Parenting and Writing

There are definitely days when I feel sorry for my kids.  Having a writer for a mother cannot be easy.  At ages 9 and 12, they have not yet discovered all the places where their lives are exposed for the world to see and on which to make comment.  Not only do I keep a regular blog on which they appear often, but I write monthly for “A Hopeful Sign” which is more of an e-zine devoted to messages of hope, optimism and beauty and they’re often the focus of the stories.  I have written about Bailey in a magazine called Asian Jewish Life and I had a two-page spread a few years ago about both kids and my observations about their Montessori classrooms in the official magazine of the International Montessori Association, Today’s Child.  Sometimes little blurbs about them appear in my academic writing since I test out so many of my pedagogical theories on them first.  When I give speeches, I tell anecdotes about them, and in my classrooms, all of my students invariably know a lot about what the kids are doing.  Admittedly I used them as entree for lessons.

It is my choice to self-disclose in a public way.  Bailey and Sydney, however, have not made this choice – their public mother has made it for them.  Actually, at this point they still like it somewhat.  They feel famous.  I haven’t yet mentioned to them that the venues in which I publish aren’t quite national news and that their fame has a  limited  readership.

Oh, there are a lot of things I don’t discuss, including the kids’ schools, friends, doctors’ appointments – those are strictly tabo0.  As they move into teenage-hood, I imagine the list of “don’ts” will increase by their demand.  I have already heard, “Mom, are you going to write about this?”  I wasn’t sure of the mood or motivation of the question.

But for now, the kids are my best fodder.  They interest me, and it is a challenge and a goal to make their escapades and adventures interesting to potential readers.  As a writer, I’m always looking into real life for interesting ideas in both fiction and non-fiction.  Of course my family is my first go-to for material.  And hopefully, thirty years from now, after years of very expensive therapy, both of my children will be able to talk easily, if not disparagingly, about their mother the writer.

Nobody loves you like I do, Kid.

Critical Thinking as the Basis for Writing

The only way to thrive and succeed in a knowledge-based economy like the one in which we live now, is to view all content through the lens of critical thought.  Not only do we have to focus on ideas, creativity and thinking, but we have to be critical about it, fostering self-awareness of our own cognition.  This is the theoretical basis from which we write – and read.  Sophisticated thinkers ask themselves questions as they read, whether they are aware of it or not.  We ask questions to intuit point of view, setting and character.  We predict and analyze, whether we think about it consciously or not.  I would argue that it behooves us to be meta about our own thought process and in doing so, teach our children to be excited and interested in in it as it leads to good habits in the future.  Just as we encourage kids to develop good eating and exercise habits that will benefit them in later life, so should we encourage a strong, directed, and self-aware thought process so that the of thinking is as automatic as our morning run or fruit with breakfast.  In addition, by fostering questioning, we ask kids to organize their thoughts into coherent ideas, which will lead to better writing skills.  In theory, by teaching reading and writing via teaching critical thinking we are preparing students for the knowledge economy in which they will exist post-academia.  Taking in knowledge, processing it, and then putting it out again in the form of our own ideas is the ultimate goal.

And this, my friends, is the basis for good writing – no matter what your age.

My Son The Writer

My grandmother with my children in 2010.

Last week my son had a conversation with my grandmother, his great grandmother.  He had a school assignment to speak to someone – anyone he knew and could interview – who had a connection with World War II.  My grandfather was a pharmacist on a hospital ship based in Europe during the war, and though he died fifteen years ago, my grandmother was the obvious go-to source for help.

Before the call, Bailey created a list of questions to ask.  I looked over the list and they were good questions – ones designed to get her to talk and tell a story.  I knew my grandmother wouldn’t need much prompting to talk.  He wanted to know if Papa enlisted or was drafted.  He wanted to know if Papa ever saved any lives and how he survived the war.  He had questions for Grandma about the home front as well.  It was a good list.

As I predicted, Grandma didn’t need much prompting to talk.  She told Bailey a great story that Papa had told her about how the convoy that included his hospital ship normally sailed in complete darkness for secrecy, and then noticing the beauty of the lights on V.E. day when they could be more overt.  She reminded him that Papa was in Europe when my mother was born and he came home to fatherhood for the first time. She told him about how Papa donated his uniforms for Israeli soldiers after the war.  She told him about the patriotism of New Yorkers and how everyone did their part.  I listened to the entire interview as it happened on speakerphone.  My grandfather was just an ordinary guy, but at the same time, a great guy and a wonderful grandfather.  I spoke to him every day the last year of him life, and Bailey carries his name.   The whole conversation was rife with meaning – to my grandmother, to me, and even to Bailey.

