Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The White-Hot Center of Story

Courtesy of Vanessa Ziff Lasdon

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Where Stories Come From

Before I ask my fifth grade students to consider a moment in their lives that has changed the way they view the world, we discuss two fundamental questions: Where do our best stories come from? 
What shapes our voice as writers?

Interesting ideas, experiences, observations, memories, my fifth graders decide.

Then we dig deeper. I suggest to them that maybe the origins of a writer’s art are not rooted in the ideas of the mind, nor in literal memory, but in the unconscious, in “the place from where you dream,” as Robert Olen Butler explains. “Story comes from the white-hot center of you.”

After a few confused glances are exchanged, we begin to explore Voice and the narrative power we all possess through two memoir collections of award-winning children’s writers, both edited by Amy Ehrlich, titled When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (Candlewick).

In these volumes, twenty different award-winning writers recount their own childhood memories, as well as contribute notes about how they made their selection and what in their lives led them to be writers.

Karen Hesse writes about an abusive mother and the neighbors who turn a blind eye.

Rita Williams-Garcia and her siblings concoct an elaborate plot to outsmart their mother, Miss Essie.

Sid Fleischman uses humor to examine his own affliction with Chronic Stature Deficiency.

Some stories are witty, others sad, but all are inspiring, because they honor childhood and capture the honest truths about growing up.

A Memory’s White-Hot Center

The stories in these memoir collections are particularly poignant because they are not literally true in every detail. Rather, they are each a journey back in time to the writer’s favorite haunts; the familiar spaces they call home, places of white-hot memories and personal transformation.

Young writers at work; courtesy of Vanessa Ziff Lasdon

My class considers the revelation that maybe if the authors had drawn strictly from memory, the magic of the moment, the mysterious unconscious from which they extracted their stories, might have otherwise given way to a less exciting story, something too prescriptive; fixed ideas of the past versus felt impressions that resonate with readers of all ages.

The best memoirs are a physical and emotional venture. They are a study of the “story behind the story,” the true change within the main character that a reader can also discover within his or herself. This emotional nuance is another reason why Ehrlich’s memoir collections work.

Each represents what Butler explains as the Three Fundamentals of Fiction: “First, that fiction is about human beings; second, that it’s about human emotion […] and the third element […] has to do with the phenomenon of desire.”

By desire, Butler means a yearning for something—an object, experience, entitlement—that when cracked open, reveals an essential human need: courage, acceptance, respect, love, safety, control, friendship, imagination, or joy from those who are at the center of our young worlds: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and, always, ourselves.

Everything Will Be Okay

Out of the many memoirs I’ve shared with students, two remain fixed in my mind: James Howe’s (of Bunnicula fame) “Everything Will Be Okay” and Mary Pope Osborne’s (Magic Tree House series) “All-Ball.” In Everything Will Be Okay, Howe finds a lost kitten and longs to keep it, but his older brother forces him to live by a code of toughness pervasive in the family that flattens Howe’s (and the kitten’s) vulnerability.

In what Butler would describe as a “burst of waking dream,” Howe simultaneously relives the past and glimpses into the future when he says, “Then all of a sudden […] I know some things so clearly that I will never have to ask an older brother to help me figure them out. / I will never work for Dr. Milk. / I will not go hunting with my father. / I will decide for myself what kind of boy I am, what kind of man I will become.”

All-Ball

In “All Ball,” eight-year-old Mary Pope Osborne remembers back to the weeks before she got the “really bad news”: her father would be leaving for a tour of duty in Korea.

Osborne tries to regain a semblance of normalcy by keeping a daily list of things to do: “Wash hands / Play with dolls / Practice writing / Practicing running / Cry for Daddy,” but she soon finds herself crying, “even when it wasn’t scheduled,” and keeps a close watch on her father, “because I felt I had to store up enough memories of him to last throughout the coming year.”

When Osborne’s father gives her money at a five-and-dime, she scours for “an object worthy of the last-fifty-cents-my-father-gave-me-before-he-went-to-Korea”: a softball-sized rubber ball with such spunk and bounce that she names it All-Ball. The two are immediately inseparable. Osborne uses her time with All-Ball to act out stories of families “in which everyone stayed together.” She falls in love with a ball. One can only imagine what happens to her beloved friend before the story’s end and the swell of emotions that follow. Ultimately, Osborne must accept “the complications of the moment” and the departure of those she loves most dearly; she must hold onto hope and face the unknown.

