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.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Even the Wallpaper at Ragdale Makes Me Happy

I have this thing about houses. House angst, really, resulting from the misguided idea that in the perfect house life would always be happy. And the house I have always had in mind is an awfully lot like Ragdale: beautiful inside and out, cozy and spacious at the same time, full of color and light.

The thing is, I am always happy at Ragdale: the house itself (my temporary home in Room at the Top of the Stairs, the leggy geraniums blooming on the sun porch, the sunny blue and yellow kitchen), the magical, energetic silence of people at work all around me. Even the wallpaper makes me happy.

I’m half-convinced I would always be happy here, if I could just…stay.

But of course I know I can’t. And I love my real house, my real life. Into my second week here, I’m already feeling the tug of it calling me back.

Meanwhile, I am so grateful for this gift of time in which there’s nothing to do but writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing (and everything else under the sun) with people believe in the arts and are intensely engaged in making their own worlds with words or paint or musical notes or photographs in this beautiful place.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Talking about Writing X 2

I gave two writing talks yesterday. One to Mrs. Brown’s fifth graders at Allisonville school; the other to a group of library patrons in Thorntown, mostly senior citizens. I’ve visited to Mrs. Brown’s class every year for a while now. She does a book project with her students--turning them all into authors, and I go to give them writing tips. The books the students write are charming, with the typed copy pasted in, illustrations and—best—the author’s bio at the back. They are a whole lot of extra work for Mrs. Brown, which she does gladly. Her classroom is bursting with things to look at and think about. When she brings me up to date on what the kids are working on, I can tell she’s as curious and engaged as she wants them to be.

She is one of my heroes. She’s one of those teachers who should be cloned or, at the very least, given a place at the head of the table where the discussions about what schools should be are taking place. Or better yet, figure out how to clone her. Schools full of Mrs. Browns would get better all on their own.
But that’s a whole other topic. I want to write about my day of two writing talks.
I began by asking Mrs. Brown’s students, “What is the hardest thing about writing for you?”
Hands shot up.
Everything about writing is hard for me. I can’t think of anything interesting to write about. I have an idea for a story, but I when I try to write it down I can’t. Sometimes I get a story finished, but then when I type it up I think there isn’t enough, but I don’t know how to add more. Sometimes I get part of a story done, but I don’t know what happens next—so I stop. Sometimes I get off-topic. I keep stopping to fix the parts I think are wrong, but then I can’t get going again.
First, I say, “Writing is hard for writers, too. Writing is supposed to be hard. If it’s hard for you, you have something in common with all the great writers who ever lived. 

Then I tell them some things I’ve figured out about writing. 
Everybody has interesting stuff to write about, we have to learn how to trick our brains into finding it for us. 
Ideas aren’t words, so we have to learn how words work so that we can translate our ideas into stories. 
Writing gets easier (and way more fun) when you learn how your brain works and let it help you: part of it is made for picturing the story in your mind so that you can just write down what you see; part of it is made for fixing up the story and making it better once you get it written down. Let yourself stay in the part where the pictures are in the first part of writing. 
Nobody gets a story perfect the first time they write it. Writers re-think and revise. You can go back and look at what you’re written, look for words that you can make more like pictures. Avoid adjectives, use strong, visual nouns instead. Take out adverbs! For example, “walking slowly” might become strolling, sauntering, meandering, limping—depending on how the person is walking and what you want the reader to know. 
When you get stuck and can’t go on, ask yourself, “What if?” A good imagination is no more than the writer being willing to ask “What if?” until the right thing pops into her mind. 
Don’t worry about fixing things as you go along. Just write as fast as you can, write everything you can think of--then you can think about fixing them. 
It’s okay to go off-topic in the first part of writing. Sometimes what feels like being off-topic is just your brain having a better idea about what the story should be. Let it go, see what you’ve got. If the off-topic part doesn’t work in the end, take it out. 
If you worry too much about getting it right the first time, the pictures stop coming and you get stuck. 
Remember: writers revise. You can fix what needs to be fixed when you finish getting your story down on the page.
Mrs. Brown requires serious note-taking, so most of them were scribbling madly. I love that.
We did an exercise that helped them see something they remembered. Then they wrote, not worrying about anything but getting down the pictures they saw in their heads. Watching people of any age do this exercise makes me supremely happy. A particular kind of quiet falls, there’s the sound of pencils scratching. The kids are bent over their papers, each in his own little world.
When the timer went off, they looked a little stunned to be back in the classroom. “What did that writing that way feel like?” I asked. Different. Easy. My hand hurt. I couldn’t write fast enough. I didn’t get stuck. It felt…light. I wrote so much.
One boy never looked up at all. He just kept writing. And writing. He was still writing when the bell rang and it was time for me to leave.
A few hours later, I was on the interstate heading for the Thorntown Public Library, about twenty miles away from Indianapolis, where tseven library patrons showed up to talk about writing. We met in the young adult section of the old Carnegie Library, a cozy space. The whole library feels cozy. In fact, it’s so cozy, it has a lovely ginger cat in residence. Tober checked in on us now and then. He has his own blog, which you can read at

Speaking of people who should be cloned. I vote for Karen Niemeyer, librarian, and Christine Sterle. They’ve made the Thorntown Public Library a place where patrons feel at home. Everyone in the group knew each other; Karen and Christine knew them all by name. And Karen didn’t just get the program going and get back to work. She stayed and talked and wrote. Christine was working at the desk just outside the door to the YA room, but when the flow of check-outs slowed down, she wheeled her office chair into the room to join us. That made me smile.
Two very different places; two very different audiences. But the Thorntown group’s questions and concerns about writing were exactly the same as the fifth-graders’ had been. I talked about exactly the same things I’d talked about earlier in Mrs. Brown’s classroom. We did the same writing exercise. The older audience had exactly the same reaction.

I think (hope) each group of people left feeling that writing was more possible for them, feeling inspired to start (or finish) that story they’d been thinking about…now.

I know how I felt: full of energy, feeling really, really lucky to get to talk about writing two times in one day!