Posts Tagged ‘VCMFA’

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.



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


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.


Stories without words?

dancersI tell stories with words.

Words are the thing I moosh and goosh and smoosh around as potters smoosh clay…the things I shape and eventually–oh! I love that part–polish and smooth.

Words make us feel things.

Think things.

Words bubble in our blood and brains.

When I was in Seattle last weekend speaking at the Ethiopian Community Center about Open Hearts Big Dreams and Ethiopia Reads ( I watched these dancers and thought about the ways we tell stories without words.

I thought that again when I got home and watched this book trailer about a book by a fellow VCMFA faculty member.

young artistAnd as I got ready for the second Seattle event, an auction and dinner, with art donated by Stephanie Schlatter who creates opportunities for kids in Ethiopia to put color to paper for the first time.

In some ways, Stephanie is lucky.

When we work on book opportunities around the world, we have to think about what language the story is written in.   Someone may be able to look at the cover of one of my Lanie books and know it’s about a girl and plants and bugs and butterflies…but to feel much of anything, that person has to be able to decode black squiggles on a white page.

Or maybe a screen.

And unless those squiggles make a sound in that person’s brain…a sound that makes sense…even decoding is no good.

Reading starts in a deep down place where kids get a chance to notice shapes on paper and get to feel a jolt of communication even with someone who doesn’t speak the same language.  Look at Stephanie’s page and see if that jolt doesn’t happen for you.

Seattle dancersHere’s hoping for lives full of telling

and dancing

and miming

and reading

and painting

and potting

and sharing

the stories of our special spots on this earth.


And here’s to teams in Seattle and Grand Rapids and Grand Forks and other places that are volunteering so much time to spread the ripples.

NYC and the swirling world going round

This is the way the world bounces.


In the good old days when schools and libraries bought many children’s books, editors used to pop on over to Book Expo (where bookstore people saw new books) and to the annual conventions of the International Reading Association and the American Library Association.  Most of the big NY publishers and a host of smaller publishers and other book people exhibit their new books for the thousands of bookstore folks and teachers and librarians who attend those conferences–and authors sign books–and it was a good place for authors to look their editors and agents in the eyes.  I did it often.

Last Vermont College MFA residency, I was the moderator of a panel of editors, and it reminded me that it had been a while since I’d had a chance to talk with any of the editors of any of my books.  Since my most recent novels were the Lanie books for American Girl, a publisher based in Madison, Wisconsin, I was feeling a hole in the middle of my artistic life.  This fall, when a reasonable ticket for NYC crossed my desk (so to speak) I decided it was time for some in-person conversations.  I also had Ethiopia Reads ( supporters I wanted to have coffee with and talk and dream with.

As things turned out, last week had to be the worst time possible to go to NYC.

Hurricane Sandy.  Voting lines.  Snow from a Nor’easter that tantrumed through the city for a day, bringing snow.

But, well, I already had the ticket.  I left falling fall in Portland and headed east.

I’d been planning to stay in my agent’s guest room in Brooklyn, but he had flood refugees staying there, so I stayed with my writer and actor friend, Tigist Selam, in her new Harlem apartment…so new that books were piled on the floor and she didn’t yet have chairs.

The city.  So different from the city where I live now.  I thought I’d see Red Cross workers and the National Guard everywhere, as with the Grand Forks flood clean-up.  But Harlem escaped Sandy’s wrath and I arrived there in the evening, so I had no sense of devastation except in the conversations…stories of people without heat, camped determindly and somewhat grimly in apartments and battered houses.

The evening of Election Day 2012, Tigist and I ate in an Ethiopian restaurant with a young Ethiopian American who arrived in New Jersey as a three-year-old and now volunteers for Ethiopia Reads.  After that, we found a coffee shop down the street–one that had a television–and watched states turn blue and red and listened to the conversations rising and falling all around.

It was a sweet experience…thinking and talking about what makes communities strong and how people can be part of that.  Or not.

The next day, though, some of the people I wanted to see were still without power or had no access to trains and I sat in Tigist’s apartment and mostly worked on my Vermont College packets and read a “powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir” (so says the New York Times Book Review.)

It wasn’t until Thursday, the day I was scheduled to fly home, that I got to see some of the other people I’d hoped to see.  Tigist helped me navigate the puddled city and then put me on the A subway and told me to listen to announcements.

“Excuse me, please,” a young man announced first.  “I’m sorry to interrupt your ride”–and he proceeded to try to sell us goodies, proceeds to go to philanthropic efforts.  Next was a young woman walking through with a baby and a cardboard sign…and then a Vietnam vet who protested to all of us that New York state has provisions for women and children but not for people like him…and he could really use our help.

Frankly, it reminded me of being in Ethiopia, of the heartbreaking stories everywhere, of all the muddled feelings if your own heart and life are relatively intact.

