Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It Takes a Community to Raise a Writer (And a writer to shape a nation)

Writing can often be a lonely endeavor -- but it shouldn't be. Today, guest blogger Johnell DeWitt shares her experiences with creating community. 

Moving every two years taught me the importance of community. When we relocated to the States roughly four years ago, I decided to start writing again, this time for children. I had no idea where to begin, so I asked a neighbor whod been recently published. She turned me on to Verla Kays Blueboards (now the SCBWI Blueboards) and told me about SCBWI.

Preferring the anonymity of an online forum, I joined the Blueboards. Poking around the various threads helped me learn the basics, but I also learned that I needed more interaction if I really wanted to progress. Posts about Tara Lazars PiBoIdMo started popping up so I decided to give it a try. I was still too chicken to join SCBWI even though I knew I needed that in-person instruction.

Its funny how a need often heightens ones awareness of possible solutions. As I started interfacing with people on the PiBoIdMo Facebook page, I realized that several of them lived in my area. An incautious thought crept in. Why couldnt we start our own Facebook page to keep each other informed about author events in our neighborhoods? I proposed the idea and received positive responses, unfortunately, no one offered to do it.

The social media scene was foreign territory after living in foreign territory for seven years, so I wasnt sure how to start. After failed attempt after failed attempt, I finally created an operational group page and invited my PiBo friends to join. As members started trickling in, I realized I was surrounded by experienced writers. Another incautious thought crept in. Why couldnt I learn from the writers in my own backyard?

Since my usual cautious nature was already riding the wind, I went ahead and proposed the idea of holding a mini-seminar. Again, the responses were positive. Two talented authors agreed to present to us and we started pulling it together.

Long story short, we hosted our first seminar in a library room we reserved for free. I can barely express the importance of that opportunity. Through this group, I found the courage to join SCBWI, Julie Hedlunds 12x12 and start another writing community, this time in my new home in Central America.

I knew before moving to Central America that there was no SCBWI chapter in the region, but I figured thered be some type of writing community. There sort of was, but not specifically for childrens lit. I was taking a class from Mira Reisberg at the time and she suggested I start an SCBWI chapter in my new home. Excellent advice but how to do it? I started asking questions again. I called SCBWI and then met with expats who knew the local scene. As the names started trickling in, I realized my new writing community would be different.

The country Im in suffers from problems common to emerging economies, not the least of which is a lack of a strong national identity. An under-represented aspect of this problem lies in a dearth of national literature. One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from Kenyan author, Ngugi Wa Thiongo:

A Russian child grows under the influence of his native imaginative literature: a Chinese, a Frenchman, a German or an Englishman first imbibes his national literature before attempting to take in other worlds. That the central taproot of his cultural nourishment should lie deep in his native soil is taken for granted.

Id lived in various parts of Africa and understood the need for books that spoke the local languagein words and culture. Id also lived in Finland and had studied the significance of Finlands epic, The Kalevala. How a simple piece of literature, and the author who compiled it, changed the course of Finnish history is as epic as the story. Why couldnt we do the same?

The writing group we are forming now is still in the beginning phases, but we are already finding talented artists, authors and others excited about creating a thriving childrens literature community. If we succeed, the impact will be far-reaching.

In the few short years Ive been writing, theres no way I could have attempted a step this big without a writing community to guide me. Ive gained many friends and mentors whove graciously shared their talents and helped me build mine. If the rest of society invested in each other the way childrens lit creators do, wed change the world. For now, you are helping me change mine.

Johnell DeWitt blogs with her writing group at Dew Drops of Ink. She has written other posts about the importance of community for Julie Hedlunds blog and for her own

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

How To Write Your Passion

Today guest blogger Pat Tanumihardja encourages you to follow your passion!

When I was a little girl, there was nothing I loved more than sitting in a corner of my room curled up with a good book. Well, actually there was—hanging out in the kitchen with my mom.

As I got older, my love of reading morphed into a love of writing. Stringing words together to make beautiful sentences was pure joy! Along the way, I was helping my mom roll spring rolls and I watched diligently as she cooked my favorite childhood dishes. My biggest triumph came when I baked my first cake solo at 11-years-old.

I knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew I loved food and cooking.

Although I didn’t travel a straight path, I’ve finally found a way to combine my two passions, in essence, a way to write my passion.

