Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Christmas Essay on the Power of Many

Holiday Blog Tour

An outstanding group of authors from all over America joined creative forces this month to go on a Holiday Blog Tour. Starting on December 2, with Julia Amante, and ending on December 24 with Icess Fernandez, 23 authors representing diverse genres and publication experience wrote, or will write,  a special Christmas piece on their individual blogs. It can be a poem, story, essay, memoir, or any genre each author selects for himself  or herself. We each read one another's blogs and spread the word to all we know, to keep the traffic flowing from one creative experience to another. This tour has been a wonderful exercise in nurturing a community of authors who inspire and support one another. Clicking on the golden tree ornament photo above will show you a full listing of authors on this blog tour and their dates of posting.

As we head into one of the most beloved holidays in the world, I look forward to the opportunities for reflection that this special time of year affords us. These are extremely hard times for millions of our fellow human beings, but if we still have family who love us, and friends who are there for us, we have much to appreciate: these are among the greatest gifts we can ask for.

My selected piece for this holiday blog tour takes me back many years, to one of the most memorable Christmas seasons I've experienced. I was an English teacher at Pasadena High School (Pasadena, CA); and on this particular occasion, my students taught me the beauty and power of people united in a good deed. Writing this piece enabled me to step back for a moment and reflect on those students and on their collective human strength. Enjoy, and please feel free to leave a comment.

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Sometimes a simple idea catches fire. Sometimes, in our desperation and frustration that we individually can’t do more, we reach out with a simple idea, ... and it catches fire.

The power of one can be the power of one hundred when a spark is lit, if the spark is for the good of others. We know this to be true in recent revolutions: the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and its cousins across our nation. But the power of many is sometimes not a torrent, just a clear, burbling stream unchecked by boulders in its midst, just a timid, stolid movement forward. Often, in our individual spheres, in our little private corners of the world, this is how the power of many looks: small but stalwart.

One Christmas season long ago, as a young high school teacher, I wanted to light a little spark in my students regarding a family none of us knew. We had been reading and writing about classic themes of the season: charity, generosity, poverty, unity. Having two small children at home, I knew how much Christmas means to children; and my students knew well the sting of poverty in various neighborhoods of our community, including their own. Could we unite behind one family, a struggling family poorer than all the rest of us, and try to make a difference in their lives, even if just for one day, one Christmas?

My students were from all over the city, some of them having to ride buses for half an hour to attend school across town. They were a mix of kids: privileged, middle-class, blue-collar, immigrant. I told them one day, class by class, about a family I’d heard about in my church parish: a family of five, with three children and unemployed parents. I didn’t know their names, and I had never met them, but I had heard about the bleakness of their holidays.

I brought a large, empty cardboard box to my classroom and set it in a corner. It only took a few minutes to describe this unknown family to the students: the eldest girl, age 13; the middle son, age 11; the youngest child, a boy age 8. This I had learned from our priest. The class was quiet at first. Many of my students were not strangers to hardship. Then someone mentioned ideas for gifts for the girl. Someone else thought of things the youngest child might like. The conversation wasn’t really a conversation: just some musings aloud, half-muttered, some inklings of ideas being stirred. A few hands went up: Yes, they’d like to bring in a little gift some day this week. Could they wrap it up first? Yes. Should every gift be new? Yes. The yesses were coming from the students themselves, as they nodded quietly at one another. OK. We had some understandings, so we moved on to the classwork scheduled for that day.

It was not a torrent. It was a small stream that swelled a bit each day, that rolled a little faster at times. But each day, throughout the day, for the entire week, students paused by the large box in the corner of our room. Some placed a small package, light and thin, gingerly in the box. Others carefully placed one, two, three gifts, a tower carefully balanced, in the box. Some students peeked in, hands empty, hands stuffed into jeans pockets, but eyes curious. Some brought in a gift as if carried on a silver platter, face proud, smile wide. Some students dropped an unwrapped toy, or bottle of shaving lotion, or some such toiletry for the parents, into our collection. Some students shyly stuffed their gift under their desks as they did their schoolwork for the day, and only at the end of class, on their way out, unnoticed by most, did they modestly place their offering into the box.

And so the stream flowed. On the last day of the week, some of my girls brought in wrapping paper from their homes. I brought forth scissors and tape. Sipping punch, munching on cookies, students took time to wrap last-minute gifts as they chatted about this “project,” this first-time group charity endeavor for many of them. They looked proudly at their achievement:

Four large cardboard boxes filled to the brim with my students’ generosity, their charity, their kindness toward strangers. Their unity. The power of many in making a difference in the lives of others.

Some students wept quietly. Others beamed. We hugged.

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Featured blogger on December 15:  Sylvia Mendoza. Visit 
http://blog.sylvia-mendoza.com/ and go to her Author Page for further information.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Whenever I do book readings, or speak informally to other writers, I’m often asked where my inspiration comes from. My two published books—one a short story collection and the other a poetry chapbook—as well as my new unpublished ones (also in these genres) actually sprang from the same source of inspiration:  People.

