Growing a Young Writer: Inspiration by Observation

Magnetic poetry is great for kids just learning to write.

Magnetic poetry is great for kids just learning to write.

I have been watching my eldest son’s development as a writer closely. He has a natural gift for story-telling and I want to support him without pushing him too hard.

As a young child, he acted out television shows and video-games, but not as rote repetition of what he had seen. No. He was taking the characters and the patterns of narrative structure and writing new stories within the given world – fan fiction.

Once he learned to read and write, he started writing and drawing comic books, with Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books as his primary inspiration. If George and Harold could make their own comic books, then so could he.

As he has grown older, his willingness to write longer pieces of prose has grown, as has his frustration with the quality of his art work. He has started thinking about how a comic book is often written by one person and drawn and inked by another. He isn’t ready to collaborate on his creations, but he has started thinking about the possibilities.

Like many smart kids, he is used to getting things right the first time, and the idea of revision hurts him deeply.

Over the past year, I have started sharing some of my writing with him in unpolished form. I make sure that my marked-up manuscripts are lying around to be observed and I talk about how I need to fix my novel. My goal is to show him a process of improvement. He sees me as beyond him in the way I see my favourite authors as beyond my skills. Modeling the process by which I improve my writing – taking classes, asking friends for advice, rewriting and more rewriting – I am sharing tools I hope will help him stick with his own work through the times where he looks at what he produces and thinks it sucks.

Recently, he has started writing a prose story during his free time at school. Today, I learned from his teacher that he is being given extra time on the computer in order to work on the story after he finishes his class work. The teacher is impressed by his focus and persistence when he is working on this project.

When I asked my son about this new development, he said, “What I write on the computer is different than what I start writing on paper. I make changes as I type it in, to make it better and longer.” When I heard that, I wanted to jump up and down and shout, “He’s editing. He’s revising.” I held myself in and simply said, “Makes sense.”

This is a sensitive kid I am dealing with: a kid with a love of story I recognize and want to support, but also a kid with a profound need to do things his way. The chances are he will have a teacher along the way who says the wrong thing. Both my husband and I gave up creative writing in response to teachers who bruised us emotionally. I came back to it; my husband never did. I am hoping I can give my son a strong enough foundation to get him through whatever he encounters.

And after struggling to teach him explicitly during the year he was home-schooling, it appears my strongest teaching tool is simply to let him see me working.

I have a new post, Never Throw Away a Cardboard Box, up at An Intense Life. Please stop by and take a look.

Seth Godin Pissed My Friends Off—and He Was Wrong, Too

 

I am not a Seth Godin fan, never really have been. He says some good things about marketing and life, but I don’t like his style.

However, many people I respect have a lot of time for what he has to say.

On Friday, he pissed them off.

See, he posted one of his little tiny blog posts on the concept of “gifted”. If he intended to be provocative and controversial, he succeeded.

In his post, he said: ”

Wouldn’t it be great to be gifted? In fact…

It turns out that choices lead to habits.

Habits become talents.

Talents are labeled gifts.

You’re not born this way, you get this way.”

He is wrong. Gifted and Talented are two different things.

“Gifted” is a biological reality, a sensitivity to stimulus. “Talented” is having skills.

Skills require habits of practice to be developed.

It is possible to achieve great things without gifted wiring through hard work, good choices, habits turned into talents. It is possible to have the gifted sensitivities and not achieve great things. But, the most impressive accomplishments of our world generally require both: start with an intellectual advantage and apply yourself.

The reason I am an advocate for individualized education is that without sufficient challenge, many gifted youth learn to slack off rather than apply themselves.

People who say things like Godin did make my job harder.

Gifted people are often seen as “weird” when compared to neurotypical people. Many adults suffered hugely for this as children. Godin’s exhortations over the years for people to embrace and display their unique qualities have spoken deeply and soothingly to many who keep my company in the world of gifted advocacy. Friday’s blog post hurt them deeply. And I understand why.

None of these people are people who think there is any value in being gifted for its own sake. In fact, most of them have suffered because of their giftedness. All of them agree that hard work is necessary for achievement.

Either Godin doesn’t understand or he is being deliberatively provocative. Either way, he pissed my friends off and I am mad at him.

I am not the only one. Here are some other responses to Godin’s post. Check them out and then come back and tell me what you think:

 

 

 

 

 

The Next Big Thing: The Red Oak

I was tagged by Sharon Overend in the blog chain The Next Big Thing at the beginning of January. I had been hoping to get further into my latest revision before writing this as there are a few major changes I am playing around with, but the revisions are taking longer than I hoped and the people I am tagging are waiting, so here you have the current state of The Red Oak.

What is your working title of your book?     