Finding Your Passion

For me, finding a passion to write about came very naturally. For others, it may take some soul searching. If you land in the latter camp, here are some ideas to define your passion:

  • Think back to your childhood and make a list of your favorite activities and interests. Revisit some of them, including foods and events. The things we loved as a child are probably still the things we love today.
  •  Connect the dots. Search for clues that might help you discover a long running thread that has been connecting everything in your life: your habits, the games you played, the books you read.
  •   Examine your life and see if you’re already doing something that you love. Think about the things you do that make you happy. Talk to friends about what you’re good at.
  •    Explore new avenues of creativity—pick up a new hobby like pottery or tennis. They just might ignite a newfound passion.

Channeling your Passion
People write for many reasons—to make money, to keep a record of their lives (journaling), as  a form of catharsis, self-satisfaction, etc.  

Twelve years ago, after almost a decade working in the arts, I started writing picture books. Two years and a dozen manuscripts later, and without a contract in sight, I switched gears and started freelancing for magazines. It was a hard decision to make but I had to earn a living.

That’s how I ended up writing about food for print and online publications. Immersing myself in the cross-section of food and writing eventually led to a cookbook and a blog, which I still keep up today.

When my son was born, I felt drawn to children’s writing again and I’ve picked it up again seriously in the last year or so. And for some strange reason, all the stories that I’ve been cooking up seem to have a food-related theme! Like writing, it’s become a part of me.

It could happen with just about any passion whether you love dogs, astronomy, or knitting. Writers today have never been so lucky -- there are so many outlets to choose from if you want to write about your passion.

Let’s take the topic of knitting for example.

  • Blog post: Review a new knitting book that features unique, trendy designs that you never thought you’d be able to knit yourself.
  •  Non-fiction article: Profile the owner of a new knitting store in your town that’s cultivating a new generation of knitters.
  • Children’s picture book: A girl has magic knitting needles that allow her to “knit” anything her heart desires.
  •   Novel: Create a main character who’s so shy and timid and she only finds solace in knitting. 

You get what I mean.

You don’t have to stick to only one platform. Pick two or three or more! The possibilities are endless. For me, my writing portfolio evolved quite naturally and food and cooking remained at the very center of it. And it happened over a decade.

My advice is to just take the plunge without any expectations. Above all, do it for yourself and start writing because you want to share your passion with others. When you write about what you’re passionate about, it shows, and your audience will eventually follow.  

Pat Tanumihardja considers herself lucky to be able to write her passion—as a freelance writer, cookbook author and now, a children’s writer. Pat blogs about food and life at and can be found on Twitter: @ediblewords.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Writing About Minorities, for Non-Minorities.

This week, guest blogger Erik Thurman encourages us to write outside our race while avoiding potential landmines.

The publishing world has always been slow to change, especially in recognizing the growing diversity of our readership. For generations in Western society people of color, LGBTQ, women, religious minorities, individuals with disabilities, and others have been exposed to fables of valiant, pale-skinned men who fight for glory and honor, and bring peace and order to the lands they were destined to save. The hero’s trial takes him through lava-filled caverns, treacherous high seas, and even to the heavens, until he is finally rewarded with the token object of his desire.

Oftentimes, minority readers are brought along for the ride as outsiders looking in, waiting for the chance when they can be more than a sidekick (at best), and actually see a hero that embodies them.

In a 2013 study, the Cooperative Children’sBook Center (CCBC) found that 89.5% of children's books featuring humans were about white people.

We should be careful not to place blame solely on publishers. After all, they aren’t the ones producing the manuscripts; nor can they magically conjure them out of nowhere. Oftentimes it’s the writers-- many of whom come from a certain level of privilege that allows them the time to create a body of work-- who are unable to go beyond "writing what they know" to explore a more diverse narrative.

The fear of ‘getting it wrong’ is strong, but does that mean that writers should avoid creating characters outside of their own background? Of course not! Whatever your background, do not be too afraid to write about experiences that not your own. But do look at your manuscripts critically -- and strengthen your work by avoiding some of these common mistakes that people make in their storytelling.

Beware using descriptive words that invoke thoughts of food to describe a non-white person.

.When was the last time you saw a white person's skin described as powdered sugar or a shortbread cookie? Your beautiful Nigerian queen isn’t made of smooth, milk chocolate; just as the hard-as-nails Columbian network supervisor in your urban fantasy isn’t a coffee-tinting beau.  The ethnic Chinese model from Honolulu is not made of honey, nor is the Egyptian office worker in London as sweet as caramel and cinnamon.

