Monday, January 31, 2011

Children & School Visits

Children are so Forgiving if you Goof Up

Want to know what my favorite part is about doing an author school visit?

EVERYthing!  I love every part of it.

Even my inner child loves doing school visits -- it gives her a chance to get out, stretch her legs, exercise her sense of humor, and be among people her own age for a little while.

Of course, I have to rein her in every now and then -- she takes such liberties, at times -- tsk tsk, you know how children can be ...

What surprises me is how many children's authors I've met who have no interest in doing an author school visit. They don't know the fun they're missing. For me, it's the icing on the cake. It's the best part about being a children's author.

Writing the book was the hard part; finding a publisher was right up there with hard, but more of a pain in the butt than anything else. School visits are the best part of being published.

In talking with some authors, it comes down to speaking to a group, any group. Doesn't matter how old the group is, they don't want to do it. I guess I have to respect that ... to each his own. What they don't seem to realize is, children are so honest and trusting. They hold you in awe and high regard because you "wrote a book" -- jeepers, they don't even care what kind of book! They only know that you wrote it, so they trust that you must be 'pretty special'.

Children are also very forgiving if you goof up. As long as you still own the ability to laugh at yourself, goofing up isn't a problem, it's actually a positive, and can be an ice-breaker, if the ice hasn't already been broken by the time you goof up.

School Visit, Worcester, MA
I don't know how many times over the years I've screwed up a line from one of my own poems. Solution: make a silly face, say the line the way it should be said, and say something like: "Oh man, I sure screwed that up, didn't I? I don't even know my own poem! Sorry 'bout that." And then laugh -- they'll laugh right along with you.

Bada-Bing-Bada-BOOM.  Forgiven.

So, if you're a children's author who doesn't yet do school visits, please reconsider. Send me an email if you need more information, or call me and I'll give you a pep talk. (The number is on here somewhere).

It's fun signing autographs between presentations. It's wonderful getting hugs at the end of a long day, and it feels really good to walk down the hall and have children smile, wave, or call out your name ...

"A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write." ~CJ Heck

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Inner Child: A School Visit Morning

My Children's Books

On an author school visit day, I set the alarm for 5:00 a.m.

Then I say to myself what Ron White always says, "It's gonna be a good day today, Tater."

Most mornings start out pretty much the same at our house.

Robert and I have coffee together first, then we write our blogs and post them; then I post one of the veteran's articles on Memoirs From Nam, answer emails, approve comments, answer them, and then I'm ready to settle in and write, or edit, while Robert heads off to work.

On mornings when I have a school visit, there's so much more to do. I need a good hour with my coffee, check the internet for a few minutes, answer emails, and then I have to get busy.

I have to put my contacts in, take a shower, get dressed, pack up the car ... but before I do any of that, I have to do something else, first ...

I have to wake up my inner child.  I never do a school visit without her. She's not far away, though -- she's down inside, patiently waiting for the wake up call.

I have to give credit where credit is due. She's the one who really loves doing the school visits and she does most of the work, too, although we each have our jobs to do in the presentations. But, she's the one who gets the adrenalin pumping -- I'm just happy she lets me share the fun.

I also have to set aside some time to make sure I have everything else that goes with me (us):
  • books (weeks before, I take a pre-order from schools and their students) 
  • brochures 
  • book marks 
  • doorknob signs
  • spider treasure boxes
  • stickers

A few years ago, one librarian at a school visit presented me with a HUGE paper mache spider.  He looks exactly like the comical, colorful spider on my book.

She painted his body blue, his head red, the long legs are white, and to finish him, she glued on these large "google eyes". She even fashioned the web he "hangs" from, out of a piece of wire.

He's adorable and I treasure him. Now he comes with me (us) on every school visit, like a mascot.  My inner child and the kids at the schools adore him.

So, once the check list is done, I remind myself once again, "Yep, it's gonna be a good day today, Tater ..."

Happy School Visiting!

"A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write." ~CJ Heck

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Winter and Snow

Anyone else tired of snow? I don't know, I guess my bones are just getting too, well, not old exactly, just plenty tired of the cold and winter weather. When bones graduate to the senior division, that seems to be when they get ... tired.  At least for me.

The first snowfall of the season ... that's okay. That's truly beautiful. I can stand at the window and watch the first snowfall all day long. It kinda looks like a post card out there and it's joyfully nostalgic. When it becomes all black with dirt and turns to slush, that's when it can go bye bye for the rest of the winter, for all I care ... (where's my ticket to the Keys?)  As I always say, I can visit snow if I miss it.  I have two daughters up in New England and grandchildren there I can play in the snow with ... on a visit.

