Monday, November 25, 2013

ROOM 517

By Hilde Garcia
Mom at Company Picnic
Room 517
November 1997
The Week Before Thanksgiving

My mom and I are sitting next to each other talking about the waltz I will dance at my wedding and how my dress would look; our usual conversation on any given day. Except that this wasn’t any given day and this wasn’t any given conversation, for we both knew it was the last conversation of its kind, yet neither of us could admit this.

This is when I began to write. There was a fear inside me that grew every day. What if I forget something she said? Even now, 15 years later, there are gaps in my memory. Intentional or not. It’s hard to say.

My mother was quite a force in my life, sometimes not a good one, but a force nonetheless. Her heart struggled to hold onto old traditions while her brain embraced new ones, even if she was unable to act on them, and I was caught somewhere in the middle. So, I decided to begin writing, just like that. For her. For me. Right there in Room 517.

I wrote a picture book about my first day of school in the U. S. at the age of 5. The book, (which graces the inside of a dark file cabinet and thank goodness) was preachy and didactic, kind of like my mother, but it captured my first vivid memory and trauma.

What is it that gives us this need to chronicle our moments in time? When my mom died 10 days later on Thanksgiving, I was alone in NYC, sitting in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And the writing, my writing, stopped. Just like that.

I was so numb. I buried myself in my work (I was a theater producer at the time). I thought about writing, but it only happened in my mind as I walked the desolate streets at midnight to catch my train home. I thought so much about writing, I even wrote a play in my head about the events that had transpired in those awful three months from diagnosis to death that claimed my 56 year-old mother. The play would be titled Room 517. It’s been 15 years and I haven’t written a word, but it’s a masterpiece in my head and this post bears the title, so maybe that’s a start. Maybe.

And yet, it’s her death gave me the courage to keep going and not give up on my dreams as she had on so many of hers. I’ve since written a novel and a darn good one which is not being hidden in a cabinet, although it’s been rejected once or twice and still needs revision, but it has seen the light of day and my mother plays prominently in it.

Christmas Eve Dinner in Our First House
There was something she left behind when she died, a gateway to pain, to loss, to what happens when you’re alone. It taught me appreciate every minute I am alive and everything I am blessed with, like my husband, my children who keep me honest and hold me dear, my amazing friends who admire my love for people and for what I do- teach, write, act, bake- they love my chocolate chip cookies! But most importantly, I am blessed with good health, as are my husband and children, which is priceless.

My mom would say almost daily, without your health, not even the wealthiest can embrace life; you are without value. Memories fuel my writing- capturing these stories from my upbringing that need a voice, stories that need me to tell them to the world.

That’s the most essential thing we do as writers, speak for those who can’t. Bring to life the stories that matter. Inspire someone not to quit, or give them something to embrace. We are the vessels. And while this is important to everyone and for everyone, it really matters most to children for it is they who find their path through the voices we create.

How many times did I sleep with Anne of Green Gables under my pillow, holding her like a dear friend, a bosom friend who understood me? I re-read it after my mother’s death felling Anne’s pain in losing Matthew just as deeply as I was feeling my mother’s.

And I struggle to find time to write in the sea of teaching students, raising kids and endless laundry. I’m so busy inspiring them to reach for their goals; I forget to reach for my own. And then I remember my mother’s words, one of the last things she said to me.

“Don’t forget to keep going, don’t stop for me.” This was so uncharacteristic of her, who preferred to keep me sheltered.  I think that’s why it stays with me even after all these years. This, said to me on her hospital bed that day in Room 517, has never let go of my heart. I was ready to stop, to give up because even though our relationship was anything but smooth, it was a strong bond, deep and twisted (hopefully like the plot in my novel).

Family and In-Laws
So for my mom and all our moments of grief that lead to avenues of inspiration, “Don’t forget to keep going, don’t stop for me.”

