Archive for the ‘Being the people’ Category

What kind of sales should I expect of my debut novel if I go the indie route? This is what I am asking myself these days, today in particular as I draw up a balance sheet of estimated expenses and revenues, to help me decide whether or not to launch into independently publishing Faint Promise of Rain. Of course, part of me feels like it would be the natural thing to do, in keeping with the whole being-the-people thing, but I still need to understand the nitty gritty of it all.

With enough poking around, I was able to obtain some concrete numbers on the expenses side such as the per copy cost of printing if I do a short-print run, the shipping costs for online sales, the standard retailer wholesale discount (which I was shocked to learn is 55%) and other such data points. For other expenses, the Internet is providing me with enough examples for me to make some informed guesses, such as how much to spend on a publicist, and what editorial services should cost for a manuscript which, my agent tells me, is in good shape.

But when it came to what to expect for revenue, the Internet became my enemy . Not only because I cannot find much in the way of concrete examples of debut literary fiction sales figures, but because I am finding posting after posting filled with depressing predictions. Apparently, if I am to believe what the doom-and-gloom folks out there are saying under the guise of bracing indie hopefuls such as myself for misery, I would be lucky to sell 5,000 copies of my book. In total. Not in one year. Not in five years. EVER.

And this is where turning to the Internet can be so destructive. It’s like allowing yourself to drown in a sea of information regarding an illness, and all its possible horrible ramifications, and how it could, it just might, ruin your life, and how in some cases it will cripple you, and how there are support groups to help you cope because otherwise you might just want to end it all now. You read the discussion forums of those who are suffering and while your heart goes out the them, you quake at the prospect of ending up like them. Ok, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but I see it this way: I could choose to throw in the towel and declare that there’s no point for just 5,000 copies, or I could stand tall and say: 5,000 is nothing to sneeze at, and in any case, I can easily beat that. (And the illness metaphor is not totally gratuitous, as I’ve had some experience in that realm.) The darn thing is, I do believe I can beat that. Five thousand copies? That seems like nothing to me! I think of the connections I have in the dance world, in the Indian community, all the people I know who revel in literary fiction, the fact that India is, for good reason, a popular setting and topic in fiction, I think of all the people who have told me my manuscript is beautiful (thank you!), the fun ideas I have for promotion, and 5,000 seems more than feasible.

And yet. Those glum predictions hang over my head, because now that I have read them, I can’t un-read them. Despite feeling confident in my manuscript and my marketing ideas, there is a voice in the back of my head asking me why I have the hubris to dismiss the cautions of people who purport to know more than I do about the ins and outs of publishing. But then, in the nick of time, the Internet comes to my rescue. Because therein is the beauty of the Internet: it can, in one day, in one hour, mete out despair and hope in equal measure. One of my go-to sites for realistic, supportive advice and ideas regarding publishing, Grub Street, posted this entry just today by Terri Giuliano Long entitled “Indie success: hold on to your dreams.” In it this writer takes us back to when she was, essentially, in my shoes, believing 5,000 copies would be her ideal, through her indie publishing experience, and her sales of 120,000 copies in the past twelve months. And that is when I knew to stop trawling the web for information. I’d found what I wanted.

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People ask how I do it—children, freelance work, dance, volunteering, home and meals, writing, but the fact of the matter is, the secret is, very often I just don’t. And when I don’t, it’s the writing that is the first to go. (Well, except for when Next Doors is providing the meal, in which case I can happily let go of the cooking knowing a fantastic dinner is on its way.) Anyone in my situation—and I know that means a lot of people– will understand this. I know I am not alone, and usually I manage to cope, but there are times when I start to despair that I’ll ever get two sentences down for my next book. Because the problem that I have now recognized is that I can never manage to enter and then inhabit the world of my book, across the world and nearly two centuries ago, long enough to get the muse going. How do other writers in this predicament do it, I wonder? And why have I set myself up to place my next story in a setting that requires me to transport myself into another world? (Well, that’s a whole other story, one that David Rocklin touches on in this post on Beyond the Margins.)