When I was a child, it was different. I could hardly wait for winter and snow -- the more it snowed, the happier I was. It didn't matter if it snowed every day, all winter long, I was ready for it -- sledding, snow angels, snow balls, snowmen, igloos, skiing, and always hot chocolate and a big bowl of chili, after any of them. There was always fun to be had in snow ... not to mention, school was usually closed for the day, IF it was a BIG snowfall.

I think when I moved from New Hampshire three years ago, I thought I was leaving the really big snow storms behind ... huh uh, no such luck. I didn't realize I was moving to what's called the Allegheny Mountain Region here in Pennsylvania. It was sorta like going from the frying pan into the fire. Here, it snows almost every day all winter long.

Oh well (sigh) ... wanna make a snowman with me?

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

One Light Bulb ...

This came to me in an email this morning from Robert's sister, Cindy.  I was shocked!  How could I have missed something as important as this?  How many other Americans have also innocently had their heads in the sand?  Thank you, Cindy!

A high school physics teacher once told his students that one grasshopper on the railroad tracks wouldn't slow a train, but a billion of them would. With that thought in mind, read the following:

This past weekend I was at Kroger. I needed 60W light bulbs and Bounce dryer sheets.  In the light bulb aisle, right next to the GE brand I normally buy, was an off-brand labeled "Everyday Value".  I picked up both packages of bulbs and compared the stats -- they were identical except for the price. The GE bulbs cost more than the value brand, but the thing that surprised me was that the GE bulbs were made in Mexico and the value brand was made in the USA in Cleveland, Ohio.  I put the GE bulbs back on the shelf.

Then I went to another aisle to get Bounce Dryer Sheets.  The Bounce dryer sheets cost a lot more and I noticed it's made in Canada.  The value brand again cost less and it's made in the USA.  I did laundry yesterday and I can tell you, the off-brand dryer sheets performed just like the Bounce that I've been using for years -- and at almost half the price!

The other day I went to Lowe's to look at hose attachments. Every one of them was made in China. The next day I went to Ace Hardware and checked the hose attachments there. They were all made in the USA. Start looking at things yourself and you'll see.  In our current economic situation, every single thing we buy or do affects someone else -- even their job.

My family likes Hershey's candy. I noticed that now it's marked "Made in Mexico".   I don't buy Hershey's any more.  My favorite toothpaste, Colgate, is even made in Mexico, so now I've switched to Crest.  We now have to read the labels on everything we buy!

My challenge to you:  Start reading the labels on everything you buy when you shop.  See what you can find that's made in the USA-- the job you save may be your own or your neighbor's!  

We should have awakened a decade ago!  If you accept the challenge, pass this on to everyone you know so we can all start buying American again.  Let's boycott the products that are made overseas.  We've got to get back with the program and help our fellow Americans keep their jobs and create even more jobs here in the USA ... even if we have to do it one light bulb at a time ... 

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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Sunday, January 16, 2011


These days, I can't help getting fed up with how the government runs things. No increase for Social Security for my dad and all the other seniors who rely on SS to live, and yet Congress voted themselves a $3,000 a month pay increase. Good Lord, that's $36,000 a year for each of them! What's wrong with this picture? That's a year's pay for some who are struggling to raise a family in this country, and for Congress, it's just a raise.

I got the following as an email the other day from Lt. James McCraney, who served in Vietnam with Doug in '69. This is something I believe in and I think you will, too. I've sent it out to my entire email list. Please read and copy and paste to everyone on your email list, and send to your Representatives. Things have to change! Let's do our part to change them!

The 26th amendment (granting 18-year olds the right to vote) took only 3 months and 8 days to be ratified! Why? Simple! The People demanded it. That was back in 1971 before computers, before e-mail, before cell phones, etc.

Of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, seven (7) took 1 year or less to become the law of the land. This was because of public pressure.

I'm asking each of you to forward this as an email to a minimum of twenty people on your address list; in turn, please ask each of them to do likewise. I did.

In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the message. This is one idea, a viable solution, that should be passed on to our Representatives.

Congressional Reform Act of 2011:

1. Term Limits:

12 years only, with one of the possible options below:

A. Two Six-year Senate terms, or
B. Six Two-year House terms, or
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

2. No Tenure/No Pension.

A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

3. Congress (past, present and future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people.

4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/11.

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all of these contracts for themselves.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home as citizens again and back to work.

If each person reading this contacts a minimum of twenty people, then it should only take about three days for most people (in the U.S.) to receive the message.

It's time. This is how you fix Congress! If you agree with the above, pass it on. If not ... well, I feel sorry for you ... Please get the word out -- and please do it NOW!

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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Monday, January 10, 2011

What's a Barking Spider?

Since it was first released eleven years ago, I've had many people ask me where I got the name for my first children's book, "Barking Spiders (and Other Such Stuff)". Some have even taken the name literally and asked what kind of a spider a barking spider is. Do you find them in Africa, or are they Australian or maybe from South America? Do they make noise like a dog? How big is a barking spider? Are they hard to kill? Are they poisonous?