With all of this info, Bailey had to write not an essay, but a poem.  That night, he sat down with his notes and wrote each line that Grandma had told him.  Then under it he wrote a line or two of description or analysis of the story.  He wrote concisely and tried to be as poetic as possible.  He really crafted the words.  He ended up with more than 400 words.

The next day Bailey’s teacher had a few words to say to the students about how to write, and actually suggested the method that Bailey used – quote then analysis.  He also had a word limit of 300 words, so Bailey then had to go back and tighten his language without losing any meaning – a tough exercise for any writer, novice or seasoned.  But he did it – he got it down to just about 300.

Bailey spent Tuesday evening reading the poem aloud over and over again to give it in class on Wednesday.  He said it went really well and the teacher and his classmates seemed to like the poem.  I was pleased for him.

Somehow he captured the feelings – he captured the idea that while my Papa wasn’t a war hero per se, every act at wartime is an act of heroism.  He found the words to name the sacrifice of missing the birth of his first child, and the depth of meaning behind giving uniforms to the army of the burgeoning state of Israel, much of whose initial population was comprised of former concentration camp victims.

I really didn’t help much; Bailey found the words to do it himself.  For me, as a writer, it was joyful to watch him do it.  The learning process – the thinking process – that is going on in his head as he develops never ceases to amaze me.  Is he learning from me?  I don’t know and I am not sure it matters much.  Bailey is just at the start of his educational journey, and I hope he can derive the same sweetness from it that I have had over the years.  He’s off to a strong start.

Workplace Equality In Japan: What’s in it for Men? My Latest Article

My most recent article appears in Eurobiz magazine, the publication of the European Chamber of Commerce in Japan,  this month.  I interviewed Dutch native Wendela Elsen, a Human Resources consultant in Tokyo, about her passion for not only gender equality in the workplace, but also about the role of men in creating such equality.  A recent study out of the New York Center for workplace equality supports her ideas.

This is an important piece and a topic to which we can all relate.  Enjoy!

Click here to see the full article.

Juggling Writing Schedules

Anyone who is an adjunct professor can tell you that one of the more challenging parts of the job is the schedule that changes every semester.  Many full-time professors have this issue as well, but it is definitely most common to adjuncts.  If one works at a smaller place, then there’s also the challenge of whether or not the class will “make” – if enough students will register for the class to make it worthwhile for the university to actually run it.  So a teacher can plan a course and it doesn’t even run in some scenarios. Every semester has a different rhythm.

In the same vein, writers’ lives have a constantly changing rhythm.  We have to make our own schedules and they can change daily.  It takes a lot of discipline to create a schedule for oneself when there are no outside pressures like deadlines or bosses.  If one is lucky enough to have editor-imposed deadlines, then that’s great, but not all writers are so fortunate to be writing so regularly.

This semester is going to be a crunchy one, for lack of a better adjective.  I am teaching mornings at an international high school (the only “regular” part of my life these days) and then teaching two classes at Temple University – freshman composition.  As of this writing, I’m not yet sure if the classes are the same, or if they are two different ones.    I am still part of a writing group that meets monthly and I fully intend to keep up with my blog twice weekly as usual.  Add to that a book club, the Jewish Community Center Board, and oh yes, my FAMILY.

Remember those people to whom I am supposed to be rededicated??

Starting from today, for the next 13 weeks of the Temple University semester, there will be a lot of juggling happening.  Luckily, writing is not a 9-5 operation.  I can write at my best time of day – 5:30am – if I want to.  I can write while the kids do their homework at night, which is kind of nice actually, with all of us working at the kitchen table.  And if I really need to, in a pinch, I can put off the writing until the following day.  It has been done before.   I am never happy about it, but it is possible.

So hop on the roller coaster with me, readers; the next three months are going to be quite a wild ride!!

My Characters’ Bad Behavior

There I was, writing along, and I came upon a stumbling block.  This character, a woman I had created in my own mind, was not behaving as I thought she should.  How could this be, I asked myself.  Characters in novels do not behave in certain ways.  They come alive off the page as the author imagines them.  They are not flesh and blood people and they do not have whims and wills of their own.

I am an experienced writer.  I have written short stories, essays, and magazine articles and I keep a weekly blog religiously, so writing, as well as potential writer’s block, is not a new phenomenon to me.  But this was a different problem. I am not accustomed to accusatory characters in my writing, especially when they are accusatory toward me.