Take the other day, for example. It was not even a particularly, remarkably complicated day. Just an average one. But even with one child attending school and one with a sitter for a the morning, I was not able to extract myself from the household scene until 9:30 am, almost three full hours after getting up. There were lunches to make and pack, a full breakfast to cook so we could have a solid meal and some family time to get the day going, negotiations about attire appropriate for the weather and school activities, the spare crib to set up for the Next Doors child who spends Wednesdays with the sitter as well, dinner logistics to arrange, and so on.

When I finally managed to retreat upstairs with my twice reheated tea, leaving two babbling toddlers with the sitter, I found a slew of emails pertaining to my dance group’s performance, including logistics relative to costumes, the cues for the lighting and sound techs, the order of the dance items and more. I skimmed them, responded to as many as possible, and turned off my email program so as not to be distracted by the notifications of new mail. I averted my eyes from the pile of envelopes and papers in my inbox marked “To Deal With Now” which was leaning precariously because of something lumpy buried somewhere underneath, the identity of which I have not tried to elucidate for fear of causing an avalanche of papers that might reveal long overdue bills.

I put my teacup down and wondered if I should, instead of drinking it, go upstairs to practice my dance piece, then decided not to because a serious practice would then entail a shower, and the whole process would seriously cut down on my already dwindling and precious work time. Instead I turned on the music to the piece and went through it a few times in my head. Better than nothing, I told myself, although I still felt guilty. Guilt is a large part of trying to do so many things: one is never fully satisfied with the level at which one is managing to do any given one of them.

Finally, after running the gauntlet of aforementioned toddlers in my living room, I escaped to a coffee shop, settled in, was distracted for a while by the conversation at the adjacent table which I started mining for ideas for another story. By the time I opened the book I’d been toting around for days, a book that looked like it would yield some good research, it was 11 am.

I was right—the book I launched into, singer Sheila Dhar’s Here is Somebody I’d Like You to Meet, was, despite its unwieldy title and dreary cover, engaging, funny, smartly written and full of colorful anecdotes which drew me into the world of Indian classical musicians in the early to mid 1900s, their eccentricities, their art. (See her obituary here. I wish I could have met her in person.) I felt myself slip into that world, and ideas for my own characters started forming. I jotted down some notes, noticed that I was doing so, smiled to myself, then glanced at my watch. And the whole mood was instantly lost. I realized I had only one hour until school pick-up, and that before then I needed to check into my work email for edits to a cover letter for an overdue federal grant proposal. Ugh. I started despairing as to when I’d have another chance to enter that world and recapture the source of story and character ideas. (It’s now over a week later, and that chance has not yet come.)

This is the true challenge of the writer: to be able to create (or re-create) and inhabit a whole different world, to have lengthy and complex experiences in it, to see it in all its detail, and to fit all this into just an hour or two of actual existence. That space is like a dream, one that one can conjure up at will, in which a whole day’s events are compressed into a few minutes of sleep time, or like the cloud at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree which holds within it an entire universe in which Fanny, Jo and Bessie can have fantastic adventures with Moon Face and Saucepan Man, but be home in time for supper.

I want one of those clouds, one of those dreams. I want a place I can jump into for an hour, and experience ten hours of ideas and adventures. Someone mentioned to me recently that I should apply for a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and so I looked it up, and watched this video, and realized this is it. What a magical-sounding place, where for two weeks (more would be impossible considering children and such) I could be given a studio in the woods, quiet time, lunch delivered in a picnic basket by a kind soul on a bicycle, and the evening company of dozens of other artists with whom conversation would spark ideas and creativity and energy. I could get a year of work done in fourteen days. Of course, there’s the minor issue of being selected from amongst the thousands of applicants each year. But I think I’ll try. If not that one, which is so highly selective, than others, as long as they are open to all sorts of artists, not just writers. In a year or so, when a draft is hopefully well underway and Little One is bigger, I think I’ll try to enter that cloud for just a wee bit of time, and see what happens.

And now Little One is about to wake from her nap, Big One has been chatting at me for a while, and it’s my turn to make dinner. At least the grant proposal is in.

