Thursday, March 3, 2016

Remembering Harper Lee

I’ve been living in Harper Lee’s world lately to prepare for a library talk I gave last week about To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. I reread both books, watched the film, and saw Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, and The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills’s memoir about her friendship with Harper Lee.

I thought a lot about Lee’s struggles with her first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which she never got right, and her struggles with To Kill a Mockingbird, which she go so right that it catapulted into the fame and fortune that most writers dream of—and stopped her in her tracks.

I thought about a 2005 conversation Lee had with a waiter at a party in New York, described near the end of Shields’s biography. “Why didn’t you write another book?” the waiter asked.

“‘I had every intention of writing many novels,’” Harper Lee reportedly said, ‘but I never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. I became overwhelmed.’”

In the concluding paragraph of his biography, Shields wrote, “Rather than allow herself to be eternally frustrated, she ‘forgave herself’ and lifted the burden fro her shoulders of living up to the book. She refused to pressure herself into writing another novel unless the muse came to her naturally.”

But the muse never comes naturally. Writing isn’t about inspiration; it’s about addiction, obsession. The muse is knowing and needing the way writing will take you away from the real word into a world of your own making, one you have the power to shape and control.

Harper Lee knew this.

In 1964, still struggling with the second novel she never produced, she described herself to an interviewer as someone who must write. “I like to write,” she said. “Sometimes I’m afraid that I like it too much because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. I’ll go out long enough to get papers and pick up some food and that’s it. It’s strange, but instead of hating writing I love it too much.”

She spoke about the novels she hoped to write, books that would “…leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world…to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.”

“In other words,” she concluded, “all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”

The sad thing is, she could have been.

In the sixties, a promising writer, one whose first novel had received excellent reviews but sold only moderately well, would have been nurtured by her publisher. If she needed money to pay the rent so that she could get that second novel written, money would magically appear. Her editor would be on call in the case of any crisis or confidence, instantly available for lunch or dinner or a drink to help calm the writer down, to reassure her that of course she would finish the book she was working on in time and of course it would be wonderful. The editor would truly believe this. She would believe it was her job to guide you through the long, harrowing process of birthing a novel.

It is its own kind of weird blessing not to be famous, not to have people waiting to see what you’ve written next, to judge if it is better or worse than what you’ve written before. It is its own weird kind of blessing to keep the carrot of recognition ever before you. Maybe, maybe the next novel will be the one that makes you a “successful” writer. When it’s not, well, you go at it again.

Harper Lee had an editor who believed passionately in her work and guided her through revision after revision of both Go Tell a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. She had friends who believed in her so much that they gave her enough money to quit her job and do nothing but write for a year.

She knew writing was hard, that it was supposed to be hard. Shields described Lee’s 1966 response to a Sweet Briar College student who asked about her typical workday. “She said she stayed at her desk six to twelve hours a day and ended up with, perhaps, one page of finished manuscript.” Harper Lee told the class, “‘To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It’s sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not. Everyday. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour to writing. In fact, it’s heartbreak most of the time.’”

What might Harper Lee have written if “Mockingbird” hadn’t been a publishing phenomenon; if instead, good reviews and moderate sales had given her confidence as a writer, a manageable taste of recognition, the courage to go on?

What if she’d never had to occasion to say to her cousin, Dickie Williams, who asked the question she had surely come to dread, “Richard, when you’re at the top there’s only one way to go.”

In his conclusion to Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields wrote, “A little more than a year after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Nelle wrote to friends in Mobile, ‘People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world.’ From all indications, she seems to have done that.”

I so hope he’s right. But I wonder.

And now we’ll never know.

Published in NUVO Newsweekly 
March, 2016 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Between the World and Me

Early in Between the World and Me, a memoir addressed to his fifteen year-old son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”

Between the World and Me is the story of Coates’s questioning, as a fearful boy in the brutal streets and failed schools of Baltimore; as a young man in the library at Howard University, Mecca to young black scholars; as an adult, an anxious father, doing the best he can to raise his son to be real and free in a country where the lives of black boys become increasingly expendable.