Before I tell them, I make a few quick jokes first, teasing just a little bit.

Q: What kind of a spider is a barking spider?
A: Oh, you would know one, if you heard one. It's nearly impossible not to hear them.
Q: Where do you find barking spiders?
A: Oh my, you mean you don't have any barking spiders at your house? They're not limited to any particular country or even region. They're everywhere! I would venture to say everyone has them sometimes.
Q: Do they make noise like a dog?
A: (giggle) I suppose some do, or at least some can.
Q: How big is a barking spider"
A: Some are so big that you send your child (or your husband) to his room.
Q: Are they hard to kill?
A: Not at all, but it takes a lot of personal control. Sometimes you're forced to just leave the room.
Q: Are they poisonous?
A: Oh God, yes! Some are so bad, you think you'll die!

When I do an author school visit, I routinely ask the children if they know what a barking spider is. Almost always, there is one little girl or boy whose hand goes up, down, then up again. That's what I'm looking for ... of course I always call on them.

Me: "Do you know what a barking spider is?"

Child: "Well-l-l-l, I know what my dad says it is ... but it CAN'T be THAT!"

I suppose there are some of you reading this who still don't know what a barking spider really is yet. I think I'll tell you the story behind it as a way of explaining it.

When my three daughters were small, we had driven from New Hampshire to Ohio to visit family. While we were there, we went to see my youngest brother, Chip, and his wife, Sue, at their home.

Chip, the girls and I were all sitting on the floor playing Chutes and Ladders, a children's board game. About midway through the game, my oldest daughter, who was about seven, passed some gas. She was embarrassed and immediately put her hands over her eyes and apologized. I was about to tell her it was all right, when my brother jumped up and yelled to Sue in the kitchen, "Sue! Grab the can of Raid under the sink! Hurry! We've got a barking spider hiding in here somewhere!"

The girls and I looked at each other and started to laugh -- that big gut-wrenching laughter -- I mean to tell you, complete and total hilarity broke out in that room! The kind of laughing where you're almost done and just thinking about it makes it start all over again! The kind of uncontrollable laughter where you have to hold your sides because they hurt so bad!

Okay, I told you that, so I could tell you this. That happened in about 1981. Years later, when Chip turned forty, Sue had a surprise over-the-hill birthday party for him. I wasn't able to get to his party from New Hampshire, so I wrote "Barking Spiders" as a gag gift for Chip. I told Sue to please have Chip read the poem out loud to all of the attendees ... I know, I can be a real booger ... but I'm his oldest sister and he loves me (giggle).

... now do you know what a barking spider is? Awww, I guess you'll have to wait for the sequel, "Barking Spiders Too."

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Writing to Heal

For years, I have been troubled by a mixed bag of sleeping problems. What does seem to help is either talking about my issues (as a Vietnam War widow), or writing about them in one form or another through my three blogs.  This morning, I started researching PTSD as a possible cause, beginning with sleep problems, and I came across this article on writing as a form of healing.  I thought it was so significant that I would share it with you -- it's a little bit long for a blog, but so worth it.  ~CJ

Writing to Heal
An Article by VivĂ© Griffith 

For nearly 20 years, Dr. James W. Pennebaker has been giving people an assignment: write down your deepest feelings about an emotional upheaval in your life for 15 or 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Many of those who followed his simple instructions have found their immune systems strengthened. Others have seen their grades improved. Sometimes entire lives have changed.
James Pennebaker
Dr. James Pennebaker

Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, including “Opening Up” and “Writing to Heal,” is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a route to healing. His research has shown that short-term focused writing can have a beneficial effect on everyone from those dealing with a terminal illness to victims of violent crime to college students facing first-year transitions.

“When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker says. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them.”

In his early research Pennebaker was interested in how people who have powerful secrets are more prone to a variety of health problems. If you could find a way for people to share those secrets, would their health problems improve?

It turned out that often they would, and that it wasn’t even necessary for people to tell their secrets to someone else. The act of simply writing about those secrets, even if they destroyed the writing immediately afterward, had a positive effect on health. Further studies showed that the benefits weren’t just for those who had dramatic secrets, but could also accrue to those who were dealing with divorces, job rejections or even a difficult commute to work.

“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives,” Pennebaker explains. “You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are—our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience.”

Our minds are designed to try to understand things that happen to us. When a traumatic event occurs or we undergo a major life transition, our minds have to work overtime to try to process the experience. Thoughts about the event may keep us awake at night, distract us at work and even make us less connected with other people.