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I find myself confronted with an entirely new situation. I have a story in mind, and some partially-formed characters who are gradually emerging out of the haze, like a colorful and over-loaded truck whose contours and contents take shape in the smog as one approaches them headlong on a January morning in Delhi. (Horn OK please!) I have a specific setting in time and space—one with a richness of sights and smells and sounds. I have some time, carefully carved out with significant effort on my part, to dive in and start writing. And yet, that’s the problem. I can’t find my way in.

My story is locked in some kind of fortress and hasn’t offered me an access point. All I am looking for is a little opening, a crack in the wall that lets me catch a glimpse of a specific scene, a snippet of dialogue, a view of a character in emotional turmoil, a whiff of a thali of food in someone’s home. All I need is a catalyst for words to start lining up in my head. Is it because I have yet to visit the specific locale and am lacking the visceral experience of place that I had for my first novel? But I should be able to break into some scenes regardless. Any good writer should be able to do this, no? Is it because I’m frozen by the knowledge that I’m setting out to write a book, as opposed to simply noodling around with an image and some words? Should I consider that perhaps this is just not the story I should be writing, if I can’t even find a little loose thread on which to tug? Is it possible that I’m not, after all, a writer?

I don’t think so. A quick Google search on “starting a new novel” (yes, such are the ways of procrastination) reveals two equally universal and parallel sets of feelings: hope and possibility on the one hand, and paralysis and panic on the other. So it’s good to know my symptoms are those of a normal sort. The inability to get started, the focus on research because it is easier than writing from scratch. The fear that I might not know how to write a good story, even though I have already done so.

So here’s the goal for 2012: to break through the wall. To put writing first, and not just writing in a vague sense, but actual put-words-on-paper writing. Not just mulling over characters under the pretext that they need to be fully formed before they can start acting. Not just gazing at gorgeous albumen prints of 1860s Lucknow saying to myself this is necessary in order to create a sense of place in my mind before I set my characters down in it. Not just outlining all the scenes of the first few chapters in order to feel I am making sensible progress.

And on the subject of breaking through walls, the second goal for 2012 is to crash through the barriers to publication and get my first book out there, into the hands of readers, whether a traditional (or “legacy” or print or “p-” or whatever) publisher wants to be the one to do it with me or not. It’s time to be the people, and take matters into my own hands. I have a wonderful, enthusiastic and creative agent by my side, and together I know we can make it happen. I look forward to sharing my first novel with you.

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In follow-up to my last post, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of our “commune.” I put this in quotes, because it is not REALLY the nature of the arrangement I’m about to describe, but the term that our friends use in jest, and also I suspect, for some, in mild jealousy.

You see, one of the key things that enables me to do anything, including (and perhaps especially) maintain my sanity, is the symbiotic relationship my family has developed with another family. (And this is no hyperbole. When my book is published, they will be among the first to be acknowledged.) Because four adults raising four children is collectively far, far easier than two adults raising two children and, completely separately, two other adults raising two other children. Now lest you think this is something it’s not, or that you’re going to get some voyeuristic glimpse into other people’s bizarre behavior, I’ll point out that our two households maintain a strong degree of separation. There is no mixing of finances, no swapping of spouses, no juicy stuff like that. We don’t even know intimate secrets about each other, although we do know things like what brand of toilet paper the other family uses, because we routinely do each other’s shopping errands.

What makes our arrangement of shared child chare and shared meal preparation and shared errands so functional is the very fact that we did not set about to do this on purpose. We were not good friends who decided to try to mesh our lives because we thought we made for a perfect match. It’s a relationship that grew out of convenience and necessity (and the tantalizing aromas of massive vats of Vietnamese pho traveling up the HVAC system of our previous home), and it was possible because—and here’s the incredibly lucky part—it just so happens that we have eerily similar values when it comes to our homes, our children, our use of money and time, and our food.

The other family, whom we refer to as “Next Doors” (and who were “Downstairs” in our previous home), happens to have two children, L and E, of about the same ages as ours, happens to have attended the same college (although we did not know each other at the time), happens to have uncannily aligned interests, and happens to have similar personalities, i.e. Ms. Next Doors is very similar to me, and Mr. Next Doors to my husband. Ms. ND and I are able to have entire conversations around logistics by uttering only a few, incomplete sentences, while other folks look on in bewilderment.

“Oh, it’s an early release day, so could you…”

“Yeah, sure, but the baby…”

“No problem, I’ll ask the sitter…”

“Oh then bring them over here…”

“Won’t that mean…”

“Right, ok, why don’t you do it then…”

“Perfect.”

All this compatibility was complete coincidence, and discovered over the course of a couple of years after they moved in to the apartment below ours over ten years ago. (Now we live in two side-by-side homes with a shared yard and trundle beds in the older kids’ rooms for easy sleepovers.) In this, we were all supremely lucky, and I am reminded of this daily, when Next Doors takes my children for the half hour gap between my departure for a writing group meeting and the return of my husband from work, or when there is someone to stay with my youngest so I don’t have to wake her from her nap to go pick up the oldest and thus am spared a cranky baby, or when I can spend the two hours of quiet time when one child is asleep and the other at an after-school class doing some writing because I know that Next Doors will be providing us all with a fabulous meal and I don’t have to think about making dinner.

While our circumstances are particularly fortuitous, it is within anyone’s power to make the effort to help build a community, a neighborhood, a little ecosystem of co-assistance. Everyone can cultivate other people and families with whom there can be exchanges of favors, shared errand-running, car-pools and child-minding. Everyone can go the extra step now and then to lend a favor, a helping hand, and what better feeling than to know that there will be a resource to draw from when one is in need? An extra 5% effort on the part of one person can mean a savings of 95% effort for the other. It’s no skin off my back to double a recipe and feed an extra household when I’m cooking anyway, and it saves Next Doors a lot of effort.

We live in a world of fences, fragmentation, wariness of others. We are off-grid, wireless, disconnected in the name of greater connectivity. We upload to the Cloud and work remotely. But the human-to-human connection, the physical sharing of goods and services, meals and bulk rolls of paper towel, the in-person network to which one gives when it is easy to do so and from which one takes when it is necessary, are the connections that make so many of the daily details manageable, and so many of the greater achievements even conceivable.

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A couple of months ago, a friend—an artistic filmmaker—asked me: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, health and volunteering? She asked this not as a rhetorical question, but as someone who seemed truly to expect that I would have an answer for her. But the fact of the matter is, despite my having written one work of fiction and dreamed up the ideas for others amidst all those other responsibilities and activities, I have no idea. Really. It turns out that just because one has done something doesn’t mean one knows how to do it. Or at least, how to explain how to do it. Even to oneself.

I’m not sure what answer I gave her. I know I felt the need to give her some substance, some words of advice, a recipe she could hold onto and pull out whenever she does have children, a household that needs more tending, a cause for which she feels driven to volunteer, other demands on her time that take her away from her own creative work. That’s what I would have wanted had I been in her place, asking someone else. I suppose I made something up; it was probably neither eloquent nor useful nor satisfactory, although I know it was truthful. I have been to writers’ conferences in which a handful of established and successful authors have sat on a panel and fielded questions from hopeful writers, and on hearing their answers I’ve thought to myself: well, that’s not very helpful. And now I fear that, should I ever be honored enough to sit on such a panel, I will let others down in the same way. But I understand why.

It’s a question I ask myself a lot these days, and it comes in two parts. Part 1: How on Earth did I do it? And Part 2: How on Earth do I continue to do it? And now that I am no longer on the spot, that I have had some time to mull it over, I realize that the recipe is one that is unique to me. It’s a melange of my personality, my background, my circumstances. It won’t fit exactly for anyone else. There are no neat tablespoon measurements, no fixed stirring times. My ingredients:

Dogged—some might say stubborn—perseverance

The compulsion to use every shred of time toward accomplishing something

The belief that 20 minutes is enough time to accomplish something (this ingredient was given to me once I had children)

Patience (this was an ingredient I had to plant and nurture, not one I already had in my pantry)

Organization

(As you can see, none of these are particularly creative.)

I took all these things, and then I linked as many parts of my life as possible to some aspect of my creative pursuit: I take kathak dance classes (through which I get my exercise), I volunteer for the Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance, I incorporated the dance into my novel, and I enrolled my older daughter in a class that I teach. I’d like to say that this was all the result of a well-thought out plan, but no. It’s just how things happened.

The truth of the matter is, I just cram it in wherever I can, between work-related conference calls and school pick-up, during the younger one’s nap times while the older one plays with a friend, at a café while rehydrating and having some lunch after a dance practice, in the evening after tucking the little ones into bed and before their father returns from his martial arts class. As Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, said in a March 2002 interview on Writer Unboxed: “All my life I’ve been doing my work in the intervals between making a living and living my life.” (And if I could write a book half as beautiful and haunting as hers, I would feel fulfilled.)

And yet my version of cramming it in “wherever I can” pales in comparison to what I’ve read from other writers. I don’t have daily word-count goals, I don’t write at a specific time of day or week, I don’t get up an hour before the children as many writers suggest. I don’t think much about my creative projects while doing other things like shopping for groceries, I don’t compose dialogues among my characters while driving, because during those times I usually have chatterbox children with me, or I’m planning out family logistics or meals, or I just want to let my brain float. I don’t tend to work once the kids are in bed because that is my time to spend with my husband, and to catch up on other things like reading and reconnecting with friends on the phone. And honestly, I don’t always feel inspired to be creative. The pressure to produce something in a limited time can be counter-productive. Sometimes I manage to set aside a couple of hours to work on my book, and my mind is blank. But for me the key is to honor my decision and make sure I use that time for something at least related to writing. I read agent and editor blogs, I think about a blog post of my own, I daydream about ways to market my book once it’s published.

There is much room for improvement, and for increased efficiency. And so, while I’m not unhappy with my system, I am curious, and would still ask the same question of others: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, and the other demands on your time?

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When you have your second child, everything seems easier than the first time around. (Assuming, of course, an uncomplicated delivery/arrival and a healthy baby.) At least, that’s how it has seemed in this household. We already had the gear, the clothing and the myriad little baby care gizmos that the modern world provides and that somehow the generations before ours did without. We already knew what was normal and what was not. We had perspective—the 6-8 pm witching hours really don’t last forever! We had the infrastructure and the general life-schedules that were already tailored to small-scale humans and their needs.

Not so with the second book. No no no, not at all. We’re starting from scratch here. You’d think that having spent 8 years writing one novel, I’d have an idea as to how to begin another. And yet I find myself reaching up into my shelves to pull out my writing-related books. Surely one will tell me how to go about creating a main character, no? Somewhere I must have a how-to-write-a-novel book, right? Internet, come to my rescue!

And then there’s another issue. No pun intended. What “should” I be writing, from a publishing career standpoint? Should I stick to the same genre as book one? Is it ok to try to publish something completely different? I have another project, a collection of linked short stories, which I’m having fun writing. They are diametrically opposed to my first book. For one, they are short stories, not a novel. They are set right near where I live, not thousands of miles away. They take place now, not five hundred years ago. And best of all for me, they don’t involve any research. I have the complete freedom to just write. Don’t get me wrong, I love the research I do for historical fiction, but it’s also refreshing and liberating to be able to write a scene without looking up what type of bird lives in such and such desert, and what material homes were made in at a certain time and place. I get to exercise an entirely different writing muscle. But, I worry. If I’m lucky enough for my first book to see reasonable success, if the public receives it warmly, am I tempting fate by trying to feed it something entirely different? And then, how much should I care about this? Shouldn’t I just write what’s in my heart, and not worry about how much it makes sense from a career standpoint? Ack!

My agent is encouraging. She suggests drafting a paragraph on Book 2 of my sort-of-series for her to include with her pitch to editors, and meanwhile she is encouraging about short stories, saying she’d be glad to help me place them for publication. A woman after my own heart, pursuing multiple angles at once. And so, here we go. Launching Project 2 and Project 3 (or, more realistically, Project 58 and Project 59) simultaneously. Wish me luck! In the meantime, fingers crossed that we send out the first manuscript on sub to editors next month.

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A friend of mine posted on her Facebook page a link to a fascinating talk by Sir Ken Robinson about education and creativity. Fascinating, but, especially for a parent, worrisome, for it makes me feel that, with my daughters in regular, public schools, there is little hope of them retaining the creativity with which they were born. (Although my friend, who works in the field of education in a non-profit focused on improving schools, says that it is not depressing, as there are movements out there to reform the educational system. I pray that these movements make a difference in the next 15 years.)

The talk, which you may view here, and which is accompanied by expertly drawn and artistic animation which causes one really to pay attention to the presentation, is about changing education paradigms. Sir Ken Robinson, a professor of education and, according to his site, a leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources, argues that the current education system in most of the world was designed in, and created for, another time: the age of enlightenment, and the industrial revolution. It was based on an intellectual model of the mind that valued deductive reasoning, and a knowledge of the classics. What we refer to as “academic” ability. Today, there is still a production line mentality, he argues, in which students are educated in batches (by age), with a separation of subjects (math, literature, etc.) and a focus on standardized testing, on there being one right answer.

But we are now in a different time. Children are bombarded with stimuli. It is become clearer and clearer that children do not all learn in the same way at the same age. Some might benefit from group learning, others might learn best on their own. Some in the morning, some in the afternoon. And yet, we (at least in the United States) are moving more and more toward standardization.

Ken Robinson advocates moving away from standardization, and toward individualism and creativity. He points to studies that show that 98% of kindergarteners score at a “genius” level when it comes to divergent thinking, or the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question and lots of ways to interpret a question, the capacity for creativity. Five years later, the number is down to 50%.  And it continuse downward with time.

Oy. I look at 6 year old K, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of panic about the future. Right now she is super creative, with her ideas, with her words, with her drawings. She comes up with possible answers that I’d never think of, with original ideas. Even the way she dresses, the combinations of clothes she chooses, is creative. Then I imagine her five years from now, conforming to the standard outfits that are “in” for sixth graders, spouting values and opinions that she’s assimilated from the collective.

Perhaps this is too bleak a view to take. I like to think of myself as reasonably creative, as fairly adept in divergent thinking, and of course I followed the trends in school. (One could argue that I did so rather poorly, but that’s a whole other story.) But all this makes me want to think of ways to nurture and preserve that capacity in my daughters. How to do this? Do we as parents have any control over this? K wants to be an art teacher, which sounds fabulous to me. She knows that I write, that in this family we value creative writing. She’s learning to play guitar, and is aware that her father knows a lot about music. But… today in the car she commented on a route I took, saying “Mom, you took the long cut.” And before I could even think about it, I corrected her: “One doesn’t say long cut. One can say short cut, but there’s no such thing as a long cut.” Gah! What possessed me to say that? Why can’t there be a “long cut” just because it’s not a commonly accepted expression? So much for my divergent thinking. Sigh.

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K doesn’t like tags in clothing. (Who does?) They scratch her, and she always wants them taken out. (Why haven’t more clothing makers adopted the tagless system of printing the relevant information on the inside of the neckline?) A few days ago, we went clothing shopping, and she picked out a few items, including a long sleeved shirt with some kind of shiny design on the front. Yesterday morning, she came downstairs for breakfast, dressed, clutching the side of the shirt, looking contrite and teary-eyed.

“Mommy… something happened,” she said, coming up to me.

I understood immediately, but I asked anyway.

“What?”

“There was a tag and I tried to cut it off… sniff… and now look!” She erupted in wails as she moved her hands to unveil a ragged, jagged hole in the side of her shirt.

“Oh, I’m sorry sweetie. Tags are hard to cut off. That’s why you need to ask an adult to do it.”

“But Mommy! This is my favorite shirt!”

“Well, I’m not sure what to tell you. You can still wear it, if you’d like.”

“But nooooo! Can you sew it up?

Well, I suppose I could have, but I wasn’t going to.

“No, I’m sorry. Next time, just ask me or Papa, ok?”

“Wahhh!”

She tromped upstairs, crying. A few minutes later, she shuffled back downstairs, wearing a different shirt. She lifted her head and said: “You made me feel like I had to make the hole bigger!”

That was a good one.

“No, I really didn’t. If you made the hole bigger, that was entirely your decision.”

“No! You made me do it.”

Sigh. “Would you like a blueberry bagel for breakfast?”

For a while I felt a bit guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her have pointy scissors in her desk. Maybe I should have been more understanding. Maybe I should have agreed to try to sew up the hole. She was just trying to be independent.

