Writing about writing…

Writing is a solo act, but for those in attendance at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, or AWP (https://www.awpwriter.org/) this past weekend, you’d think it was one big party, with over 12,000 people moving through the sterile hallways of Boston’s massive Hynes Convention Center to attend hundreds of sessions. I had been forewarned that this event was downright overwhelming. So before I stepped foot into the Hynes, I carefully studied the program, selected sessions that fit my criteria, and found out exactly where they were physically located. Getting lost in the Convention Center was not on my agenda! As it turned out, this surgical approach served me well. 

In one day, I managed to attend five sessions, chat with five random strangers, purchase an energy bar for nearly $5, and wander around the book fair where I was invited by at least five non-residency writing programs to look at their literature. I spoke with five or so small presses about their books, and was also accosted by a woman selling a weeklong “writing trip” to Paris, which was, in sum, a total rip-off. Of my small sample of informal interviewees, a few were undergraduate creative writing majors who were totally blown away by the panoply of rich resources in one place; one was an art history professor and another was a writing professor. 

But I wasn’t there to make friends, although later I joined the Women’s Caucus of the organization (yes, there is gender bias everywhere!). I was there because I’m writing a memoir about the experience of caring for my dad in his final year of life, in which I am inter-weaving my family’s experience of political persecution, the FBI and more. I wanted to hear published authors talk about their experience writing memoirs, and to garner some tips about the process of publishing this type of book. 

Here are a few gems that I got from the conference: 

In a panel called “The Art of Losing”, authors talked about how profound personal loss fuels their writing. One of my favorite speakers on this panel was Jennine Capó Cruce, author of How to Leave Hialeah (http://www.jcapocrucet.com/), who said that she was told that she shouldn’t write from anger. But as she wrote her book, she saw rage as her source, and while writing her book, recognized that underneath her rage was grief. 

In a panel called “How Do You Know You’re Ready?”, novelists shared stories about manuscripts they either sent to agents too soon or had locked in drawers, never to see the light of day. I realized that the question of when a book is complete is a universal question. The panelists seemed to agree that knowing when you’re done writing a book is a “visceral thing”. I was touched that the panelists also welcomed attendees to approach them with questions at the end of the session. I asked novelist Dawn Tripp (http://www.dawntripp.com/) for suggestions about making a “pitch” to an agent. She offered me a few tips, including “make it short and to the point”. And another panelist, Kim Wright, author of Love in Mid-Air (http://loveinmidair.com/), added that it’s important to maintain the voice of the book when you’re trying to get others interested. 

In a session called “Memoir Beyond the Self”, panelists talked about the importance of writing from one’s personal experience and broadening it to reflect on cultural implications. Travel writer and journalist, Colleen Kinder (http://www.colleenkinder.com/Colleenkinder/home.html) said, “personal essays have to be brave”, and she talked about the importance of “braiding” and “weaving” different strands of a story together. In describing this braiding and weaving process, Leslie Jamison, author of Empathy Exams (http://www.graywolfpress.org/Latest_News/Latest_News/Leslie_Jamison_wins_Graywolf_Press_Nonfiction_Prize//) said that “something in one sphere poses a question that another sphere can answer”. That intrigued me. 

In a session called, “It’s Complicated: Memoir-Writing in the Political Sphere”, Melissa Febos talked about her book, Whip Smart, in which she wrote about her three years as a dominatrix while attending a liberal arts college in New York City (http://melissafebos.com/). Kassi Underwood talked about her book, A Lost Child, but Not Mine (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/fashion/a-lost-child-but-not-mine-modern-love.html?pagewanted=all), which chronicles her experience of having an abortion and then encountering her ex-boyfriend who was now a father. And Nick Flynn described the writing of his book, Another Night in Suck City about seeing his estranged father in the homeless shelter where he worked. The book was later turned into a film called, “Being Flynn” with Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore. Talk about star struck! 