Using descriptive food words to describe the color of a person’s skin subtly fetishizes a race, turning skin tone into something that is to be tried, tasted, and consumed.

Don’t add accents for “flavor.”

Every person has their speech patterns – reflecting their history, family background, educational level, and past travels and experiences. Storytellers who try to fake these accents and speech patterns for the sake of differentiating between the characters demonstrate a lack of understanding of the inhabitants of their world. Take the time to appreciate and capture the actual nuances of language; don’t just write what you expect to hear.

Also note: there is no problem with demonstrating someone’s trouble in speaking a language that is not their native tongue, and representing it accurately in your text, as long as it’s clear that their difficulty with one language does not reflect poorly on their overall intelligence. 

Not everyone fits within their society’s bubble.

What are the first things that come to your mind when you think of a South Korean woman in her early 20s?  Your list might include the following—docile, obedient, cute, small, and dainty.

Yet none of these words quite describe one of my best friends in Seoul, Sung-ae. At the age of 18, Sung-ae traveled throughout Africa and the Middle East alone for fifteen months. She spent considerable time living in Damascus, Syria, picking up Arabic before the civil war broke out, and later worked for a Korean tour company in Egypt while living in Maat’i and Alexandria. Now, she’s back in Korea working as an Elementary school teacher for a Christian organization.

Yes, we all internalize particular characteristics of the culture that we grew up in, but rarely does a person fit perfectly into some compartmentalized stereotype. Make your characters nuanced human beings, instead of cardboard cutouts made of preconceived notions. 

Indigenous peoples do not have some sort of mystic connection to nature or the Earth.

We’ve all heard of the story arc in Western literature where the hero—often a white male from a foreign land—meets an indigenous group of people during his quest. The hero quickly befriends the indigenous people, who are practitioners of a long lost magic, and then undergoes a sacred rite of passage so that he may accomplish his goal.

Yes, people have different cultures, values, and behavioral patterns – and you should embrace those. But the idea of the writer giving indigenous peoples magical powers reeks of unconscious atonement for a history of colonialism/imperialism.

If you write about mental illness, don’t so in a way that overshadows all other character development.

Many writers will offset “disadvantages” caused by a disability – physical, mental, emotional, learning, or otherwise -- by bestowing disabled characters with unnatural abilities that are derived from their impairment. These might include telepathic powers for borderline personality disorder, the power to see the dead for the visually-impaired, or possessing a healing touch for the paraplegic.

This becomes a problem when the disabilities become the main personality trait for these characters, dwarfing the other good and bad aspects about these individuals, and thus marginalizing all other character development. Nobody’s existence can be narrowed down to one single defining trait, and to treat a character that way is to shortchange what it means to be human.

Lastly, look for ways to break “the single story.”

During the Axis of Evil 2008 comedy tour, which featured prominent Arab, Persian, and Middle Eastern comedians from all over the world, comedian Ahmed Ahmed was flooded with tweets from fans and critics alike. During an interview, Ahmed recounted one of those messages from a conservative forum--
‘I didn’t know these people [Muslims] laughed.’

Oftentimes, our readers are subjected to a single story to represent an entire group of people—such as in the case of the film American Sniper’s depiction of Iraqis as inherently vile creatures capable of driving drill bits through people’s skulls. These stories serve no other purpose than to indoctrinate a newer generation into the same stereotypes of the past. Fortunately, novels like Kite Runner, with its portrayal of Afghan youth help combat these narratives.

The majority of stereotypes only arise because we keep hearing the same story, packaged differently, 
over and over again, until we internalize them as the story of a group of people. Even providing just one more narrative goes a long way in helping our readers gain a broader perspective of groups of people that are not our own.

I hope that writers can use some of these points to look critically at their work, and use it as a springboard in order to improve representation from people from all backgrounds.

And maybe, by reflecting a world in which they are accurately represented, we can hope to inspire young readers of all backgrounds to pursue a career in writing.

Erik Thurman is a comics journalist and educator who currently calls South Korea, home.
Born in California, USA, his experience traveling throughout his youth has offered him the opportunity to live in three countries, while acquiring an affinity for languages, politics, and foreign affairs.  His comics have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Nib, The Cartoon Picayune, and Reed Magazine,  among other print and digital publications.