The promised announcement came.  If we were going to JFK, due to the devastation of the storm and Rockaway, we were to take the train to the last stop, walk to the front of the train, and take the Q-10 bus.  Only I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to walk to the front of the train NOW or after I got off.  My seatmate helped me figure it out (with a little amusement) and wished me luck on my trip.

The Q-10 bus was crammed.  The young woman sitting next to me–with her boyfriend hanging on and swaying over us and asking questions about JFK–was missing her home in California and envious that I was heading to the West Coast.  The old man next to her, with his walker in his lap, discovered that he’d gotten on the wrong bus and was going to have to walk through snow with his walker.  On the train, I didn’t know what to do.  This time, I did.  I leaned over the young woman and asked if he would accept a little money for a taxi.  He would.  We creaky people have to stick together.

The bus stopped.  A bunch of us stood up.  The bus lurched forward and I would have flipped except for the California girl who caught me–she got her muscles swimming, she told me with pride.   They were going to JFK to meet a friend.  No gas for their car, so they’d spent all afternoon on the bus.  The trees around their house fell away and not ON, she said.  They’d be fine.

Across the aisle, a woman from somewhere in Africa with a baby on her back–an oxygen tube in its nose–fretted about catching her plane on time.

As we climbed off at JFK, a young Pakistani employee who’d been on the bus showed all of us where to walk, which elevator to get on, how to get to our terminals.

When the flood hit Grand Forks, ND, we lost one terrific neighborhood.

But we also saw community that springs up around shared disaster, the community that can form anywhere, any time, among the most unlikely of traveling companions.

I came home to messages from Stephanie about the Ethiopia Reads event she and her Grand Rapids, MI team worked so hard on this week to bring art and books to kids in Ethiopia, a place where she goes every year.  We form community everywhere and anywhere with those who share our world and our dreams.

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, that’s the way the world bounces.

The myth of the solitary artistic genius and me

All the published authors I know are introverts.

One of my friends was talking about being part of an incoming class in the Vermont College MFA in children’s writing.  At the get-to-know-you session, people were asked to move here and there in the room depending on such things as where in the world they live…or whether they write YA or picture books…or whether they are introverts or extroverts.  With the last question, she said, the room almost tilted as people moved to the INTROVERT side.

When I put together my last VCMFA lecture on the lizard brain struggles of artists–and how to use insights from our own insecurities and fears in our writing–this is one thing I talked about.  A recent visiting author, who used to teach at Vermont College, said she started every residency loving everyone but by the middle of the 10-day residency, her “black Irish heart” would take over.

It’s hard to be an introvert, squeezed together with other introverts, and not feel the beating of one’s black Irish heart.

That’s why it’s so amazing to be part of my beloved annual writing retreat.  The generosity and warmth and laughter and smart conversation are something that sustains my work and something I yearn for all the rest of the year.  And this year was expecially amazingly wonderful because I went into the week feeling despair about my novel for young readers and where I am in the draft and came out in love with it again.

I had the chance to read the whole thing aloud to a fellow writer and illustrator and hear where she was confused…where she laughed…where she said “I love it; don’t change a word”…where she said, “You’re not yet having the effect you want.”

She was painting this retreat.  I got the idea of asking her if she’d be willing to listen because of another artist pairing of a writer and a painter.  It turned out to be exactly what I needed.  And she was only the latest person from this group to give me the gift of listening and reading.  The gift of warm but ferocious feedback.

Yes, art is often made in silence, humans walking that lonesome valley all by themselves.  But not always.  Sometimes we wrestle with the joys and terrors of collaboration and of what it means to have and maintain a team.

It takes generosity of spirit.

It takes people who are willing to mentor and people who are eager to be lifelong students.

When I saw this picture of Ethiopian artists working with the young children at one of the Ethiopia Reads schools in Addis Ababa–in probably the most crowded and dangerous part of that big city–I thought about how much the human community gains when we can dance together in the deep play of art.

Perhaps there are solitary geniuses in this world who can write a stunningly wonderful novel without ever venturing out of the playgrounds in their own brains.  I can’t.  I need a team.

Lucky me that I have one.  Last week in this place will warm me through many solitary days.

Revision…and appetite…and bring on the chickens.

Revision time.

I am in Boston on the edge of my annual writing retreat…it’s shocking to think that this group has been getting together for something like seventeen years.  Our lives, our writing, our despairs, our soaring bits…they are woven together.  Nancy Werlin and I went to Dian Curtis Regan’s wedding in Colorado Springs this summer, for example.  And now we’re together as our writer selves.

We are ready to talk (or I am, anyway) about chickens and how they fit or don’t fit into our scenes.  We are ready (or I am, anyway) to revise.


I used to hate it.

Sometimes I still do.

But sometimes I love the process of cutting and chopping and mixing and tasting and sampling and tossing things out and moving things around.

Adding a shake of a spice here and a little crunch there.

One of my favorite books talks about revision in terms of appetite.  We have some vague understanding of our readers’ appetite for a bit of color here and a change of pace there and some tension or some laughter.  Ingredients.