A couple of days later, I sat in my dance class discussing with a few of the senior dancers the auditions they had just held for a new kathak youth ensemble. Six students showed up, between the ages of ten and fourteen. Five of them did well enough to form the first youth ensemble group. One of them was not prepared enough, and a decision was necessary. Accept her anyway, to give her the motivation to practice more and so as to avoid her disappointment? Not accept her, in order to send a clear message that showing up for an audition does not guarantee success? Accept her on a trial basis? But then, would that drag down practice sessions with the others? If she was not accepted, would she simply give up? Or at ten would she be mature enough to view this as an opportunity to improve?

We opted for the second option, of not accepting her, albeit being very supportive of her and her dance. The conclusion: children will learn from disappointment. It’s ok if they are upset and cry. I thought of K and her scissors, and felt vindicated.

Later that day, K came to me with her scissors, holding them the way she knows to do, by the blades, and handed them to me, asking me to cut out a tag from her dress. I smiled to myself and thought of all the rejections I have received from agents on my manuscript, and all the times I’ve cried in anger and exploded in expletives at the sight of “I regret to tell you…” and all the times I’ve wanted to tear up the pages (“you made me feel like I had to make the hole bigger!”) and all the times I’ve then pulled myself together to begin revisions anew. And I snipped off the tag.

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There’s no one quite like a five year old to showcase the potential of escalation. Take the following case:

Five year old K has started kindergarten. She likes her class; the head teacher is a “boy teacher” who is “cool and rides a motorcycle” and K has already made friends. With three years of preschool under her tiny belt, she is adept at saying goodby to Mom and Dad (already long gone are the days of Mommy and Daddy) and functioning in a social milieu on her own. But the after school program poses more of a problem. It is no longer the coddling environment of four and five year olds with a 1:3 adult to child ratio, where clear and rehearsed rules govern every form of interaction and activity. The after school program, for all the compliments about it that I heard from other parents, is more of a free for all. Children from kindergarten through sixth grade spend the afternoon from school dismissal, at 2:25, until their parent/sitter/guardian can pick them up. There are some structured activities, there are some adults, and there are two rooms—one for grades K through 2, and one for the older kids—but there’s also an atmosphere of rough and tumble, a long recess at the playground with all the children at once, and indoor “free play” which causes the decibel level to rise far beyond what is comfortable to the normal human ear. A pack of 6-7 year old boys and a bin of Transformers; need I say more?

K does not do rough and tumble. To my chagrin and concern, she’s the kid who gets knocked down by a bigger kid, usually a boy, usually unintentionally, and sits there and cries. And so on the third day of school, during outdoor play in the afternoon, she tripped/was knocked down (the reports are varied) while running and fell flat on her head, nose, hands and knees. And she howled. And howled. And howled. At 3:00 pm I receive the dreaded call from after school: please come pick up your child. When I get there, three minutes later because we live around the corner and I had been working from home, she is a complete mess. Wailing, covered in bandaids, inconsolable.

“I can’t walk” she cries hysterically when I take her by the hand to get her to stand up.

“Of course you can,” I say calmly. “Your legs are still there. You just got some scrapes.”

“Noooooo! I can’t!”

And so begins a litany of “I can’ts” and “I’m scareds.” I can’t bend my leg, I can’t go up the stairs, I’m afraid it will hurt, I’m afraid the bandaids will come off in the bath, I wish this had happened to someone else, I should have been wearing knee pads (seriously, she said this), I can’t get onto my bed, the blanket will hurt my knee, I can’t lie down, I won’t be able to sleep, I don’t like after school, I need to stay home, I don’t want to be five, and on and on. And I feel bad for her, but a large part of me wants to shake her by the shoulders and say Kid, take a breath, take control, be strong, dare to bend your leg and you’ll see it’s not that bad. I want to tell her, Be The People! Because that’s what it is. Don’t let the bigger kid who happened to tumble into you and knock you down get to decide, even unbeknownst to him, whether you like school or not. Don’t let a relatively minor booboo determine whether you are going to have a good day or not. She is so independent in other ways, so resilient to change and new things, and yet so easily knocked off balance by little things that hurt. Is this something I can teach her? Is this something that can be taught at all? I hope so.

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