Thursday, September 30, 2010

Novel Writing at the Robot Store

Last weekend I taught a novel-writing workshop at the Robot Supply and Repair Store in Ann Arbor, Michigan—actually, 826 Michigan, an offshoot of Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia Street, an after-school tutoring program in San Francisco.

All of the offshoots are in are in storefronts and each has a weird little retail business in the front. Why? When Eggers inquired about renting the San Francisco, he was told he couldn’t have a tutoring program there because it was zoned for retail, he said, “Fine. We’ll have a Pirate Store.” So there’s the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, the Chicago Undercover Secret Agent Supply Story, the LA Time Travel Mart, The Boston Bigfoot Research Institute and the Seattle Space Travel Supply Store.

Thus, the Robot Supply and Repair Store in Ann Arbor with its robot toys and books and models and key chains and magnets and every other remotely robot kind of thing you can imagine. Plus, anthologies of writing by kids in the program and cool tee-shirts! Of course, I had to buy one of each.

You leave the Robot Store through a dramatic red velvet curtain to see 826Michigan is really about. There’s long room set up with library tables, computers, bookshelves full of books, and robot artwork on the walls. Volunteers staff the drop-in tutoring program every day after school, helping kids with their homework, encouraging them to write for pleasure when it’s done. Volunteers also take 826Michigan projects into the schools, and teach an impressive list of creative writing classes for kids of all ages, taught in the evenings and weekends.

For kids, everything is free. Sometimes, though, 826Michigan sponsors writing workshops for adults and charge a reasonable fee to benefit the program. That’s why I was there.

Lucky me. I’ve done writing workshops in Ann Arbor before and have always been impressed by the lively, generous energy of the writing community there and by the quality of writing submitted for critique. There were ten participants this time, each with the beginning of a novel, and the writing was better than ever. We spent about three hours a day—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—puzzling over how to make them better than they already were. In between, we heard terrific craft talks by Jack Driscoll and Margo Rabb and publishing tips and cautionary tales from a panel that included Margo, Kathe Koja, Laura Zielin and Karen Simpson. (The first chapter of Karen’s novel, Acts of Grace, set to be released by Plenary Publishing in 2011, was workshopped in a class I taught in A2 a while ago. How cool is that? ) Not to mention wonderful conversation over lunches and dinners in funky Ann Arbor restaurants.

I had a blast. I was so energized I didn’t get one bit tired on the long drive home.

Hey, Keith Hood—writer, board member of 826Michigan, and organizer extraordinaire—thanks for inviting me.

And when do I get to do this again?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Can the Statehouse Do for the Arts?

The Writers’ Center of Indiana had a booth at the Penrod Art Fair Sturday before last and despite the on-again/off-again rainy weather, we had a great time talking to people about the Center and what’s on offer there—which is a lot.

In the afternoon, during one of the sunny patches, a local legislator came by the booth with his handler, who introduced him. “What Can the Statehouse do for the arts?” the legislator asked—then added with a meant-to-be charming grin. “Besides money.”

He was a Democrat and Democrats at least give lip service to the importance of the arts, so I’m pretty sure he meant, “What can the Statehouse do for the arts—in addition to better funding as opposed to in lieu of the crappy funding we have now. But having spent the better part of the last two years trying to keep the WCI alive with virtually no funding at all, his question just didn’t seem all that charming to me. And I’m so totally disgusted with politics right now—all politics and all politicians—that I told him just exactly what I thought.

The arts need to be everywhere, especially in schools. Making and studying art teaches kids how to think—the kind of creative thinking you need in the real world, not the kind required to second-guess a bunch of multiple-choice questions on a standardized test. Art is all about process, like life, and the long process of trial and error, the dawning realization that it’s trial and error that creates—well, everything. Committing to it, embracing it is what predicts how well a student will do in life, not his SAT scores.

And speaking of what standardized test scores predict. I recently learned that one way future prison capacity needs are predicted is by looking at fourth-grade reading scores. Ponder that.

Choice? Run this so-called fabulous idea out to the end and it’s not too hard to figure out that all it really does is allow parents with enough savvy to play the system to get their own kids into the good schools, leaving the kids whose parents don’t have a clue about how to get them what they need in the worst ones. Plus, say you’ve got ten fabulous schools in a school system and, suddenly, every parent did figure this out and decided to choose them. The best you could offer them is a lottery. Not choice, in my book. In fact, many of the best schools in the Indianapolis Public School system already have lotteries, some have long waiting lists. Second choices being pretty abysmal, families who can afford it often opt for private schools.

Charter schools? Do the research. There are some good ones, there are some really, really bad ones. But the real problem is, schools aren’t businesses. Education isn’t about profit and loss and competition. It’s about creating an environment that engages the minds and hearts of young people and prepares them for the world they’re stepping into.

I didn’t swear, which (I guess) was a good thing. I felt like it, though.

But I did swear (a lot) when I saw this front-page headline in the Indianapolis Star a few days: Library system never has had ‘cutback like this: 26% reduction in hours is expected to save $1.5 million, help avert closings.”

NOTE. This in a city that just taxed us to build Lucas Oil Stadium for the Indianapolis Colts at the cost of more than $700,000,000 in 2008—with $60,000,000 dollars left to pay on the demolished RCI Dome. Not to mention recently forking over more than $13,000,000 to the Indiana Pacers who were unhappy with the deal they’d cut when the city taxed us to build Conseco Fieldhouse for them to the tune of $183,000,000 in 1997 and threatened to leave town. In anything but sports, this would have been called blackmail.

And we can’t come up with a measley $1,500,000 to keep our libraries open.

Come on, people! Get a clue about what matters.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Back to the Blog!

Fall! The season of purpose! Thank God!

I'm back to blogging--as a guest bloggger at teensreadtoo. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Last Splash

Yesterday evening we went to the Monon Community Center’s annual “Doggy Dayz,” a fabulous and fitting end to the summer in which dogs are invited for a swim before the pool is closed down for the season.

There were at least a hundred of them in the pool area when we got there, and another hundred or more lined up (with their owners) waiting to get in. Every kind of dog you can imagine—from Chihuahuas to Greyhounds, and every incarnation of Heinz ’57. Some were on leashes, their owners up to their knees in the water; others fetched Frizbees or balls, and carrying them, triumphantly, back to their owners who were waiting on the side. A lot of dogs played together, running and splashing and occasionally getting a little out of control. Little dogs ran under the legs of the bigger ones or paddled around happily, some wearing life-jackets. A few sat with their owners, tails in, reluctant to take part in the festivities.

This would have been our dog, Louise, who is—to say the least—a bit neurotic. So we left her at home and watched our granddog, Fergus, a deliriously happy, wonderfully dumb mutt, who seems to have no neuroses at all. He sat on the side awhile, checking out the scene, but was pretty easily lured into the water with some treats and, once in, joined one of the dog groups at play.

The image of all those dogs swimming, fetching, playing, shaking themselves silly would work nicely as the dictionary definition of “joy.”

Who, with any sense at all, wouldn’t want to be a dog? Or second best, watch a swimming pool full of them having more pure fun than any human being is programmed to be able to experience?