PONDERING SNAILS with EMALINE: Four Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

FullSizeRender (1)A special part of my recent trip to England was spending time with a friend who recently moved to London with her husband and three adorable daughters. My day with Charise began with a reading of “Goodnight Ark” to her girls’ classes at their lovely school in Hampstead, a village of London.  That was a wonderful treat in and of itself and I especially enjoyed answering the children’s questions after each reading, asked in charming British accents.

 

 

The readings ended at 10:30 and I think Charise’s youngest, who is just three, was a little sad not to get to spend the rest of the day at school with her sisters. It all turned out okay, though, because in the end, since Emaline was with us, it was she who got to show me the snails.

This is how it happened. First, Emaline and her mom gave us a walking tour of Hampstead. As we walked Charise pointed several spots that will be featured in the upcoming film Hampstead starring Diane Keaton, which I now can’t wait to see.  After our walk, it was still too early for lunch so we stopped in at their home for a few minutes.

Once home, Emaline took great pleasure in showing us her garden – and that’s where I met the snails. This particular morning there were only two. “Do you think this one’s the other one’s mum?” Emaline asked as we watched them move slowly across a patio stone. “Perhaps,” I answered. “Or maybe they’re friends. Maybe they play together. What do you think?”

Then, in quiet whispers, Emaline and I watched them for the loveliest long time. And, as we crouched there, I thought how good it felt to pause from the busyness of the day to ponder snails – how they might be related, where they might be going and what they might be doing etc.

This adorable interaction got me thinking about life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying days are those in which, like Emaline, I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder snails (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world anew.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from crouching down and seeing the world – snails and all – from the perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of three-year-olds, snails and slowing down, I offer you:

 FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

  1. SPEND TIME with a CHILD.  There’s nothing quite as perspective changing as spending time with a little one.  Play a game together. Ask questions. Talk. See the world through their eyes.
  2. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves or the peals of children’s laughter. Quietly follow the trail of a chipmunk. What is he doing? Where is he going? You will be amazed at how alive and fresh everything (and you) will feel!  And, if you are anything like me, you will come away with at least a dozen new writing ideas.
  3. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  Settle yourself down in the children’s department of your local library or at your favorite bookstore and READ!  Pick old favorites as well as newer titles.  Before long, those stories will transport you to the magical world of child-like wonder. Have a notebook handy because you never know what long-forgotten memory your reading will stir.
  4. Investigate AUTHENTIC CHILDHOOD WRITINGS.  These can be your own childhood writings or, if you’re like me, you’ve also saved your children’s writings.  I always ask my kids permission to read through their old school journals and story folders, and they always grant it.  I’m so happy they do, because those journals, as well as my own childhood scribblings, are precious sources of authentic kid-talk and they always inspire me.

Happy Monday all! And may we each find time to stop and ponder the snails this week.

OUR NEW TREE: A Symbol of HOPE and BLESSING

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A few years ago we sold our first house so we could move a few blocks away to a slightly larger home to fit our growing family. We loved that first house and I know my son still misses it sometimes, but what I, at least, miss most is the lovely Korean dogwood that graced the front lawn.

May 2004 004To me, that lovely tree symbolized hope and blessings. I gazed on it from the window when I was on bedrest with our first child. And once he was born (extremely prematurely at 24 weeks), that tree provided precious shade as I sat with him outside and later as he toddled about. He eventually even climbed that tree, for its trunk was nice and low and its branches the perfect size for him.

Later, as we wrestled with the understanding that the risks were too high to try for another biological child, that Korean tree became a reminder that blessings come in many ways. I’d always dreamed of adopting, perhaps because I had such fond memories of my sister’s childhood friend who was a Korean adoptee. Having that tree in the front yard seemed like divine confirmation that this was to be our next step as well. Indeed, I’m so grateful and happy to say that in due time that lovely Korean dogwood also provided shade for our beautiful adopted daughter – though she preferred playing fairies beneath the branches to actually climbing the tree.P1010024

Sometimes as I sat under that tree watching my children, I would free write what would later become stories and poems. I even have a post about that if you want to read. It’s all about not being in a rush to bloom as a writer, but to savor the experience along the way.

Long story short, we’ve been in our new house several years now, and every June I’ve missed that tree. Then, during a wild storm a couple of years ago, our neighbor’s pear tree, that had provided such lovely shade for both our front porches, collapsed and so we found ourselves with a bright, sunny, treeless front yard.  We lived for a couple of summers in that treeless condition before decided that we should plant a replacement tree in our front yard.

And what kind of tree do you think my husband and I both agreed we should get – a Korean dogwood!  So, here it is brand-new and darling as can be.  We’re watering it well so that it will grow healthy and strong – a living reminder of hope and blessing for years to come.

HAPPY BLOG ANNIVERSARY: Cupcake and Sugar Pea

Since this blog just celebrated its fifth year anniversary,  I thought I’d celebrate by re-posting one my favorite entries from year one.  That seven year old is now twelve!  And like her, I still like to keep several horses in my writerly stable. How about you? Enjoy!

After school, instead of walking home, my seven-year-old has taken to riding — horseback riding, that is. She alternates between two imaginary horses — Cupcake and Sugar Pea. Her horses trot and canter. They gallop and run like the wind.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Cupcake runs like the wind. Sugar Pea is a little slower. She prefers to stop and smell the clover. Cupcake, by contrast, loves jumping over imaginary fences, the wind whipping at her mane. Their styles are so different, I never have to ask my daughter which horse she’s chosen. I just say, “Wow, Cupcake’s fast!” or “What does Sugar Pea think of the lilacs?”

I’m a lot like my daughter. I write best when I have at least two projects going at once. For example, right now I’m working on two very different picture books, several poems and a handful of blog posts. And, just as my daughter alternates ponies, based on mood, I alternate projects, based on interest, deadlines, or variety. Not only does this keep my writing fresh, it allows the pieces I’m not working on to rest, so that I can return to them with new eyes.

Keeping several horses in the stable, keeps me energized and happy as a writer. It also reduces writer’s block because I always have something in process. If one piece isn’t working, I simply take out another horse for the day. What about you? Are you a one-horse writer or do you prefer to keep several horses in your stable?

CREATING AND CONNECTING: One Picture Book Author’s Journey

laurasassi5In January the editor of my alumni magazined asked if I might be interested in writing a piece for their new essay series on the Princeton Alumni Weekly website called “Voices”.  My name came to his attention because of my blog (just in case you’ve ever been torn about the benefit vs. effort of keeping a blog), and he asked if I might be interested in writing something about my experiences as an author of children’s books.

I said yes.  And today that piece is live! Titled “Creating and Connecting: One Picture Book Author’s Journey”, the essay is about how my passion for story has opened my heart and broadened my sense of community.  I’d be honored if popped on over for a read. Happy reading all!

 

GOODNIGHT, ARK: Original Spread (And a Writerly Pep Talk)

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I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for special packages, like this sturdy parcel which landed here on Friday!

I knew this was my long anticipated birthday/Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait to unwrap it!

First, there was the bubble wrap. Next, I could  could just see the top edge in a tidy plastic encased swirl.

Finally, first through plastic…img_3782

and then – oh my – in my hand!  

img_3783-1It’s the original hand-painted spread for the “Time for bed/It’s getting dark” spread in GOODNIGHT, ARK!  I just love the details in the original – actually being able to see the layering of paint and those tiger whiskers, Jane, are just amazing!  

Thank you, Dad, for this lovely gift, and thank you, Jane for being will to part with one of these treasures!  

img_3786After oohing and aahing with my family, I took the illustration straight to my favorite local framing shop.  And Stefanie and I (Thank you, Stefanie!) spent almost two hours playing with mattes and frames and lay out options.

Now, here’s my writerly pep talk – which I very much needed on Friday, by the way. I had optimistically put $.50 in the parking meter, thinking that an hour would be ample time to select the perfect matte, frame and layout for Jane’s piece.

But after an hour, we still hadn’t found a winning combination. To be honest, I was ready to be finished, but Stephanie handed me $.50 to replenish the meter and so, even though it was raining, I dashed out to buy another hour’s time.

When I returned to the shop, waterlogged, Stephanie said something so simple, yet so wise.  Here are her words:  “Oh, good, we’ve got more time because I think you and I both know it’s not quite working yet.”  I smiled at her honesty.  And somehow, with that truth now out there in the open, it was easier to return to the quest. Indeed, shortly thereafter, tucked low on one of her revolving racks, I found a simple wooden frame that really said “Noah’s Ark” to me. Once we had that, it was suddenly clear as daylight which matte we should use.  What it took was admission that we weren’t quite there yet and renewed intent and joy in the search.  

It’s like that as writers too.  We work and work on a story, at points even hoping that it’s finished and ready to submit.  But, sometimes, it just isn’t and what that story really needs is an honest voice – maybe your own, or maybe that of your critique partner or agent – to say “Keep at it, it’s not quite working yet”.  

Then, even if your spirit feels rained on, go add money to the meter!  Keep at it. Don’t give up! Persevere!  You will make that story sing. It may just take looking at it from a new perspective, digging deep and finding a new ending twist -or bit of arc- tucked low in the recesses of your brain, waiting to be discovered. 

Happy writing this rainy  week and don’t be afraid to add extra money to that meter!

FROSTY LEAVES: Seeing the World with Writerly Eyes

Look what I spotted on my walk  – frosty leaves sparkling in the early morning sun. Covered in the daintiest of crystals, they took my breath away and Sophie and I had to stop for a closer look. While she waited patiently, her sweet pants punctuating the morning cold in little steamy puffs, her tail wagging, I marveled at the intricacy of the crystal patterns and how the frost so beautifully outlined each leafy vein.

As we continued our walk, my mind was already racing in the way a writer’s mind does.  Do you know what I mean? Does your mind race too – forming poems and story lines – just at the sight of, say, morning frost?

img_3744This is not the first time frost has set my imagination in motion.  One early winter morning a couple of years ago, hoarfrost inspired a little poem about a chipmunk scurrying to get ready for winter.  That poem, entitled “Chipmunk’s First Frost”, appeared in the November 2013 issue of Clubhouse Jr.  I wonder what the frost will inspire this time? I’m not sure yet, but I think fairies may play a role.

I LOVE seeing the world through writerly eyes. It makes each day richer and each moment fuller.  I make observations that I might not otherwise, storing up treasured tidbits of humor, irony and beauty that become the spark for writing projects. Even if I never got published, I would still keep writing for it is a wonderful gift to be able to see the world through writerly eyes.

Now, as we start a new year, my heart is filled with joy at all the story and poem possibilities that await, ready for me to embrace – but only if I am attentive in using the gift of these writerly eyes!  HAPPY NEW YEAR and HAPPY WRITING ALL!

GUEST POST: We Don’t Grow Up, We Just GROW (Thoughts on READ ALOUD TIME) with Juliana Tyson Kissick

I am so excited to have Juliana Tyson Kissick as my guest today. We recently reconnected on Facebook, but I first met her when she was in fourth grade! She was my student. Just take a peek at that adorable class, gathered joyfully around our Thanksgiving project that year. She’s seated in the center with a very young Mrs. Sassi standing behind her.  And there she is working hard. She’s also represented by one of the little birds depicted in the delightful card my mom made for me that school year. The card is dated 1995 and the note I found with it reads:

“Mom made a terrific birthday card depicting an early January day in the new classroom. It was pouring and the power went out. I kept the kids entertained until their parents came by reading. It was a treacherous day with lots of flooding and rain.”

READ ALOUD TIME.  It was my favorite part of the day and it happened every day, right after lunch.  Actually, I think it was everyone’s favorite part of the day – a chance to be transported by storytelling to magical worlds, faraway places and different times.  And I AM THRILLED that Juliana has agreed to share a little bit about what reading books aloud has meant to her over the years.  Take it away, Juliana!

unnamedWhen Laura invited me to write on the topic of reading aloud to children in the classroom, I felt an immediate surge of energy run through my gut. It was as if my soul were demanding I leap through the computer screen, exclaiming, “There is nothing more important than reading to children in schools!!” — a good indicator that I probably had something to say on the matter. And what I came to realize over the course of writing out my reflections was how valuable and multi-faceted the benefits of “story time” really are… and most certainly not just for children.  It’s like my Jewish, anecdotally-driven father always tells me (quoting the magnificent poet, Muriel Rukeyser), “The universe, Juliana, is made of stories, not of atoms.”

