Taking Credit

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAAs a writing instructor, I yearn to take credit for the ingenious, creative, perceptive stories my students create. They’re kids, mostly middle-schoolers, and I yearn to point at their work and say, “They know how to do that because I taught them how.” But I believe what makes a good teacher—and I hope I’m good, though I have a long way to grow—is to have the restraint not to show them how. I give them ideas to think about, concepts to get their minds going, but the point is to let them push the discussion, explore their own answers, decide for themselves what each concept means. I seek to show them that there are potentially infinite ways to unveil a story, and then let them come up with their own way. I ask them to experiment, to dream, to use critical thinking, to ponder. But then my most important job is to get out of the way. So the less credit I can take for their work, the happier I am about the possibility that I’m evolving as a teacher.

I began a new class the other day in which I asked third-through-fifth graders to write about a moment when they did something difficult that made them proud. As soon as one girl shared her work out loud, and I praised her writing, another child changed her story to almost exactly match the one of the girl I praised. It was our first day, so I gave only a preliminary suggestion that they try not to write something that sounds like what the other kids are writing. In our next class, I’ll gently explain that, unlike in math class, copying will never yield the right answer. In fact a good story is one that is so uniquely yours that it asks questions nobody has thought of. Can children do that in third grade? Maybe, maybe not. But it is a thought to inspire.

I worry sometimes that our educational system, with its packed classes and its test results tied to funding, tends to create the illusion that there is one right answer for everything. I worry that public schools, which are filled with fine educators but answerable to so much bureaucracy, unintentionally train children to hunt for the one right answer, not within themselves, but provided by others. Then children learn to repeat that answer over and over so they can get that pat on the back, that good grade, that great college, that competitive job.

I want children to know that I prefer unique answers that make no sense over perfect answers that tell me something I already know. This isn’t easy. A lot must be undone. For one exercise, I tell kids “don’t think, just write,” trying to jog them out of the “right answer” mindset. I had to repeat it over and over again—“No thinking, just writing”—because they all wanted to ask a million questions, or to wait until they formed a perfect thought before putting pencil to paper, to make sure they were doing it right. That, even though I kept telling them there was no way to do the exercise wrong so long as they kept writing. The stories they wrote in that exercise were unique. I’m going to make sure they all return to those.

It was eye opening.

My recent Girls Creative Writing Intensive at Lighthouse Writers Workshop was called The Craziest Thing. That reflects my goal of getting kids to step outside their normal way of thinking and into the part of their brain that seems weird, dreamy, and out-of-control. Face it, when we truly look into our heads it’s kind of crazy in there, and when we step inside stories part of the fun is discovering those authors who instinctively understand that.

Sure, most of these kids will not become professional creative writers. Let’s face it, it’s a limited career field. But people who understand how to create something from nothing, how to get outside a practiced mindset, how to ask and answer questions never before considered, how to ignore expectation in favor of innovation: those are tomorrow’s leaders, in every field.

If you have a moment, please sample one of these stories from The Craziest Thing workshop: Speak, The Box, The Lone Lakota. They show what kids can do when the idea of limitation is peeled away. These writers not only show potential, they’re already fulfilling it, as fully as many a talented adult writer I’ve encountered. And I’m proud to say, I cannot take any credit for it whatsoever.

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Which Words Come Last – My Creative Nonfiction in Rivet Journal

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Rivet-cover-issue_2I’m excited to announce that my latest creative nonfiction piece is now published in this month’s edition of Rivet, the new literary “journal of writing that risks.” In Which Words Come Last, I reflect on the way my mom’s last words carried us on a journey into our pasts, our futures, and ourselves. I hope it reminds you of the power of words to bind us to those we love. You can find my story here.

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Sharing On the Road and At Home

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Dale & B-cycle stationThe sharing economy is increasing opportunities for travelers who want to explore what the world has to offer, with less damage to their pocketbook and the environment. A woman who works for a new car-sharing program called RelayRides has asked me to share one of my favorite “hidden gems” in Denver so she can give customers ideas about fun stuff to do in my city. The RelayRides concept is similar to Airbnb or other budget vacation rentals in which people briefly rent out their homes while they’re away. With RelayRides, when you travel to another city you can rent your car to someone who’s coming to your city, and then rent a car from someone in the city you’re going to.

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“Be Safe” – A Ritual of Love

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KissOnce many years ago, when I was staying with a friend, she ran outside to kiss her husband goodbye before he drove off to work. “Wait, I have to kiss you!” she said. “We don’t want you to have an accident.” They chuckled together as she kissed him. She explained to me that they had recently read about a research study that indicated that married people who kissed their spouses before they left home each day were less likely to be involved in traffic accidents.