In the process, he addresses the paradox at the root of America’s long history of racial strife: our country, whose Constitution declares freedom and equality for all people, was built on the backs of black people whose lives and bodies were and continue to be fodder for the American Dream.

“America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” Coates writes, “but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.

The result of this is a legacy of visceral, constricting fear at every level of Black culture. Coates’s parents weren’t religious, so there was no retreat to the comforts and mysteries that so often sustain believers. They were strict, pragmatic, afraid. Coates remembers his mother holding his hand crossing a busy street, telling him that if he ever let go and got killed by a car she would beat him back to life. At six, he wandered away while visiting a local park; when his parents found him, his father reached for his strap. “Later I would hear it in Dad’s voice—” Coates writes. “‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’ Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us off at the exit.”

Even wealthy, privileged Blacks suffer the consequences of the Dream. Coates tells the story of the death of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police. Jones’s mother was a doctor, he was raised in an affluent community, yet he was stopped by the police for the same kind of vague reason that hundreds of young black men are stopped and all too often killed by the police: they were searching for a young black man who looked nothing at all like the young man they’d stopped and about whom they had no cause for suspicion…but he was there. The police officer who made the “mistake” was not prosecuted.

Early in the book Coates writes about his son’s reaction to learning that the police officers who killed Michael Brown would not be punished. “You said, ‘I’ve got to go,’ and you went to your your room and I heard you crying.”

Coates goes to his son, but does not comfort him because he felt to comfort him would be wrong. He doesn’t tell him that it would be okay, because he didn’t believe it. What he tells him was what his own parents had tried to make him understand when he was the same age: “…that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find a way to live within the all of it.”

Between the World and Me is the most honest, courageous, original, and heartbreaking book about race in America that I have ever read. It offers little hope. How could it, given the world as it is? There are no easy answers, either. How could there be when we can’t bring ourselves to ask the questions that matter?

About his own thwarted search for answers to the essential question of his life, Coates writes, “It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was a process that would not award me my own especial Dream, but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, of everywhere, and would leave me only humanity in all its terribleness.”

May we all have the determination and courage to experience such discomfort in (finally) facing the real issues surrounding race in America. If we fail to do this, we cannot survive.

 NUVO Newsweekly February, 2016 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hooray for Writers Who Are Alive!

A cemetery is a good place for young writers to visit because it is about dying, and anything about dying is about living as well. It is useful to wander among the graves of those whose lives are over. To feel grateful that you are still here, living the story of your life and turning it into words. So over the twenty years I taught creative writing at the Broad Ripple High School Center for the Humanities and the Performing Arts in Indianapolis for twenty years, we took an annual field trip to Crown Hill Cemetery. This was when you could still take kids in your car and kids with cars of their own could drive themselves, so we’d caravan across town, wind our way up to the James Whitcomb Riley grave, the highest point in Indianapolis. I’d spread a red-checked tablecloth on the big marble slab, start up the mix tape on my boom box: “The Not Necessarily Grateful Dead,” songs by performers no longer with us, and we’d eat our picnic lunches. From where we sat, the city we lived in looked like Oz.

To be honest, though, I did not choose JWR’s grave as the site for our excursion to celebrate his (in my opinion, dreadful) poetry. I chose it for irony’s sake. (Really? He’s the Indiana writer with the gargantuan monument?) I’m embarrassed (and annoyed) that all too often his name is the first one mentioned when the subject of Indiana writers comes up. Okay. He’s part of our history. I get that.

So are a lot of (wonderful) dead Indiana writers.

But in my writing classroom, we studied Indiana writers who were alive. So many talented young people flee the state as soon as they can. I wanted my students to know that literature made of the stuff of their own Indiana lives could be as rich and mysterious as lives led in more exotic places.