During this Thanksgiving and holiday season, hug your loved ones a little tighter, grip your pencil a little lighter so the words just flow onto your paper and give the world the gift of your stories.

“Don’t stop for anyone,” she would if she was here now.

Don’t you.

Happy writing.
Happy Thanksgiving.
Happiness to you and yours.

Hilde Garcia and the Pen and Ink Blog.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Update from NaNoWriMo
The Pep Talks


By Susan J Berger

Yes I am doing it again. The absolutely insane world of trying to write a first draft in a month.

And one of the things that keeps me going, particularly after I have slogged through some swampy part of the manuscript sinking in the terribleness of my plot-less prose, are the Pep Talks

Right now I am beginning week three and these talks tell me I am not alone. Some of the writers whose work I most admire have been where I am right now.

The Pep Talks are wonderful things to read when you need a bit of encouragement. Here are a few of my favorites.

On each of the talks you will find links to their websites and books.

Tamora Pierce





                          Neil Gaiman


Gail Carson Levine



John Green

  Meg Cabot


  Wendy Mass

There are many, many, more. Happy writing.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dispatch 14: Fragile Memory

by Lupe Fernandez

"We were watching TV in her house," my mother tells me about one of her sisters, "and then she stood up and said, 'This isn't my house.' What are all my things doing here? Who moved my pictures and my clothes? I want to go home."

My mother's sister storms out of the impostor house.

"Let me go with you," my mother follows her sister out into the dark street. Her sister walks down the sidewalk, stops and looks around. She spots a house down the block with the lights on. "That's my house. What are those people doing in my house?"

My mother doesn't want her sister intruding on someone else's home. "Why don't we wait in the house?" My mother gestures to her sister's house. "We don't know how long those people will be in there. We can wait until they leave."

Her sister reluctantly agrees. My mother and her sister return to the impostor house and sit down to watch TV. After a while, her sister looks around the living room and mutters "Hmmm..." She doesn't mention her stolen house for the rest of the night.

My mother's sister suffered from diabetes complicated by the onset of dementia.

The fragility of memory.

What separates my memories from impostor memories? What is the barrier between the known and a lost world? Three pounds of gray matter surrounded by cranial fluid and encased in a calcium skull. Synapses firing in the soft tissue. Chemical electricity transmitting molecules. That one is my first day of kindergarten. This one is my first kiss. And the bundle of neurons here is the house I live in.

Will the day come when I mistake this house for an impostor house? How thin is the divide between this world and another?

I have a reoccurring dream where I am at college, but I don't know where my next class is. A class project is due, but I can't remember what the project was. I can't even remember what the class was called. I wake up in a panic, believing I've got to get to school fast. Then I remember, I graduated college over two decades ago. I don't have to go to school anymore. For less than thirty seconds, the dream is reality and today is a dream. Is that what it is like to slip into the world of confusion? I am surging with anxiety for less than a minute. What if I am lost in a porous remembrance for days? Years?

What's it like to live in the twilight of today and yesterday? Will I know the difference? Perhaps, I'll be too scared and fight back with hostility and denial.

When I write I immerse myself in the world of the manuscripts. I run across the hot asphalt of Burbank Elementary school. I taste coppery-metallic blood in my mouth after falling out of a Mexican sky. I hear police helicopters prowling the streets of downtown Los Angeles. I feel nausea tumbling "weightless" in a rocket bound for a new planet.

I come back to chair under my butt and a keyboard on my lap when I need to edit. Perhaps one day, I won't return.

Just for today, I remember this blog, this post, this sentence.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Reading Aloud

By Hilde Garcia

Several years ago, when my kids were still in diapers, I attended a lecture given by Jim Treleasean extraordinary educator. He was giving his last speech of his career and it was right here, in Burbank, two blocks from my house. My friend, Emily, said, “You don’t want to miss this.” I tend to listen to good friends, and so I joined her for an incredibly meaningful 2 hours.