When we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable. Individuals may see improvements in what is called “working memory,” essentially our ability to think about more than one thing at a time. They may also find they’re better able to sleep. Their social connections may improve, partly because they have a greater ability to focus on someone besides themselves.
 Dr. Pennebaker's Basic Writing Assignment  Over the next four days, write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. Write continuously for 20 minutes..

Writing can have such a dramatic effect on our lives.  Does that mean that we would all be best off keeping a daily diary? Not necessarily, Pennebaker says. While his work is not inconsistent with diary keeping, it acts more as a kind of life course correction. It allows people to step back for a moment and evaluate their lives.

“I’m not convinced that having people write every day is a good idea,” Pennebaker says. “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. “But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Pennebaker’s research is benefiting people outside of those who participate in his studies. In 2004 he published “Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval.” The book is aimed at a general audience and offers a primer on writing and healing and numerous exercises that anyone who is capable of putting pen to paper can undertake. People across the country are giving it a try.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based company WordPlay recently offered a workshop titled “Writing to Heal” that borrows heavily from Pennebaker’s work. The participants were not necessarily people who came to writing with an intention to publish. But they each brought a life event they hoped to work through, whether it was a childhood trauma or a recent battle with cancer. Instructor Maureen Ryan Griffin said that each of the students came away feeling the writing had made a difference in their experience.

“They left with a new sense of the power of words,” she says. “They actually got access to using language as a healing tool in a way they had never used it before. Through writing they become active creators of their life stories. They are not simply people something bad or painful has happened to.”

Pennebaker has been looking at specifically how people use language in their writings and whether certain approaches to language translate into greater benefits from writing. To do so, he and his colleagues developed a text analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). Using LIWC they can look at the types of words people use in their writings. They are discovering some interesting patterns.

Tips for Writing to Heal: Find a time and place where you won't be disturbed, Write continuously for at least 20 minutes, Don't worry about spelling or grammar, Write only for yourself, Write about something extremely personal and important for you, Deal only with events or situations you can handle now.
“People who are able to construct a story, to build some kind of narrative over the course of their writing seem to benefit more than those who don’t,” Pennebaker says. “In other words, if on the first day of writing, people’s stories are not very structured or coherent, but over the three or four days they are able to come up with a more structured story, they seem to benefit the most.”

Making a story out of a messy, complicated experience may make the experience more manageable. Linguistically, Pennebaker looks for words that are associated with more complex thinking, including certain prepositions such as “except,” “without” and “exclude” and causal words such as “cause,” “effect” and “rationale.” An increase in these types of words over the writing process suggests that the experience is becoming clearer and more narrative.

Pennebaker has also found that the ability to change perspectives during the course of writing is also a potent indicator of how well the act of writing will benefit an individual. Using LIWC, he can analyze the types of pronouns an individual uses. A shift in pronouns means a shift in perspective.

“So one day they may be talking about how they feel and how they see it,” he says, “but the next day they may talk about what’s going on with others, whether it’s their family or a perpetrator or someone else. Being able to switch back and forth is a very powerful indicator of how they progress.”

It’s not clear whether people who are able to construct narratives and change perspectives can be guided to do so in their writing, or whether doing so is simply a reflection of an emergent healing process for them. In “Writing to Heal,” however, Pennebaker offers exercises to help people experiment with both skills. After their four days of writing, individuals can analyze their own writing and try writing from different perspectives.
People who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.
Griffin used Pennebaker’s exercise in changing perspectives in her class and found that it was one of the most profound things her students did.

“I was really struck by how amazed everyone was after writing about an event from more than one perspective,” she says. “It made a huge difference for them and their sense of the story to do this, and they were surprised by the power that had.”

Pennebaker is quick to point out that the act of confessing or expressing trauma has been part of healing for virtually all cultures, ranging from Native American indigenous cultures to those based on both Western and Eastern religious beliefs. He also notes that writing should be used cautiously. He doesn’t recommend trying to write about a trauma too soon after it happens and says that if a topic seems like it’s too much to handle, don’t try to tackle it before you’re ready. The effects of writing can be subtle, but sometimes they can be dramatic.

As an example, Pennebaker speaks of a young woman he worked with who had lost her husband very suddenly in an accident. The woman was praised by her colleagues in graduate school for how courageously and smoothly she had handled her husband’s death. She came to Pennebaker because she felt she needed to write about her loss. By the last day of writing she said she was transformed.

Within two months the woman had quit graduate school and moved back to her hometown. The writing experience had made her realize she was on a life path she no longer wanted and that she had been putting on a false, cheerful front with her friends.

“As a researcher, I could say, ‘Well here I have a technique that made an individual drop out of school, stop pursuing an advanced degree and return home,’” Pennebaker says. “It was a dramatic change, and it sounds like a failure. But from her perspective, it wasn’t.”
In fact, the woman felt that those four days of writing had saved her life.

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