Now, as the Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center, I try to spread that message around the state—and beyond. We all need to do a better job of celebrating Indiana writers, promoting their work so that theirs are the names that come up when conversation turns to Indiana literature.
Thanks to an Indiana Masterpiece Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Writers Center has the opportunity to do just that with an anthology of contemporary Indiana writers to be published early next fall. Many accomplished Indiana writers have already agreed to be part of the project, including, Scott Russell Sanders, Susan Neville, Patricia Henley, Helen Frost, Karen Kovacik, and Michael Martone.

The book will be a “snapshot” of Indiana writers at the time of its 2016 Bicentennial. It will be launched with a series of readings, classroom visits, and writing workshops around the state.

But here’s the best part: the anthology will be appropriate for use in the high school classroom. It will be available online to English and writing teachers, along with curriculum materials designed to meet state standards.

While you’re waiting to read it, check out some of the writers mentioned above, if you aren’t
already familiar with them. And here are some more I’m thrilled will be included: Shari Wagner,
George Kalamaras, Greg Schwipps, Sarah Layden, Bryan Furuness, and Jim McGarrah.

Oh, and we don’t have a title yet. Any ideas?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Following the Brush

Yesterday I took David Shumate’s IWC class, “Following the Brush,” which was about where poems come from, how to cultivate the posture of the of the mind that invites them. We talked about the importance of letting your guard down in the first phase of writing a poem, messing around, not working toward a specific goals. "Think of yourself as a witness to the poem coming," Dave said. "Recognize that the poem has an intelligence of its own." 

The early process is prelinguistic: impulse, image, development of a notion, he said. Not words. The proper state of mind is: I don’t know what to do with this. Let’s see where it goes.

“Follow the brush” is a Chinese term that describes this early process. The brush is the tool, the implement. It knows better than we do where to go. You have to allow the brush to emerge. This was a new term to me, one I like very much.

In this state, you are the “pilgrim of the poem,” a representative of the real “I.” The pilgrim disengages immediately from the “me,” allowing the pilgrim to discover vicariously what might happen. The pilgrim is utterly willing, na├»ve, stupid to go out on these pilgrimages in the first place. It disengages hesitance to let the “I” do things it wouldn’t actually down. 

I like the idea of the poet as a pilgrim very much, too.  And the idea that being in this state gives you entry to the territory of myth, where the ordinary world filtered through the prism of the imagination.

Early in the class, Dave asked us to describe where/how we get into the posture of mind that allows poems. I misunderstood, sort of, what he meant—and instead of describing my writing place, I tried to recreate how poems most often come to me (when they come, which I wish happened more often.)

Fall day, last leaves, yellow against the blue sky.
I’m sitting in a glass building, considering
where poems come from and notice a dog outside--.
red as the fallen leaves, straining against the leash.
A woman in a blue jacket—blue—hurrying after him.
It’s always blue that stops me. Blue moving
Across the landscape, becoming a poem.

Right now I’m thinking now about “blue.” The blue of the Italian paintings I love: the blue of the Madonna’s robe, the blue Italian sky. And “View of Delft.” Vermeer’s blue that captivated me for years. Early in the class, I said that when I write a poem it’s usually about something I want to own, to keep—but know I can’t. Looking at whatever it is the way I need to look to make a poem reconstructs that thing in my head in a way that makes me feel like I own it. 

Which is, of course, what I’m always writing about: trying to keep, to hold something I love (a painting, a person, a time, a place). When the little poem (draft) came yesterday I thought it was the opposite of that: something totally random. Now I see it captured a moment that trigged a few thoughts about my own process that I wanted to keep:

1. Whatever blue is often delivers me to the posture of mind that invites a poem to come.

2. Dogs don’t need to write poems; they just are.

3. Which, (of course) paradoxically, puts the poet in the posture of mind that produces the brush to follow--then somehow, magically, become the brush herself.