In a session called “Poetics of Fiction in/at Buffalo”, three writers read from their work about my poverty-stricken, yet vibrant hometown of Buffalo, New York. Ted Pelton (http://www.starcherone.com/ted/) began with this poem: “Buffalo Buffalo, Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo…”, saying that no other city can be a noun, verb and adjective. And Buffalo writer of Buffalo Noir, Dmitri Anastasopoulos (http://www.akashicbooks.com/catalog-tag/dimitri-anastasopoulos/), brought the experience full circle for me, when he said, “Buffalo is all about loss”. 

The conference had a commercial element as well: In a so-called “Book Fair”, the small presses are there to entice writers, as are the creative writing programs and artists’ retreats. But one of my favorite booths in the exhibition hall was run by 826 National, a nonprofit organization that runs eight writing and tutoring centers around the country, aimed at helping at-risk youth find a voice to tell their stories (http://www.826national.org/). And who knows? Perhaps these young people will be the authors of tomorrow, and future attendees of this chaotic but enriching experience that is AWP

Save the arts because the arts save lives, part 2…

Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of funding arts education. I’m still thinking about these issues, so here is Part Two: Save the arts because the arts save lives...

The arts – dance, theater, music, writing and the visual arts – have a powerful impact on children, opening the door to deeper knowledge and self-expression. I know from personal experience, and I have seen it in young people far and wide. While the current administration has said all the right things about arts education, this is sadly not enough, because federal, state and local policies STILL favor standardized testing and severely limit arts education funding. With all the concern about remaining competitive in a global market, this is precisely the time to fund arts education and allow our children to thrive. 

I started taking dance lessons at age seven. For the first year, I did ballet, but only lasted one year because the teacher was nasty and the movements were too rigid for my soul. Instead my mother found a modern dance teacher, Seenie Rothier, a kind and ageless woman with a lean body and tight bun (and buns), who spoke with a raspy voice as she led her charges through endless contractions, swirls and triplets across the floor. Trained in Martha Graham-style dance, Seenie, as we all called her, had a penchant for the dramatic, and yet she was the most grounding element in my life. I always assumed that my family life was your average normal, and yet looking back, I have realized that it was a household rife with angry silence and disappointment. Seenie’s studio on Hertel Street in Buffalo, was just up the block from Kaufman’s Deli where they sold frosted brownies, and down the block from my grandparents’ working class neighborhood. It was my salvation. She recognized my talent, and by the time I was thirteen, had invited me to join a college dance troupe. Dance was my manna and still is. 

While it is hard to “make a living” as an artist, I tried my best, working as a dance therapist in a psychiatric hospital and later, teaching dance as a resident artist in the Syracuse, New York public school system. I discovered the magic of movement as a source of expression for young children. Often in these schools, children were marched into the gym in single file, and told to remain quiet and respectful of the visiting teacher. 

Little did they know that the new visitor was about to tell the children to jump up and down like popcorn, express their joy and anger through finger dances, and shout as loud as they could, using only their eyes or feet. There was always one child in every school who attached her- or himself to me, following me around, sometimes sitting on my lap or holding my hand as I moved through the room. Sometimes I imagined that what this child really wanted was to crawl into my womb for safety. And there was always the wild child. Sometimes teachers warned me about him or her, and other times, I learned through my own encounters. If teachers were observing – they rarely participated – they might speak with the child in a stern, warning tone or pull the child away for time out. But when I could, I intervened and said ‘no, it’s okay’, because I could usually figure out a way that that child could use movement to express herself. 

Dance is a healer, a universal mode of communication that is good for children. It’s natural. It’s great exercise. It wakes up the brain. It gives children an outlet. I have observed talented movement professionals use movement with children to help them learn science and math concepts. Dance can strengthen children’s emotional intelligence, and their ability to collaborate with others. And it can provide a form of discipline and order, when students are challenged to create dances that have beginnings, middles and ends. 

A number of studies (see Critical Links) cite a positive correlation between dance experiences and nonverbal reasoning skills. One study demonstrated that “subjects” who were exposed to creative dance made significant gains in creative and critical thinking. And another study conducted with children with behavioral disorders found that when dance and poetry were combined, students’ were engaged and their social skills improved. Another study that promoted reading through dance to elementary children found that students improved significantly on all measures assessed by a reading test, including their ability to relate written consonants and vowels to their sounds. 