The people around me: those dear to me, those only slightly known by me, and even strangers I read or hear about. People, everyday, ordinary people, are my major source of inspiration. How ordinary people navigate their lives—their losses and triumphs and everything in between—is a source of unending amazement and inspiration to me, especially when the lives being navigated are deeply challenging or downright tragic.

Starting with my own family, going back through generations of relatives and what they endured in a family history that is humble and disadvantaged, I reflect on how these folks survived and thrived, or survived and reinvented themselves to deal with what they faced daily. I reflect on my childhood, my evolution and lack thereof as old memories sometimes fail to metamorphose into new understandings. I think about friends and neighbors, about people I see lonely on bus benches, or lovers locked in embrace in a parked car.  I read about and see strangers on television and in local news and wonder why they’re currently entangled in whatever brought them to our attention.

What causes us to be as we are? What are motivations that may be so locked into our selves, that no one else has an inkling regarding who we really are? What goes on behind those wooden doors we pass, house by house, block by block in our daily rushing about or meandering about in our neighborhood and elsewhere? Why do people do what they do?

I’m not speaking about psychology here. I’m not a therapist. I’m speaking about what we might be able to decipher through our intuition and observation, coupled with what our imagination can fill in beyond that. For that is what separates a writer from a non-writer: the willingness and ability to take the known and transform it, expand it, embellish it with our imagination that takes us into the unknown...and creates something new.

This unknown territory, in the writer’s hands, becomes compelling, new territory, if the writing is good. And, if the writer is really good, he or she can imbue a story’s characters with motives and experiences, hidden from quick recognition perhaps, that the reader might not have anticipated. In real life, we often attribute reasons for others’ actions when we only know part of the story, when we have no clue as to what else moves that individual, what else hurts his or her heart, what else lifts that individual from the daily grind into the sublime. We never know an individual’s full story, do we? But in real life, we all readily make assumptions and even make judgments.

In another blog, I’ll tell more about this latter point. But for now, I’d like to touch upon another topic I’ll develop more fully in the future: telling true stories about people who deeply touch our hearts, who move us, inspire us to tell their stories with fidelity to the truth, rather than reliance on imagination, because the truth is, in these people’s cases, infinitely more compelling than fiction.

One such engaging case is the book Special  by Michael P. Raff.

Book Review:
by Michael P. Raff

The death of a young person is one of the greatest tragedies on earth. The death of a young person we deeply love is even more brutal a pain to bear. Michael P. Raff, a California author, convincingly and poignantly captures that pain in his biography, Special (Aventine Press, 2011), a tribute to the great love of his life, a radiant, beautiful young woman named Jill Adams, who died in a car accident at the age of 19.

This is not a spoiler alert. Michael’s book starts with this sentence: “Three weeks after her funeral, I woke up and saw Jill standing by my bedroom doorway.” Then, for the rest of his meticulously narrated book, he recreates the brief but glorious love he shared with Jill for the four years they knew one another. Their first meeting was inauspicious, she being a gawky, timid 15-year-old to his 19 years; but she quickly blossomed into a stunning woman whose overpowering beauty was as much internal as external: a devout Mormon who was virtuous, sensitive, compassionate, and insightful beyond her age.
The book takes the reader through the highs and lows of their chaste love affair. As much an autobiography as a biography, we witness Michael’s coming of age as he awkwardly but lovingly shepherds Jill into adulthood. Coming from a humble background, Michael faced rejection from some of Jill’s family and friends, who felt Jill “deserved better” than what Michael as a financially struggling young man could offer. But Michael, buoyed by Jill’s devotion to him and her faith in his devotion to her, persevered in his courtship of the only woman who had ever boosted him above his own relentless self-doubts. At the time of her death, they were engaged to be married a mere five months hence.
Special  is punctuated throughout with Michael Raff’s simple but deep ruminations on life. He writes, for example: “Isn’t it strange how we can measure the miles around the equator, or the miles to the moon, but we can’t measure something so simple as the pleasure of being kissed by the one we love?” There is a mystical quality to the book, as a Mormon elder had once prophesied to Jill that she would die an early death, and her belief of this runs like a knotty thread throughout the book. This prophecy haunts Jill and Michael, who hears the sad tale, and who, shortly before Jill’s death, has a vivid dream of her accident that turns out to be spot-on accurate.
Though we, the readers, know from the beginning that Jill died an untimely death, we still benefit from reading everything prior to and after this tragedy: learning about the graciousness and gentleness abiding in Jill, and of how her true love of Michael surmounted obstacles, and of how Michael learned to trust in his own worthiness. We can see ourselves in this story, because this couple’s trials and tribulations mirror those many of us suffer in this life.
In short, this book reminds us all of the fleetingness of things, the transiency of life itself, and the huge importance of loving deeply, of appreciating simple events in the company of our beloveds, of not taking life for granted. Yes, we’ve heard these admonitions before, but we often forget. We can be grateful to Michael for sharing his grief and love with us, and for reminding us to be mindful of all this.

Michael's book can be ordered from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com . Contact the author at http://www.mraffbooks.com/ .

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Saturday, February 26, 2011


Welcome back to my blog, readers. I'd been out of commission for a while, devoting time to my writing consultant/editing business, The Writing Pros, and to author events related to my own book, The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories. I'm now taking time to update my two blogs, this being one of them.