4. Ergo: the poem on the page is made of who we are…when we aren’t.

These ideas aren’t new to me. But it was lovely to revisit them by way of a poet I deeply admire, such  a delight to follow a brush that made them present themselves in a new 
way--and carry me to the holy place that invites poems (stories, novels) to come.

Monday, July 13, 2015

One at a Time: Black Lives Matter

I did my student teaching in a second grade classroom at an inner city school in the fall of 1971. I was 24, idealistic, and utterly unprepared for the dawning realization that a lot of the teachers there had just given up on these kids, including my supervisory teacher—a nice, very beleaguered suburban lady, nearing retirement.
I loved the kids, though I grew increasingly sad and even despairing as the time went on. I didn’t have the skills, the means, or the authority to do what I saw desperately needed to be done. But whenever I could I tried to find ways to help them, one at a time.
One morning, Dante, a boy I especially liked (despite—or maybe because—the teacher had warned me that he was a troublemaker) was kept in from recess to finish a math assignment he’d rudely refused to do—and I was assigned to stay and make sure he behaved.
It was a beautiful day. The sound of kids yelling and laughing wafted in through the open window. We could hear a basket being dribbled on the asphalt and the swish when it went through the net. I pulled a chair next to Dante, who sat sullenly, his head on his desk.
Trying and failing to engage him, I finally asked, “Why won’t you do your work, Dante?” He looked up, tears rolling down his cheeks and said, “I can’t.”
“Do you want to know something?” I asked. He nodded. “Math is really hard for me, too. In fact, I hate it. But it’s an important thing to learn. Will you try if I help you?”
He said, Yes.”
I still have the note he wrote me a few weeks after my student teaching term was over.“Dear Mrs. Shoup, I love you. Come to me. Dante. We r okay.”
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I still wonder what happened to him. I still hope that that little moment in time helped him see that he was way smarter than he’d been taught to believe he was. That he mattered.
Nearly 45 years later, school remains an ineffectual, unhappy place for too many African-American kids. Often learning stops dead the first time they get behind on their reading or math, and there simply aren’t enough teachers and assistants to work with them, one-on-one, to catch up. And they’re lost.
It breaks my heart.
The kids I taught then are in their fifties now. They could be the grandparents of the kids I work with through “Building a Rainbow,” the Indiana Writers Center’s summer learning program at St. Florian’s Leadership Development Camp. I like to think they are.
I like the sense of things coming full circle, too: St. Florian’s camp, where African American children are taught to live in the world by people who cherish them, is held at a school just a few blocks away from the grim, unwelcoming school where I did my student teaching.
My favorite thing about “Building a Rainbow,” now in its sixth year, is sitting down with a kid–like Dante–who’s struggling, who doesn’t believe he can do what we’ve asked him to do. We talk, we brainstorm until a light goes on in his eyes, he picks up his pencil, and bends over the blank page. He’s found his voice. Suddenly, magically, writing seems possible. He shocks himself, writing a page, sometimes more as easily as talking.
Sometimes I just stand and watch. Thinking, hoping that this moment will make him believe other things seem possible, too.
The cool thing is that the room is full of instructors, college interns, and volunteers roaming around, looking for people who need help. The kids adore our interns and often sort of fall in love one or another of them, claiming them as their favorites.
“Mr. Michael, help me.” Miss Kelsey, I need you.” “Miss Rita, I want you to read what I wrote.”
Smiling, eager, their faces as open as books.
May the fact that we’re there help them believe what we know:
Black lives—their lives—Matter.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Creative Process Blog Tour

Thanks, Sarah Layden, for inviting me to come along on this blog tour about creative process. For sure, read her forthcoming novel Trip Through Your Wires, which will be released by Engine Books in 2015. It’s good. Check out her post at

So here goes.

What are you working on?