The research on other arts modalities is equally strong, linking the study of theater to literacy, music education to improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning, achievement in reading, and reinforcement of social-emotional and behavioral skills. And classrooms that integrate the arts are a leveler for all students, including those with disabilities. 

In my own research, I’ve found that teachers who implemented arts-integrated curriculum into their classroom had increased enthusiasm for teaching as they observed the positive response from students, both in terms of their attitudes towards learning, but also their ability to learn. 

It’s time to broaden the policy dialogue and demand increased funding for arts education!

Save the arts because the arts save lives…

Federal funding for the arts is on the chopping block again. Why should we care?

The arts have a powerful impact on young people, providing a critical outlet for self-expression and creativity. In my work evaluating arts education programs, I have seen hundreds of young children come alive when they engage in arts-based activities that involve dance, theater, visual arts and music. While this exposure to the arts is important in- and of-itself, there is substantial research that links arts-based learning to students’ development of core academic skills, including literacy and numeracy. 

The current federal budget reflects significant cuts in arts education funding. Why?  Because the arts and arts education are seen by some as non-essential. But given the heavy test-laden school climate aimed at improving the education of our children, arts education is anything BUT non-essential!

In Critical Links, one of the tomes of arts-based research, musician and researcher Larry Scripp cites multiple studies that link music education to spatial-temporal reasoning (Hetland, 2000a & b), achievement in math (Vaughn, 2000), achievement in reading (Butzlaff, 2000), and the reinforcement of social-emotional or behavioral objectives (Standley, 1996). A Harvard University study found that high school students who studied Shakespeare plays and then performed them developed a deeper understanding of the complexity of the plays.

“Their feelings and emotions about the plays were linked to achieving deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s plays and were often a critical entry point to engagement with the plays.” (Harvard Project Zero)

Other research demonstrates links between the arts and creative thinking. And in my own research on the effect of arts-based programming, I found that teachers who implemented arts-integrated curriculum into their classroom had increased enthusiasm for teaching as they observed the positive response from students, both in terms of their attitude towards learning, as well as their ability to learn.

As one teacher told me,
“I think (arts-integrated learning) helps kids get in touch with their own feelings and their own thoughts in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise…By getting them in there, using voice or sound or vision, it enables them to really envelop the content. I think that’s really important…It’s just good teaching.”

I observed a fascinating unit created by a science specialist and classroom teacher about the solar system, which incorporated a “sensory walk” and other visual arts experiences. They had a great time developing their audio for the “walk” using garage band. Not only did they enjoy preparing for this unit; they both agreed that their elementary age students were far more engaged and better understood the material after this exploration.

These research findings are just the tip of the iceberg!

Kevin Spacey has become the latest celebrity advocate for arts education, and he is a welcome player. In a statement to the Associated Press, he says,”To me, it is important to absolutely embrace arts and culture and the creative industries and what they bring to our nation. It is the single greatest export we exchange around the world.”
Spacey also gives a moving tribute to the importance of the arts and arts-based teaching and learning: 

We have a lot of educating and advocacy to do before the federal budget is finalized!  House Republicans cut $40M out of a relatively small $168M annual budget for the arts, although this cut is subject to Senate negotiations. And Obama’s proposed 2012 budget calls for a $22M reduction. Others would like to put all arts funding on the chopping block, including Sarah Palin, who told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that government spending on the arts is “frivolous.”

Robert Lynch, President of Americans for the Arts, said some of the new (aka conservative) lawmakers don’t understand the important role arts organizations play in boosting the economy. In fact, the $166 billion nonprofit arts sector includes $5.7M jobs and generates nearly $30 billion in tax revenue.  Lynch comments:
“Without a lot of time to understand what this sector means and how it can contribute, (the arts are) lumped along with everything that can be cut to make a smaller government.”

It’s not too late to contact your Congressperson to tell her/him that you support the arts and arts education!  

As Democratic Rep. James Moran of Virginia recently said, the government is buying fighter jets that each cost as much as the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. He comments:
“We are not a poor country. We are a wealthy country, but our real power comes from the power of our ideas… This is not about saving money.  This is ideological.”