethiopia (6)

 

I’ve discovered crowdfunding isn’t as easy as it might look.  So far, it’s been my sweet family and friends that have mostly helped out.

1 foundation of support for building projects

 

But wherever the support has come from, it’s coming in!  Crowdfunding is teamwork. Here at the end of 2013, I’m full of love and admiration for my own team and the team that will be traveling.  I can’t wait to see where their travels and adventures in southern Ethiopia take them.

Chris in front of houseon tripBring on 2014–with VCFA residency and new writing and teamwork.

 

 

 

Hiding under the bed

When Jon Klassen gave his Caldecott speech at ALA this summer, he talked about the astonishment and, oh, maybe even terror he feels when he sees his books in a bookstore or anywhere else out in the world.  Wait!  How did that escape from my house?  How, um, EXPOSING is that?

I gave two VCFA lectures on lizard brain.Atlanta 012As scientists and therapists know, the lizard is not to be reasoned with.  It can be patted upon.  You can sit beside it and try to not forget to breeeaaathe.  You can down dog and up dog on the mat with it.  You can say, as my writer friends and I do, “Back, back Fearnando!” and pretend to be dancing it back with an invisible sword.

DSC01683And that is what it felt like to have my new middle grade novel arrive in the world this week.  Exciting yes.  Exhilarating.  But also vulnerable and scary and haaaard.

Why should that be?

Sometimes for art, we have to reach deep, deep.  As someone said, open a vein.  Is that it?

Ironically, this is a book about fear.  About a Safety Club.  Welcome to the world of 9-year-old Anna, a girl with utter confidence in her ability to prepare for utterly everything.

And if there’s anything she can’t?

That’s what prayer and angels are for.

Right?

Rich elephantDakar, my protagonist in JAKARTA MISSING, has a recurring memory of being charged by an elephant in Kenya.  Anna has memories of the fires that charged through her Colorado city.  These characters of mine are clearly rooted in my own lizardly feelings of what it was like to be a kid traveling the wide savanna, climbing Maji mountain in a Jeep, watching life lived without much of a safety net.

Rich skyDad would laugh uproariously as he told about swimming at German Wuha and coming around a bend and ending up face-to-face with a water buffalo.

crocodile 3Hippos kill more humans in Africa than crocodiles do…and I saw plenty of both.  I loved growing up in Ethiopia, but it’s a good place to remind everyone of how small and fragile human beings are.

Why do bad things happen to good kids?  Where have all the angels gone?  Anna’s questions are rooted deeply in mine.

Life’s big questions.  A few puny answers.

Anna+was+HereWelcome to the world, Anna.

 

Sorrow and what we do with it

Anna+was+HereIt was a super busy week–the ending of the semester for Vermont College of the Fine Arts students and faculty.  I don’t know where my brain was when I drew up the semester’s schedule.  Oh wait.  As I wrote to several of my students…it was on painkillers.  So when I got a box of the Advanced Reader Copies of my new novel, I didn’t even have time to open it.

About the only thing I let squeeze into the week was some phone conversations about the venue for the Seattle fundraiser for Ethiopia Reads, Open Hearts Big Dreams.

from CienIt started out as a fundraiser mostly to support the merkato school in Addis Ababa but has grown to be a fundraiser to support all of what Ethiopia Reads is doing.  SO important!  I loved having the conversations, too, and thinking about next Dec. 14.

But…now…

Eeeeeeeeeee.

A new book.  In some ways, this book began when we evacuated from our house in North Dakota because the Red River was sprouting through holes in the dikes.

neighborhood in floodIn some ways it began when we left Colorado and moved to North Dakota, taking our cat.  Or with the cat before that who was killed by a car, much to our sorrow.

Midnight H Cat

In some ways, it began when I was a kid in Ethiopia looking around and wondering…if God watches over sparrows and us, why do bad things happen to good kids?  Why do the girls in Maji mostly not go to school?  Why don’t some people have clean water to drink?  Why?  Why?  Why?

Off to Kololo 050

Sorrow.

What do we do with it?

Sometimes we volunteer.  Sometimes we suffer silently.  Or noisily.  Sometimes we pour all of our questions and our few puny answers into art.

Brave mothers

Long plane trips between continents…learning how to manage life in Addis Ababa and then in the countryside where (at first) water arrived at our house on the backs of donkeys and cooking was done on and in a wood-burning stove…landing on the hot savannah and standing under the wing of an airplane for shade…creeping up the mountain road squashed together in a lumpy, bumpy Jeep…creating school in a bedroom…like all kids, I never questioned the elements of my childhood.  These things were what families did.  They were what MY family did.

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It wasn’t until much later, when I was working on my book JANE KURTZ AND YOU, that I even thought to ask my mom how all of those adventures felt to her.

small JK&U“What was that first trip like?” I asked.  “You’d never even been outside the country before and here you were with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a one-year-old taking a ship and then airplanes all the way to Ethiopia.”

She said that the airlines gave her a questionnaire to fill out because they wanted to encourage more families to travel.  What did she suggest?  “A bigger size of diaper.”

She handled each adventure with calm practicality–living in a house with a grass roof and a pole in the middle of the living room–having more babies–figuring out how to bake bread with flour milled down the path at the waterfall.  Adventure after adventure.  She wrestled solutions out and never stopped making puns and wry, truthful comments along the way.

maji519maji513

But why not?  She grew up in a world of clothes made from feed sacks and unending hard work and poverty.  She left home at fourteen so she could finish high school and eventually go to college.  She always knew life wasn’t going to hand her any smooth, clean solutions to any of her dilemmas.   Her younger sister in this photo looks dreamy.  My mom looks wary–and ready for anything.  Not easily swayed.  Not easily bowled over.

Mom with Ruth

She passed on that tough survivor spirit and gave her children lives of adventure, conversation, laughter, and books.

Jan533

I’m surrounded these days by more moms making tough, practical choices, including my students in the Vermont College MFA program determined to have artistic lives in the middle of domestic demands or including the moms out there raising money for Ethiopia Reads so that all mothers’ kids will have a shot at education and dreams, including the Ethiopian moms I’ve seen–like this one–determined and hopeful in spite of tough and terrible odds.

kindergarten Feruza at home

Thanks, Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Harold and Polly