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Story time. Is there a more cherished, enchanted hour in the world of a young person? The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlotte’s Web, The Boxcar Children, Little House On the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Giver…  I can remember every. single. book that was read to me (or that my classmates and I read aloud to each other) over the course of my elementary schooling. I LIVED for story time. And it wasn’t just because “story time” equated not doing math (something I still avoid, sorry Laura). No, story time wasn’t just an easy out…that’s what recess was for. And it wasn’t just because I was somewhat of a doctoral candidate in the esteemed academic discipline of Class Clownery and more or less couldn’t wait until I was allowed to give a personality (a British accent) to letters on a page… ok fine, maybe it was a LITTLE bit about that (I’m not British, for the record). But really, truly, at the heart of my love for story time was my love for adventure and meaning, adventure beyond the physical entrapments of my birthed circumstances and the moral lessons to help me make sense of it all. Story time was everything I dreamed this life could be and opened my eyes to what it already was… in other words, story time was church. It was spiritual. It transcended me. It was a gathering, a listening, an intuiting, a shared emotional rite of passage that didn’t have a right or a wrong answer. You couldn’t get a check minus in story time. You only had to be a person. And that, dear ones, is why the gift of telling story is just that–a gift. It validates the complexity of our humanity and the diverse range of our experiences, and all we have to do is breathe and listen. 

Unlike reading alone, the experience of being read to (or reading to someone) transforms written narrative into a conversation between heartstrings. When characters are given voice, when a scene depiction is read with purpose and conviction and tone, suddenly this is now a world and these are now living beings that are taking up physical and emotional space in our lives. It becomes real. And when something becomes real, like all the greatest of fiction has taught us, we conjure empathy and compassion. The characters don’t need to look like us, or talk like us, live in our hometown…heck they don’t even have to live on this planet. Story makes everything, and everyone, a worthy subject of our love and understanding. And oh how this world could use a whole lot more of that.

Just yesterday one of my best friends mentioned to me that she and her husband were reading the Harry Potter series to one other before they went to sleep… and I couldn’t help but get wholly and utterly inspired to treat my own grown-up self with the same kind of joy and validation I gave my story-loving, story-needing child self. We don’t really grow up, you see. We just grow. 

Blessings and giggles,

Juliana 

20150408_goodjuju_portraits-057Bio: It probably won’t surprise you to know that Juliana grew up to become a storyteller. She’s a multiple Ovation-nominated choreographer, actor, dancer, and founding member of Los Angeles’ very own Boom Kat Dance Theatre. After over a decade of performing professionally in Southern California, Juliana moved to San Francisco with her husband (and former boy across the literal street), Ryan. It was upon the move to Northern California that Juliana tapped into her love of visual art to further her storytelling career. In 2014, Juliana founded Good Juju Ink, an illustration design company dedicated to spreading “good juju” one funny-but-tender illustration at a time. Good Juju Ink’s greeting cards are sold online at www.goodjujuink.com and at Paper Source locations nationwide. 

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SPOTLIGHT: Holiday Cards by Martha South

img_3357My mother was a storyteller.  Like I am, but not exactly. While I use words, my mother used pictures to tell her stories. Her stories didn’t take the form of books. No, they came in the shape of paintings and sketches and – best of all – cards!

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Any occasion, large or small, provided the perfect excuse for a card.  Birthdays, Christmas, first days of school, births of grand babies, you name it… she made cards. Each card featured her signature birds – but the story each card told was one-of-a-kind.

Over the years several stand out as favorites of mine.