I've asked permission of my author colleague, Mayra Calvani, whom I featured last fall on my other blog, "American Latina/o Writers Today" (http://www.latinowriterstoday.blogspot.com/ ) to cross-post this wonderful article she wrote about balancing her professional writing career with raising her family. This blog originally appeared on the Utah Children's Writers website on February 6, 2011. Enjoy!!

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                        How to Set Writing Goals with a Family 

                                   by Mayra Calvani

(Guest post with Award-winning Author Mayra Calvani: How to Set Writing Goals with a Family)

“Nothing has a stronger influence
psychologically on their environment
and especially on their children
than the unlived life of the parent.”
--C. G. Jung

You want to start your career as a writer, and you have young kids at home. How do you find the time to write and actually produce something while your children ask you for sandwiches, demand you play with them, or refuse to take a nap? Writing with kids at home isn’t easy, but it can be done.

The following are 7 tips to setting writing goals with a family:

Be realistic

If you set your goals too high, you’ll crash and you’ll be left with feelings of failure, frustration and bitterness. This will have a strong impact on the way you feel about yourself as a mom and wife, and will affect the time you spend with your loved ones. Face it, unless you have a nanny, you won’t have a lot of free time until your kids are old enough to go to pre-school. If you’re not able to set your writing goal to one hour a day, or even half an hour, what about 15 minutes? Start small. Take baby steps. Persistence is vital: If you stick to it, a lot can be accomplished in just 15 minutes a day over a long period of time. In 15 minutes, you can plot a scene, profile or interview a character, write dialogue, do research on a specific topic for your book, etc. Everybody can set aside 15 minutes of writing time.

Get organized

This is the key to succeed! Buy a planner or calendar and schedule your week in advance every Sunday. This way, come Monday morning, you’ll know what to do. What’s the best time to set aside those 15 minutes? Does your child take a morning or afternoon nap? Do you have the type of child who would be happy playing in a playpen by himself while you write? Could you hire a teenager to look after your child twice a week for an hour, while you write in the next room? Perhaps you know other moms who are in a similar situation and who would be interested in taking turns taking care of the kids? Brainstorm various possibilities. When there’s a will, there’s a way.

Stay flexible

You might not always be able to follow your daily writing goals. You know what? That’s perfectly fine. Life often gets in the way. In fact, it feels as if life always gets in the way when you have a family, doesn’t it? The planner is there to keep you motivated, focused, and steered in the right direction. However, those words aren’t set in stone. If you can’t meet your writing goal for that day, just try to get back in track the next. Pat yourself on the back and tell yourself, “I tried my best.” It’s like with a diet. You don’t have to quit the whole diet just because you broke it one day by eating pizza.

Be consistent

Books are made of words, sentences, paragraphs. Depending on how fast a writer or how inspired you are, you can write words, sentences and even a whole paragraph or paragraphs in 15 minutes. The key here is to keep doing it regularly over a long period of time. You have heard it many times: write a page a day, and one year later you have a 365-page book.

Stop procrastinating

If only I had more time!
I’ll write when my kids start school.
I’m always so busy!
When I’ll retire, that’s when I’ll write that book.

Blah, blah, blah. Listen: there’s never a perfect or right time to write. You just have to stop whining and you have to do it. Why leave for later what you can start doing now? Life is short and unpredictable. You have no control over the future. However, you have control over the now.

Love yourself

You work hard. You’re always there for your children, husband, parents, relatives and friends. Why is it that you so often forget about yourself? Treat yourself like a precious jewel. And I’m not talking about being selfish—though being a little selfish is often the best thing you can do to be able to give yourself to others. Reward your accomplishments, however small. When you love yourself, you’ll find the time to set aside those writing times because you know your goals and dreams are important. When you do what’s important to you, you feel accomplished and fulfilled emotionally and intellectually. When this happens, you’re able to give yourself to your family without reservations. Mostly importantly, the quality of those family moments will increase because you won’t resent them.

Set Your Priorities

How badly to do want to become an established author? Can you live with your home not being spotless or dust-free at all times? Or with letting the laundry accumulate once in a while? Because this is, exactly what will happen once you’ve made your decision of becoming an author. You’ll face times when you’ll have to choose between writing or doing the laundry. I’m not saying you should neglect your family and put your writing first. What I’m saying is you don’t have to be a ‘super’ mom at all times.

You have the potential to make your dreams come true. Nevertheless, you have to believe in them and you have to follow a plan. You also have to make them a priority in your life. Keeping these tips in mind will help you achieve your dreams and become a happier writer. As I always say, a happy writer is a happy mama.

 You can learn more about Award-winning Author Mayra Calvani, her books, follow future guest post, interviews and her World of Ink Virtual Author Tour at

About Mayra Calvani:
Award-winning author Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults. She’s a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books and co-editor of Voice in the Dark ezine. She's had over 300 reviews, interviews, stories, and articles published in print and online. Mayra is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Children's Writer's Coaching Club. Visit her website at www.MayrasSecretBookcase.com. She also keeps a blog at www.mayrassecretbookcase.blogspot.com.