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Libraries are closed. Readings are canceled. Thriftbooks is backed up. Heck, even Busboys & Poets is closed, except for delivery. For writers and readers, all distractions have been eliminated, besides the refrigerator and your family members.
You have weeks in your four walls to write that novel, nail down your collection of poems, or finish your fat book of essays.
You have piles of books on nightstands, shelves, and stacked on the floor (mea culpa) and now have time to read them all.
Ah, but the motivation. Where did you put that? Under the stacks of toilet paper? Behind the boxes of pasta?
Don’t worry, we’ve kept some in the back for you.
Below is a list of resources for those who want to capitalize on this time. And for those of us who usually exist like they’re living in a pandemic (yes, all you freelance writers and editors in your sweatpants, I’m talking to you), here’s a refresher list.
- Howard County Library offers electronic versions of books, audiobooks, even eMagazines. (They have on-line every version of National Geographic from 1888 to the present, that should keep you busy.) Library patrons can even learn a language.: https://hclibrary.org/research/
- The library is even hosting virtual book clubs, only two so far, their Global Reads and Mystery clubs: http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/
- A number of electronic reading sites are offering 30 days free, including Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/?lohp=2
- And Overdrive and Libby, through the library, are always free. Hop on those waiting lists: https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby/
- The Library of Congress has a huge cache of resources. They offer tons of classics on-line, and if now isn’t a time to catch up on Jane Austen, I don’t know when would be better: http://read.gov/books/index.html#adults
- The LoC also has videos of author visits, and suggested book lists by genre.
- Enoch Pratt is offering live chats with a librarian, and who wouldn’t want to do that? https://www.prattlibrary.org/ask/
- •NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is moving its focus from just November and summer camp to launch StayHomeWriMo, which offers coping strategies, motivational speeches, writing tips and more: https://nanowrimo.org/stayhomewrimo?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=HQ%2020%20-%20StayHomeWriMo&utm_content=HQ%2020%20-%20StayHomeWriMo+CID_c5c73afc9fc4af274a8d991c0fa1f2fe&utm_source=Email%20marketi
- And Maryland’s own Writer’s Center is offering all its classes online now: https://www.writer.org/
- Just need a jump start? How about some writing prompts:
Back away from the pantry and the television. Read and write. Literature eases the mind in times of trouble. There’s a reason that the Greeks inscribed above the library in Thebes that this place was a “healing place for the soul.” Books can take you places outside your own experience (and four walls), and reading increases empathy, according to brain science. We’re going to need it.
If all else fails, and you simply cannot imagine an end to this confinement, try reading letters from people who were living through the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html
blog post by Laura Yoo
Often we portray writing as a lonely endeavor and we imagine writers cooped up in their writing rooms, alone, toiling away. This part of the writing process may well be true and writing does demand quietness and solitude. But writing also takes place in community with other writers, sometimes virtually, sometimes through conversation over the phone or email, and sometimes in real life at a coffee shop.
Laura Shovan, the author of a children’s book Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and a collection of poetry Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone, started what she hopes will become a regular event: a write-in at the Common Kitchen in Clarksville, Maryland.
The first one took place on January 28th. In one corner of the Common Kitchen, tables were reserved for “Writers Corner.” As each person came in from the cold and joined the group, Laura introduced everyone. We sat together, each with his or her laptop or notebook, and worked quietly. Poet Patricia VanAmburg, who was at the write-in, shared with me how important it is for her to have a writing partner. She and author Ann Bracken are longtime critique partners who meet on a weekly basis to share their writings and give each other feedback. So, Patricia welcomed this new gathering of writers. Laura says 8 people attended this first write-in, including a few members of the he MD-DE-WV chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) and Mel Beatty who is a bookseller at the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. HoCoPoLitSo’s Tim Singleton (who worked on this piece in the session) and Susan Thornton Hobby also joined the writing fun.
Laura Shovan is no stranger to “writing together.” She co-authored A Place at the Table with Saadia Faruqi, and she will be sharing that experience at the Maryland Writers Association Conference in March. Laura also brings writers together virtually through her February Poetry Project. She invites group members (usually no more than 40 people) to write a poem a day on a specific theme. For instance, last year’s theme was food and this year’s theme is is water. Group members sign up to come up with the daily prompt, and then they each write and post their drafts in a private Facebook group that same day.
Creative writing instructor and poet Tara Hart says that all students in her class at Howard Community College share their drafts in online discussion boards, but many find it daunting to provide specific feedback on each other’s writing – they may feel tentative, unqualified, or nervous of giving offense – and need a strong template to help them craft comments that are insightful and truly helpful to the writers. She encourages them to first identify what “shines” for them in a piece in order to discern a notable strength, and then to think creatively by generating a series of “what if?” questions – what if the story were told in the first person instead of the third? What if the poem ended a stanza earlier? What if the first line were the last line? In mastering peer review, they become better writers, more able to recognize the strengths to retain in their own work and to generate more possibilities for improvement, and, she hopes, more likely to seek supportive writing communities in the future.
All local writers (and anyone willing to make a drive!) are invited to the next write-in at the Common Kitchen on February 25th 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.
Writers and readers alike can also find community of lovers of writing at the next Wilde Readings With Pantea A. Tofangchi & Rissa Miller on February 11th 7 pm at the Columbia Art Center and at HoCoPoLitSo’s 42nd Annual Irish Evening with Alice McDermott on February 21st 7:30 pm at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center in Columbia.
The other day when I was visiting my dad, he handed me a book and told me to read the last paragraph aloud.
As Smith recrossed the bridge, he stopped and stood in one of the recesses to meditate on his immaturity, and to look upon the beauty of the still expanses of white moonlight and black shadow which lay before him. At last he shook his head negatively, and went home.
“That’s how they wrote back then,” he said, listening to the air the paragraph left behind. I admired the sentiment, and probably agreed that it was, indeed, something, the way they wrote back then. The book was a Bernard Shaw novel that I had not heard about, Immaturity. I was holding a 1931 edition. Where was this going?
It didn’t take a moment longer to realize the paragraph and the way they wrote wasn’t why I was handed the book. He started telling me a story about the inside cover, the markings there, and a bit of history I might otherwise have never come across, something called Bletchley Park.
Who knew? At the time and until the 1970s, only those that were supposed to, thanks to the Official Secrets Act. For me, a mystery was unraveling. Bletchley Park was a mansion in Buckinghamshire, England that housed a secret code-breaking operation during the second world war. I was instantly intrigued. Paraphrasing my dad, men were off fighting the war and women were tapped to translate Axis messages encoded by Enigma machines, contributing the secrets of intercepted messages to the war effort, and helping beat the Nazis ‘two years early’.
At its start, the operation at Bletchley incorporated a few hundred — you will have heard of Alan Turing and maybe Gordon Welshman and the Bombe machines that figured out the daily codes the Germans incorporated as fast as they could — and grew to an effort of thousands, all working on decoding daily messages of the Germans. The following six minute clip provides a better introduction. (While it is a video, it is more a slide show of 360 degree images that you can move around in using the tool in the top left of the frame. Have a listen and look around.)
Part of my dad’s version of the story was personal history, working in England years later, and having associates who dated back to the war. I’ll skip all the details, but so-and-so knew so-and-so-and-so and the narrative found its way to explaining the book I had in my hand. Inside the front cover was an oval stamp “B. P. Recreational Library Club”, and, on the facing page, an oddly glued-in, folded-over piece of paper with dates from the forties stamped onto it. Under that was a listing of hand-written month/day dates, all crossed out.
I had no idea what I was holding. He explained the book was part of a lending library created to provide recreation to workers when they weren’t putting in 15 hour days decoding.
The agency itself also tried to facilitate off-duty leisure activities for the staff in addition to amenities to provide for their general welfare. As such, the agency made buildings available for various leisure and educational activities. Hut 2 initially served as a tea room, providing hot beverages, sandwiches and lunch vouchers. The hut also contained a lending library and was the home of the Bletchley Park Recreational club from its formation in October 1940.The Hidden History of Bletchley Park, Christopher Smith, 2015
My dad explained the book had passed into my mother’s hands from the wife of someone he had worked with. It was actually part of the Bletchley Park collection during the Second World War – WOW! (The dates suggest just after, though the style of tracking due dates on the inside pages might have started after the war?) Over the years, the library had collected more books than needed, so this was one of eight or nine that had been decommissioned and given to my mother for keeps — he wanted to make sure I knew possession was legit. The other books in the collection were from Eastgate and Cheltenham, new locations for codebreaking during the war and after as effort, capabilities, and need grew.
Unbelievable, really, that such secrecy should have prevailed.Jane Fawcett, Veteran, Hut 6
Obviously, I grew up in the house with these books and knew nothing of their secret past, that being the way of those who can keep secrets.
Now the story is out and I hold this book in my hands in awe. What a connection to the way they did things back when. We tend to obtain a book for the story written within, but sometimes the book is the story itself, a thing to learn from as it moves from the reaches of history into our moment. Here it is today, a treasure that is monument to heroes of the past, the women of Bletchley Park.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
- Bletchley Park is now a museum. Visit the webiste here online. Next time you are in England, visit the secret itself. It is on my To Do list.
- Click here for an extended documentary on Bletchley Park via YouTube.
- More on the codebreaking efforts of the Allies during World War II can be found Stephen Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits.
- Christopher Smith’s Hidden History of Bletchley Park is also fascinating.
- The Bletchley Circle — what do you do after the war if you were one of the super-smart Bletchley women? Well, back into the normal every day humdrum of ironing clothes and feeding children. This short-lived British mystery series has a few of them getting together to use their wits to solve murders, though. It is an interesting way to share the story.
blog post by Laura Yoo
The Story Studs. These are five guys – Keegan, Will, Nate, Sammy, and Julien – who are preparing for the biggest battle of their lives. It will be the one of the nerdiest and the coolest (at the same time, yes) things they do together: They will fight in Howard County’s Battle of Books.
Battle of Books is Howard County Library System’s impressive reading program that encourages elementary school students to read a same set of books and come together to compete. On April 17th, fifth graders from all over the county will show up at various high school gyms to battle in teams. They will have read and studied 12 books to answer questions about those books. They will have awesome team names – like the Story Studs – and decked out in costumes.
The coaches and the team members have been diligently working our way through the 12 books:
- The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
- Lucky Broken Girl and Ruth Behar
- Me, Frida, and the Secrets of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
- Forest World by Margarita Engle
- Sharks: Nature’s Perfect Hunter by Joe Flood
- Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
- Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
- Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah
- The Real McCoys by Matthew Swanson
- Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
- Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford
- Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
As the assistant coach, I have been enjoying the books, too. So far, Ban This Book, Ghosts, and Save Me a Seat have really impressed me. These books range in their topics, characters, and settings. Each book, however, touches on a theme or a topic that I’d love for all children to think about: how to welcome strangers, bullying, not judging a book by its cover, death, family, culture, friendship, family life, freedom of speech, censorship, and reading. Yes, just in these three books, the little readers are exposed to all these topics. I think Ban This Book ought to be made into a kids’ movie. The multicultural elements in Save Me a Seat and Ghosts show just how thoughtfully the library is choosing these books – books like these can be windows through which children can see and learn about other cultures.
The Story Studs will now meet about every other week to catch up with each other about the books they’re reading. At each meeting, the readers update each other on their reading progress and share one story map they’ve completed (this helps them take notes about each book). They play games to learn and memorize the titles and the author names. They have also begun drafting their own sample questions to use to prepare for battle. It’s fun, but it’a also serious learning business.
The beauty of this Battle of Books – at least for the Story Studs – is that it brings together these close friends to share more quality time outside of school. They arrive at one of our homes after school, eat snacks, and run around for a few minutes. Then, they sit and work diligently for a good 45 minutes. Then off they go again to release more of that 10-year old energy. I absolutely love it.
I will report back on how the real battle goes on April 17th. Now – where to find leather jackets for 10 year old boys…
Seamus Heaney was a force of nature who visited Howard County an unbelievable three times.
Heaney, who won a Nobel Prize and was called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died in 2013. HoCoPoLitSo, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, was lucky enough to host Heaney for three readings — in 1982, in 1988, and in 1994. His 1994 visit many HoCoPoLitSo veterans remember as the ice storm visit, when everything else was cancelled because the city was encased in a good half-inch of ice, but stalwarts trudged through the storm to see Heaney read.
On the last two of his readings, HoCoPoLitSo’s founder, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, wisely taped interviews with Heaney, first with a noted scholar George O’Brien, and then with a fellow poet, Roland Flint, posing questions.
During his long and amiable correspondence with Kennedy, Heaney decided that he did not want the taped interviews to be sold as part of HoCoPoLitSo’s television talk show series, The Writing Life. In one letter from the 1990s, he writes: “As I have said often before, there are already too many interviews by me, going over the same ground. There is nothing new in the material on your transcript.” In the margin, in his long, looping handwriting, Heaney wrote: “(tho’ I do like the Yeats riff at the end)!” Since that time, the world has changed immensely. Heaney is no longer around to conduct interviews, and HoCoPoLitSo no longer sells DVDs or taped versions of the interviews.