The Red Oak

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

An under-appreciated, suburban teen must defy her mother and claim her magical birthright to battle the monster that escapes from the ancient prison her grandmother has been guarding.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was working with a community of parents of highly gifted kids who were struggling to have their kids’ strengths adequately challenged by schools. Many behavioural issues that arise with gifted kids develop because they are under-challenged. The greater the intellectual capabilities of the kids, the more difficult it is for schools to accommodate them without radical changes to the curriculum. When these kids are properly identified and supported, their lives can be transformed from hellish to excellent.

In the midst of my conversations with these parents, I found myself asking what would happen if a character had an unappreciated magical power that she was challenged to embrace and apply to an appropriate task. I wanted to write a story that set out a parallel world in which these extremely bright kids could recognize their own struggles to figure out how they fit into the world.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The specific story ideas for this book come from three sources in addition to the kids who inspired my protagonist.

The Ondeygi was inspired by this picture of an unrecognizable animal found by the side of an Ontario lake in 2010.

creature1

The were-squirrel who introduces the protagonist to her power was inspired by the white squirrels of Exeter, Ontario.

WhiteSquirrel-2

The red oak of the title, which forms the heart of the Ondeygi’s prison, is based on the copper beech tree in my grandmother’s garden.

What genre does your book fall under? 

YA Fantasy: specifically, contemporary fantasy or mythic fiction for a YA audience.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am not against self-publishing, but I will be shopping the manuscript round to traditional publishers before I go that route.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

I wrote the first draft in 30 days as part of NaNoWriMo 2010.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There are similarities to Holly Black’s work, to The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, and also to the mythic fiction written by Charles de Lint. The mix of dark, mythic and suburban ya without a crossover romance is not one I have found much to compare directly to what I am doing. I am always on the lookout for similar books, so tell me in the comments if you know of any that sound close.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Despite the fact that in many ways, The Red Oak is a traditional hero’s journey, I have tried to twist some of the conventions of modern mythic fiction. The story is set in a fictional suburbia based on a mix of places I have lived over the years, with modern developments not entirely overrunning older small towns – a strange place to find monsters and were-creatures. A were-squirrel and a were-gopher are important characters and shape-shifting coyotes, wolves, and coy-wolves make appearances.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The protagonist, Cheryl Wynona Lake: Emma Watson about 10 years ago would have been perfect. I don’t know a current young actress playing characters with the right gravitas, awkwardness, and smarts at the moment, but there are always good young actresses out there.

emma-watson-decemeber-11th-2003--large-msg-131459690007

Her mother: Kelly MacDonald

 

kelly-kelly-macdonald-1982062188

Her grandmother: Judi Dench

judi-dench-uk-premiere-skyfall-03

Squiros, the were-squirrel: Halle Berry

halle-berry-crop

In the spirit of the blog chain, I am now tagging Christine Fonseca, and Jen Merrill.

Christine writes non-fiction about teens, parenting, and giftedness and YA fiction focused on the intense emotional experiences of late adolescence.

Jen writes nonfiction focused on twice-exceptional kids.

Both of them were part of the conversations that inspired me to write The Red Oak, so it is only fitting that I spread the word about the work they are doing. Go visit them. They are both awesome.

 

Giftedness, Creativity, and Storytelling – and Imposter Syndrome

It is the International Week of the Gifted 2012. Around the blogosphere, advocates for gifted adults and gifted children are writing about giftedness with a particular enthusiasm and energy. The World Council for Gifted and Talented Children is encouraging the use of International Week of the Gifted to pave the way for the International Year of Giftedness and Creativity 2013 with the theme “Stories and Story Sharing”.

Giftedness, creativity, and the power of sharing our stories are three of my passions. I feel compelled to do something, organize something, create something.

If I had my druthers, I would organize a series of workshops, offered to gifted children and their parents, using the storytelling tools of InterPlay to help them tell their own stories, hear each other’s stories, and share them through a public performance. I have the training to do this, but I am not sure I have the time, and I definitely worry about whether I have the gumption.

You see, I suffer from the great gifted woman’s disorder: Imposter Syndrome. Essentially, Imposter Syndrome involves constantly feeling like a fraud, like you are not as competent as people around you, and as they think you are. There is an accompanying fear of being “found out” and a lack of willingness to put oneself forth as a resource.

In my case, it manifests as a reluctance to set up workshops because I fear no one will come and that if they do come, they will feel like they have wasted their money. But, I know from past experience that I am a good teacher and a good director. When I lead InterPlay workshops, people enjoy them and many folks want to know how they can experience more.

Lisa Rivero’s article Who Do You Think You Are? Re-Thinking the Imposter Syndrome introduced me to the idea that the feelings of being an imposter may be a sign that one is heading in the right direction and that one should lean into the fear and work through it rather than letting it stop you. That idea resonates with me.

