Thursday, April 26, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Miss D

In honor of "Poem in your Pocket Day" I wanted to write about one of my first experiences with poetry. And for me, that meant Miss D.

Miss D was not my first exposure to poetry. I guess that would be nursery rhymes, and my Dad, who taught me "Gooey Looey." Don't know that one? It has something to do with a worm on the railroad tracks. (Eeeew! Gooey Looey!)

Nor was Miss D the best English teacher I ever had. That would be Mrs. Kaplan, who taught me about the value of a good ending--and I think of her every time I write one. (Hmmm. Maybe another post there?)In fact, Miss D was a little eccentric and short-tempered. She lived alone and it was not unusual for her to come in with her dress unzipped and ask someone in her homeroom to zip her up first thing in the morning. She was a little hard of hearing and I think her vision was going, too. This made it really easy to cheat on her tests. Boldly. I mean like turning around and asking, "Hey what's the answer to number ten?" That boldly.

But, God love her, she loved poetry. She taught the sophomore unit on poetry. This was my first exposure to real literary poetry, and her enthusiasm could be contagious. More than once she would recite a poem with tears in her eyes. That didn't go over well with a bunch of cynical teenagers, but we all remembered. I saw first-hand the power of the written word and, for me at least, the message took root.

Once she asked us to choose a favorite poem to share with the class. For some, this was an onerous task, and I could hear the groans and grumbles, even if Miss D couldn't. I found Robert Bly's deliciously quiet Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter. According to the Library of Congress, this is about "the joy of being alone." Yep, that was me.

This poem spoke to me. About cool silence and the privilege of being alone long enough to hear one's own thoughts. Its brevity was appealing, and taught me how to paint a scene and a mood in just a few brushstokes, something I'm still learning to do. I'm not sure I would have found it if it hadn't been for Miss D's prompting.

Today, that poem will be in my pocket.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Will Parker

In the interest of full disclosure I have to say I'd really rather write about Ado Annie, you know, the girl who "cain't say no" in Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma. You just know a girl like that is going to be fun and complex and interesting. But apparently I'm nothing like her. I'm more like her loyal beau, Will Parker.

I'm not even talking about love and marriage here. I'm talking about writing. You may have noticed that for the past few months this blog has been MIA. I haven't posted since before Christmas, and I expect that posts will still be spotty for the next couple of months. That's because I've been working on a middle grade nonfiction book about the burning of the White House in 1814, titled The White House is Burning. It's due out from Charlesbridge in 2014 in time for the bicentennial anniversary of the event. It's my first middle-grade book, and it's like running a marathon when you're used to sprinting. Every chapter is about the same length as one of my previous biographies, and it's a new experience for me.

Now don't get me wrong. I LOVE doing this book. Connecting with so many great subjects who lived two hundred years ago has been fantastic, and I love the privilege of making their voices heard again. But balancing the work--both researching and writing--with the rest of my writing, working, and personal life is a challenge. I've had to come up with a stategy. And what I've discovered is that, like Will Parker, with me it's "All Er Nuthin." And "nuthin" is not an option.

To keep my head in the game, I've had to whittle away everything that isn't TWHIB or otherwise essential, and put a lot of things on hold. I've put Facebook, Twitter, and blogging on a back burner and concentrated pretty much all the time on August 24, 1814. I think 8.24.1814 when I wake up, while I drive to work, while I eat or shower or wash dishes, while I'm falling asleep at night. It's a little OCD but it works for me. I just don't think I'd be able to do justice to the subject if I were pulled in too many directions. With me it's all er nuthin.

I have to say, though, that I really have missed you all. I've particularly missed blogging, and I'd forgotten how much until I started this today. But I hope that it will all be worth it. I hope the single-minded passion will show in the work, and that The White House is Burning will be good. It worked out for Will and Annie after all.