But the society does have a YouTube channel where these formerly hidden gems – featuring writers such as Donald Hall, Frank McCourt, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton — are now available for free to students, writers, and scholars.
For ten years, HoCoPoLitSo sought permission from the estate to upload the interviews to our channel on YouTube. Finally, Faber & Faber Ltd. granted permission, HoCoPoLitSo received a donation to cover the rights fee, and the video is finally seeing the light of day on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube channel.
All sixty minutes of the video are available, as well as a transcript, upon request, for scholars and readers and fans of Heaney’s work. In the video, Heaney sits on a stage, with his arm slung around the back of his chair, and takes questions from Georgetown professor O’Brien, and from the audience. He speaks about his life as a boy on his family’s small farm, his time in boarding school, the parallel between the rise of his life as a writer and the rise of the rebellion and unrest in Northern Ireland.
He says in the interview, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course, it’s necessary for us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. Writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than the second or third circle where the big part is writing, is publicity.”
He recites “Digging,” at Ellen Kennedy’s request, and reads, “Alphabets”, and “From the Republic of Conscience”, as well as sonnets dedicated to his mother, “Clearances”. The program ends with the story about writing a poem to celebrate his niece’s birth because he hadn’t any present for the family, then the triumphant reading of the charming poem, “A Peacock’s Feather for Daisy Garrett.”
HoCoPoLitSo has a forty-five year history of providing epiphany-inducing programs with literary greats. But those programs are ephemeral, seared in many people’s memories, but gone when the event is over.
The Writing Life series captures those unbelievable literary moments; seeing, after all, is believing.
Donations to support The Writing Life are welcomed and tax-deductible.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and The Writing Life producer
HoCoPoLitSo’s 42 Annual Evening of Irish Writing and Music is on Friday, February 21, 2020, featuring Alice McDermott, music by O’Malley’s March, and traditional Irish dancing with the Teelin Dance Company. Click here to learn more.
Harvest is about food, of course, a storing away of all the energy and sunshine and hard work of summer for a slower, more contemplative time. Sure, there are pumpkins, but fall is also about the last tomatoes and corn, and the starchy parsnips and potatoes that last all winter long.
I think of poems and stories as a kind of harvest, storing up the ephemeral to be savored later.
The Between the Leaves Project is about linking writing with the food we grow and eat. HoCoPoLitSo and the Howard County Library have teamed up to put literature — about collard greens and zinnias and raspberries and butter beans — in the Enchanted Garden at the Miller Branch.
Signs, bearing excerpts from poems and novels that relate to the crops being grown, have been thrust into the garden plots, a lovely quarter-acre just outside the Ellicott City library branch. The vegetables and fruits grown in the garden by volunteers, from library teens to Master Gardeners, are harvested every week and donated to the Howard County Food Bank.
The signs offer a little taste of literature in the garden, but if you’d like a full serving, attend the harvest reading on Oct. 28. Authors, board members of HoCoPoLitSo, and staff and friends of the library will read poems that will leave us hungry. Hear works by Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Gary Snyder, Pablo Neruda, and other authors. Snacks will be served and books with the poems, as well as excerpts from novels and short stories, will be available for borrowing.
Join us at the drop-in reading 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, at the Miller Branch library in the garden under the twinkling lights, for an evening of poetry to savor.
a blog post written by Susan Thornton Hobby (HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary)
I was primed for the Central Library’s short story program. Years of childhood bedtime stories read to me by my mother from what my brother and I called “the red books,” a sixteen-volume set published by The Spencer Press in 1953 made me first into a riveted listener, and then a devoted reader.
Those books, especially Best Loved Poems and First Story Book, included gems like “Wynken, Blinken, and Nod” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And when I had children, I spent seventeen years reading out loud, from the red books and You Can Name One Hundred Trucks through all nine Harry Potters and into Something Wicked This Way Comes.
So when the Central Library started “Keep it Short: Adult Selections Read Aloud,” I was already on the “bedtime stories for adults” train. On July 16, library story-tellers Roy Ringel and Michael Toner read space-themed texts, since it was the 50th anniversary of the launching of the Apollo 11 rocket.
Ringel read D.C. writer Amber Sparks’ short story “The Janitor in Space,” a haunting, quiet story about a wounded woman who finds a little solitary peace cleaning up after astronauts on the space station. The audience settled in, and we listened stock-still to Ringel: “She keeps the station clean and shiny as the future,” Ringel read, and “lonely is the only thing she owns.”
In a shirt embroidered with tiny parrots, Toner read “The Great Silence,” by Ted Chiang. The story is narrated by a parrot who laments that humans listen so intensely for extraterrestrial messages from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but they ignore the brilliant language of the parrots all around them, the ones that are going extinct.
And Ringel finished the evening’s adult story-time with President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University that many credit with Americans supporting space exploration. “The eyes of the world now look into space,” Ringel read, “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Caren Ferris explained that she is a regular attender at the short story readings: “it opens me to new ideas. You stumble across a writer you can connect with. You come across things you wouldn’t have seen yourself.” A story by Langston Hughes read during the library’s February “Keep it Short” program has stayed with Ferris all year, she says, and she always goes back and researches and reads more of the authors’ work. These stories, she says, “connect the dots.”
However literature can reach people, stretch their minds, and connect them with other humans (or parrots), HoCoPoLitSo is all for it. And so am I. I was so cozy after the stories. If only the library allowed sleepovers.
The library resumes adult read-aloud programs at the Central Branch in the fall. Sunday, Oct. 27, 2 p.m., is “Word Music: Poetry for Adults,” with Roy Ringel and Erin Frederic. The program spans English poetry’s history, starting in the 16th century and concluding with contemporary poets, and features the work of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Neruda, Hughes, and Angelou. On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m., Michael Toner reads Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus,” and Roy Ringel presents “This Water,” by David Foster Wallace. Visit http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/ to register.
A micro-memoir in the style of Beth Ann Fennelly, written by Susan Thornton Hobby, Executive Producer of the Writing Life
Beth Ann Fennelly showed up at the Blackbird Poetry Festival last week in a skirt printed with rows of books of many colors, lime-green and fuchsia shoes, a brown sweater dotted with green flowers and a vintage chartreuse Canada Dry T-shirt that I coveted. Fennelly, who was at the festival to give a workshop, and give two readings, is the author, most recently, of Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs.
Anyone looking at both of us together could tell immediately who the poet was – I was in a white T-shirt, black pants and gray jacket. I did put on my red shoes, but other than that, I was as neutral as Switzerland.
Danielle Maloney, television director extraordinaire of The Writing Life, explained that because we use a green screen with a computer-generated set when taping the show, Fennelly’s torso would disappear – literally melt into the electronic background.
Fennelly would be not the headless horseman but the torso-less poet. She and I locked eyes. Then we both looked at my chest. The white T-shirt.
As she later told the audience at the Nightbird reading, “my host gave me the shirt off her back.”
But in the television studio, Beth Ann moaned, “I need color,” gazing forlornly at my boring shirt.
HoCoPoLitSo’s managing director Pam Simonson, the ultimate problem-solver, donated her butter-yellow jacket, which matched a few books on the skirt, and Beth Ann had a new outfit. I wore a Dragon Digital Television polo that the director found in a box in her office.
After a deep and hilarious thirty-minute conversation on The Writing Life, lead by poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Fennelly and I rushed to the car so she could grab some dinner and change before the evening reading. I was carrying books, a few remaining cookies from the dozen I baked to fuel the student camera operators, my jacket, Pam’s jacket, and the white T-shirt.
After I had dropped Fennelly at her hotel, I wanted to change back into my white shirt for the reading. I searched my car’s back seat, front seat, floorboards. It was gone.
I realized I must have dropped it. No time to find another shirt – I just threw my jacket on top of my black Dragon Digital polo and picked up the poet to reach the reading on time.
Just as we were turning into the parking garage, I told Beth Ann I needed to go search the hallways of Howard Community College for my T-shirt. And then then headlights hit it – a crumpled puddle of white on the parking garage floor.
“I’ll get it!” Beth Ann shrieked, and jumped out, the rhinestones on her vintage dress flashing in the headlights as she triumphantly held the shirt over her head. The shirt was criss-crossed with tire tracks. It smelled of damp cement, Michelin radials, and Beth Ann Fennelly.
I’ll never wash it.
blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby
An open and shut case at Blackbird Poetry workshop…
Only Beth Ann Fennelly could urge more than 150 people gathered for a writing workshop during the Blackbird Poetry Festival to stick their fingers in their mouths and repeat: “Bet, butt, bet, butt, bet, butt,” until they had figured out how their tongues were making the words.
It also could have been the threat of interpretive dance (their own, if they did not participate).
Either way, Fennelly clearly illustrated her point – the shape of our mouths influences the connotations certain sounds retain, in languages around the world. And therefore, the sounds bring meaning to poetry.
Here’s her quiz.
Carl Sandberg wrote: “The voice of the last cricket/ across the first frost/ is one kind of goodbye.”
The next line, Fennelly asked, is it “so thin a splinter, so meager a morsel or so small an atom?” “Thin a splinter,” someone called from the back of the room. “Yes,” Fennelly said. “That short ‘i’ sound – the sound of small, a vulnerable feeling. “
Poets use sound to make meaning with words that suggest meanings, through their brevity or length of sound (“pup” and “bark” are the same number of syllables, but they take longer to say), the pleasure or discomfort of the sounds in our mouths (“melodious” versus “sticky”), and by setting up and displacing a metrical scheme.
“I’m hedonistic about feeling the sound of words, there’s a pleasure of sound,” Fennelly told the group.
She lead them through poems by Robert Herrick (“melting, melodious words to lutes of amber,” and by Robert Frost, (“The Span of Life” – “the saddest poem in the English language,” Fennelly said.) She talked about how sounds of words can move the poem faster or slower, how a change in sound and rhyme and rhythm can surprise the reader in a good or unpleasant way.
By the end of the workshop, Fennelly gave dark chocolate bars to the students who scored the best on the quiz that tested their ear for poetry’s sounds. Because it was all about the mouth.
P.S. A week after her visit to Columbia, Fennelly was awarded The Excellence in Graduate Teaching & Mentoring Award by the University of Mississippi where she teaches.
A guest blog by Faye McCray
When I first started teaching writing workshops with kids, it was for selfish reasons. I was in a place of transition in my career and that meant a great deal of obnoxious self-reflection about what made me truly happy. I knew it wasn’t my day job and when I pictured myself happy, I kept conjuring up the same image: Kid-me, twelve-ish, sitting in front of my sixth grade classmates reading my work for the first time. To be clear, I didn’t want to actually be twelve again. God, no. There were braces and glasses and bad relaxers. However, I did want that feeling. The feeling of being surrounded by folks ready to listen and be heard.
As a child, I was a voracious reader. My favorite work was fiction that took place in worlds completely different from mine. In retrospect, I don’t know if that was my curiosity or just the fact that worlds that looked like mine didn’t really exist in the nineties literary landscape. Either way, for me, reading was like getting to try on another person’s soul. It was the ability to see, feel and taste what life was like in a way completely different from my own. I could go from my reality: being a girl with box braids and a beef patty on a subway in Queens to a young woman on vacation in Monte Carlo who meets and marries a man who, unbeknownst to her, murdered his first wife.
When my sixth grade teacher decided to task us with writing original work to share with our classmates, it was as if I was going to finally see them and they would finally see me. Truth be told, I was probably the most excited kid in class. However, the seed was planted. I was a writer, and I bet if I looked hard enough, there were other kids who thought they were writers too.
On March 22, I had the pleasure of hosting the Columbia Art Center’s first Teen Open Mic. The theme was “Choose Civility”, HoCo’s most known slogan which in the current social and political climate, could mean a great many things. I was so nervous leading up to the event. I knew how much a Teen Open Mic would have meant to me. I also wondered if the idea was antiquated. After all, isn’t social media one big open mic with the added benefit of anonymity?
As teens trickled into the Art Center, however, I could see the same excited anticipation I had felt over twenty years ago written all over their faces. Naturally, there were nerves but armed with their words on their phones or on sheets of paper in their hands, they were ready. Their powerful work ranged in topic from mental health to self-acceptance to race to the environment. I was moved – not only by the incredible work itself but how beautifully it was received. The crowd was modest but as I said to the young writers that evening, I preferred it that way.
By the end of the night, as we wandered around the beautiful art center and munched on the remaining snacks, the mood felt light. The teens, who had arrived as strangers, now shared praise and encouragement, promising to “see each other next time.” Their enthusiasm was infectious. I realized that although I was decades away from making that discovery in my own sixth grade classroom, I was invested in making similar experiences a possibility for other pre-teens and teens. We all have a desire to be heard. More importantly, we all have a valuable story to tell.
About the blogger:
Faye McCray is an author and essayist whose popular essays on love, life and parenting have been featured in the Huffington Post, My Brown Baby, For Harriet, Madame Noire and other popular publications. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Weemagine, a website devoted to celebrating and inspiring all children and the people who love them. Faye is also the author of Dani’s Belts, a collection of horror short stories, Boyfriend, a full length novel about a troubled college student struggling with love and fidelity, and I am Loved! a collection of positive affirmations for kids. Find out more about Faye on her website: http://www.fayemccray.com/