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Articles tagged with: writing


What Babies Know

What Babies Know

Emily told me about a New York Times' article on "what babies know," so I looked it up yesterday. Fascinating stuff with big implications for people who write children's books! These researchers showed babies a "puppet show" where a red ball is moving up a hill. A yellow square shows up and assists it up the hill, but a green triangle appears and pushes it down. (All the shapes have faces, which has turned out to be an important part of getting babies involved in socialization issues; they lose interest without them.) After watching, the babies are offered each shape, and they prefer the "nice" shape to the "mean" one overwhelmingly – those under six months by looking at it longer, older babies by reaching for it. (In case you're thinking babies might prefer a particular color or shape, they changed those up and the results were the same.)

We can no longer assume those big eyes and rounded foreheads house empty space – or visions of sugarplums dancing. Those babies are dealing with complicated issues like right and wrong. By the way, they can also "do math." When one Mickey Mouse doll is shown on an empty stage, then joined by another, babies stare longer if they are subsequently shown one doll or three dolls instead of the "expected" two.

That innocent wide-eyed look is deceptive. My friend Beth points out that the word for that appealing combination of features look babies have is "neoteny," which usually refers mostly to the retention of these characteristics in adults. It's why film-makers make aliens with big heads and low, wide apart eyes. (And don't you just want to force-feed a cupcake to those poor starved models with the huge heads?)

With infants, eyes and cries are all we've got. Many parents learn to "read" cries to determine hunger, pain, or fatigue. But it's the eyes that show the more positive emotions I love – absolute adoration of whoever's feeding them, downcast embarrassment for the person making a fool of himself trying to get a smile, and wicked bemusement when they're "in on the joke." I've learned never to sell my students short; they've often come through when I least expected it. Looks like we owe babies the same benefit of the doubt.

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Posted in May, 2010


In Loving Memory

In Loving Memory

Johnnie Brigman
July 24, 1929 – April 27, 2010

In the rush to plan a funeral last week that would be the most fitting tribute we could offer my Dad, I had no time to write a letter to him as many other family members so thoughtfully did. While it's personal in a way that will be uncharacteristic for this blog, I want to honor his memory by posting mine here.


Today I read the letter you wrote me when I left home for college. You worried that you'd failed to tell me how much you loved me, when feelings ran "too deep for words." You and I shared our love for words, but we understood their limits. Still, I always knew how you felt. Your love for me was there, in every lesson you taught me, as you guided me in your quiet way, setting an example I can only aspire to emulate.

You gave me poetry - in the childhood books you read so tirelessly, the thousands of songs that lulled me to sleep, the French language you loved, the hymns you hummed throughout the day, the mountain lore you collected, and the novels we passed back and forth as adults. It'll be awhile before I'm able to listen to the tapes we have of your sermons, with spontaneous prayers so beautiful and genuine. The verses you wrote me for special occasions - from the day I was born - were the inspiration for my own work that you read so eagerly, your tired eyes glittering with pride.

We loved words, but sometimes we didn't need them. That night you heard me crying on the porch because your new church assignment would require me to begin my senior year in a high school far from home, you came and sat with me – just as we'd sit together those years when Mom was battling cancer, and last year in your hospital room when you fought off pneumonia to give us a little more time with you. We knew your great heart couldn't go on much longer; you'd given so much of it away in fifty years of ministering to others. No one ever loved his fellow man more, or judged others less.

The writings you left behind show such loving attention to every aspect of your children's and grandchildren's daily lives; no concern was too trivial to merit your prayers. Your journals will remain on your desk - a testament to your active spiritual life and the quest for intellectual stimulation that continued until your final weeks on earth. We worried at first we were invading your privacy in reading them, but I know you were a writer with an appreciation for an audience . . . and that your diaries are part of your plan for continuing your gentle teachings, setting the standard for our adult responses to joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain. Your past experiences offer wisdom for the years ahead.

You summed up your credo so eloquently in the letter you wrote me so many years ago: "I hope you will never forget the importance of work well-done, the deep satisfaction that comes from giving yourself to others, the value of self-respect and integrity, the sustaining quietness and confidence that comes from the Lord when things get rough, and the wonder of God's creation about us. Never surrender your faith in the loving providence of God and the essential goodness of the human spirit." No matter what befell you– and your trials were many – I saw these ideals in the way you lived your life, and in the way you embraced your death.

You are dearly loved, Daddy, and you will be deeply missed.

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Posted in May, 2010


Why They Write

Last week's blog focused on Why We Write - in general, so I thought it might be fun to make a list of a few former students who've chosen careers (or are building careers) that center around their writing talents. i'd love to take credit for their mad skills, but most of them came to me with some pretty impressive creative chops. I like to think they found rewarding outlets for self-expression in my class, and maybe improved their fluency with lots of practice - but they are amazing writers in their own right.

This list is dedicated to current students whose parents are cringing over their offspring's choice of English as a major. It's a tip-of-the-iceberg list (of first names only since i didn't ask their permission.) There are lots of others out there, so maybe you can help me add to it. It makes me happy to picture my fellow word enthusiasts at their keyboards each day.

Ben M. – screenplays in LA
Megan M. – comedy sketches for Neo-Futurists in Chicago
Geoff E., Ryan J., Rose D., Andy H. – sermons for Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist and Jewish services
Sarah Beth G. – books on economics and Georgia politics
Shaw B. – content for Comedy Central's website
Noel S. – editing for research institute associated with Harvard
Allison D. - news programming for WHNT
Ashley T. – marketing blog at Auburn
Audrey H. - blog about mission work in China
Sally C. - blog about Kiribati and Pacific culture
Sarah N. - director's notes
Kathleen J. - magazine articles
Tim K., Scott H. - sports blogs
Josh M., Kellyn E. – environmental lobby appeals to Congress, environmental issues papers
Paul M., Brian H., Ian C. – music
Nick S., Emily M., Dena S., Caroline M., Chris W., Walter F., Ryan P. – lesson plans
Mike F., Suzanne R., Drew D. - film projects
Patrick R. – started online editing business at Princeton
Shekira D., Emily E., Drew M. - website design
Sarah B. – editorial assistant with NYC publisher
John B., Graham B., Ani R., Alyssia H., Sarah S., Matthew H., George R., Cynthia G.- legal briefs

. . . and too many dissertations for grad programs to mention.

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Posted in April, 2010


Why We Write

-To earn passing grades: Let's face it, most of our early writing is not voluntary. I've wrestled enough research papers from hostile juniors and seniors to know that for many, the ONLY motivation – at least in the beginning – is to graduate from high school and be done with writing.

-To stay connected: Even though most of us don't hand-write long letters any more, we e-mail our friends and relatives and keep up with huge numbers of contacts through FB, Twitter, etc.

-To entertain: Whether it's a quick comment on FML or Texts from Last Night, or a detailed account of a crazy weekend in emails or on blogs, we all love a good story, and sites like reddit keep us in the loop.

-To remember: We write events of our lives in journals, memories from the past in letters to old friends, homework assignments in tiny notepads or on slips of paper that get lost, and To Do lists that don't get done. Writing is our cue to our future selves about important stuff.

-To make sense of tragedy: How many times have you heard someone tell the story of where they were on 9-11? Or when the big tornado hit? We cope with tragic events by retelling the stories.

-To organize our thoughts. We pull together large amounts of information to find common threads and relationships between ideas.

-To satisfy creative urges: Whether we're writing novels, poems, plays, music, speeches, legal briefs, or sermons, there's something immensely satisfying about matching what's in our heads with the hard-copy that will help other people understand our thoughts.

-To find our voice. How can we know what we think until we see what we say? Only you can express the particular thoughts that are in your unique head in your own personal style. Writing's a great journey in self discovery for those with the courage to experiment.

-To earn money: Just kidding. That doesn't happen. . . Well, not much.

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Posted in April, 2010


Never Feed Him Too Much

Never Feed Him Too Much

We're told that picture books should go easy on the morals; if you beat kids over the head with a lesson they're supposed to learn, you'll take the fun out of reading. But I must have been loaded with teacher genes from the get-go 'cause a lot of my favorites are a tiny bit didactic. I loved A Fish Out of Water. The idea that a fish could grow gigantic (or in real life - go belly-up) from overfeeding was a revelation to me. How was it possible to love a pet to death? Terrifying that - in giving him too much of a good thing - I could smother him with love or floating flakes of nutrition or both.

I was probably not at too much risk here, in reality. I'm not a creature of routine, so the idea of a regular feeding time - for me or said pets - is a bit of a burden. I always assume babies will cry when they're hungry, too, and they usually do. (This mentality does not bode well for the poor plants on my desk who droop in silent supplication, praying I will glance up and notice their desperation for w-a-a-t-e-r.)

I did manage to raise two incredibly cool children, somehow, who do not evidence any lasting effects of the benign neglect to which they were subjected so maybe the fish book lesson was worthwhile. I like to think my "hands-off" attitude benefitted them; I was never the kind of parent who snooped in their rooms or asked a million questions, or tried to live vicariously through them. I guess I was really lucky that they made it easy to trust them (not that they never did anything wrong; they are very real velveteen rabbits.) This would be a good spot for one of those silly quotes about giving your children wings as well as roots, but P.D. Eastman made it much simpler:

"Never feed him too much
Never more than a spot
Or something may happen
You never know what!

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Posted in March, 2010

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