We sample and taste and say, “Hmmm.  Needs something.”  We try something new.  We sample and taste again.

Sometimes we ask our skilled reader friends to take a taste.

The Vermont College MFA program where I teach understands the power of good readers who will talk about what’s happening to them as they read our words–the movies in their mind, as one writing guru puts it.

And now I get to be student…of my own writing–for at least a week.

It’s exciting.  When kids ask me, “Who’s your favorite author?” I talk about this group of writers.  Generous.  Warm.  Funny.  Tough.

When I was a kid growing up in Ethiopia and going to a small school, I never met any authors.  I never even thought about the authors of the books I loved.  And now I get to learn from authors.


Bring on the despair.  And the joy.  And the chickens.

School…not necessarily what you think

Ethiopia Reads ( is a new oganization.

Same name.

Some of the same people.

But a whole lot of new conversations and new people on the team and a whole lot of new programs because Ethiopia Reads programming and the Tesfa Foundation ( programming are going to be integrated from now on.

Now we’re looking for the words that connect reading…

and art…

and building new schools…

and the importance of kindergarten.  The words to explain quickly what we’re all about.

So many organizations pick one thing to do–and in some ways that’s good.  But in a place that needs effective systems and infrastructure, as Ethiopia does, we risk making no real impact if we specialize too much.

After all, we’re providing sparks of learning for kids who (mostly) are growing up without books but also without puzzles, without print, without playgrounds, without the chance to hold a pencil or paintbrush…but whose minds are lively and eager, who have determination and grit, who crave a safe place to play and learn and touch and think.

As school starts up and I start doing my first author visits and talking about my love of books, I’m thinking again about what makes school more than preparing people to take their place in the assembly line.

What makes synapses leap and hearts flutter and human beings dream?

What is it school can do to completely change the path of a person’s life, as it did for my mom?

I caught this episode of This American Life last weekend and listened to fascinating stuff about a new book.

The New York Times review starts this way:

Most readers of The New York Times probably subscribe to what Paul Tough calls “the cognitive hypothesis”: the belief “that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — the kind of intelligence that gets measured on I.Q. tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns — and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.” In his new book, “How Children Succeed,” Tough sets out to replace this assumption with what might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.

A bunch of things have come together in both places where I use my educator brain–Vermont College MFA and Ethiopia–right now to make it possible to create some models of school that inspires deep reading and writing…and curiosity and resourcefulness and smart thinking and problem-solving.




Artists and writers and readers and philosophers all putting their piece into the mix.

May school everywhere be the place–in 2012-2013–where we think and feel and laugh and explore and shine.  Where we say, “I am significant.”

Ben Franklin, Ben Frankllin

John Fuller writes that between running a print shop, making up the US postal system and America’s first lending library, and seed-planting for the revolution, Ben Franklin “also found time to draw up a vast collection of new devices.”  And he never patented any of them.  “Pretty good for a bored-looking guy on the $100 bill.”

The words lending library caught my eye, there.

When I was reading Managing Transitions on the airplane, flying to Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri (specializing in the M places this time around), I was captured–as I wrote in my last blog–by the fact that if you want to make a change effectively, you need a vivid mental picture of what the new thing will look like.

(I wonder what picture of a lending library guided Ben Franklin.  From having helped plant 60 libraries for children in Ethiopia–few of which are lending libraries–I’m impressed at the multitude of tiny things that have to work for books to find their right places on the shelves and in the hands of the readers who will slurp up the stories and ideas inside.)

On my first time through the book, I was caught by the PICTURE idea.  Once I got to my first and second M states and started working with the other teammates engaged by the dream of Ethiopia Reads ( I had to go back to re-read

“Some people really respond to the picture.  Once they get it in their heads, they find a way to reach the destination that has captured their imagination.  Many executives and planners fall into this group, and because they don’t feel as much of a personal need for a plan that spells out the details of the route from here to there, they underestimate how much others need a plan.”



At Vermont College MFA, we argue a lot about the usefulness of outlines in the process of creating a novel.  Too tight an outline and your characters become your pawns, leaping from block to block because you need them to do this, go there, feel such-and-such in order to serve your outline.  They don’t feel fleshy and REAL and compelling…because their motivations aren’t organic.  They are being driven by a plot engine.

No road map at all?  You might get something delightfully organic…and big fat messy.

You might feel so scared as you work that your voice gets drowned out and smothered by Fearnando.

Fearnando is what my author friends and I named the big ol’ fears everyone has to fight off when they are doing something new and big and scary.  One of my VCMFA students created this button that I have by my desk.

Back, back Fernando.

Ol’ Ben seems to have been someone who could dream the dream AND plan the plan.  Amazing.

Vision pulls me forward, whether inventing a book or Ethiopia Reads.   But no one ever finished a novel or grew a nonprofit into something that will last without being patient