At the moment, I’m spending a lot of time to get the word out about my new YA novel, Looking for Jack Kerouac, which will be published by Lacewing Books on August 12. During the winter and spring, redrafted a short novel called The Green Heart of Lucy Cole, which I’ve been working on since 2007. It’s had various incarnations, but I think (hope) I’ve hit upon the right focus this time. When it’s polished up and ready to send out, I’ll go back to When It Happened Here, another novel I’ve struggled with over a number of years—and about which, I think (hope) I’ve hit upon the right focus. We’ll see.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I think my adult novels fall pretty squarely into mid-list fiction and my YA novels into realistic YA fiction. Honestly, though, I never think about this question. Each good book is its own universe and to try to figure out how it’s different from other fictional universes in any useful way seems fruitless to me. That said, I often study novels I love that are in some way or another similar to something I’m working on—hoping to trigger insights into the particular problems I’m trying to solve.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m fascinated by how chance, choice and opportunity affect (or don’t affect) how people live their lives. I like “turning point” novels, books that introduce some kind of change in a character’s life that plays out over the course of the story. 

The things that shaped me as a young person were my dad’s drinking; an absurdly idyllic view of family life based on 50’s TV shows like "Father knows Best"; the longing to get away, to travel, to live in a larger world; the longing to have beautiful things in my life; and an awkward, unhappy adolescence. One or more of those things come into play in everything I write. Sometimes, as in An American Tune, I address them directly, as I did with the main character’s girlhood. Sometimes, as in Vermeer’s Daughter, set in 17th Century Holland, I’m physically very far afield from my own life and the world I know. But my heart is still there.

For me, it’s all about being able to recognize not just a good idea, but my good idea—an idea that allows me to explore one or more of the set of issues it seems I’ve been set on earth to ponder.

For example, friend and fellow writer told me about his idea for a screenplay called "Beat," about a kid who goes to look for Jack Kerouac. I thought it sounded like a terrific idea for a young adult novel and said, joking, “If you ever decide you don’t want to do the screenplay, could I have the idea?” A few years later, he said, “Remember that Kerouac idea? I’m not going to do it, so you can have it if you want it.” “Cool,” I said. “Thanks!” But it was just an idea and I had a hard time finding a way to make it my own.

Then, sadly, one of my sisters died of brain cancer. Not long after her death, an image of her behind the counter of a diner floated into my mind’s eye. White blond hair in a pixie cut, freckles, turquoise eyes. There was Ginny! One of the most painful things about my sister’s illness and death was watching her two teenage sons go through it and, after I found Ginny (and the idea that I could, in a way, bring my sister back to life through her), it occurred to me that Paul might have had the same experience as my oldest nephew. At which point Looking for Jack Kerouac became about a whole lot more than a road trip for me. It was a way of processing my own grief about my sister and trying to better understand what losing their mother had been like for her boys.

For me, writing fiction is a way of looking sideways at something that I can’t see or can’t bear to see when I try to look at it directly. In the process of finding the story, coming up close to the emotions fueling it, I come to better understand my own life.

How does your writing process work?

It takes me a long time to write a novel. Years. Usually an image or phrase will pop up and I’ll write what almost always turns out to be a first chapter, but sometimes it takes a while to figure out exactly what the chapter is about and how to proceed. Getting the first draft of the novel down is the hardest part for me.

I almost always work chronologically through a novel from beginning to end, revising when I feel like I can’t keep going unless I assess and adjust what I have. Revision is less cutting, more expanding. Fleshing out scenes, adding new scenes, building better transitions. Then lots and lots of tinkering, polishing, which is my favorite part.

I rarely show my work to anyone before I’ve done everything I can figure out to do to make the novel on the page match the one in my head. When I get to that point, I will ask for reader feedback. I’m lucky to have several people (some writers, some readers) whose critiques are always spot on. Their questions and observations about the manuscript help me see the gaps between what I want the novel to be and what I’ve actually managed to get on the page. (Good book clubs are fabulous for feedback, too!) I do a lot of drafts, so I don’t use all of my readers at once. That way, there's always someone out there to give a fresh look. I often put a novel away for months or, in some cases, years—especially when there are structural and/or point of view issues that I just can’t get my head around.

It’s a crazy thing to do, writing novels.

I love what Jack Kerouac said about it. “And this is the way a novel gets written, in ignorance, fear, sorrow, madness, and a kind of psychotic happiness that serves as an incubation for the wonders being born.” 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Camran's Sister

The Indiana Writers Center’s annual summer program, "Building a Rainbow," is in full swing. I love driving down to St. Florian’s Youth Development Camp on Monday and Wednesday mornings, knowing I’m about to spend a couple of hours with a bunch of extraordinary kids—not to mention the firefighters who founded the summer camp and spend a whole lot of their off-time planning, fundraising and then actually being with the kids all day every day for six weeks.

I especially love sitting down with a kid who seems to be struggling for words and talking with him, asking him questions until something magic happens and, suddenly ,there's a torrent of them and he can’t write fast enough to get them down. This happened one day last week with a kind, thoughtful boy named Camran. He’s new to the camp this year (some attend from the time they’re six until they graduate from high school) and was feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. He couldn’t think of anything interesting to write, he told me, because he didn’t have an interesting life. After a few questions, he revealed that he’d lived with his sister in fifteen different houses since he was a baby.

“That sounds pretty darn interesting to me,” I said. “And your sister sounds amazing. Tell me about her.”

His face lit up in a huge smile and there came that torrent of words. Here they are.

My sister, Crystal, was always there for me. She chose to take care of me. She didn’t have to take care of me. She dropped out of college to take care of me. She made sure we had somewhere to stay every night. She made sure I ate before she ate. We lived in a couple different houses. We stayed with Andrea, who had a daughter. We played with her all the time. She made the kids happy. We stayed with a girl named Neisha. She had a big TV. She bought me a turtle. I named him Johnny Rico. Mama Buder let us stay with her a little bit. Then we moved to Mama JB’s when I was in kindergarten and we stayed there till I was seven. Mama JB had a daughter who had kids and the kids would always play with us. We played with their dogs, Bruce and Princess, too. Then my sister got a job at the police department. We got our own apartment. She also works part time at Warren High School and at the fireworks store in the summer. She is taking classes at college now.

My sister has black hair down to her shoulders. Her favorite shoes are Jordans. She likes to go hat shopping for baseball hats and other hats that look really cool. She likes jerseys, too. But she doesn’t get them for her, she gets them for me. My sister has a kind heart.

Well. That made my day.

And all over the room the same kind of thing was happening.  The success of our program is directly related to the number of instructors, interns and volunteers available to sit down one-on-one with kids and coax out their stories. Our interns are college students, many of whom are education majors who will soon have their own classrooms. One of our requirements for them is that they write the prompts we ask the kids to write and share them with the group.

Writing teachers should write what they ask their students to write, we believe. For the joy of it, but also to remember how intimidating the blank page can be.

The interns learn as much as the kids do—about teaching and life. As one intern so eloquently put it at the end of last year’s program:

"These children with their bold, simple statements, wild imaginations, and truthful declarations are truly inspiring creatures. Through their honest eyes and even more honest words I became inspired to be a better writer, a better educator, a better person. I allowed their fun personalities to affect my life for the better. I laughed along with them at their comic stories; my heart wept for them with each tear they cried while writing a meaningful piece; I read their words, full of desire to know more, to know every detail possible. I learned being sad and admitting to it is okay and I learned being happy five minutes later is a matter of pure strength. I now understand writing is better when laughing and joking and that no matter how loud or quiet the room, a child’s written voice will always be voluminous.”

 We are all writers, we tell the kids. We’re a community of writers. Writers need each other.

Which is true. I know I need them. Nothing makes me feel more right in the world than working with young writers who are just learning that they have stories to tell and discovering the power of words in the telling.

And by the way, our program still isn’t fully funded. If you’d like to help us meet the cost of this important work with young people, click here. We’d really appreciate it.