Hands down, the best literature conference anywhere

This past weekend, I attended the Children’s Literature Summer Institute 2013 at Simmons College, my graduate school alma mater. Among academic conferences, it is one of the best, managing to be smart and profound but not stuffy. As Lois Lowry, the keynote speaker, conveyed in her talk: We are all in this world of children’s literature together.

About 150 people – teachers, writers, illustrators, grad students, librarians, editors, scholars, and fans – attended. Strangers were instantly affectionate. The featured authors and illustrators were approachable. I made a conference friend, a school librarian who is also a Simmons alum, and I really enjoyed having one person with whom I could continuously share impressions and enthusiasm. I also loved being at Simmons again and remembering my professors, my friends, and my years of learning.

I gathered much good insight and advice from the many author and illustrator talks, which were all prepared and differently framed around the Institute’s theme for this year: Love Letters. I took notes. I hope it will all stay with me, motivating me to return to some projects I have set aside in doubt and helping me stick with them.

From my notebook: a list of the speakers, in order of their appearance, and ideas and inspiration I wrote down as they spoke. There are 13 of them, a baker’s dozen. Keep reading after the jump.

Shane plays; Jack records.

Shane plays; Jack records.

1. Shane Evans, illustrator and writer: website

He gives himself an assignment to journal on the same topic for 41 days. The topic might be truth or love or some other big idea. He does this “because I’m lazy.” Once, for 41 days, he asked a different person every day the same question and photographed him/her and then put it all on his website.

Interesting metaphor: mountain top vs. valley. “Nothing grows on top of a mountain; it can’t breathe. We have to go down to the valley; it’s where nurturing happens… We talk about highs and lows – what’s wrong with the lows?!”

He showed a slide of works from 10 visual artists who are his inspirations. I wonder: who would be my 10 inspirations? What would it be like to take a work from each of them and hang it over my desk?

Shane is also a musician – went to college with Taye Diggs – and got us to sing along with him… TWICE.

2. Deborah Freedman, illustrator and writer: website

She is a former architect. Looks at books (physical ones) as “a spatial problem.” She said, “a picture book creates a space.” She believes an iPad won’t do that, or can’t do that yet. (I wondered, “Why not?”) She likes things she can touch; she likes things that exist in space: “I like the book.”

Talked about balancing “intuition and rationality.” She does that in her sketchbook; she starts a new one for each project. Once she has an idea, the first thing she does is to “go to the library and look at every book about that idea.”

In picture-book making, pacing is very important. She works this out in a storyboard, and she’s constantly “pacing and re-pacing.” (I noticed that pacing is a quality of stories and books that several of the writers or illustrators mentioned in their talks.)

Tight limitations are a gift, she said, using those words exactly. I liked her.

Continue reading

If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

Last weekend I went to Orlando, Florida for an academic conference. Two colleagues and I were on the program to present a panel (that is, three integrated short talks) on the teaching and learning opportunities in original research projects for undergraduate mechanical engineers. We had been working on our project since last January: drafting the proposal and later the paper, revising them, drafting the slides, rehearsing, revising the slides, and going over them again. I estimate that about 250 woman-hours went into our talks.

Two people came to our panel. That’s right, two. Oh, and one came 15 minutes late.

This is the thing about academic conferences that everybody knows about but no one does anything about: there are too many panels on the program for the number of attendees, which disperses the audience among too many rooms. Yes, some panels I attended had 30 people in the audience, the size maybe of a class of students. Usually, you hope for at least 8 to 10. But two? Well, that’s just disillusioning, as one of my colleagues said. Our work had almost no effect.

I wonder, selfishly, what else could I have written with the same 100 hours I contributed to the panel? One could say I learned a lot from the research I did (my talk was based on a qualitative study I conducted among students on their experience of a set of assignments), and my colleagues and I consolidated our understanding of our own work through this experience, but, really, to have an audience is better.

In the talks I went to, the best was by keynote speaker Manuel Lima, who presented from his book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). He argues that, as the dominant paradigm for visualizing knowledge has gone from the tree to the network, ideas of beauty must change from an emphasis on symmetry and order to complexity and disorder. Lima’s presentation ranged over history, art, science, Gestalt psychology, and our digital world. He used beautiful, disparate images from handmade manuscripts and other artifacts in surprising ways. Illustrations of trees, like this one from 1202 by Joachim of Fiore (in Lima’s book), gave way to abstract art and in particular a network-like painting, Autumn Rhythm, done in 1950 by Jackson Pollock.

The Tree of the Two Advents (1202)

I sat at a table with Manuel Lima at lunch and heard more about his ideas; I bought his book and got his signature. One always gets something of value out of these academic conferences. I am intrigued by the shift from trees to networks as the paradigm of knowledge in our era and by our ideas of classical beauty giving way to complex beauty.