He said and showed me what I had been saying all along- that reading is the key to educational success. I had been reading to my twins since they were in-utero. I read the entire Chronicles of Narnia aloud to them, all of the Harry Potter’s which at the time was only up to Book 4, the 8 volumes of Anne of Green Gables- yes, I was on bed rest for part of the pregnancy- and so many other books. I think I read every Dr. Seuss book and some very silly poems, fables, and every Peter RabbitI have the whole collection. Winnie the Pooh was there too.

I knew that they could hear me from the time they were five months along, so I read, read and read. When I went to the hospital, I packed 1 nightgown and about 5 books. As soon as they were born and the IV’s were out of my arm (so I could hold a book and a couple of twins) and no one was around, I read to them Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Well, mostly I cried. It took several times for me to get through it- I was glad it was 2am and I was alone.

But I read. I read to my brand new babies because I knew they wanted another story. They simply breathed it in much the way I imagined they did when they were still being baked. My son’s eyes were open and watching me. My daughter’s eyes softly closed with the sweetest of expressions. Now, nine years later, when I read to them, they still have those expressions.

We read almost every night. I know they can read on their own and really well. Both are in the third grade, but are reading on a 7th grade level. They have tackled quite a bit at this age already. My son’s reading Treasure Island with us now- it’s a bit tough, so we are doing it as a team. And my daughter’s on Harry Potter, for the third time, but this time in Spanish. She’s also reading Richard Peck’s, A Season of Gifts and a bunch of other books she picks up daily. She’s changed to a roller book bag because her back couldn’t take the weight of her traveling library.

 I think about Jim’s speech all those years ago and how he inspired me to continue doing what I was doing and NOT to listen to voices and people telling me that once they are old enough, they won’t want me to read to them.

“You’re kids don’t watch TV? Really, why not?”
“Well, because I would like them to develop their imagination, not deaden it. And at this young age, they should be playing and reading.” (There’s nothing wrong with TV, but there’s a time and a place and childhood is not the time, nor the place).

“But why read to them so much?”
And then I reply loosely paraphrasing Mr. Trealease’s philosophy, “We need to read to our kids about 3 to 4 years ahead of their actual reading level. This develops their listening level. IF we are reading Dr. Seuss to a 6 year-old, we are doing them a disservice. THEY can read it to us, but we should be reading ahead of their level.”

Everyone wants to see improved test scores. Do you know how that happens?


It’s the one thing that anyone, from any socio-economic level can do and what makes the most difference. 

This is a brief excerpt from the Introduction to The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin, 2013, 7th edition). He was talking about why testing doesn’t work and how everyone is looking for the magic bean that will put our country at the forefront. Well, it’s easy. Reading.

"WE start with the family of Susan and Tad Williams and sons, Christopher and David. Of the four hundred thousand students taking the A.C.T. exam with Christopher back in 2002, only fifty-seven had perfect scores—he was the fifty-eighth. When word got out that this kid from Russell, Kentucky (population 3,645), had scored a perfect 36, the family was besieged with questions, the most common being "What prep course did he take? Kaplan? Princeton Review?" It turned out to be a course his parents enrolled him as an infant, a free program, unlike some of the private plans that now cost up to $250 an hour.

"In responding to inquiries about Christopher's prep courses, the Williamses simply told people—including the New York Times— that he hadn't taken any, that he did no prep work. That, of course, wasn't completely true. His mother and father had been giving him and his younger brother free prep classes all through their childhoods, from infancy into adolescence: they read to them for thirty minutes a night, year after year, even after they learned how to read for themselves.

"The best S.A.T. prep course is to read to your children when they're little." Theirs was a home brimming with books but no TV Guide, GameCube, or Hooked on Phonics. Even though Susan Williams was a fourth-generation teacher, she offered no home instruction in reading before the boys reached school age. She and Tad just read to them—sowed (and sewed) the sounds and syllables and endings and blendings of language into the love of books. Each boy easily learned to read, loved it, gobbled it up voraciously. Besides being a family bonding agent, reading aloud was used not as test prep as much as an "insurance" policy—it ensured the boys would be ready for whatever came their way in school."