If you had asked me when I was 14, what work I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have said I wanted to run a theatre and associated theatre school. A few years later, I saw a performance by teenagers of monologues they had written about their own lives and was struck by the immense power of people telling their own stories in performance. I spent the next 15 years working in theatre, remembering the power of the autobiographical performances, yearning to be part of such things, and yet not doing any work in that area. Until I found InterPlay.

When I discovered InterPlay, I was teaching a class called Sacred Bodies, Sacred Play at Starr King School for the Ministry. I had developed a collection of tools for triggering spiritual experiences through physical play and creativity and was sharing them in the class I was teaching. The overlap between the forms I had discovered myself and was teaching in that class and the forms of InterPlay were uncanny.

But, I had not been formulating my system into a teachable tool for very long and Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter had been working on InterPlay for decades. InterPlay was in many ways simply further along the path than I was. More than that, InterPlay had developed the tools for combining the physical body, the spirit of play, and improvised performance into truth-telling performances sharing deep stories, thereby joining my play-based work with the power of performance autobiography that I had witnessed so many years before. It is no wonder that I started the InterPlay Teacher Training Program immediately after finishing my first class.

After completing the training, I didn’t dive right into teaching. For good reason. I was moving internationally while pregnant with triplets. I was otherwise occupied.

It is now time for me to start offering classes and workshops.

And, I feel the fear of the Imposter Syndrome surrounding me, telling me I am heading in an important direction, considering a meaningful path, and must take action.

I am not an Imposter. I am well trained for this work. But, sometimes, I have to remind myself of these facts.

  • I have been leading rehearsals and teaching performance as a director for 25 years.
  • I have been organizing rehearsals as a stage manager for longer.
  • I have organized events with substantial budgets.
  • I have produced theatrical productions and special performances for half-a-dozen theatre companies.
  • My InterPlay training was with the founders of InterPlay, including performance classes.
  • I have performed in several InterPlay performances as a dancer/storyteller.
  • When I participate in InterPlay Leaders Events, I am recognized as a peer by leaders with all levels of experience.
  • My understanding of the power of InterPlay as a storytelling tool has deepened through my writing about InterPlay.

I am hopeful that I will have time in 2013 to lead workshops for gifted children and their parents to share their stories. My family is going through some changes that will take some months to settle out, and until they do, I will not know what 2013 is going to look like.

But, I am committed to being a part of the world-wide community of people telling the stories of gifted people, sharing what our experience is. If the performance project looks too big, I will focus on telling more of my story through my writing.

Gifted people are identifiable because we are outside the norm. Sharing our stories helps us connect in a world where we too often feel isolated. I can be part of enriching that connection by sharing my own stories. One way or another, I will be creating work supporting the International Year of Giftedness and Creativity 2013 on the theme of Stories and Story-Sharing.

I hope you will join me in 2013 by either telling your own stories or finding other people’s stories to witness.

For a list of other posts related to International Week of the Gifted, click here

The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part II

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

This post follows on from The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I.

I started trying to pass for normal before I had any idea I was gifted. All I knew was that I was different and that different was bad. I have no memory of the beginning of the process. All I know is a story my parents tell, one that in retrospect shows a problem that nobody thought to address. For decades, this story has been told as an example of how clever I was. It is only now as an adult, going through the process of recognizing my own identity that I see it as a cautionary tale.

I was born in England and attended early school there. My father took a sabbatical in the U.S. when I was 5 and I started Kindergarten. I was one of two students who entered Kindergarten already reading and my only memory from that year is of the two of us lying on the floor by the coat cubbies reading while the other students learned the letters of the alphabet.

The story my father tells goes like this.

“Kate has always been a talker. Once she started, there was no stopping her. At the first parent-teacher conference in Kindergarten, we were shocked to learn that Kate never spoke up in class unless directly asked a question by the teacher. She was still talking up a storm at home. ” Pause, accompanied by facial expression conveying confusion. “The next time we met with her teacher, it was a different story. Kate was talking at school the way she talked at home – but in an American accent. She had waited to talk until she had mastered the local dialect.”

I was 5 and I was hiding myself to fit in. It is a habit I am still trying to break.

As a teenager, the disconnect between my deep truths, the truths I let myself be aware of, and the facade I was presenting to the outside world became unmanageable and I suffered an existential crisis. In the midst of that crisis, I found the ground of my being, and moved forward, but it certainly looked like all was lost for some time.

If my life were a novel, that crisis would have been the final turning point where I rallied and strode forward into the fight that would lead to the novel’s resolution. But life is messier than art. In life, the protagonist doesn’t always make the choice to fight. And, resolution is not assurred. But, that turning point is the place in my memories that I need to access in order to write about the descent into deep crisis that will push my protagonist into change.

The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

“Passing” is a term from the history of racial discrimination in the post Civil-War United States. At the end of this post is a little more information about that context. I apologize in advance to anyone who thinks I am being insensitive to the history of the word in using it in the context of this post. 