Networks are not just at the center of a scientific revolution; they are also contributing to a considerable shift in our conception of society, culture, and art, expressing a new sense of beauty. As we continuously strive to decipher many of their inner workings, we are constantly bewildered by their displays of convolution, multiplicity, and interconnectedness. And the most elaborate of schemes are the ones that apparently seduce us at the deepest level. — Manual Lima, Visual Complexity (2011)

This is a big idea, the only one at the conference. My colleagues and I were ready with a well-done yet admittedly modest idea. Is this the thing to do, which Lima has done: dedicate one’s self to bigger ideas and bigger projects?

Image credit: The Tree of the Two Advents, Joachim of Fiore (1202), via Brainpickings.org

Second chance for the rejected

On the floor in the cellar, I found an encouraging rejection — part form letter, part handwritten note — I had gotten from an editor at The Sun and then set aside for safekeeping. The letter must have slipped out of one of those cardboard boxes I’ve marked JANE – STUFF and put on a shelf, intending to sort its contents (some day).

So, the rejection stuck in my mind for a day and prompted me to think about all the good writing out there that never finds its place among readers. A lot of writing no doubt gets turned away because it’s not good. Some writing, the kind I’m interested in here, may get turned away because it’s not a so-called good fit for the publication.

These literary misfits need a place, like the Island of Misfit Toys where cool playthings hung out and waited for the day when Santa would take them to the right child. There are cool poems, stories, and memoir that didn’t make it into one of many (low paying, highly competitive, and prestigious) literary journals.

Good yet misfitting submissions need their own Santa Claus. I have an idea for a journal, called Displacement (for the condition of having been displaced, and also the psychological defense mechanism in which emotions or desires are shifted from some original object to another one), that could be it. Continue reading

A hunt for illustrations

"love & fear," by David Pham on Flickr

Usually, I use my own photographs as illustrations for posts. Sometimes, I hunt for them on Flickr, which involves the dual challenge of finding images that communicate, although not too tritely, and that are licensed by Creative Commons.

The search for the image does not come before I write the post or even after I’m done. I search sometime in the middle, when I know what the post is about yet I am still developing the idea or story. The right image is not only for the reader’s experience, it’s for my writer’s one. A photograph is inspiration and a kind of information.

Yesterday, I wrote a short piece for A Sweet Life on loving and fearing my doctor. Link. It started out as loving him and hating the visits, but when I searched Flickr for love/hate images, I mostly found pairs of hands with “love” inked on one set of digits and “hate” inked on the other set. Trite. The frustrating search helped me, though, realize that “hate” was too extreme a characterization of what I feel about quarterly visits to my diabetes doc. Fear is a more apt complement to love.

And so I browsed through Flickr images for love twinned with fear, and, in addition to many mentions of 1 John 4:18,  I found the above image by shapeshift (David Pham). Taken in 2005, the photograph is of a mural on the wall of a construction site in the Mission, San Francisco. I like the intimacy of the pair, with the human heart and skull dwarfing them in size. She is showing him something; he looks down at it, literally. They smile, even though the fragility (and glory) of the heart and the unavoidability of death hover over them. These observations and others, whether I dealt with them explicitly or not in “Why I Love and Fear My Doctor,” fed me while finishing the post. The reflection, prompted by the image and my hunt for it, took me to a different ending than the one I had planned.

Of course I hope the illustration does some work for the reader, too.

More than the end

Lately, I have been thinking about endings because students are rehearsing and making presentations, ones that begin strong, build purposefully, and then break off awkwardly. At best, presentations seem to end with a gracious thank you to collaborators. Speakers perhaps wear themselves out, and when they’re done, they’re done.  Tough luck, audience.

Linda Flower (1979) described writer-based prose as an expression of the writer’s thoughts, for the writer, with no other purpose. Such prose is revealed in problems like a chronological process-based structure (first I did this, and then I did that) rather than an idea-driven one.  This kind of prose is not concerned with a reader’s experience; it is a record of the writer’s experience of thought, reading, or action. For my concerns about presentations, Flower’s theory of writer-based prose might be reframed as speaker-based speech. When I experience one of these presentations that simply break off — and, hey, I’ve occasionally made a few of these myself — I think what I’m seeing is an example of a speaker who has said everything she wants to say. Spent, she stops.

Stopping, though, is not concluding. Continue reading

The band room is not the high school.

Gwyneth Paltrow was quite fetching on GLEE when she sang the Cee Lo song, “Forget You,” which I had heard many times on the radio.

I had no idea what I was really missing, though, until I went recently to open mike night at Brookline High School. My son Eli’s band, Hippos on Campus, opened my eyes and ears to Cee Lo’s original version.

The audience was mostly made up of high school students; some intrepid parents were there too. Grace was sitting next to me, and in the video you can see a shot of her at 02:14 . Also in the video at 00:48 you can see one of the high school music faculty, Carolyn Castellano, scurrying in front to give a student a megaphone.

Later in the night, from behind the piano, Carolyn reminded her students, “The band room is not the high school.”

I parsed her remark and took it to mean that, within the context of rules and right answers, there also has to be a place for subversiveness in education. Some teachers, like Carolyn, seem to manage this balance well: She drives her students to be ambitious and practiced musicians (Eli is the bass player in her jazz band at the high school), and yet prods them to think, act, and play with originality. Students find it hard to get praise from her, and yet the really serious ones want to work with her because she treats them as though they were musical peers.