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This Denver Bakery Makes Argentina Taste Like Home

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have favorite local businesses. I believe the best are those where we almost forget that buying and selling have anything to do with it, where we exchange something meaningful and the money that changes hands merely supports that exchange. Sometimes I describe such places with words like atmosphere, service, or quality. But my new favorite, Maria Empanada, reminds me that the key is the inexplicable chemistry of love—not mushy sentiment, but the love we feel when we share with others the simple pleasures that give us joy.

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Finding Beauty Close To Home: Sunset at Barr Lake

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAMy twin passions for travel and stories are no longer about escape. Instead, they have taught me a lot about finding something to appreciate every day, wherever I am. Every place I travel is somebody else’s home, so it stands to reason that my home should have its own wonders. Every story I read or movie I watch carries me into a deeper appreciation of life, so it stands to reason that by more deeply appreciating my daily life I can create my own story. I live in Denver, Colorado, where I don’t have to travel far to enjoy an experience for which others do travel far.

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When Cross-Cultural Marriage Can’t Find a Home – By Guest Blogger Susan Blumberg-Kason

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CoverPlease welcome author Susan Blumberg-Kason as she joins me on the blog book tour for her new memoir, Good Chinese Wife (Sourcebooks, July 29, 2014), which is already receiving rave reviews. Susan grew up in Chicago dreaming of the neon signs and double-decker buses of Hong Kong. When she moved there, she thought she met the man of her dreams, until her cross-cultural romance turned into a nightmare. Good Chinese Wife recounts her years in a Chinese family as a wife, daughter-in-law, and mother. Today she shares with us the importance of place in a cross-cultural marriage:

When Cross-Cultural Marriage Can’t Find a Home By Susan Blumberg-Kason

When I first met Baba, my former father-in-law, he told me a Chinese proverb—ai wu ji wu. It took me a few minutes to understand the English translation relayed by my then-husband, Cai. After discussing it between ourselves for a bit, I figured this saying was basically the Chinese version of “love me, love my dog.”

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Death Practice

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Duck-Soup-poster-marx-brothers-9268877-341-475I think about death a lot. That’s not to say I’m obsessed or depressed. It’s just one of the two weirdest things I’ve ever been aware of: the inevitability of my demise, of the demise of all of us. The other weirdest thing: that I’m here in the first place, that we’re all here. As a storyteller, how can I not be attracted to questions of existence and oblivion? Sure, I believe in a God, a spiritual universe, and an afterlife. But that’s faith. I have no scientific proof. The only things I’m sure of are the same things all living humans are sure of: there was a time I was not alive, now I am, someday I won’t be again.

I recently heard an interview on Colorado Public Radio with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and author Sara Davidson, about The December Project, her book about the aging Rabbi’s preparations for death. We’re talking some intense preparations. Let’s call them “death practice.” He practiced drawing his last breath, practiced choosing his final moment, even got into a coffin so he could practice being dead. He also did some things you might typically expect: reviewed his life, forgave others, forgave himself. His purpose was to prepare mindfully for the end of life, or as he put it: “to not freak out about death.”

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Water From the Bathroom Faucet

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FaucetWhy does the coldest water in the house always come out of the bathroom sink, never the kitchen faucet? It makes sense to me that water seems colder coming from the garden hose, because I only drink from the hose when I’m outside on a hot summer day. It’s cold by comparison of course. But what is the allure of the water in the bathroom, even when that room is not hot and steamy?

Is it because the water in that private little room seems forbidden, because that’s a place meant only for washing up, or taking care of business, or sneaking in some shower sex—not for the simple pleasure of drinking water with naked hands, not so much as a glass in sight? Or is it only my bathroom that has such delicious, icy-cold water, while yours delivers the stuff at ordinary room temperature?

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When We Have No Time to Hike

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWhen life gets so busy, whether with necessary tasks or the pursuit of our dreams, that it feels as if we have no time, I believe it’s even more critical to carve out moments to connect with nature. I’m sometimes tempted to ignore the call of the outdoors and keep writing about whatever inspiring idea has me in its grip, or to keep doing all the things others expect of me until I’m depleted, or to crash in front of the TV because its easier to passively take in someone else’s story after a hard day. Mostly those things tempt me because I convince myself that enjoying nature will require me to spend a lot of time planning or preparing, or to spend all day far from the city. Not true.

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