Gifted girls face enormous pressure to be more average than they are. Because giftedness is not a visible difference from the norm, they have the option to do this.

“Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues and their early conditioning about the critical importance of social acceptance, gifted girls are much more adept than gifted boys at imitation….They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd.” – Linda Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented

This leads to under-identification of the giftedness in girls:

“By the age of 9, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities.  Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores.”Linda Silverman, What We have Learned About Gifted Children

Highly gifted teens who suffer existential depression are at an unacceptably high risk for suicide and are adept at hiding their troubles from everybody. Because these teens often present as highly successful, they are very hard to help once they have started suffering. They have also generally learned to distrust adults and are suspicious of proffered help. Prevention is key in helping these children. And that means identifying them early and helping them see their own true colours. And, we must listen to them and take them seriously.

“Gifted people often adjust whatthey say so that they will be accepted. They sometimes feelthat other people do not take them seriously. This can lead tonot trusting themselves. Careful listening can also be a lifeline. It canconvince children that there is someone whothinks that theyare valuable and worth understanding.” Betty Meckstroth

**A Note About Passing

In American usage, “passing” without further reference to what one is passing as refers specifically to light-skinned black people assimilating into the white community to avoid racial discrimination. When explicit discrimination was law, any traceable mixed-ancestry qualified a person as coloured. This meant that a sizable portion of people legally identified as coloured could “pass” for white if they left the communities where their family history was known. What I know of the psychological experience of passing in this context comes from literature, in particular two books I read in my law school class on the legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, Passing, by Nella Larson and Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams.

Passing involved isolating oneself from one’s family, denying one’s ancestry, and constantly living in fear of being found out. For some people, it was the better of two evils, but it was an awful way to live.

I interrupt this blog to…

Bionicle in the Bathtub. Luckily, he wasn’t there until after the purchase offer had been made and accepted.

Two short announcements this week.

1) The reason for this is that we sold our house this week and the final stages of that process have thrown everything out of whack. This is a good chaos, but chaos nonetheless.

2) I have joined a team of writers who will be blogging about all things gifted from various perspectives. Christine Fonseca, author of Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students and 101 Success Secrets for Gifted Kids, has put together a great group of writers, including Jen Merrill from Laughing at Chaos, whom I mentioned recently. My first post will be up next week. In the meantime, head on over to An Intense Life to see what is going on. There is also news on the site about Christine’s gothic YA novella Dies Irae that has just been released. I am in the middle of it and am enjoying it tremendously.

Out of the bathtub, ready for action.

Leaving the Realm of the Average

I am in-between houses.

The kitchen at the new place is missing a few important things.

We have started moving things into the new place, but we are still living in the old place.

I am in-between in a deeper sense as well.

In the language of social anthropology, I am in a liminal phase, a transitional period between outward personas, an inner transformation reflected in the move from a modern suburban development with matching neighbors to an older, quirky, custom-built house.

I spent my young adult life struggling to fit into a model of the world I had absorbed through my years of schooling. That model involved a lot of applying myself to other people’s goals and working hard to appear normal, getting a good job and putting in the hours behind a desk to earn the paycheck that would allow me to become a useful consumer.

But, those goals were never mine.

Since leaving legal practice in 2000, I have been on a quest to rediscover my values and build a life that reflects me in my full glory. My return to writing and a life centered in creativity and play was part of this quest.

Parenting my challenging children has forced me to confront the pressures I yielded to as a child that I should have avoided. By choosing to homeschool at least some of my children, I have created an opportunity to pass different messages on to my children. The literature that is helping me understand my extremely bright children is helping me understand myself.

Last year, the demands of my novel and the self-awareness triggered by learning how to help my children came together and cracked my persona, and I haven’t put things back together yet. I don’t know what I am growing into; I only know some of the elements my next persona must acknowledge.

The new house is part of my growth. We rationalize the move by saying we need an additional bedroom and that the kids need more outdoor space, but a deeper truth is that my soul cries out for the quirks of a custom-built house.

After hiding in plain sight for years, I am standing up and saying to the world, “I am an outlier.”

Light breaking through

I don’t remember ever not being aware that I was out of the range of normal. In Kindergarten, I spent most of the year reading by the coat cubbies while my classmates learned the alphabet. That was also the year I gave up my English accent so I didn’t sound strange to my American classmates.

I learned about bell-curves when my class-mates accused me of “breaking the curve.” I learned about percentiles in 3rd grade when the doctor referred to my height as 105th percentile; my mother gave me a math lesson during the drive home. By 6th grade, I was taller than most of my teachers. And the stories of my struggles against gender-stereotypes deserve a blog post of their very own – or maybe a series of posts.

For too many years, I saw being different as being bad. But it isn’t. It  is just different.

I’m not sure where all this is going. I’m sure it will show up in my writing.

I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride.