I'm heading to Iowa City, Iowa on Sunday for a week.
I'll be doing a residency as a component of a Community Reading Month that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
I'll be speaking to students from 19 Iowa City schools.
Past author residencies for this program have included Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings, Jerry Spinelli, Brian Jacques, Gail Gibbons, Chris Crutcher, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Lynn Reiser, E. B. Lewis, and Peter Catalanotto.
Last year's author was Deborah Wiles, so I have some big shoes to follow!
No, wait a minute, that's not the right expression. You FILL big shoes, not follow them, right?
And I am certainly not implying that Deborah Wiles has big feet.
She's a Southerner. I'm sure she has lovely little feet.
When I teach biography writing workshops, I spend a fair amount of time talking about beginnings.
I know that the first sentence is often hardest.
The students have three pages of interview questions in front of them and sometimes have no idea where to start (writing biographies of a parent, grandparent, etc.).
I give them four choices - and cite examples of each:
1.Start with action.
I suggest that they look at their interviews in the section where there are questions about childhood activities, hobbies, sports, chores, etc. I give them an example of how they could choose one of those activities to start the chapter.
Yesterday, a fifth grade boy chose to start his biography with the answer to the interview question: Who was your best friend and what activities did you do together?
The answer on his interview sheet was: Packy Kennedy; we climbed trees
That student started his biography like this:
Feeling the breeze in his hair, hands sticky with sap, Carl Martin looked down at his best friend, Packy Kennedy.
2. Start with setting.
I give them examples of how they can show the setting - perhaps the season - maybe the geographic location.
One student started her biography this way:
As Jake climbed to the top of the tall pine tree, he could make out the large water tank in the distance. Welcome to Concord was painted in red on the side.
3. A hook that makes the reader curious.
I give them several examples of this, including the opening of my biography of Isadora Duncan (During the summer of 1887 in San Francisco, California, visitors to the seaside were sometimes met by a rather unusual sight.)
One student started his biography:
Jan had a little secret.
4. Get the baby on the paper.
That means just starting like this: John Smith was born on June 2, 1953 in Rome, Georgia.
This is the "last resort" beginning - but it offers a comforting safety net to those students who just can't manage a snappy, creative beginning.
I always notice a look of total relief on the faces of some children when I tell them it's okay to start like that.
And I remind them that maybe they can think of a different way to start later on - but YOU CAN'T FIX WHAT YOU HAVEN'T WRITTEN - so get the baby on the paper.
One of the main differences between a poet and a non-poet is that a poet knows he is not going to remember what happened. Therefore he is smart enough to carry a notebook and write it down....Another secret of writing, along with taking notes, is keeping your eyes and your ears open, keeping your mind and your heart open, and being aware of what's going on around you.
I think it's important for writers to pay attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary - to notice the small things around us that the average observer might not notice or note to memory.
And when you notice those small things, WRITE THEM DOWN.
Now, granted, I have to write down, "Get up in the morning," but, still....I try to write down the little things that catch my attention.
Example: While visiting my friend, Dolores, last week, she told me that when she was a little girl, she loved going to visit her aunt in Vermont. One of her most vivid memories about those visits is what her aunt always served her three things - one of which she loved and two of which she hated.
Since I'm getting ready to start a new year of school visits, I was thinking about:
What should a school expect from an author?
What should an author expect from a school?
On the most basic level.
Here's what I came up with:
What a school should expect from an author:
The author will be prompt. (Prompt means early enough to meet the contact person, set up any equipment, use the restroom, and be ready to start at the designated time.)
The author will bring all necessary equipment. (That means any equipment that the author has not asked the school to provide, such as laptops or projectors.)
The author will have a well-planned, well-timed presentation. (That means staying focused on the subject and not finishing earlier or later than scheduled.)
The author will understand and respect the school environment. (That means the author isn't frustrated by tight schedules or less-than-perfect facilities.)
What an author should expect from a school:
Someone at the school will be there to greet/escort her - or at the very least, someone in the office will be aware of the scheduled visit and the location for the presentation. (And if the author has specified that she is arriving 30 minutes early to set up equipment, someone is there 30 minutes early.)
Any previously requested equipment will be set up and ready. (And someone will be available to help in the event of an equipment glitch.)
Students will know who she is and be familiar with her books.
Students will arrive at the presentation on time.
Teachers will remain with the students.
Teachers will take on the responsibility of disciplining students, if necessary (and not leave that to the author.)
Some authors (not me) expect to sell books.
Pretty basic, huh?
(Yeah, I realize that there are more expectations on the author's side, but, hey, I'm an author. Heh...)
Of course, there are lots of other things on the part of both the school and the author that go beyond the basics that make an author visit the best that it can be: