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Monthly Archives: May 2017

Driving & Writing, or, Mama’s Here to Stay

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Driving & Writing, or, Mama’s Here to Stay

My husband and I have decided to stay in our apartment for another year. For a while we toyed with the idea of renting a house. But just the thought of moving with a four-month-old baby was so exhausting, we decided to stay put.

Next spring we’ll think about buying a house – I’d definitely like more space and a yard – but we plan to stay in Silver Spring, Maryland. We like it here. We can metro into downtown DC in less than 20 minutes, we’re within walking distance to Rock Creek Park, and though downtown Silver Spring isn’t as cool as DC neighborhoods, there’s a bubble tea place, an indie movie theater, several yoga studios and a T.J. Maxx, so I’m happy with that.

Depending on where we buy a house, I may or may not be able to continue tutoring part-time at Washington International School in Northwest DC. Right now it takes me about 20 minutes to drive the 6.4 miles there, and then, because of rush hour, it takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to drive back home. I can deal with this ridiculousness because of podcasts, but if we move any further north or east, the commute won’t be worth it.

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I’m also going to have to consider buying a bigger car at some point.  My little yellow two-door isn’t quite made for mommy life.

 

What’s ironic is that back in 2010, I used to live in DC and commute up to Silver Spring to teach. Back then I didn’t want to live in Silver Spring because I thought it was a lame suburb and all the cool kids lived in DC. My, how the times have changed.

Back then I didn’t have a car, and so I often got driven around by other teachers for off-campus events or after-work happy hours. I was also the volleyball coach my second year there, so I spent a lot of time in the front of the school bus as we fought afternoon traffic to get the girls to various schools for their games.

These days, as I’m driving around suburban Maryland, I’ll sometimes have flashbacks to sitting in that school bus, watching the same scenery flash by. Except back then I never knew where I was. I didn’t know the difference between Bethesda and Chevy Chase. I didn’t know that Wisconsin Avenue turned into Rockville Pike north of the beltway, or that you could take Connecticut all the way from Northwest DC into northern Silver Spring.

When someone else is driving, you don’t pay attention to details like street names or exit numbers. When you have to drive yourself, on the other hand, you not only pay attention to where you’re going, you also start to figure out how the roads connect. Even if you rely heavily on your GPS, after a while you begin to form a map in your mind.

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Sometimes we let the baby drive.

 

It occurred to me the other day that the difference between driving and being driven is much like the difference between writing a book and reading one. When you’re reading, you get to sit back and enjoy the ride. But when you’re writing, you have a mental map, and you have to figure out how the story roads connect. Even if you take the scenic route, you need to get your readers from the starting point to the destination… and that’s not always easy. In fact, it can be as frustrating as DC rush hour traffic.

Speaking of which, the other day I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic on 495 and decided to take a different exit than my usual one. As I followed my GPS home, I suddenly realized how a road I was familiar with connected to another road I was familiar with, and my mental map of suburban Maryland grew a bit more sophisticated. It was, in it’s own little way, sort of exciting.

It was similar to the way I feel when I make a new connection in my writing.  It’s exciting when I suddenly realize a new direction to take, or a way I can bridge two ideas.

That’s the nice thing about both driving and writing: being in the driver’s seat with the radio (or a podcast) blaring, going my own way.

Watch out, Silver Spring: mama’s here to stay!

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Here I am wearing a Cut with Light DC flag necklace, but yeah… I live in Maryland.

Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

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Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

One field of science my physicist husband studies is called “uncertainty quantification,” which, to my understanding, is pretty much what it sounds like: finding ways to quantify how uncertain scientists are about computational and real-world applications.

I’ve always thought it sounded like a rather poetic (and difficult) mission. Isn’t uncertainty something you feel? How do you put a number on your feelings?

Paul admits that this is a problem. “Uncertainty quantification implies that there is a person who has uncertainties,” he said to me the other day. “A scientist’s goal is to be objective – to take himself completely out of the equation — but UQ rests on the notion of a person with uncertainty.  The scientist is automatically a part of it.”

“Isn’t it virtually impossible for scientists to take themselves completely out of their work anyway?” I asked.

Paul admitted that it was.

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This is what our baby looks like when she is uncertain.

 

My writing life has many uncertainties. Will I ever get a book published? How long will it take? If I do get a book out into the world, will anyone read it?

I feel certain that I will have my novels published one day, but that’s just a feeling. It’s not based on anything scientific.

In fact, were I to be scientific, I might feel less certain. A quick google search tells me that most agents reject 99% of the queries that come their way. And getting an agent doesn’t guarantee that your novel will get published. Even if it’s published, you can’t be certain that people will read it.

I’ve just started querying agents with a new middle-grade novel, and I’m feeling anxious about it. In part because this book has so much of me in it.

The main character is an eighth grade girl who loves math and writes poetry. Hmm… Hits pretty close to home. (You guys were aware that I used to be a math teacher, right?)

In fact, I got the idea for the novel while reading one of my old diaries, and though the protagonist is not me, nor is the story something that happened to me, I certainly poured a lot of my actual middle school feelings into this book. There’s even one line in the novel that I lifted nearly verbatim from my ninth grade diary because it was just too perfect not to use.

So it’s scary to send this manuscript into the world. It was easier when I was querying a novel set in the middle ages about a disabled girl who goes on a magical quest. Not only was the book written in third person, which gave me a feeling of distance, but the protagonist and her story had very little in common with me and my life. This new novel, on the other hand… The protagonist and I definitely have some similarities. And her story, as well as her emotions, draw on my own teenage experiences. When an agent rejects the book (which will happen, of that I’m certain), I might feel like it’s not only my book that’s being rejected, but my experiences and feelings as well.

It’s scary to put your writing out there. It’s even scarier when your writing contains so much of yourself.

But isn’t it virtually impossible, you ask, for writers to take themselves completely out of their work? And I must admit that it is.

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My 8th grade school photo.  Note the flannel shirt — it was 1993.

 

My husband likes to say that physicists are storytellers. The universe is too mysterious for us to be totally certain about anything, and though I’m a huge fan of science, its theories are, in the end, simply stories. They are stories that help us explain and understand our world. And as much as scientists may try to take themselves out of their experiments and observations, the fact remains that they can’t separate themselves totally from their work.

I’ve often thought that I write fiction as a way to understand my world. Even if I’m not writing about my own experiences, I’m still there somewhere in the writing. I can’t take myself out of it completely.

And maybe I shouldn’t worry about separating myself from my writing. In some ways, I think this newest novel is the best one I’ve written so far. Perhaps because it contains so much of myself.

No matter what I write, I’m always going to be a part of the equation.

Of that much I’m certain.

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This is the type of book my husband likes to read for fun.  No joke.

 

Get Rolling, or, When You’ve Forgotten How to Write

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Get Rolling, or, When You’ve Forgotten How to Write

When my baby was nearly eleven weeks old, she started rolling from her tummy onto her back, and I was very impressed and proud. Recently, at three and a half months, she’s started rolling from her back onto her tummy. Again, I am impressed and proud.

What’s frustrating, though, is that now, when I lay her down on her play mat, she immediately rolls over and then starts to cry because she’s on her tummy and she doesn’t like it.

“Roll back over,” I tell her. “I know you know how. I’ve captured you doing it on video.”

But for some reason she can’t remember this previously-learned skill. And she’s upset about it.

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Baby on her tummy.  I know she doesn’t look upset, but believe me, she started crying 5 seconds after this picture was taken.

 

The other day I was doing some final polishes on my novel in preparation to start querying agents. As I was reading over the manuscript I began to wonder, how did I ever create this story in the first place?

I developed the idea for the novel a little over a year ago and wrote the first draft last spring, but I seem to have forgotten how I did it. Sometimes it feels like I’m revising someone else’s work.

Now that I’m finishing up this project, it’s time to start something new. Time to switch from revising to creating.  Time to start rolling the other way.

If I can only remember how.

 

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One way to get the baby to sleep.

 

Nap time with the baby has been a challenge these past few days. When I put her in her crib, half the time she immediately flips onto her tummy and then starts to cry. Yesterday I had to walk her around the neighborhood in her stroller for over and hour because that was the only way I could get her to take an afternoon nap.

Paul and I wonder if we should leave her on her tummy to struggle and cry. Maybe, if she gets frustrated enough, she’ll remember how to do it.

Or, maybe, we just have to be patient and give her time.

Normally, when I finish with one writing project, I rush to start something new; I’m in a panic not to waste time. But having a baby has made me a bit more relaxed. It’s a successful day if I manage to get dressed and go grocery shopping. So if a day goes by when I don’t work on writing, it’s not the end of the world.

Still, there is a part of me that worries — what if I’ve lost this previously-learned skill, this ability to create fiction?  I worry that this time I won’t be able to write another novel.

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Come on, baby!  Get rolling!

 

While walking the baby around the neighborhood the other day, an idea for a novel popped into my head. That’s how ideas usually arrive. You can’t force yourself to have one; they appear out of the blue, usually when you’re doing something unrelated to writing.

The idea has gotten me thinking, and I can feel the gears in my brain shifting from revision mode to creation mode. I haven’t forgotten how to write, I just haven’t done it in a while.

I’m not in a hurry, but I’m sure soon enough, I’ll get rolling on a new novel.

Flying Lessons, edited by Ellen Oh (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

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Flying Lessons, edited by Ellen Oh (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh

published by Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017

suggested age range:  8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Various because it’s an anthology.  Stories touch on identity, perseverance, prejudice, friendship, family influence, and individuality vs. conformity, just to name a few.

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So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I’m not normally the biggest fan of short story collections, but I really enjoyed this one. I’m glad Ellen Oh and We Need Diverse Books put this together.  It was a great way to get exposed to a bunch of authors all at once and I found myself taking note as I read of authors whose longer books I’d like to read.  

Eva:  Definitely!  I thought some of the stories, though self-contained, could have been the first chapters of novels … novels I’d like to read!  I’m not sure I’ve ever read a middle grade short story collection before, so this book was unique in that way, not to mention the diversity of characters, settings, and situations.  It makes me wonder why there aren’t more short story collections for this age group. Middle grade readers are notorious for their short attention spans, so it seems like a great idea.

Meagan:  If I were still teaching 4th grade, I’d absolutely use this book in my classroom.  For one thing, it’s great for kids to see stories with different kinds of protagonists representing the wide array of kids’ backgrounds and experiences.  For another thing, middle grade short stories aren’t super common, and it’d be helpful to have short read-alouds that could be finished in one or two sittings.  Perfect for before a vacation or some other time when it’s not practical to start reading aloud a new novel.  

Also, for both students and writers, short stories can work as a quick snapshot to help you focus on a particular skill or topic without needing to tackle a whole novel.  “How does an author establish a memorable and believable character in just a few pages?” is a great question to investigate whether you’re a kid learning about characterization and making inferences, or an adult writer who’s looking to improve your own craft.  Gift this book to teachers you know!

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Eva:   Let’s talk about the particular stories.  One that stood out to me was “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents:  A Story-in-Verse” by Kwame Alexander.  Books in verse seem to be very “in” right now, especially in YA, but I’ve avoided them because I thought it would be annoying to read a novel in verse.  But I really enjoyed Alexander’s story and wasn’t annoyed at all by the format.  If anything, it made it a fun, quick, and interesting to read.  

It seems like this story could be a good way to introduce kids to verse.  It shows that poetic language doesn’t have to rhyme; poetry is also about rhythm, word choice, and imagery:  

The most beautiful girl

in school

walks up to me

fast and furious

like a wave rushing

to the shore.  

I feel like

I’m about to drown,

but I don’t care,

because like my dad says

about my mom,

“She’s a stone cold fox!”  

Also, I imagine that, like me, kids might be more willing to try a short story in verse before jumping into an entire novel written that way.  

Meagan:  How about “Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina?  I loved the journey the protagonist went on.  She began very confident in a simplistic way then got exposed to a complex world that included some class- and race-prejudice.  She sees how her older brother and her father deal with things.  At first she looks down on her brother and dad’s responses, but through the story she comes to understand why they act the way they do.  By the end she seems to neither adopt their approaches completely, nor look down on them for their choices.  She will have to face injustice in her own way and also be compassionate towards those who choose to face it in a different way.  I think this is an appropriately nuanced problem for middle grade students to grapple with, both theoretically in the story as well as in real-life application.

Eva:  I think my favorite story was “The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin.  All the other stories were set in the U.S. in contemporary times, but from this story’s first line, the reader is transported to a totally different time and place:   

“When I was sold to the Li family, my mother let Mrs. Li take me only after she’d promised that I would be taught to read.”  

I was immediately drawn into the world, and this was one of the stories I wished was the first chapter of a novel.  I also would have liked if at least one of the other stories in the collection was historical fiction and/or set somewhere other than the U.S., like this one.  

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Meagan:  I think I have a tie for my favorite between Meg Medina’s story, which I described above, and “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist.  I thought this one was a great little primer on showing-not-telling.  The author sets up a sympathetic character in a very difficult family situation with perfectly chosen details that give the readers everything they need to know, without resorting to telling or labels.  We’re never told “my mom is depressed” or “we got evicted” or “now we’re homeless.”  The reader experiences everything right along with Isaiah and his sister and can easily get the scariness of the situation without needing to be told the names for the problems.  Yet despite some pretty dark circumstances, there is also hope in the story.  

I liked this story so well I went immediately to the Internet to find out what else the author had written, only to discover that she doesn’t yet have a published novel!  This story is her debut publication!  Kelly J. Baptist…I’m waiting for your novel to come out!  You are writing one, right???

Eva:  I hope so!  I just want to mention one last story (the last one in the book):  “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers.  I think what comes to many people’s minds with the “we need diverse books” campaign is race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation — which are all types of diversity found in this collection.  What isn’t so often considered are kids with disabilities.  I was glad to see this story — about a boy who plays wheelchair basketball — included in the collection.  

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:   I don’t know.  I don’t think I’ve ever read an anthology of middle grade short stories.  

Eva:  I don’t know that I’ve read an anthology before, but I definitely used to read short stories for middle grade readers.  When I was a kid I subscribed to the American Girl magazine.  In each issue there was a short story, and I remember one in particular about a girl who finds out that her grandmother had her feet bound when she was a little girl in China.  I think that was how I first learned about foot-binding, and obviously the story was so powerful that I still remember it quite clearly now, twenty-five years after reading it!  So short stories can definitely have just as much power as novels for the middle grade age group.       

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The first issue of American Girl magazine from 1992.  I totally remember reading this issue from cover to cover (several times!)

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Short stories for middle grade readers
  • Diversity
  • A short story in verse
  • First person narration (Almost all of them are)
  • Middle grade stories that deal with race, class, sexual orientation, and disability.

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A quick, interesting collection of short stories for middle grade readers.  Not only is there diversity in the subject matter, there is diversity in the way the stories are told.  One is told in verse, one is told in second person, some are in past tense while others are in present, etc.   

Meagan:  A good reminder that a short story anthology with a variety of authors can be a great way of discovering authors you might like to read more of.  As a reader, it’s a way to sample more broadly and try out the styles and stories of a lot of writers in a short time.

Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

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Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

Back in March, my mom texted me happy St. Patrick’s Day and asked, “so what percentage Irish is the baby? Only a math major can figure it out!” I took this as a challenge, and after texting my mother-in-law for information, I did some calculations and came up with this:

Phoebe is approximately…

  • 1/4   Italian (25%)
  • 7/32   German (approx. 21.9%)
  • 3/16   Scottish/Irish (approx. 18.8%)
  • 5/32   English (approx. 15.6%)
  • 1/16   French (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/16   Danish (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/32   Polish (approx. 3.1%)
  • 1/32   Czech (approx. 3.1%)

 

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My baby is probably less than 15% Irish.  But still very kissable!

 

Now that the baby is three months old I’m slowly getting back to my paying jobs, one of which is writing math curriculum.

And last week I created an assignment called “Melting Pot Math” in which the students have to figure out the “fractional ethnicity” of a person based on the countries his great-grandparents are from.

My bosses are happy to have me back; they continually praise me for my ability to come up with creative math projects. And I’m sort of amazed myself. I’ve been doing this job for over four years now; you’d think I would have run out of ideas for teaching fractions and long division. And yet I always come up with something, often based on whatever is going on in my life: wedding planning, visiting Mexico, getting an ultrasound. I even wrote a math curriculum called “Literary Agent.”

I’m also getting back to my other part-time job – tutoring – but right now I’m only doing it on Skype. I just hired a high school girl who will come to the apartment one afternoon a week to watch Phoebe while I’m on Skype, but up until now my husband has been watching her while I tutor.

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On Sunday I was tutoring, and my student’s camera wasn’t working.  She could see me, but I couldn’t see her. It didn’t matter, though. She was just reading out loud to me from To Kill a Mockingbird, and we were discussing.

Out of the corner of my ear, I heard Phoebe start crying, and it sounded like a hungry cry, so I told my student to hold on a second. I fetched the baby and then said, “okay, keep reading. I’m just going to feed her.”

I guess I had a moment of flamingo syndrome –I couldn’t see my student, so I assumed she couldn’t see me. I pulled down my tank top and started breastfeeding. A few seconds later, I remembered that my student could see me, and I adjusted the camera so that only my face was visible on the screen. Oops! I can only hope she was so engrossed with To Kill a Mockingird that she didn’t notice her tutor flashing her!

Toward the end of the lesson, my student told me that she had to give a speech the next day to the entire middle school. “Our teacher told us we could pick any topic we wanted, so I chose apples,” she said.

“Apples? Like the fruit?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

She practiced her speech, and I gave her a few pointers.

“Why did you decide to write your speech about apples?” I then asked.

She grinned. “I didn’t know what to write about, and I was eating an apple, and my friend said ‘why don’t you write about apples.’” She shrugged. “So I did.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not what her teacher had in mind for the assignment. On the other hand, it’s a good lesson: when you don’t know what to write about, look around and write what you see. Write about your baby. Write about your day. Write about the apple you’re currently eating.

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When I started this blog four and a half years ago, I worried I might run out of things to write about. But, like with math curriculum, I always come up with something. Often I take inspiration from whatever is going on in my life, big or small.  Like accidentally Skype-flashing my student.

I don’t consider myself to be an amazingly creative person, pulling brilliant ideas out of thin air. Often I’m just a girl writing about apples. I look around, shrug, and write about whatever is in front of my face.