The character, whose name is Jess, is a working mom.  She is a trader with a big bank and she has two sons who are eight and six.  Her husband is a lawyer.  The family, like mine, is an expat family in Tokyo. (Hey, everyone says to write what you know!)  But Jess is different than most other women I know or consider because she loves her job to distraction.  She can’t see how her work and her devotion to it are hurting her husband and sons.  She doesn’t want to see it.  And I’ve realized, as I’m moving forward with writing a chapter in my book devoted to Jess, that she might not ever see it or ever really change.  I, as the author, will have to deal with the consequences of my character’s inability to change.  This is not usual for me: I cannot control this woman.

My biggest problem, though, is that I do not like Jess.  This is another first for me – normally I like my characters and give them traits I admire, or at least I can garner a healthy respect for them.  Jess is not one of these characters.

Another problem is that Jess is forcing me to examine my own life and my own priorities.  I do a lot of teaching and I do a lot of writing.  I belong to a book group, and a writing group, and I am a board member of our local Jewish Community Center.  I have two wonderful children who are generally happy and healthy, and they deserve the very best that I, as their mother, can give them.  My husband is an attorney with a large, American law firm, and he requires support from his wife, as well.  So I am stretched pretty thin, as you can see here.

I have been struggling with Jess for the better part of two weeks.  I wake up thinking about her, and I went to sleep thinking about her.  What is she doing? Her husband is going to put his foot down at some point, isn’t he?  What about those poor little kids of hers?  But doesn’t she deserve to do the work she truly loves if it brings her fulfillment?

Then, at 5:45am on Sunday morning, I realized that it is okay for me, the writer, to follow Jess, the character.  Sometimes there are things in life that cannot be controlled, and in this case, one of those things is my character.  I am not Jess, and I do not have to struggle the way she does.  I can be grateful for my well-lived and busy life and the busy-ness does not have to reflect on my family if I don’t let it.

What brought about this epiphany of sorts? I’m still uncertain, but it might have to do with the fact that my family was all asleep in their beds and happy after we had spent a fun Saturday night together.  Maybe it was just the stress of the writing group meeting planned for Monday and I had to get something out to them to read.  I am not sure. I do know, however, that I spent about fifteen minutes in bed at 5:45 thinking about Jess and her priorities, and then was able to go into the computer room to write a quick 1000 words of Jess’s story.

Not all characters are like-able and perhaps it is a good thing if my characters provoke this type of reflection.  For now, I plan to look at Jess and let her tell me where her story is going.  It is okay if the story does not have a neatly tied-up, happy ending.  What matters is that I work on the story and write it to the best of my ability and that I stay engaged with my real life and the people who need me in it.

Sometimes we have to give up control.  Even as a writer, I have to give up control in order to learn and grow.  I have learned a lot of lessons with Jess.  I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet her, too.  Back to the writing board.

Focus – Choosing a Writing Life

Lately when speaking with my friend, we’ve been trying out the mantra “NO NEW PROJECTS!”  She and I tend to say yes to everything offered to us without deciding first what would be in the best interest of our already stretched-thin lives and precarious time management skills.  What’s exciting is that we are both being offered new things that are new and exciting, and well within our realm of interest and capability, so it’s just difficult to say no to some things that are so enticing. But frankly, the idea goes beyond time and ability and right down to focus.

As I write most days, I wonder what type of writer do I really want to be.  And then I wonder what type of writing teacher do I want to be.  The two could be very compatible if I weave them together properly.

For example, I write my blog posts pretty quickly and easily.  I also write about my kids and paint little sketches of their lives pretty well and without a great time investment.  My fiction, however, is a more arduous process that takes up an inordinate amount of time for me.  Is it worth it, I wonder?  Should I focus on non-fiction if that is easier for me?  My teaching is an interesting parlay to this.  I can teach freshman composition with ease.  But I am responsible for these middle and high school students this school year.  Is it worth it if it is much harder and takes so much more work from me?

Luckily I do not have to answer either of those questions definitively today.  Sometimes things that are worth the time one day are not quite as worthwhile the next day.  And that’s where it is good that we have multiple projects moving forward at once.

However, I do hope to make a plan over the winter holidays to focus my writing life.  Writing is based on projects and I want to complete the ones I have started and then list the ones I would like to do once the current projects are complete.  Perhaps I even need to shelve a project or two for when I can focus on different things that are not as urgent right now. I have to start managing what I am doing and for whom.  I have to evaluate which projects intrigue me most and give me the most joy, and then put away all the rest – or turn down future requests.  I believe if I focus on what is good and moves my career forward in the direction I choose, then I will be happier – and a better writer. It’s a matter of me choosing the direction and not letting the direction choose me.

