Monthly Archives: July 2013

Young Authors Conference Delights

24 July 2013

The last word in the title of this post can be read as either a noun or a verb. What is not a matter for debate is the joy I receive each year from teaching at this conference. I’ve been doing it steadily since YAC’s inception in 1990. Each day hundreds of 4th-8th graders from around the Twin Cities metro area pour into the halls of Bethel University to discover the wonders of working with professional writers. There are a couple dozen of us each year, covering the waterfront of genres and styles. Some years I do “Creating Characters.” Other times it’s “Doing Dialogue,” or “Starting Stories.” (And, no, there’s no requirement that session titles consist of two alliterative words.)

Whatever the title, the point of the sessions is to give eager young writers some fresh tools for their tool box, and to inspire them to keep digging deep inside themselves for expression and insight. As I tell the students, “We’re not all on the same road; we’re not all heading in the same direction. But wherever you are and wherever you’re going, it’s my job to move you further down the road of writing.” And then we take off, going a mile a minute and bouncing back and forth with bits and pieces of text, questions, story slices, and the like. For some of these kids, this is the first time they’ve ever been in a room filled with other dedicated young readers and writers. No longer are they the oddball who actually enjoys cracking a book. Now they’re trading favorite authors and offering up exceptions to every rule proposed. (As I say, “This is creative writing. Every rule can be broken—but before you do, you better know what the rules are, or there’ll be no creativity in the breakage.”)

Not actually from YAC, but this photo shows the author in action during a COMPAS Summer Writing Workshop in 1987.

Not actually from YAC, but this photo shows the author in action during a COMPAS Summer Writing Workshop in 1987.

The conference is run by the wise and energetic souls at Success Beyond the Classroom (particularly Gina Jacobson), and after the conference ends they send out examples of student feedback. I treasure these lists. Who wouldn’t? Here are some comments from the past two years from participants in my sessions:

“We got to do things for ourselves and learned new things versus reviewing the old ones.”

“He didn’t lecture on, and we switched off between talking and having us do stuff. He was funny.”

“I learned a ton in this class and got a chance to write, revise, and write more.”

“Because he really gave me a lot of good ways I should start my story and make good things happen so the reader can get hooked on it.”

“I enjoyed this session the most because dialogue is something I desperately need to work on and it improved my writing already.”

“I enjoyed this session because it was fun, the class kept moving forward, new techniques were taught, and I really enjoyed his thoughts.”

“I learned that when using dialogue I can show it in many different ways. Finding new ways of doing that was great.”

“I didn’t want to stop writing in this session!”

“I got to write an amazing story with a great beginning.”

There’s plenty more where those came from, but the point of listing them is to show that these young folks are serious about their work. A surprising number come up to me each year and say they’re writing a book already, or have a series of stories underway. I’m looking forward to seeing some of those names on the spines of books at my local library.

What I'm talking about: again from 1987 Summer Writing Workshop, the girl on the left is Vaddey Rattner, author of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN

What I’m talking about: from 1989 Summer Writing Workshop, the girl on the left is Vaddey Ratner, author of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN

Each year, when the conference is over, I drive away with fragments of conversations still bouncing around my head as I return to my own work with a renewed sense of vigor and enthusiasm.

FLASHBACK: from “City at the End of Time”

17 July 2013


How the Mighty Have Fallen

In a weed-filled yard on the edge of Vilnius, Lithuania, Alex & Evan Gabriel give Josef Stalin what-for.

In a weed-filled yard on the edge of Vilnius, Lithuania, Alex & Evan Gabriel give Josef Stalin what-for.

A decade ago their statues loomed over the city, dominators from beyond the grave. Their word had been law, had been life or death to millions. Across the globe, in revolutionary cells and colonnaded universities and musty, cubicled buildings, the sources of their power and thought were studied like holy writ. First names not necessary: Lenin. Stalin. Larger than life.

Larger than life, too, were those looming statues. In Vilnius—capital of the dear departed Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic—thirty iron feet of Comrade Lenin sat in the central square on Gediminas Street, just across from the massive, haunted KGB building. . . .

Then came the Chain of Freedom . . . the fall of the Berlin Wall . . . the martyrs of the tank attacks on the Vilnius TV tower . . . and with a shudder that shook the world, the Soviet Union was gone. Neighbors banded together to pull down the statues. Lenin, resisting to the end, broke off at the knees. Stalin—whose statues had been removed as long ago as the late fifties on some cases—went more easily, more completely. But everywhere, the symbols began to disappear.

Where are they now?

We take the #1 bus out along a bumpy road from the center of the city towards the airport. A crowd of Gypsies rides behind us and when we ask the driver to pull over and let us out at a massive, faceless ironcasting factory, the entire population of the bus stares us off.

The tip we’ve gotten says to look in the fields outside the factory, but we haven’t reckoned on the size of the building, or the overgrowth of the surrounding fields. Chain fences everywhere, weeds and garbage, dusty bushes as high as my head. There is nothing to be seen. It’s Sunday, and the factory is closed, so my plan to “ask inside” goes nowhere. We wander around one end and then back across the front, around to a side street. The chain fence goes on for half a block and then, lying in the weeds near a gravel entrance, our boys spot fallen figures.

Up close we can see a cast-iron soldier, some unidentifiable figures, and what looks to be the trademark handlebar moustache of the biggest killer in history. “Can we climb the fence, Dad?”

Suddenly, an officious watchman scuttles out of a nearby office. Uh-oh, trouble, we think. But, wordless, he intuits our need and hustles us through a narrow walkway past his office—his wife sharing the Sunday silence from inside—and beckons us to enter. . . . when we come to Stalin in his greatcoat and marshall’s hat and dead, staring eyes we focus, as we must, on the atrocities. The Ukraine famine, the extermination of the Kulaks, the NKVD terror that led to the KGB, the gulags . . . and the boys, grim-faced and shocked, turn and spit down on the empty eyes. For once, we do not stop them. They kick at his head, shouting denunciations; perhaps much as his henchmen treated dissidents.

But . . . where is Lenin? We ask the watchman. He seems to expect the question. . . . At last, jammed behind a broken-down tractor and garbage cart, we see a rusted chain-link cage. Inside the cage, broken off at the knees, looms the oversized head of Vladimir Illytch Lein, architect of revolution and, in his later years, instigator of state terror.

He’s leaning on his side, head bowed, as if in sorrow at this, his final fate. Caged, broken, all but forgotten . . . and there, just beneath him, a second statue of Josef Stalin faces upwards. The two old dictators stare at each other, sightless, powerless, dead for all time at the end of what was to be their century. “Where did we go wrong, comrade?” they seem to be saying. “What will become of us now?”

Lenin and Stalin ponder the fate of Bolshevism and the reality of the afterlife.

Lenin and Stalin ponder the fate of Bolshevism and the reality of the afterlife.

What indeed. Will the Lithuanians remelt these statues and forge new ones? Will they create some sort of museum of the damned? Will these gates be closed to future visitors? We don’t know the answer, but we can feel the tug of history in the empty faces lying here, caged, behind the dusty back wall of a factory on the edge of an embittered city.

originally published in Imago (Australia), Vol. 13, No. 3, 2001