Jim Trelease in his speech shared with us dozens of stories like this. His book is wonderful and I highly recommend it. But most of all, I did what he said and I read to my kids every night. Sometimes I can’t- PTA meetings or writing groups or papers to grade- but my husband and I seem to be an effortless tag team. We are both blessed at being multi-lingual, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what language the book is in every night. Last night we read, El Grial Oculto, a new Spanish book we picked up at our school’s book expo last week, which is very Harry Potteresque with a sprinkling of Lemony Snicket.

This post came to mind when we launched our Principal’s Book Club last school year. It was such a hit. This year’s title is Richard Peck’s, A Season of Gifts. Even though it is geared for upper grade, it’s a wonderful book and younger kids can enjoy it with a little help from a grown up. I had a parent ask me if it would be too hard. "No, it's not "too hard," I replied. “It's just right." We want kids tackling challenging idioms and academic language. That's why Common Core is going to be so effective and why kids will begin to connect all they are learning through reading.

It’s what Jim had been saying all along. The best SAT prep course is to read to your children, even after they have learned to read for themselves. And now as a teacher, I have a second duty to my students, so yes, I read to them 30 minute a week, 3 times in 10 to 15 minute intervals. Our first novel is A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. (My acting skills are finally paying off).

I walk around, do the voices, stop occasionally to illustrate a point or to tie it to a lesson, but mostly, I read ALOUD. I read as I move around. I let the book hook my heart and in turn, I hook theirs.

Last year, I read Little House in the Big Woods. The kids were hooked when I read On the Banks of Plum Creek from their literature book, and we simply had to start at the beginning. And by the end, I was very moved, and so were they. They loved the magic carpet ride.

And if you think it only works on kids, well, during Labor Day Weekend, we took a day trip to Cambria and I read Moon Over Manifest by Claire Vanderpool aloud to the kids and of course, my hubby, in the car, and I had them ALL hooked. He insisted we finish it after we arrived at home. So we get out of the car, sit on the couch and cry our way through until the end. What an experience. So my very intelligent, amazing husband was drawn into this incredible story, which is geared for 12 year olds, but so universal that it touches everyone that reads it, regardless of their age.

Do I think my kids’ success with reading is directly related to my efforts and not just a lucky draw of kid smarts? Yes, I do. You create readers; they don’t grow in a vacuum. You give them an environment.

As writers, our job is to support that environment and provide the most amazing literature that will allow kids to thrive. We provide those stories that will carry them through life. And sadly we are competing with every gadget under the sun, so we must work more diligently to tip the scales back in our favor.

There are no video games in my house, no TV’s in their rooms, no computers, no iThings. There are though, oodles of books in several languages and those are always welcome. There will be time later for all the gadgets, but the love for books comes now, during these most magical of times.

What if all kids turned off the gadgets and curled up with a good book?

My daughter sleeps with hers like a Teddy Bear.

And speaking of my daughter, our junior correspondent on The Pen and Ink Blog whom we affectionately call “Spot,” she had the privilege of meeting and conversing with Mr. Peck at the SCBWI LA Conference in August.
At that time, her favorite book was A Long Way from Chicago- the chapter titled Shotgun Cheatum. I read that chapter to both kids and they nearly fell out of their beds from the laughter regarding the cat, the coffin and the shotgun. (If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Trust me, it’s brilliant.)

Although now that she has finished A Season of Gifts, The Mouse with a Question Mark Tail and Secrets at Sea, she can’t decide which of his books is her favorite.

Truly, a great problem to have.

The secret to success in our family is reading and we have passed that along to our children. I hope that all of us as writers can create stories that inspire amazing readers to keep the pages turning.