Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rip the Page!

I'd like to welcome another Shambhala author to the blog today! Karen Benke's new book Rip the Page: Adventures in Creative Writing has been released this week. 

A mutual friend put Karen and me in touch. She was kind enough to send me a copy of her new book. Although the intended audience is the 8 - 12 year old set, I think the book would help any writer. Most of my teaching experience is with adults. Adults often have trouble playing. They forget the importance of being a beginner, and they can often be afraid that they're running out of time and thus have to "get it all right" the first time. This will stifle creativity quicker than an assessment plan.

Karen's book is filled with experiments in language. She encourages the reader to "rip the page" from the book (another way of breaking a boundary and getting past a block). She uses well known poets and writers such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Soto, Lemony Snicket and Avi to help guide the young (and young at heart) writer on their journey. I intend to use some of the exercises in my college classes this fall -- especially when the class starts trying to think too much! For adults, the exercises could serve as jump-starts and ways to help get you out of your patterned way of thinking. Children will find these activities speak to their inner magic. Karen sees this magic in writers (of any age) and encourages that relationship to surface.

The back cover states: "This is your journal for inward-bound adventures." I love the phrase "inward-bound." Karen clearly understands that writing is first a way of deeply communicating with the self. She intuitively understands the importance of play. Of experimenting. Of seeing what works and what doesn't without a "right" or "wrong" distinction. I see many adults lose this important part of the writing process. When I worked as a writer-in-residence in the Phoenix area school system, I saw children losing this natural approach to writing very early on in their education.

If you're a teacher of writing to any age group, a parent hoping to foster a child's love of language, or a writer who hasn't gotten too serious with herself, do your soul a favor and pick up Rip the Page! Don't be afraid to play!

Karen shared her thoughts on some questions I posed.

1) What are some of the inhibitors you see adults placing on their writing that you don't see children doing? 

Many of the adults I work with in writing relationships—a few call me
their their coach—are already convinced when they sit down next to me
that their writing has to be improved upon, fixed, made better by
someone other than themselves. There’s A LOT of duality that goes on at
first. There’s also a lot of apologizing and explaining. It can be
painful. Nervousness and a sense of anxiety, coupled with a critic
that’s well fed and vocal are what join many adults at the writing
table. I know this picture well . I’ve had a similar picture. So we
spend time untangling the creative child-like side of their minds with
the big, bad, red pencilled critic. We also use many of the writing
experiments and word tickets I’ve created to use with my playful second
graders on up to the too-cool-for-school sixth and seventh graders. Play
really is the anecdote…and pretty soon they are eager to read the best
poem of their life too the minute they walk through the door.

2) What are some things the kids have taught you about writing?

Kids have been my toughest, kindest, most playful, and encouraging
teachers. They teach me about trust and how to never let fear stop me
from writing and sharing what it is I most need to say. There was this
girl from one of my third grade workshops last spring who really let her
imagination rip down the page during our workshops. I invited her to
read at the annual Poetry Month reading at BookPassage, a wonderful
bookstore in the next town over. The annual CPITS Student Reading is a
big deal and is always well attended, often with over 100+ people and
standing room only. I even get nervous standing up there introducing
these star student-poets! Anyway, this little girl with her hair in
barrettes and a hint of blue eye shadow got up to the podium when her
name was called, then turned to me and said, “Wow, I’m really scared.”
She then proceeded to adjust the microphone, smooth out her poem, and
open her voice and her life to the crowd anyway. She’s my perfect
example of what Pema Chodron calls a person who is intimate with their fear.

3) From reading your bio on your website, it seems like you're balancing family, work and writing. Can you share any insights into how you structure your life to make space for everything that is important to you?

Oh, when I think of all the time I wasted prior to getting married
and becoming a mother. Now that I don’t have the luxury of what I had
then, one thing that has helped me prioritize is a nine year yoga
practice. It has helped me in more ways than I can name. Taking 90
minutes a few times a week and practicing sticking my soul to my skin
has allowed me to breath out all the un-needed thoughts and
how-am-I-ever-going-to-fit-it-all-in-today-worries, and truly create a
space where time spreads out and I feel this sense of calm abiding and
am able for longer stretches to remain in the no where else. That said,
I also have a very supportive partner who I “tag team” with. Both my
husband and son will say, “go to yoga; you’ll feel better.” Plus yoga
just makes me nicer person, to myself and to my family. And when I’m
nicer, I’m happier. And more creative…and can figure out ways to write
at baseball games when my son’s sitting on the bench and make sue of
those minutes in the pick-up line after school, etc.

4) When did you claim "writer" for yourself? In my experience, it takes people a long time to acknowledge that they are writers -- especially if they haven't published yet. 

I love that verb “claim.” I claimed the word “writer” for myself with
a simple practice given to me at a workshop in Taos, New Mexico by one
of my early teachers, Natalie Goldberg. This was in the nineties, and
Natalie told a room full of us to spend time saying out loud to five or
so people we encountered over the course of day, a week, “I’m a writer,”
when we introduced ourselves. The whole week, every time I said it, I
felt like an imposter. I hadn’t published anything yet; this was the
trap my mind had set for itself…I could ONLY call myself the “W” word if
I had a publication credit. Then, shortly after that workshop, while I
was in graduate school, I had a prose poem published in an anthology
called WHERE THE HEART IS. I remember sitting in my boyfriend’s car
outside of A CLEAN WELL LIGHTED PLACE FOR BOOKS and crying. He thought I
didn’t like the book, but I was crying for that girl whose name came at
the end of the poem who had been a writer for so long.
5)  Tell me about your cat. Anyone with a cat is clearly a fabulous human being.

Clive is a great wisdom being. He was abandoned on the streets of
Sacramento five years ago. A local woman in my county rescues cats from
Sacramento—since they euthanize them there—and brings them to a clinic
in San Rafael. My son had been asking for a marmalade-colored cat named
Gladys for months, so when my husband found a photo of a cat posted on
this woman’s website, he asked our son if a grey and white cat named
Clive would be OK. Well, Clive turned out to be more than OK. He is has
a huge personality and is scary smart. People who come to my house for
gatherings have been known to spend a fair amount of the evening hanging
out with Clive. Friends email me to ask after him. He’s that kind of
cat. He will greet you at the gate after a long day; spoon you until you
fall asleep. He hasn’t yet perfected the art of opening the back door
for himself, but when he stands on his hind legs, his front paws reach
the doorknob. Clive really holds the sacred space of our house. He’s a
younger brother to my son, and a muse to me. In fact, he sat to the
right of my keyboard for much of the time I wrote RIP THE PAGE! He’s
outside in the garden doing his morning meditation right now or else
he’d come thank you himself for devoting an entire question to him.

Rip the Page! Adventures in Creative Writing is available now from Shambhala/Trumpeter Books. Find out more about Karen at her website.

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