Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Science of Writing

This morning I participated in my school’s Science Olympiad invitational. Middle and high school kids built rockets and towers, tested their food science and microbe knowledge, and read one another’s minds. One of our teachers, who proctored a group that built catapults, remarked, “this is how we should teach science in the classroom.”
This is also how we should teach writing, I thought.

The event I coach, Write it/Do it, involves a little clairvoyance and a lot of clarity. One student studies a two or three dimensional object and writes a set of instructions succinct yet specific enough so another student can blindly reconstruct the object. The first time I met with my group of kids for a practice session and explained the tasks of our team, one of them said “So you
‘re saying we have to read each other’s minds.”
“Yeah, pretty much.

The writing team has twenty-five minutes to write, and their directions must follow a sequence of steps and contain directives like, “In the NW quadrant, one inch from the top center, draw a two inch red line at a 45 degree angle that moves SE.”

While it is not scintillating prose, the purpose is to help his or her partner recreate the object. Details are important, along with common language. Teams with the closest dimensions and placement of elements score the highest.

Writing connect us, and reading and writing are subjects which connect all content areas. When we teach writing we need not to keep it limited to literature but enable students to make connections across the curriculum.

Here is a prompt to get your writing started. It’s a line from The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizzo and Dorianne Laux.
“Places leave their mark on us….”

Happy Writing.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Tribute to a Luminous Poet

Poets are not mere mortals, and their passing, even if I have never met the poet, saddens me deeply. Former Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska died on February 1st. NPR calls her a “poet of gentle irony” who “deployed a whimsy,…even ion weighty themes.” Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski wrote, "In her poems we could find brilliant advice which made the world easier to understand."

At 88, her career spanned more than sixty years, and at the time of death she was still working. In spite of her long career, only 400 poems survived her “ trash bin in my room.”Symborska said, “A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive."

If you are not familiar with her work, and you should be, please visit the following link.

As a tribute to Ms. Szymborska, I composed the following poem.

The Last Time it Snowed in Krakow
for Wislawa Szymborska

She sits by the window of her apartment, a cat on her lap and a cup of tea in her hand, watching.

On the street below it snows; it is always snowing these days, she thinks.

She sets down her tea and writes the line, The last time it snowed in Krakow was the day I died.

She strokes the cat, stretched across her thighs like a striped yogi, and imagines its thoughts in her absence.

In her poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment”, where something doesn’t happen as it should, she foretold this unfortunate creature’s future.

The cat will lie awake like a lone bird on a housetop; his days will pass like smoke as the poet’s ashes burn.

“You’ll be a pelican in the wilderness,” the poet says to her yawning companion, "because my days are declining like shadows.”

She ponders the weight of its grief; Ecclesiastes said he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Soon the cat will know the weathered world outside the window lays out its welcome mats only so long.

Happy Writing.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Monopoly Is a Dangerous Game

I have a love-hate relationship with the whole eBook thing; I love that I can instantly download a book on my kindle, yet I also feel a little ashamed. Yet now that my city no longer has a physical bookstore, and the selection at Walmart is limited, downloading and purchasing from Amazon has become a near necessity. However, those of us who love books and bookstores have an obligation to support independent stores and the remaining chains like Barnes & Noble. Otherwise, Amazon will monopolize the industry and deplete our choices.

Amazon, which opened its e doors in the 1990s, quickly became the world’s largest retailer due to its expert marketing strategies. Products are readily available, shipped with astonishing speed, and available worldwide. Recently, Amazon accommodated independent authors through its create space and KDP services, thus opening publishing venues to books the “big” publishers and agents refuse to look at. No matter how much or little an independent author sells his or her title, Amazon will provide a market, encourage options for marketing such as a free author page, open your title for reviews, all the while happily accepting its cut.

All is not rosy with Amazon. Recent issues of Harpers and The Writer have noted how Amazon openly acknowledges its goal is to create a publishing monopoly. They succeeded in helping Borders’s demise. Is Barnes & Noble next?

The benefit Barnes & Noble-and any independent bookstore- has over Amazon is human; you can walk into an actual store and get customer service. Try contacting a human at Amazon; it’s easier to break into Fort Knox. While Amazon customers can sit and browse, albeit online, the aesthetic of browsing quietly in a brick and mortar bookshop is missing. We mortals are social beings, and sometimes we crave the company of like minded people, people who love books and the stuff in bookstores. [see]

Barnes & Noble now refuses to carry Amazon titles, which seems a little petty. But the book business has become like David and Goliath.
I was somewhat encouraged today when I visited a Barnes & Noble an hour’s drive from my house. It was crowded, and I had to wait in line.

Shop at Amazon. They provide remarkable access to an almost unlimited number of products. But also shop at independent bookstores (like Malaprops in Ashevile, NC or The Tattered Cover in Denver) and the extant chains. All of them have web sites. Yes, you’ll pay a little more, but those small shops also encourage independent authors to promote their books with readings and author talks in the store. Most of all, they provide personal service.

Happy writing and book shopping.