It’s hard to teach inside these contraries, and although I value them, I’m not so sure I pull them off in a radical or dramatic way. On the one hand, I have a responsibility to teach the conventions of scientific writing and communicating. On the other hand, I have a responsibility to the student who aims to do work that is authentic and meaningful. In my practice, I seem to be more structured in the classroom as a lecturer and more open to individual work in small groups and 1:1 conferences. Interestingly, this may resemble the division between my public and private self in general, and my public and private teaching self.

I really admire professionals like Carolyn who seem to take public risks in their teaching while still upholding really high standards for their students. Funny, though, when I told Eli my interpretation of the band room/high school remark as slyly subversive, he wondered if Carolyn, whom he knows well, had really intended instead that her students remember to behave once they leave the band room.

Either way, the remark conveys the same dichotomy.

For a more polished and still angry version of “Fuck You,” watch Cee Lo himself, in a Pepto pink suit, sing it here on a BBC special: Link.

– Audience problems

Not having an audience is a problem.

Having an indifferent audience can present another problem, especially if you are speaking in front of them. Try lecturing to sleepy students at 2 o’clock in the afternoon sometime. Watch those eyelids flutter.

Misunderstanding the audience can lead to their disappointment, or even your own. When I was in nonprofit development, I spoke at the First Annual Conference on Black Philanthropy, and watched half my audience walk out of the room one at a time because I had completely failed to understand the cultural values shared by most of the people in the room who were not me.

Yesterday, in working with a 13 year old writer, I was reminded of an audience problem that affects, especially, writers of creative nonfiction and memoir. And that problem is knowing an audience too well.

This writer, whom I’ll call Justin, is writing a personal narrative that will be developed into a 3-minute digital story, with voice over and music tracks, and photographs from his own collection. Justin is one of several teens in a local community center involved in making digital stories through my friend Lisa’s business, Storybuilders. His story mentions his mom, siblings, and, most notably, his teacher. The most striking detail in Justin’s notes for the story, in fact, involves the teacher and how she disciplines her students when they’re distracted: she spritzes them with a water bottle. Continue reading

– Big pond, many fish

I missed the 4C’s convention in Louisville this year (sponsored by the Conference on College Composition and Communication), which is a biggie in the teaching writing world.  I went last year and even gave a presentation, one among hundreds of presenters. This year, Alex Reid went, and he did some basic arithmetic that describes how dilute the audience gets at one of these huge conferences where everyone is vying for a little sip of the attention water. He estimates that, on average, most of the 3,000 attendees make it to 6 out of about 600 panels and that most panels attract between 10 and 30 audience members. That’s the thing about big ponds.

I was swimming in another school of fish last weekend, attending the 2010 ACPA annual convention in Boston (sponsored by the American College Personnel Association, the leading organization for student affairs professionals). It was a good chance to hang out with James and also reconnect with that world, in which I felt more a part when I worked in academic support and writing centers. Even though I no longer have official student development responsibilities, I do believe that I will again, someday, and that in the meantime I continue to be a deeply interested observer in how undergraduates mature and how the academy can support their development in thoughtful and humane ways.

I went to five or six panels; I took notes. Rather than writing a summary, I’ll try to capture what floated to the top and what ideas have stayed with me enough that I’m still thinking about them a week later. Continue reading

Resonance, wonder, and toys

In his essay “Resonance and Wonder,” Stephen Greenblatt writes about two powers permeating the works of art in museums:

By resonance I mean the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond it formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it make be taken by a viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.

Read his essay (a .pdf is here), and your experience of artifacts in museums may be forever enriched as mine have.  In this post, I translate his ideas and use them to consider toys, Jane Eyre, The Matrix, and other things that stand in for objects.

When you first encounter an object — especially one you instantly are wowed by — you stand in wonder. There’s something really personal about that experience. You feel delight, surprise, enchantment. It’s an oh my god! moment. Greenblatt says that museums like MoMA amplify wonder with tactics they use to display objects, with boutique lighting, for example, which throws a pool of light around objects in a dimmed room, in the same way that jewelry stores and designer clothing shops do. Lighting isolates an object and hold it up for display. That isolation is important: it intensifies your wonder. It’s immediate, with no past or future; it’s love at first sight. Continue reading

– Your attention, please

Thank you for your attention to my work.

That’s the line that ended the cover letter I sent with an essay to an editor who had read “Tethered” online, dropped me an e-mail, and encouraged me to send her something else. (I finally did.)

I stared at that sentence for a long time. Yes, it is gracious — anyone who went to public school in an era when students learned to compose and format a letter (do you know what the five parts are called?) — and concludes the body of the letter appropriately.

I wondered, though, as I stared and stared at the line, if that’s what I really want: attention.

A writer cannot actually be a writer without an audience. While I and others might write to organize our thoughts (see Seth Godin), I could also do that in a private journal. But that for me would not be enough. An idea written down is not somehow alive unless someone reads it.

Is that the secret function of an audience? Attention? I think of that as something children want. And yet there I was, grateful for it. Continue reading