These are goals of course, and I plan to meet them.  Of all the things I can say about a writing life, the journey of it is certainly the most interesting.  See you on the road.

Writing As a Teacher – New Adventures

Recently a lot of the writing I have done has been for school.  I am teaching freshman composition at Temple University’s Japan campus, but I am also teaching at The International Secondary School (ISS) part time in the mornings.  I teach one class of 7th grade English, one class of 8th grade English, and then one class of Multicultural literature for 12th graders.  Trust me when I tell you that it is never boring.

This is the end of the first marking period and right now I have just finished writing report card comments, the first I have ever done in my life.  Wow, what a challenge!

As a parent myself, I know what those comments mean.  Parents search within them for clues to how their child is really doing, regardless of their grade.  If the grade is low, they search for reasons why.  If the grade is high, they lap up the positive comments like a parched animal.  Every word is subject to interpretation and therefore, misinterpretation.

The key is to make the comments nuanced enough so the parent can understand what the concerns are with their child, without being outright negative.  No one wants to believe something bad about their own child, and bad news is difficult to deliver.   Even good comments have to be phrased in such a way that is cautiously optimistic, lest the parent think that the child is fault-free.

It took me a long time to craft the right message to the parent about the kids.  It is a whole different type of writing than that to which I am accustomed.  I’m not saying that it was a bad experience; just different.  How’s that for nuance?

Time Management

Since starting back with teaching this fall, and the kids in two new schools, I’ve had to get used to a few new schedules.  I teach at the high school every day in the mornings and then also Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at Temple University.  After 4pm I like to block off for kid-stuff – shuttling them around and generally being with them.  Sometimes I have that time for myself  if the kids are busy, but generally my days are pretty scheduled.

I start each day around 5:30 with a run or a yoga session, so I’m in bed by 10:30 at the latest.

Here’s the interesting part: my writing efficiency has improved markedly.

Last year I used to regularly have three or four hours at a stretch in which I could write some fiction or other things.  Those long blocks of uninterrupted time are a thing of the past.  Now, if I find myself with a spare ninety minutes, I feel grateful.  And whereas in the past I would fritter away half the spare time on email, or facebook or some useless game, I can now be productive for almost all of those gifted ninety minutes.  My thought process is that I can never tell when I’ll get that time again – I had better use it while I have it.

Am I working hard? Absolutely.  But I’m happier than I’ve been in quite a while, and I also feel so much more productive in almost every area of my life than I used to when I didn’t work outside the home.

Please don’t get me wrong: working is not the be-all and end-all for every woman out there, and I have my share of crappy days, but it really is good for me – the whole thing is improving my outlook on life.

And now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go make the most of my evening time – a small girl on my couch would like a snuggle.  I’m almost never to busy for that request.

More Learning WITH my students

A fellow teacher gave me a book a few weeks ago titled, Story Starters on Ancient Japan.   She is the middle school humanities/history teacher at ISS, and I am the writing teacher.  She thought we could collaborate – I would teach the eighth graders to write a story, and she would bolster the content.  It seemed like a grand idea.

The book goes through a series of steps to writing a narrative – just like I would teach my kids.  First, create a character and get to know him as well as you know yourself.  Figure out his name, how he looks, what he does – everything about him.  Then, figure out where he is – at home, at work, in a garden – anywhere.   And then give him action – a plot.  We need an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and a resolution.

Because it focuses on ancient Japan, it gives examples in that vein.  It lists details about shoguns, samurai, geisha and other ancient Japanese stereotypical people.   The settings involve shrines, battlefields, or music halls.  The plots involve intrigue and battles and the occasional espionage.

On Monday, I enlisted the help of my children and I actually photocopied the pages onto card stock and cut out to create the character, setting, and plot cards.  Then on Tuesday, in my eighth grade class, I threw them across the table, telling them to choose – match them up – and create the bones of a story.

Well, the students ate it up!  They found a cool guy, put him in a weird spot, and made him do radical stuff – as they said.  I just sat back and watched as they were off and running.  The process is going to take the better part of this week as they create the outline of what they want to accomplish – and then next week they can start drafting.

It’s a purely methodical way to write a story – matching ideas until they come out whole as the story in your head.  But whatever works for these kids is what I’m going to try.

And then, lo and behold, I am going to put together a few story cards of my own; stack a deck, if you will.  Because my own writing could use a little kick.  A formula might be just the push I need.