Friday, July 24, 2009

Thoburn lecture

On Saturday July 18 I was a faculty member for the Ligioner Valley Writers conference at the Fred Rogers Conference Center in Latrobe, PA.  I was also honored by being invited to give the Thoburn keynote speech.  Here are some excerpts from that speech:

It is an honor to speak here in this conference center named in honor of Fred Rogers.  I have a very personal fondness for the man we all knew as Mr. Rogers who connected with so many young children many of whom are adults now.  

When we returned from living in Africa for nearly four years, my husband and I and our two children were spending some interim time in Connecticut with my parents until we moved to Pittsburgh for my husband’s work.  My son Peter who was not quite five at the time did not agree with us that the US was our home.  And so came the book When Africa Was Home.  But Mr. Rogers comes in before I wrote that book.  Peter missed his friends in Malawi and was feeling, as we all were, unsettled and unsure of what life was to be like when we moved yet again in another new home in Pittsburgh.  At that time Peter spoke little English.  His first language was Chichewa and he also spoke Shona although he refused to speak either of these languages in front of anyone in the US especially people who said things like, “Can you speak some African for us?”  He clammed up and stopped talking all together.  He even refuse to talk to us at family dinner time. Now this was a time when public TV aired Sesame St. and Mister Rogers back to back at least three times a day. 

Anyway while I normally don’t encourage so much TV watching even when it is public TV.  For many years my children didn’t know there was any other kind of TV.  These were difficult times and so Peter watched Mr. Rogers at least three times a day.  And while he refused to speak to anyone else he began speaking back to the TV when Mr. Rogers asked questions or made comments.  Little by little Peter learned English this way and when he felt confident enough he began to speak, until finally he reached the stage where we could not get him to stop talking.  We were able to tell Peter that we were actually moving to Mr. Rogers neighborhood in Pittsburgh and that made the transtion easier.  I will be always be grateful for the small ease that Fred Rogers gave our family at a difficult time  just by being who he was which he so often encourages children to do, just be who you are.


            Last month I had the priviledge to view the prehistoric freizes at Pech Merle along the Dordorgne river in the Lot region of France.  I have wanted to see the cave paintings in Europe ever since I was a child in elementary school where I read about the discovery of one of these painted caverns, a remarkable tribute the human spirit… probably in the Weekly Reader which some of you may remember from your school days.   

            These beautiful legacies left by our prehistoric ancestors did not disappoint.  I felt shivers of emotion as I stood not six feet from red and black and white likenesses of horse and bison and humans drawn and etched into stone as many as 12,000 years ago.  It was grand and mysterious and as close to religious as I can imagine. 

            I believe that if man or woman could figure out a way to tell his or her story deep in the dark of a cave, where it was most likely damp and, to our mind today, unpleasant, at the least.   Where the only light may have been from torches and the only sounds that of dripping water. Some archeologists even suggest that one method to create the stenciled hands common in prehistoric paintings was for the artist to chew the charcoal for black or ferric oxide for red and blow it by mouth through a hollow bone.  If this is possible,  then  we as writers today can surely manage to continue to tell our stories no matter what the world situation, the economy or the state of the art and the publishing world.  We will continue to write to tell our stories whatever the genre because it is part of who we are as writers.  Because we must write, because it is a passion and because the stories must be told.  Humans have been telling stories on cave walls and around cook fires since the beginning of time.  That is part of what makes us human, this basic need to communicate.

             And this is what I love about the writing life, the connections …the connections between us here today and the cave dwellers of prehistoric times, the connections between generations, and with all cultures, the connection between the laptop and a specially prepared cave wall and piece of charcoal.  The connections between words and through words and writing and stories can be very powerful.  All writers need to be constantly aware of this and I think especially those of us who write for young people.

            While I write in several genres, my original goal in becoming a writer was to write for children.  I did not, as some have implied over the years, begin writing for children as practice so I could go on to write for adults- the real writing, I presume was the implication.  No I write for children with the sense that the best part of who I am comes from my childhood- that child who had a dream to see the prehistoric cave paintings- a dream that grew with me into adulthood. 

 I think I was more sensitive and open and curious and honest and able to respond to the world with naivety.  As I child I did not just marvel at the beauty of fireflies on a summer evening I wanted to capture them and let them go.  It was a time that I felt shame with the responsibility for the death of an insect.  I wanted to fly with them and sparkle like them.  This is the person I want to write for and the person I try to reach down to the depths of for my writing.  This is the person I want to impact with the power of my writing, with my passions. 