In her Afterward, Osborne explains that she decided to share this story because “it speaks to the hardest thing about being a child: the fact that most things in your life are out of your control. On the other hand, it also shows one of the best things about being a child: the fact that you can use your imagination to help ease your troubles.”

The Truth

New! 2012 Edition (Vol. I & II)

Myriad themes course through the childhood stories of When I Was Your Age and speak to every kind of reader: the need to be tough, to receive approval, to do well, to be loved, to show courage in the face of danger or cruelty; also, resourcefulness, self-confidence, and, of course, the essential question of Identity, “what it is and how you get it” (Ehrlich).

These stories remind us of the parameters by which we define ourselves, and how we eventually break away from these assumptions to “carve out new identities all our own.”

In the end, however, the most powerful undercurrent beneath these twenty voices is as Ehrlich describes, “the transformation of suffering through art,” through language, and its connection across generations and geographical locations. For after all, it is our differences that make us human, and in echoing the words of Amy Ehrlich to my room of fifth graders, “if we tell the truth, we will be understood.”

I invite you to explore When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (Candlewick, 2012). Use the collections to springboard into your own writing reflections: revisit the childhood memories that come from the white-hot center of you, the ones that reveal your deepest yearnings, that have shaped your unique voice, and that beg to be told.

Cynsational Notes

Authors featured in the anthology: Avi; Francesca Lia Block; Joseph Bruchac; Susan Cooper; Paul Fleischman; Karen Hesse; James Howe; E. L. Konigsburg; Reeve Lindbergh; Norma Fox Mazer; Nicholasa Mohr; Kyoko Mori; Walter Dean Myers; Howard Norman; Mary Pope Osborne; Katherine Paterson; Michael J. Rosen; Rita Williams-Garcia; Laurence Yep; Jane Yolen.

Visit Vanessa Ziff Lasdon

Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures summer camp. She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR, shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often. Vanessa has written a middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Vanessa will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe. Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email (vanessa@word-ink.net). Visit Vanessa online at www.word-ink.net.

Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Picture Book: A Powerful Writing Tool

Exploring the 6+1 Fundamental Traits of Good Writing through Mentor Texts

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

You don’t have to be a teacher to appreciate the 6+1 Traits of Writing. Anyone studying the craft — be it a novel, short story or picture book — needs to keep these traits in mind as they write.

It’s the picture book, however, that I’d like to focus on today, because picture books and the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing are a heavenly match.

Ruth Culham, the educational pioneer behind the 6+1 Traits model, explains that, “picture books are short, carefully crafted, and the perfect example of what good writing looks like.” They are, in essence, the perfect mentor text for every age writer.

Let’s explore a few of the favorites on my shelf! (By no means a comprehensive list!)

THE 6+1 TRAITS OF WRITING

  1. Ideas: the meaning and development of the message
  2. Organization: the internal structure of the piece
  3. Voice: the way the writer brings the topic to life
  4. Word Choice: the specific vocabulary the writer uses to convey meaning
  5. Sentence Fluency: the way the words and phrases flow throughout the text
  6. Conventions: the mechanical correctness of the piece

+ 1 Presentation: the overall appearance of the work

(Note: While I’ve categorized the following books within specific writing traits, each story holds standout secondary traits that I’ve also mentioned below.)

IDEAS

Fireflies! by Julie Brinckloe (Simon & Schuster, 1985).

A simple, beautiful story that celebrates a young boy’s excitement over the fireflies he captures one warm summer night. But as their glow begins to fade, the boy learns an important lesson: sometimes in order to keep something, you have to set it free.

  • Use this book to study how the smallest moments create treasured stories
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, organization, sentence fluency

The Hickory Chair by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, illustrated by Benny Andrews

A story of love between a blind boy and his grandmother. The tales Gran tells Louis make him feel as though he can see and feel all the wonders she describes. When Gran dies, Louis must search for his sense of self without her.

  • Use this book to study relationships and the power of story behind a symbolic object, like a hickory chair. Also a great story for developing a theme, like love, around that symbol
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, voice

A Quiet Place by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (Simon & Schuster, 2005)

This story, told in second-person point of view, follows a young boy who wants to escape his fast-paced, noisy city, and invites us to do the same. The secret of this book is that the best quiet place is found within our own selves. Not only is “A Quiet Place” a great reminder to step away from our “crazy busy” lifestyles, but it’s also a wonder for examining Ideas.

  • Use this book to study how to get inside a small, focused idea and make it big and imaginative, what some call “Show, Don’t Tell,” and what I like to call “Snorkeling and Scuba Diving.”
  • Go on a quiet hunt of your own and capture the places you find with words and images.
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, voice

ORGANIZATION

Switch on the Night by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Dragonfly, 2004)

In the only picture book ever written by the late, great Bradbury, we meet a boy who’s unreasonably afraid of the dark, until he discovers that when you turn off the day, you switch on the night and all its magic.

  • Use this book in a variety of ways: look at repeating refrains and how this emphasizes the main idea; make a story map of events and how they build to a resolution; notice how Bradbury begins and ends the fable
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, sentence fluency

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of Nun’s Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully (Arthur A. Levine, 1998)

In this tale, young Mingyi learns the ways of kung fu from the legendary Buddhist nun, Wu Mei (“beautiful warrior”) of Shaolin in order to fend off a bully bandit and escape an abusive arranged marriage. (Note: the literal meaning of kung fu is “human effort,” and it denotes lifelong study of physical and mental wellbeing.)

  • Use this lovely book to study transitions within a narrative. McCully uses them so well the reader barely notices them as the story flows along.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice


Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges, book design by Kristina Albertson (Scholastic, 1999)

Bridges’ arrangement of stories, poems, essays, articles, timelines, quotations, photographs, and other source material from her childhood enables us to understand the remarkable impact of a six-year-old girl who boldly broke the color barrier during the civil rights era and went on to become a legendary activist.

  • Use this informational gem to look at research and creative nonfiction in a whole new way.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, conventions, presentation

VOICE

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Putnam, 2001)

Woodson is a master at sparse, heartrending storytelling. Here, she uses a fence as a metaphor for racism in a story of two girls, one white and one black, who live on opposite sides of the fence, yet become friends despite warnings otherwise. (Sitting on the fence doesn’t technically qualify as crossing over.)

  • Use this story to study a voice “slow and graceful like summer,” as Culham puts it, one whose authenticity is irresistible.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, sentence fluency

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt, 2003)

Cesar Chavez is one of America’s most celebrated civil rights leaders, one who improved the lives of thousands of migrant farm workers. But as a boy, Cesar was shy and bullied, and his family was forced to slave in the fields to survive. This is story of a boy who spoke up for change and earned the attention of an entire country.

  • Use this biography to study how carefully chosen words spark passion on every page and in the hearts of all readers.
  • Secondary Traits: word choice

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco (Philomel, 1994)

I dare you not to cry at the end of this Civil War book. Polacco deftly documents a story passed down in her family for generations of 15-year old Sheldon Curtis, a Union soldier, who is badly wounded and left for dead until fellow Union soldier Pinkus Aylee brings him under the care of his own sweet mother. One day, however, Confederate soldiers capture and separate the boys. Only one survives.

  • Use this story to study style and tonal shift, graceful narration, plot development, and character.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, sentence fluency, word choice, organization

WORD CHOICE

A Place to Grow by Soyung Pak, illustrated by Marcelino Truong (Arthur A. Levine, 2002)

“This is seed time. This is the growing time […] all seeds travel.” Pak shows us how her father explained their move an ocean away from South Korea to America “to grow a family.”

  • Use this book to study how metaphor and repetition can create powerful images and connections in the reader’s mind.
  • Secondary Traits: voice, sentence fluency

A Story for Bear by Dennis Haseley, illustrated by Jim LaMarche (Harcourt, 2002)
In this quiet and touching story, a bear and a woman become friends as she reads to him deep in the woods using voices to match the stories she reads. Bear is entranced by the sounds that float from the woman’s mouth, and longs to decipher the magic symbols on the page for himself.

  • This story is delightful not only for its lyrical prose and quiet strength, but also for its pure celebration of the sound of language.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, voice, sentence fluency

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr (Philomel, 1987)

“If you go owling you have to be quiet and make your own heat.” In this well-known, award-winning book, a young girl and her father search through the dark, cold silence of a winter’s night for the great horned owl.

  • Yolen’s story is perfection. Study how she puts us right inside the girl’s perspective, experiencing her fear, hope, and ultimate delight as her patient pursuit for this elusive creature is finally rewarded.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, organization, voice, sentence fluency

SENTENCE FLUENCY & CONVENTIONS

I’ve decided to combine the traits of Sentence Fluency and Conventions, and here’s why.

First off, I don’t believe any of us need literal lessons in grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Rather, it’s more important to absorb how these editorial essentials enrich the reading experience. Sentence Fluency is an auditory trait and Conventions are the mechanics behind the curtains that make a sentence or paragraph thrum, pop, and shimmy the way it does.

A big reason why a book fails with readers is because it isn’t enticing to read aloud. Great Conventions make text a pleasure to read. They are symbols of great care for the reader, an accuracy that enhances the reader’s immersion in the story.

Every picture book in this blog post has been meticulously edited and could easily be the focus of a discussion on Conventions. But look to the books under Sentence Fluency in particular for how Conventions support already artistically constructed sentences, and how these mechanics help to choreograph the rhythms on the page.

Tough Cookie by David Wisniewski (HarperCollins, 1999)

“They call me a tough cookie. I guess I am. Came from a good family. Regular batch. Lots of dough. Lived the high life. Top of the Jar.” In this hilarious detective story, Tough Cookie, some crumbs living at the bottom, and his girlfriend Pecan Sandy try to stop Fingers from wreaking total havoc in The Jar.

  • First of all, read this story out loud. You’ll laugh on every page. Study Wisniewski’s clipped, staccato style sentence fluency. I use the book to teach kids how to break the “rules” to create the perfect flow.
  • Secondary Traits: voice, word choice, conventions

Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Aladdin, 1997)

Mona lives in the United States. Her “Sitti” (grandmother) lives in Palestine. Despite the distance and language barriers, the two are very close. When Mona visits Sitti, who has “a thousand rivers in her voice,” to learn what life is like in her village, she learns to bake bread, make fresh lemonade, and brush Sitti’s long hair, hidden under her scarf.

I agree with Culham when she says that Nye is a “writer’s writer. She crafts and combines sentences in the same way Sitti prepares meals and stitches fabric—with utmost attention to detail.”

  • Use this heartwarming story to study how to capture a smooth and rhythmic flow in your writing
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice, conventions

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, 2005)

“When Mathis May was seven, she got sold away. Took a star from her mama’s blanket, took a little piece of the road. Pressed it to her face when she wanted to remember back home.” Woodson’s book tells of the stories and sewing traditions that have been passed down by the women in her family since the days of slavery and Civil Rights. Each girl born into the family quilt continues to pave the way for future generations by adding a piece to the patchwork of their past, because, “All the stuff that happened before you were born is your own kind of Show Way.”

  • Woodson is my personal hero. Her writing is rich, original, unflinchingly honest, and always dead on target. Use this unique personal story to study Woodson’s lyrical vernacular voice, woven together with keenly crafted sentences that will make your heart sing hallelujah!
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, organization, word choice, voice, conventions

PRESENTATION

Picture books. Pictures. Books. Each of the choices above exemplifies the magic that comes to life when story and illustration come together. Tremendous skill and thought goes into the look of a book and how to best combine text, typeface, textures, illustration, white space, line space, and color to capture the essence of every trait throughout every page. Study the 15 books in this article and the additional one I’ve mentioned below for how art works hand in hand with story to enhance the author’s ideas.

Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation by Velma Maia Thomas (Crown, 1997)

Oh, how I hold this book dear! Rich with original source materials from the Black Holocaust Exhibit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this three-dimensional interactive book is stunning. Letters that open out of paper, crafted like a tobacco tin; maps that slide and windows that fold out; slave receipts, auction ads, and photographs; the sheer arrangement of words and symbols along each page.

  • Treasure this nonfiction book, for it’s a wonder. Study the micro text for its sophisticated story lines and brilliant blend of formats. Read every word carefully. Run your fingers along each page. Thomas has made history into powerful art that everyone can appreciate.

Try this: organize a part of your bookshelves by picture books and the 6+1 Writing Traits combined. No matter what genre or format you write, I guarantee that studying the craft from this bite-size perspective will sharpen your skills and remind you what great storytelling is all about.

Source: Using Mentor Texts to Teach Writing With the Traits: Middle School: An Annotated Bibliography of 150 Picture Books, Chapter Books, and Young Adult Novels With Teacher-Tested Lessons by James Blasingame, Ruth Culham and Raymond Coutu (Scholastic, 2010).

See also Using Mentor Texts to Teach Writing with the Traits by James Blasingame, Ruth Culham and Raymond Coutu (Scholastic Teaching Resources, 2008).

Cynsational Notes

See also Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Writer’s Notebook: An Essential Tool for Daily Practice & Creative Survival from Cynsations.

Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures
summer camp.

She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go
green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR,
shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often.

Vanessa has written a
middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is
represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Vanessa
will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe.
Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her
readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect
with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email (vanessa@word-ink.net). Visit Vanessa online at www.word-ink.net.

Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Writer’s Notebook: An Essential Tool for Daily Practice & Creative Survival

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

So, you’re a writer. But are you living a writing kind of life? Are you writing every single day?

With all we have on our plates, many of us are missing the most essential tool for our creative survival: daily words. Where do you keep yours?

I’m a teacher by trade. My reluctant writers are those who don’t write fluently. They squirm in their seat and struggle with topics, quantities, and details. They fret over getting it right versus simply getting it down.

Recently, I’ve been wondering whether I fall into the reluctant writer category. The habit of generating the daily text I expect of my own students, significant or not, has gotten buried in my bustling life.

Habit is everything to a writer. Not just one who publishes, but one who simply writes. Habit is the process that builds fluency, and fluency shapes significance.

Well, if we want our ideas to spill over, if we want our fingers to fly when we hit the page, we have to prime the pump on a regular basis.

And so, my writer self looks to my teacher self and remembers: the most important tool for living a writing kind of life is a notebook.

It is, as author Ralph Fletcher describes, “A place where words can grow.”

Scrapbook, journal, diary, lifebook, laptop. A writer’s notebook may not be a novel idea to you, but I’d like you to consider a few craft books I use with students age eight to eighteen that provide a wealth of notebook strategies often overlooked by the adults who write for children.

Grab that notebook, organize it to your fancy, and get your hands on these powerful resources by a trio of incredible mentors: A Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher (HarperCollins, 1996)(RF), Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner (Stenhouse, 2005) (AB), and Just Write: Here’s How! by Walter Dean Myers (Colins, 2012)(WDM).

Ways to Jump In

Often we just need a way to get writing already. So let’s dive in:

• Daily Pages (AB)

Aimee Buckner adopted this brilliant, no-brainer fluency strategy from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Tarcher, 1992). Kick off your daily writing routine with a minimum of one page full of words, before you start any deep-thinking, story-related writing. All topics on deck. The purpose is to “take the trash out […] to clear the mind of clutter,” as Buckner describes, in order to get to our more creative selves.

• Write Small (RF)

Ralph Fletcher believes that the single most important lesson we can learn as a writer is to write small. I tell my students, “Notice what you notice.” Write down those hot thoughts before they cool off and drift away! Stories live within the details, and our daily world is packed with these tiny truths: a gesture, object, anecdote or snippet of sound. Fletcher likens the writer’s notebook to an incubator, “a protective place to keep your infant idea safe and warm, a place for it to grow while it is too young, too new, to survive on its own” (p. 32) Pay attention. Capture a handful of the most important sensory details each day. Crack open the adjectives and reveal the seed examples inside. Then wait…wait for imagination to take root.

• Fierce Wonderings (RF)(AB)

Think of how many questions you ponder over in a given day. How many thoughts, images, themes and memories haunt you, begging to be explored. Whatever you daydream fiercely about, big or small, serious or silly, is worth your time. Write those fierce wonderings down.

• Lists (RF)(AB)

Humans love to collect, categorize, classify. It’s one of our favorite things to do. Words, flavors, facts, places, books, titles, songs. Bests, worsts, firsts, lasts, deadlines, goals, dreams. So many lists! Hop to it!

• 3 x 3 (AB)

Buckner’s “Three Word Phrases in Three Minutes” exercise will get your fingers pumping out fresh ideas quickly. Choose a one-word topic; write it at the top of a new notebook page, set the timer, and go! (A particularly useful strategy for focusing on parts of a larger topic or issue with a character, setting or feeling, since it forces you to be selective with your words.)

• Memories (RF)

What moves you? What’s unforgettable? Search for memories that inspire you, that haunt you; that make you ask questions or make you uncomfortable. Fletcher wisely calls this, “writing that scrapes the heart,” and “writing-as-lifejacket: the writing you do because your heart will burst if you don’t write it” (p. 98). Writing from memory may mean connecting to your own history, facing hard truths, or exposing secrets. Then again, it may also mean collecting things: drawings, artifacts (Favorite pen. Date died: 5/15/92), photos, articles, and so on. Like day-to-day observations, memories fade; so make a habit of getting them on the page.

• Dialogue (RF)

Want to develop great character? Time to eavesdrop! Dialogue is one of the best ways to dive into writing. “Snatches of talk,” as Fletcher calls them, are packed with juicy details that represent the many ways we live and view the world. “Develop an ear for not just what’s said, but what someone is trying to say” (RF p. 62). Pay attention to gestures, expressions, body language, and all that is left unsaid. Notice rhythms and cadences, slang, and patterns of behavior that reflect a person’s character. Searching for more off-the-wall snippets? Catch what people say in their sleep!

• Sketches (WDM)

Walter Dean Myers offers some sage advice for sketching out characters and settings: find photographs and make a collage. Afterward, create detailed word portraits for each character or setting. Through these portraits, answer all the questions you have for that person or place. Remember: complex characters and multi-layered settings are memorable.

• Research & Inspiration (RF) (WDM)

Using part of your Writer’s Notebook to collect inspiring relics and compelling research can lead to some incredible storytelling. Not only that, but rereading these nuggets can keep you going when your energy or direction falters. Nowadays, it’s easy to take a screenshot on your computer or phone and print or send the clip to email, Evernote or Scrivener, for example. This is often the way I collect ideas, dialogue, scene openers and endings, and passages that just knock me out. Research makes our stories authentic. So go ahead: be a word hoarder! Seek out material that will make your stories authentic (WDM) and “find writing that inspires you to grow into the kind of writer you hope to be” (RF p. 119)

Reading Like a Writer

As writers, we read first for pleasure and second to hone our craft. Next time you have a great book in hand, try these quick techniques, which are some of my favorites to use in the classroom:

• Rereading (RF)(AB)

Both Buckner and Fletcher recommend reading through your notebook often and carefully to “dig out the crystals” that, once polished, will spark original writing. Star it, circle it, highlight it, flag it. Eventually, lift each of those special lines and rewrite them on their own notebook page. Now write.

• Writing Off Literature (AB)

Buckner says it perfectly: “Stories inspire stories.” Read through a poem, passage or chapter once just to enjoy it, to be affected by it, and the second time to connect to the story with your own words. Lift a line or an entire scene. Shoot for at least twenty minutes. Go all stream-of-consciousness! Who knows where things might lead!

• Writing From a Word (AB)

Similar to the idea above, only this time, immerse your self in just one word. Start with a noun. Next time a verb, an adjective, adverb, and so on. Explore the word’s sound, its meaning, its subtext, and the stories implicit within its letters.

• Try 10 (AB)


Try Ten is a handy revision strategy for leads, endings, transitions, verbs, dialogue, metaphors, and other short snippets of your work. It’s pretty self-explanatory: write your piece in question ten different ways. Vary the structure, word choice, length; you name it. Every sentence deserves our attention, and often our most creative ideas for a line are buried underneath the more obvious first five on the list. Ten is the magic number. Try it for yourself.

• Poetry & Wordplay (RF)

Poems are magical fruit to the parched writer: brief, intense, bold, intimate, satiating. Paste poems that pack a punch into your notebook and annotate them for the images they evoke, for the rhythms, cadences, and sounds they carry. Now imitate the poem. Experiment! Lose and find yourself in wordplay.

“Notebooks are…well, it’s like you have sparks from a campfire that could start a fire. They haven’t yet, but they could at any time” — Michael Ciccone, first grade

Final Thoughts

To really understand the power of a writer’s notebook, you have to give yourself permission to experience it completely. Yes, we are busy, so let’s be smart about how we invest our time. Slow is fast. Fast is slow.

While a writer’s notebook may not seem urgent compared to all the other pressing matters in our lives, it is when you consider the magnitude of value it brings to our craft and our soul. A notebook is a foundational element to living a writerly life every single day. It’s our meditative practice, our wellspring of chi.

I urge you to re-prioritize your schedule to fit a writer’s notebook of any kind into your daily blueprint.

Cynsational Notes

Fellow VCFA alumna Cindy Faughnan with Vanessa

Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures summer camp. She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR, shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often. Vanessa has written a middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Vanessa will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe. Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email (vanessa@word-ink.net). Visit Vanessa online at www.word-ink.net.