 

For example, I have always loved the birthday card she made for my husband the year our son turned two. The inside reads, “Lessons the Professor hoped he would never have to teach.” Then, there’s the year my son, then age three, got inventive and made himself some firefighter boots out of toilet paper rolls.  My mom had a field day with that!

img_3353But one of my all-time favorites is this – a magical Christmas card featuring a little bonbon dancing with the Nutcracker.  Inspired by my daughter who was dancing her first Nutcracker that year as a little bonbon, it turned out to be the last Christmas card my mom made for her – and one of the last cards she designed before her ALS made it too hard for her to hold the pencils. Even though she made it when she was already sick, to me, the card sparkles with the magic of Christmas and it fills me with joy.

One of my mom’s dreams was to start her own card business. And to honor that dream, my sister has set up a card business in her memory. Now in celebration of Christmas and in honor of my wonderful mom, she has added a couple of holiday cards to the collection, one of which is this delightful Nutcracker card.

If you are in the market for holiday cards to send out this season, we  would be honored if you considered sending some cards designed by Martha South. To see the cards and learn more about ordering please visit http://www.marthasouth.com.

As an extra incentive, my sister is offering free shipping for a limited time  if you use the promo code “HOLIDAYS”. Thanks, Julie!  The promo code can be entered in at Checkout. Right above “Payment Information,” there will be a blue link called “Use Gift Card or Promo Code”. Click on this, and then enter “HOLIDAYS”.

Blessings all!

BAKING COOKIES: Thoughts on Peace and Reconciliation During These Troubling Times

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My blog celebrates “writing, reading, and life” and mostly I focus on things writerly and readerly. This week, however, has been firmly grounded in life.  Like many of you, I have been grieving over the state of our nation at this present moment.  There is just so much hurt and bitterness and anger and racism and misunderstanding.  And this week’s news breaks my heart – two black men shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and five police officers shot and killed in Dallas?  Will this ever end?  Is reconciliation possible?  And what can I do? What can my children do? What can you do? What can we as individuals do in the midst of this miserable time?

Foster community.  Build community. Construct bridges. That’s what.  This Sunday morning, in an act that is totally out of my shy/reserved comfort zone, I listened to that inner voice inside which whispered to me – reach out.  What we did this morning was very small, but it’s a step.

First, Miss A. and I woke up very early and baked cookies – lemon sugar cookies.  Once they cooled, we decorated each one with a little pink icing heart and placed them attractively in a box. Then we prayed that God would bless our morning call.  (After all, I think He’s the one who prompted the whole thing.)

Then, instead of going to service at our regular church, we drove to the charmingly steepled church near us that is home to a predominantly African-American congregation.  Neither Miss A. nor I knew a soul.  Nevertheless, we climbed those stairs with our cookies and our courage. I felt a little nervous, but I needn’t have.

What a wonderful morning it was!  The love and grace of that congregation filled the sanctuary. As we sang hymns in unison, I felt God’s very presence. I wondered how I would let them know the reason for my visit, or if I even should.  The answer came  with the morning announcements. Since we were clearly visitors, the pastor welcomed us. Then he asked if I had a greeting or a word to share.  My shyness threatened to take over, but I didn’t let it.  With a slightly shaky voice, I briefly spoke what was on my heart – that with all that’s going on in our country – the hurt, the killings, the divide, that I felt the Spirit’s prompting to step outside my normal routine and reach out in this way.  I added that I had also been prompted to bake cookies – and everyone laughed. I loved that.

The whole service was a blessing, but my favorite part was the altar call. We all – everyone of us – formed a circle in the center aisle. Then holding hands and leaning hearts and minds towards the altar, we prayed.  We prayed for peace and reconciliation for our country; we prayed for those who are hurt and grieving or ill; we prayed for hope and we affirmed that God is a God of life and that killing and hurting our fellow humans is not part of God’s plan for us.  And we thanked God for His love and grace.

Afterwards, we enjoyed cookies in the parish hall. I had a chance to talk and make more connections.  One of the parishioners  even said that the morning was like a breath of fresh air!  It was and I think we all needed it. When it was time to go, we were invited back anytime.  And we will be back… because  we are community and we need to come together and support each other.  Cookie by cookie, step by step.

My parting thought today, both for myself and for you, is what can I/you do this week to build bridges instead of walls, love instead of hate, and understanding instead of misunderstanding?  It doesn’t have to be anything big or complicated. It can be as easy as… baking cookies.

God bless you!