             When I was a new mother getting ready to take the only grandchild in our family to Malawi Africa, my parents were very supportive.  They stored our cars in their yard, our belongings in their attic, welcomed us to live several times during the transitions in their home and sent us countless necessities by mail that we could not get in Malawi.  But one time before we left my mother asked me, timidly, so not as to imply that she was criticizing,  “Can you tell me what it is that makes you want to do these things?  Why you want to go to Africa and live there?” 

I was stunned and I am sure my mouth fell open.  How could she not know? 

 “Those books”  I told her.  “ All those books that you gave me to read as a child.”  Books like Journey to the Interior by Van der Post and The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, The Story of An African Farm by Olive Shriner.  And there were more of course,  Girl of the Limberlost and Heidi.  Lady Chaterly’s Lover?  I remember she hesitated over that one.

  My mother was a passionate reader and she shared her passion with me.  But she was most passionate about stories and non-fiction that took place in far away places and she gave those to me to read when I was far too young to truly understand them.  I have had to go back and reread them all.  But the message clear in my mind was, you must go and see these places and do these things that I have not been able to do, places that I could only read about. 

Well now it was time for my mother to be shocked.  She had no idea this was the message and she marveled at how that could be.  But whether it was her intent or no, she set into motion a life style for me and my family that has become who we are and how we relate to each other and to the world.  It is why I married my husband- at least in part-because I knew we would see the world together and our life over seas has defined our relationship and who we are as individuals and as a family. 

The power of books and reading and writing can be a great thing.  Be careful what you read and what you write.  And what you give your kids to read for that matter.   And in the same breath I say read everything.  The newspaper, the back of the cheerios box and Lady Chatterly’s Lover.  Read young adult material even if you are 80 and write poetry and read Charlottes Web even if you write non-fiction for adults. 

I want to paint a story picture for you.  Peter, the first born again.  This time, he is ten and we are taking the whole family, four children age 1 to 10, and headed off to work in Haiti for 2 years.  Everything we will take with us is packed in 12 trunks and suit cases and we land in the airport in Port-au-Prince with two jumbo jets at the same time full of maybe 350 people each.  The airport at that time had one room where bags were dumped in a pile and it was a free for all finding your luggage.  It is not much better now with a conveyer belt that snakes through the room but does not work.

For the rest of us, this was an adventure.  For Peter, it was a nightmare.  And how did he survive?  Books.  He had begun reading Dungeons and Dragon books and Anne Mccaffery’s fantasy novels.  Yes I agree he was a tad young for this material but there has been as precedent set for reading above your level in our family as I have explained.  I will never forget the image of Peter sitting on top of our luggage as the heap grew higher around him while the rest of us (well the youngest was on my back) searched for and hoisted bags over to where he sat guard escaping into a land of fantasy far from the reality of a small room where we were the only white people, few people spoke English.  It was very hot and it smelled.  To top it off Jonathan threw up down my back and all over someone else’s suit case  and everyone needed to use the toilet.  There was one for the whole airport somewhere on the other side of the room.  Peter continued to read for his life.

            In fact  this is how he managed life through two years in Haiti where there was a coup to over- throw Aristede, no TV with Fred Rogers, though he had outgrown that program by now. Where nothing in our village resembled life as he had known it.  It was not Kansas anymore. 

             We were in Haiti to work for two years at the hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles.  There were a handful  of other children who lived at the hospital.  No one quite the same age as Peter who continued to read Dragon fantasy. When the two fundamentalist missionary school teachers at our little two room school house for expatriates expressed deep concern about Peter’s reading habits I told them it was OK that this was the only time in his life he would be able to read one genre like this exclusively, live in another world and he would outgrown it.  I crossed my fingers and waited.

 When we returned to the US for a holiday we went home with a trunk of Fantsy books which we exchanged at a local second hand bookstore for more Dragon books.  Peter began asking questions at the dinner table like, “Dad if a dragon wing is shaped this way and the velocity is thus and such how fast do you think the dragon would fly?”  We all looked at him as if he were crazed.  Peter!  Dragons are not real.  He continued to read and he even began to kind  imitate the way a dragon might walk…this was getting a little scary.  I continued to cross my fingers and hope it was a phase- nothing against fantasy but were we getting too lenient?

            Then one day when Christopher the second oldest had a vocabulary lesson for homework.  He kept asking the meaning of word after word and before I could formulate a coherent definitiaon, Peter spouted off each word definition by definition. 

            Peter!  How do you know all those meanings?

            His answer?  “Those books, the dragon books, like this one.”  He went back to his reading and I felt redeemed.  He had actually been learning something while he read those books.  When we left Haiti Peter had opted to leave all his books behind.  

“I am really tired of this stuff,” he said.  “It’s getting boring.”

  We heard later that the missionaries on campus had burned the books that he had left thinking others would enjoy them.  For a while Peter took this act very personally.  Those books were a part of who he was.  But he got over it and continued to excel in reading and vocabulary.  My point?  Well there are several but one point is that any story well told is worth a read.  And remember that if you write for young people they may very well already be reading adult material.  Write the story you have to tell and it will find the reader who will embrace it and come away a different person.  Another point?  There will always be a need for the written word to take us out of real life for a time.  To help us to know how to fly like dragons and land safely at any speed.  The material we write can fill many needs.

 In her book on writing, Bird by Bird,  Anne Lamont tells the story of her brother who asked their father a writer himself how he was to begin his school paper about some aspect of bird life.  The writers answer was Just take it bird by bird, son bird, by bird. 

Well, as writers we know he really meant to take it word by word. All writing begins with the first word and in all good writing, every word must count.  And it is my belief that when writing for young people every word must count….. even more.  

As writers in any genre we are taking an act of faith every time we sit down to write, faith that the words will come, faith that they will fit together to form beautiful and articulate sentences.  Faith that our character will come to life on the page and that he or she will meet the challenges they are faced with.  Faith that plot will grow out of our characters response to the world we have created.  And most of all we must have faith that our character and the meaning he discovers about life, or the adventure he encounters, or the mystery he solves, or the romance he embraces, will resonate with agents, editor and readers.   We must have faith in the connections we can make. The same faith that the cave painters had when they first put a lump of charcoal to cave wall to tell their stories of the hunt and religion and life and death. 

It is this connection with readers that gives us gratification.  My book, One thing I’m good At grew out of life with my daughter who had difficulty learning to read.  As a result she hated reading and her self esteem in some areas especially the academics was low because of her reading difficulties.  In my house you learn to make allowances for everyones strengths and weaknesses BUT no one is allowed to hate reading.

 So we worked at it and worked at it.  Word by word and line by line until Rachel today is a voracious reader with a very thick skin and a, sometimes difficult to live with, healthy self esteem.  I wanted to explore these experiences that were so close to my heart and soul and so I wrote a book and when One thing I’m Good At was published, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of adults and included remarks on my book about a child who was a low achiever and how she overcame her self esteem issues and learned something about herself and the world.  After I spoke, one grandmother came up to me and said something to this effect.  'Well I wouldn’t buy that book for my grand daughter.  She is among the brightest in her class.  How could she possibly relate to that material"? 

 I was dumbfounded.  Isn’t that after all why we read?  To enter into new worlds and to take someone else’s journey with them?  I was definitely Not connecting with that grandmother.

 But not too long after that I was in a school where I told about how I wrote One Thing I’m Good At and about my daughter and where I got my ideas.  After the assembly was over and all of the children filed out of the auditorium there was one quiet, lovely, young fifth grade girl with long braids and blue eyes standing to the side near me.  She came over eyes lowered to the floor.  She was hunched over her note book and then she looked up at me and said in a hushed voice, “I just wanted to tell you that I am a lot like that girl in your book.” 

“Yes," I said, "I think there are a lot of people like  her.  Thank you for sharing that with me.”  She nodded and a teacher gently prodded her to her next class.  That is the connection I am hoping for as a reader.  The one child with whom my story resonates.

 The connections my little books have made over the years have been many especially now with the internet and e-mail, websites and blogs….I have had a face book but I don’t friend any one and I don’t twitter yet.  But I often get email.

I am not a household name obviously or that young man’s  mother would not have discarded that signed book.  I am no JK Rowlings and there are no Harry Potter nights at the bookstore and movie theathers for my books.  But these quiet connections are what I am proud of as a writer. ...

More from this lecture and my musings on writing for children and all genres to come in future posts.


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