Tag Archives: writing

From Reluctant to Triumphant: Turning Wary Writers into Writing Winners

Part Two: Reaching Auditory Learners

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A reluctant writer comes in many guises: a student who is good at telling stories but lacks the skill (or desire) to put them down on paper; someone who is never satisfied with what they write; a poor speller; someone who thinks that writing is just grammar and rules; someone who abandons their writing easily; or someone who is simply scared to push themselves or risk appearing foolish.

A simple strategy is to not make writing seem like writing to the reluctant writer. Not tricking them, per se, but cleverly building up necessary skills to help make writing more productive and satisfying.

Now You’re Talking (and Writing)

Some children are auditory learners. You know: the ones that you are constantly hushing (it’s odd: we spend so much time trying to get children walking and talking as babies only to force them sit down and be quiet when older!). In any case, many of these “chatty” students simply must process thoughts through their lips.

In terms of writing, verbal learners might prefer talking another student through their story before committing pen to paper: verbally formulating their plot and solidifying characters. This helps young writers put thoughts in order beforehand to better avoid writing frustration.

Auditory learners have the tendency to read out loud, repeat information and ask a variety of questions for clarification. They understand the world by talking about it, tend to like music, would rather listen to and talk about a story than read, and demonstrate good oral spelling.

All Ears

Auditory learners remember what they hear and tend to process by talking aloud. They are the vocal students who hum, tap their pencils to a beat, or can’t go throughout the day without singing or sharing a story. These students can often have a hard time concentrating in a noisy environment.

Headphones can act like mufflers for students who are easily distracted by sounds and side-conversations. Non-intrusive music can also be used to set a “mood” in the learning environment. This can help students better focus on the task at hand. Long periods of silence when reading, writing, or testing can be difficult for auditory learners. Classical music can help calm students during an exam, while upbeat music might prove motivational during certain lessons or exercises.

These students thrive in group discussions and read aloud activities. They often need to read out loud, ask questions, or talk through problems they are having with their work

Persuasive writing exercises can be engage auditory learners by getting children together in groups to form and present persuasive arguments. These types of learners often make strong debaters, so enabling students to build persuasive arguments can be an emboldening experience. Students can begin by determining a goal, then identifying reasons to support that argument then finding facts or examples to validate each reason. Persuasive lessons help students discover the power of writing to serve their needs. When they recognize what writing can “do for them,” they are motivated to write and to work at making their arguments clearer and more persuasive.

Set the Stage for Collaboration

Sometimes students simply work better together. Pairing children or putting them in small groups for a set amount of time should help keep them focused (though be prepared for some noise!). Pairing up students to help them brainstorm their stories can ignite creativity on its own, with each child helping one another to fill in gaps or take their ideas in exciting new directions. Students can even “role-play” their characters and situations! Partners can write and switch too—building their stories line by line—or one person can transcribe what the other dictates and then switch, turning an evolving conversation into an actual story. Their stories don’t even need to be formally committed to paper and could, for example, be recorded as a podcast. Listening back to their podcasts and either honing their stories verbally or through the act of writing can kick-start healthy writing habits.

Children don’t even need to be in the same room when brainstorming stories. Online collaboration tools such as Padlet can help with collaborative ideation. Padlet works like an online sheet of paper where students can put any content (e.g. images, videos, documents, text) anywhere on the page, together with anyone, from any device.

Correcting a peer’s writing (or a teacher’s, for that matter) is also far less painful than correcting your own. This helps a reluctant writer learn how to revise and correct without it feeling too personal.

Make It a Habit

Making writing a fun and frustration-free part of a student’s daily life is important. Timed free-writing exercises—no more than ten or 15 minutes at a time—help to ingrain good practices. Ideally, students will begin to consider this “their special time” to reflect, let their imaginations run rampant, vent frustrations, or capture life-moments. It’s also important to let students write about what engages them the most before nudging them into specific directions. If they are passionate about a topic, this passion will ultimately come through in their writing. This could even take the form of “fan fiction”: where students continue the adventures of beloved characters from books or movies.

Setting up a class blog, with teacher-penned prompts (such as quotes, snippets of dialogue, or even photographs), can also prove successful. Be sure to promote short bursts of productive writing: save the editing and spelling for later. The worst thing for writing flow is to have issues such as spelling and grammar impede that initial gush of creativity.

Again, for the verbal learner, this could be simply recording their thoughts for a designated period of time, and making use of those ideas later when writing. Students can capture ideas—either alone or with collaborators—while on walks by dictating into their phones. It’s a great opportunity for students to talk their stories out while releasing restless energy! Even recording recollections of dreams can be a powerful way of building vocabulary.

And, since reluctant writers are often reluctant readers, have students make reading a part of their daily routine. This could even be listening to audio books or magazine podcasts on an iPod: anything to fill a young writer’s head with well-chosen words.

Peer Pressure

Students are often more inclined to step-up and brave that blank page if they know that their writing will be shared with peers. Hold a reading at a local coffee shop for student work, or simply a weekly “open mic” in the classroom where students read what they have written that week. Student stories can also be published in a book, blog or eBook. Be sure to teach “tactful” commenting and critique. Even those who are shy to share will likely be inspired by those who aren’t.

Resistance is Futile (and Fuel)

Even resistance can be used as writing fuel. If a student doesn’t want to write and, instead, would prefer to play outside, let them write about what they’d do outside. If they want to scream and throw a tantrum, have them write about that. Let them write about how much they hate writing until they have run out of words. This will reinforce that all-important pipeline between brain and fingers.

The Write Tools

There are a number of online tools to help get auditory learners writing.

ReadWriteThink is a handy online resource that provides educators, parents, and afterschool professionals with free, high-quality reading and language arts instruction materials.

Another way to help students organize and arrange stories is through Adobe Spark Video. This free tool allows students to quickly create animated videos featuring their own narration. Not only do the app’s prompts help children with story structure, but Adobe Spark Video can also be an empowering tool for students who are uneasy with giving formal presentations to their peers.

Other tools include: PodOmatic, where auditory learners can create, find and share podcasts; Playlist, a resource for auditory learners to access free music to play in the background while they learn; Natural Reader, a way to read text stored on your computer; Audacity, easy-to-use audio editing software; Librivox, providing free access to nearly 1,500 free audio books recorded by Librivox volunteers; Project Gutenberg, a collection of human-read and computer-generated audio books; Lit2Go, a collection of free stories and poems in mp3 format; and Read With Me, a student literacy and reading tool for grades K-2 (and their teachers).

With these and other writing tricks and tips, reluctant writers will eventually overcome feelings of past failure and begin to develop the skills crucial to strong writing: building confidence, pride and perseverance!

Bully For Me. Bully For You.

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To commemorate October as “Bullying Awareness Month,” I bring you the following insights regarding the subject…

As a latch-key kid, I basically came home from school, made my meals, and did my homework until my adult “roommates” came home. (To amuse myself I’d drive across the local park, set fire to things, and make Super-8 movies, usually of me driving across the local park and setting fire to things.) So when I was bullied at school, I not only didn’t have any sense of conflict management or support tools of any kind, but I couldn’t even really talk about it. At the time, the notion of “talking about it” just seemed like it would make it all the more real. So I kept it all bottled up inside and quietly hated myself for being bullied upon. The bullying wasn’t extreme, really, in retrospect: hardly ever physical, mostly just name-calling, the threat of abuse, a few books knocked out of my hands, etc. I was never punched, never shoved, but I still felt like a victim. The bullying created a thick layer of malevolence and unease to my school day, which—in retrospect—affected my school-work, my relationships, and my self-esteem even today. I often feel like I put up with more shit than I need to, like the guy at the end of an incontinent elephant parade armed only with a shovel.

The bullying turned this outsider inside out. When people talk about how happy they were in school, I simply can’t relate. I had great friends and, equipped with a selective memory, I can create a fairly convincing scrapbook of happy times in my head. But, really, I only started to feel comfortable with myself in my 30s! Maybe that’s why my books are obsessed with the infantile. A part of me is still frozen in a state of arrested development. In the vicious, viscous amber of time. Despite being a boy named Dale, I was pretty popular in elementary school, doing plays and talent shows, etc. But, upon middle school, all my friends were sent to one school, while I was sent to another. I never really recovered from that. I was sent to, basically, an off-Broadway production of Lord of the Flies and learned to keep my head down (my, what interesting feet I have!).

I hated middle school. Hated it. So I find it supremely ironic that, after writing a bunch of books for middle-readers, I find myself having to go to schools for appearances. It’s like if I wrote a book about terrible prison experiences, then had to do a tour of maximum security penitentiaries. Yay. Maybe my next series should be about tropical spa vacations. Anyway, I don’t have a wide audience. My books are kind of cult-y. Niche. But the fan-base are really devoted. Half of the letters or messages I get are from adults, which is interesting. Also a lot of “spooky” teen girls, which I didn’t bargain for. I thought Heck would appeal mostly the pre-teen boys, but girls have really latched on to Marlo. Anyway, while I haven’t gotten any letters specifically about bullying, I can tell that my books are savored by outcasts: those that feel different. And that my stories, humor, outlook and way of writing appeal to them. They really enjoy the obscure references that make them feel part of an exclusive club. And I know that, when I was growing up, sci-fi and punk music really helped me through. It was very different then: media wasn’t so omnipresent. You had to actively seek out the things that you liked and, with the effort and intention that required, it made you feel like part of a club. Just knowing that there were other freaks out there that liked what I liked made school much more bearable.

The baddest bully in my books, Damian Ruffino— is actually named after a real bully I encountered in middle school. I forget what his first name was, but his last name was definitely Ruffino. He was one of those kids that was twice as big as the other kids, probably had facial hair as a baby…I remember he had the name RUFFINO on the back of the football jersey he’d always wear. He was just one of many. He never really did anything but make fun of me or threaten me. Anyway, in the first chapter of the first Heck book, Milton—the main character—has these horrible memories of his encounters with Damian flash into his mind just before his—SPOILER—death! While these scenes weren’t anything that happened to me, per se, they captured the feeling I would have of basically being “hunted” at school. Avoiding someone as if they carried the bully-bonic plague!

And, I have to say, adults weren’t much help at the time. At least not for me. I remember in middle school we had a PE coach for a while, his name was—get this—Tiny. And, of course, he wasn’t. One of those nicknames that bullies adopt to basically dare you to say something, I’m sure. Anyway, my friend Guy Himber and I were trying our best to play football despite our utter non-interest and complete lack of skill, and the boys who basically lived to play football as an excuse to hit each other would always plow into us with undisguised glee. So, I had headgear—of course—and after one particularly vicious play, Guy and I were pretty banged up and were either crying or were on the verge of crying, and I recall vividly Tiny, surrounded by a pack of snickering boys, just laughing at us. An adult not only thinking that it was fine for some boys to physically abuse others, but openly condoning, even celebrating it. That really pissed me off. I mean, what an awful, awful person. I’m sure there is an open position in Heck just waiting for Coach Tiny!

So that’s pretty much the fuel that feeds my Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go series. It was basically my middle school experience…a living Heck, though none of my teachers had hooves and horns, at least to the best of my knowledge. So, as irony has it, my book series often sends me back to school to do readings and workshops. My bowels still turn to jelly when walking down those shiny, institutionalized floors, hearing the exploding heart-attack bell, and swimming upstream through halls of impulse-control-challenged pre-teens. Maybe it’s a form of therapy. But it still feels like, inside, there is that nervous little kid with the headgear, wearing bellbottom cords and a Star Wars T-shirt, just trying to get through his day with as little fuss as possible. And I’m sure it is exponentially worse for kids today.

Being an adolescent is hard. Harder now than ever, actually. Especially with all of the adult tools nowadays that only kids have the disposable time to completely utilize for evil. The key to it all is perspective. Now, in retrospect, I know that that time was fleeting. Transitory. But a blip. Sure, it was awful at times, but now I know that it was just a patch of bad road. At the time, though, it seemed impossibly deep and impassably terrible. And it’s really hard to convince someone with no perspective to have perspective.

But does get better, as they say.

Just remember: A bully is basically no different than their victim, only he or she tends to keep their bruises on the inside. A bully is really only beating him or herself up……only you’re the one doubled over in agony, scrambling for your broken glasses and your shattered dignity. No joke (In fact, you should never joke with a bully, as they always finish up with a strong punch-line). Bullies are always on the prowl for a quick and dirty fight. It’s best to leave them to simmer solo in their own beastly juices. Trying to win is the surest way to lose. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you. It’s with themselves. You’d just get in the way…

Interview with Jacobsen’s Books

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1) What was the first piece you ever wrote?

Focusing the telescope of attention inward, the haziest memory of early writing I can think of is a gripping, multi-layered piece of fiction entitled “Snoopy Travels Around the World.” It probably won’t come as much of a shock to you—the person on the other side of whatever this is—that this short slab of edgy prose was about Snoopy, and how he…well, traveled around the world. I was probably seven or eight when my pen (or crayon, more likely) produced this genre-defying work. It was basically a list of places loosely held together with the dramatic conceit of Snoopy being bored, venturing forth, then returning home, realizing that he was happiest here all along. I believe some of the places he visited were “France, Italy, Africa, the desert, Mexico…” amongst others. I love the depth of thought that went into “the desert”…I even cribbed the main character. I’m surprised the Schultz estate hasn’t hounded me. Puzzlingly, the story was printed in The San Francisco Chronicle. Really. I ended up working there years later, probably on the merits of this early, disturbing work.

2) Where do you get most of your ideas?

Mostly my brain…but then again, look what’s telling me that! My brain thinks it knows everything. It’s like it has a mind of its own sometimes. Anyway, I’m just this sort of living, breathing ransom note comprised of odd scraps of often conflicting things, hastily pasted together to form some kind of coherent incoherence. Sure, I read a lot—mostly nonfiction (here’s a parenthetical statement wedged inside of two dashes: I’m currently reading the first volume in an exhaustive and exhausting history of the Beatles. It’s fascinating, but I just found out that the second volume won’t be published in another six years, when I’ll be in my 50s…my sweet lord…)—I also wage a valiant yet doomed assault on The New Yorker, where I try to keep up, invariably fail, then cancel my subscription until I get another offer where they basically pay me to read it…throwing in a desk calendar or something. I used to be a movie critic, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the dark. I also absorb most every conversation I overhear in coffee shops. So all of this stuff coagulates in my brain pan—baking for a fortnight at about 350 degrees until golden brown—and then I chip it out of the pan and…great, now I’m hungry and I’ve completely lost my way. The point is, I get my ideas everywhere. I think my greatest strength, besides competitive thumb wrestling, is in putting ordinary things together in unexpected ways. I have to make something my own before I’m interested, which is why I’d be a terrible co-author!
3) Who was your favorite childhood author?

At first, the Peanuts anthologies, then the Hardy Boys, then Jules Verne, then the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, then Dune, then Catcher in the Rye, then Crime and Punishment, and then a book of matches.

Probably Roald Dahl, for his wicked sense of humor. Then I got into sci-fi WAY hard. Inhaled most everything that had space ships in it. As a teen, I’d carry around anything by Kurt Vonnegut, even before I fully understood his books, perhaps hoping to absorb them through osmosis.

4) Who do you act out the scenes in your novels with?

I’m not sure I fully understand this question, though that has never stopped me before. I don’t really “act out” my scenes (though I have been accused of acting out, especially by my mom). I grab pictures of what I think my characters look like and pin them to a corkboard so they feel more real. I also have to sketch out my various monsters and creatures so I can describe them properly. That way I’m just recounting what I’m seeing rather than writing. The closest I’ve come to acting out my scenes (apart from literally acting out my scenes at readings) was one time when I was driving, which I almost never do as a committed cyclist, and I had a conversation playing out in my head, where it very much felt like two separate people, and I later realized it was Milton and Marlo Fauster, the two protagonists of my Heck series! What they were saying didn’t seem like what I would say at all. They were speaking for themselves! I’m lucky my insurance doesn’t cover meds or I would be out of a job.

5) What is your favorite thing you’ve written?

I was sort of a “Johnny come lately” when it comes to writing (as is evident by my use of phrases such as “Johnny come lately.”). As a kid I was really into drawing: mainly spaceships and superheroes (such as The Volt and the ill-named Human Faucet). Later, I was really into music, which was my driving passion up until my early 30s. I used to write stories, though, to supplement my drawings: mainly based on existing properties such as Star Trek. You know: having Kirk and Spock do cool things like destroy entire planets that wore white after Labor Day, or do awesome mash-ups with the Enterprise battling the Fantastic Four. I would also view the burden of writing a book report into an opportunity to use whatever subject was imposed upon me as a launch pad to write what I really wanted to write about. Like when I had to write about the Declaration of Independence. I housed my essay within a post-apocalyptic story where a man finds the document in the rubble of a destroyed building (razed by alien lasers) and, though English had changed so much he could only make out part of it, he gets the gist just as humanity is enslaved by our new alien overlords. It got an A, though that could have been because I used glitter on the cover. I became more serious about writing when I worked at The San Francisco Chronicle. Though I was mostly a messenger, I would review night clubs and books so that I could go to night clubs for free and get books before they were released to the masses. I found that I really enjoyed being published! Oh, and the writing too. From there, I began reviewing movies and became a movie critic, then started my own newspaper in Portland (Tonic), then was an Arts Editor at Willamette Week before being sucked into the Netherworld of advertising. When I look back at my reviews, they remind me a lot of the writing that I did as a kid, where I’d approach a subject as a springboard to talk about something else that sort of relates but doesn’t really. Like when I reviewed Alien 3 and it turned out to be mostly about my difficult relationship with my mother. I think it was the whole “hatching eggs, bleeding acid, and things eating their way out of stomachs” thing.

Oh…I almost forgot the question. I think one of the things I’ve written I’ve enjoyed the most was in my newspaper tonic. One was a fake news story of a bunch of dim-witted old protesters protesting the Arboretum, waving signs declaring that Arboretum Is Murder, and another where I did a fake profile on a guy that “tasted” local streets and reviewed them as if he were a wine connoisseur. Anyway, they seemed funny at the time. I’m probably the most proud of my books because, wow, it’s hard to sit for a year and write a book and not have a total breakdown.

6) What scene in your writing has made you laugh the hardest or cry the most?

My fourth Heck book, Fibble: Where the Lying Kids Go, takes place in an underworld advertising agency. So I had a lot of fun using my advertising experience for good use, coming up with ridiculous campaigns for products such as “Gee, Your Farts Smell Terrific!” (scented underwear) and flavored soap with a yummy “surprise” in the middle. That stuff cracked me up. In terms of crying, there is a note that Milton’s mother leaves him at the end of the second Heck book, Rapacia, where she is telling him he is not to blame for his sister’s death that gets me every time.

7) What do you think makes good writing?

A strong voice, declaring something that hasn’t been declared before, at least not in that particular way. I like experiencing a story through fresh perspectives. The story itself may not even be conventionally “good,” but I enjoy a ride in a new car, going someplace I’ve never been before. For instance, I love Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, not so much for the story, which I barely remember, but telling that story in second person was so exciting to me as a reader! I love that he took that chance!

8) What made you fall in love with writing?

I loved creating worlds to inhabit, as an escape. I think any outcast retreats into their imagination, and that is just one of the many ways that I am not unique. For a time I did it with music, then movies, but then I realized I could have the most control by writing: controlling every aspect of the world I was creating. It probably seriously started for me when I worked the graveyard shift at the San Francisco Chronicle. I would be SO bored that I wrote little stories for my friends on the day shift. Nothing like being alone in a huge building tending countless machines at 3 AM to get your creative juices flowing. They started as funny little anecdotes then expanded into surreal tomes involving all of the people I worked with.

9) How do you beat out your writers block?

Of the many problems I have, that is not one of them. In fact, I suffer from having too many ideas, so my books are like high pressure canisters. One day I will relax and not have that anxiety that comes with thinking that every idea you have should be captured. Some, well…don’t. I do, occasionally, feel like my mojo has left the building…that what I’m writing isn’t crackling with creative energy. So I’ll ride my bike. That tends to dislodge the sludge from my brain. Wrestling alligators also helps keep me in the moment.

10) Who is your favorite writer?

The guy that writes the Emergency Exit signs on planes. Those are very useful. There are so many writers that I am DEADLY jealous of…but, in terms of writing that has always affected me on multiple levels, I’d say Kurt Vonnegut. I mean, every book of his has some wonderful nugget. Like Mother Night (We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.) and Slaughterhouse Five (How nice–to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.). Brilliant. I miss St. Kurt.

<3 Conference

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Last month I had the great pleasure of being invited to St. Louis to take part in (Auntie) Heather Brewer’s (The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series) Less Than Three (<3) Anti-Bullying Conference. It was one of those experiences so profound that I found it impossible to blog about. In the words of the conference’s eloquent spokesperson: “Less Than Three will not just focus on bullying and why it’s a problem, but will work to offer solutions for the teens who are experiencing this torment. We plan to reach out to all facets of bullied teens: GLBT, multicultural, outcasts, everyone. Because bullying affects everyone.”

I was amongst such authorial luminaries as Susane Colasanti, David Levithan, Andrew Smith, Lisa McMann, Carrie Ryan, A.S. King (oh…I get it: asking), Rachel Caine, Jennifer Brown, Alethea Kontis, Jody Feldman, Cheryl Rainfield, T.M. Goeglein, Ellen Hopkins,Cole Gibsen, Carrie Jones, Mari Mancusi, Shannon Messenger, Sarah Bromley and Antony John.

The Less Than Three conference brought teens, tweens, booksellers, teachers, administrators, parents, librarians, and authors together to rally against bullying. It featured panels focusing on the various effects of bullying and positive approaches to tackling the issue. But, more than anything, it got a refreshing dialogue going about bullying and how it affects everyone. In fact, I feel I got far more out of the experience (especially from the affecting appearance of teen Jordan Brooks who, in a way, inspired the whole event) than the attendees! 

I appeared on the BULLYING IN SCHOOL: When a safe haven turns into a waking nightmare panel. So, rather than try to wrestle this emotional experience in to words, I’ll simply paraphrase some of the questions posed, and my answers.

“QUESTION #1

I know that everyone on the panel has been bullied, so to start off, I’d like you to talk about that. If you were to write one representative scene in a book that would illustrate your personal experiences with being bullied in school, how would that go?

Well, there is a bully—actually THE bully in my book, Damian Ruffino—who is actually named after a really bully I encountered in middle school. I forget what his first name was, but his last name was definitely Ruffino. He was one of those kids that was twice as big as the other kids, probably had facial hair as a baby…I remember he had the name RUFFINO on the back of the football jersey he’d always wear. He was just one of many. He never really did anything but make fun of me or threaten me. Anyway, in the first chapter of the first Heck book, Milton—the main character—has these horrible memories of his encounters with Damian flash into his mind just before his—SPOILER—death! While these scenes weren’t anything that happened to me, per se, they captured the feeling I would have of basically being “hunted” at school. Avoiding someone as if they carried the bully-bonic plague!

Feel free to include any instances when you were the bully. Or where bullying came from an unexpected source. And if you’d like, also touch on your thoughts about this, about where words and actions cross the line from meanness/rudeness/inappropriateness to bullying.

A bully is really only beating him or herself up……only you’re the one doubled over in agony, scrambling for your broken glasses and your shattered dignity. No joke (In fact, you should never joke with a bully, as they always finish up with a strong punch-line). Bullies are always on the prowl for a quick and dirty fight. It’s best to leave them to simmer solo in their own beastly juices. Trying to win is the surest way to lose. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you.  It’s with themselves. You’d just get in the way…

QUESTION #2

One of the great perks of being an author, at least I think so, is the contact with our readers, including going into schools to speak. Have any of you ever been approached by students who conveyed their own bully-related experiences or maybe asked your help? Or have you received letters that speak to that? How did you respond? How do you help a person when you’ll only have such limited contact?

I hated middle school. Hated it. So I find it supremely ironic that, after writing a bunch of books for middle-readers, I find myself having to go to schools for appearances. It’s like if I wrote a book about terrible prison experiences, then had to do a tour of maximum security penitentiaries. Yay. Maybe my next series should be about tropical spa vacations. Anyway, I don’t have a wide audience. My books are kind of cult-y. Niche. But the fan-base are really devoted. Half of the letters or messages I get are from adults, which is interesting. Also a lot of “spooky” teen girls, which I didn’t bargain for. I thought Heck would appeal mostly the pre-teen boys, but girls have really latched on to Marlo. Anyway, while I haven’t gotten any letters specifically about bullying, I can tell that my books are savored by outcasts: those that feel different. And that my stories, humor, outlook and way of writing appeal to them. They really enjoy the obscure references that make them feel part of an exclusive club. And I know that, when I was growing up, sci-fi and punk music really helped me through. It was very different then: media wasn’t so omnipresent. You had to actively seek out the things that you liked and, with the effort and intention that required, it made you feel like part of a club. Just knowing that there were other freaks out there that liked what I liked made school much more bearable.

QUESTION #3

There is a common opinion that many kids who get bullied bring it on themselves. They come to class dressed weirdly or raise their hands and ask strange questions or otherwise present themselves like wounded animals exposing their vulnerabilities. Or that when they react and show emotion to some sort of jab or insult, they make themselves a target. Even those who hang around on the fringes of the popular kids are setting themselves up for disaster. How does bullying begin, in your opinion? Why are some kids targeted over others? Do you see a stereotypical set of victim characteristics? Are some kids just asking for it? And is that common opinion at all true?

I have actually never ever heard that or even considered that. I think it is a sort of gross stereotype, rather like blaming women who dress provocatively of their own sexual assault. Sure, in retrospect, maybe my bright yellow C-3PO T-shirt or tie-dyed Navy jacket adorned with pins and badges or pajama tops and leather jackets weren’t exactly the right thing to wear to school to avoid getting picked on, but it was who I was. For the most part, I didn’t think how I brought bullying on…although, wait, scratch that. I remember one time some kid making fun of my eyelashes. They were really long, like Bambi-long. So I went home and cut them. They mostly grew back, but my mom never really forgave me. To this day, she’ll bring up how long my lashes used to be before I cut them. I was also incredibly pale as a kid, mainly because everything interesting to me involved being inside. So there was a summer where I just laid out in the sun—no sun protection—and baked until golden brown. While it prevented me from being called “albino,” now in my late-forties I have to contend with the sun damage!

QUESTION #4

So there you are being brutally bullied in school. The adults who should call a halt to it or at least acknowledge it with some sympathy either turn the other cheek or adopt a “kids will be kids” attitude. If pressed they might argue that it’s the way society has always been and always will be; that it’s part of the normal process of maturing; that you learn more when you deal with your problems yourselves; that the kids will work it out. Besides, if they were to step in and stand up for that student, it could, they’ve been known to say:

A). Add more fuel to the fire, with the aggressor seeing that kid as a poor, little teacher’s pet.

B). Be even more disruptive to the classroom-learning environment.

C). Have the teacher open him/herself to attack from the bully or from the bully’s parents.

Is there any validity to any of those arguments for school personnel to stay out of it? What do you see as the roles of teachers and administrators when it comes to bullying? How can school faculty overcome their own concerns about intervening? Is there a way that those who are being bullied can persuade a skeptical faculty member to step in?

In the moment, sometimes it might make a victim uncomfortable to have a teacher intervene (though there is immediate relief), but I think we have to look at the bigger picture. If teachers become involved, that is sending a message that the school—and therefore society—do not condone bullying. That it is unacceptable. Nothing is worse than being victimized and knowing that adults know what is going on but choose to do nothing. That makes you feel like you deserve the abuse, somehow. While it is true that it is really up to the bully and the bullied to alter the dynamic—outside interference does little to really attack the root of the problem—I think it is vital that everyone involved know that it is not okay to bully. I remember in middle school we had a PE coach for a while, his name was—get this—Tiny. And, of course, he wasn’t. One of those nicknames that bullies adopt to basically dare you to say something, I’m sure. Anyway, my friend Guy Himber and I were trying our best to play football despite our utter non-interest and complete lack of skill, and the boys who basically lived to play football as an excuse to hit each other would always plow into us with undisguised glee. So, I had headgear—of course—and after one particularly vicious play, Guy and I were pretty banged up and were either crying or were on the verge of crying, and I recall vividly Tiny, surrounded by a pack of snickering boys, just laughing at us. An adult not only thinking that it was fine for some boys to physically abuse others, but openly condoning, even celebrating it. That really pissed me off. I mean, what an awful, awful person. I’m sure there is an open position in Heck just waiting for Coach Tiny!

QUESTION #5

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem – extrapolated from an Eldridge Cleaver quote.  I know I’ve been guilty of being part of the problem. In first grade, for example, someone started calling a kid in our class, Clod. Gary was a nice enough kid, but he was already taller than everyone except the teacher. And his awkwardness seemed to be born from his early size. It got to be a nickname so much so that he even wrote it on his school papers.  And yet, even at six, I knew it wasn’t right. Still, what could I do about it? And that’s a long way to ask you to speak to this. Talk about the very common practice of otherwise good, kind kids who get swept up in the gang mentality. Why do you see that happening? How can a 6- or 10- or 16-year-old intervene without making themselves the victim? Or how can they simply not feed into it?

That’s a really interesting question. Yes, there was one kid in particular—Greg McCaffey—that I feel really bad about. It’s an interesting phenomenon, when you have been bullied and then there comes a situation where you find yourself joining in the pack against another kid. I’m sure it was really about fear: fear that if you didn’t join in, they would attack you. Or just the misguided feeling that, by bullying someone else you yourself wouldn’t be bullied. Greg was, I believe, the principal’s son. And he rather resembled Stephen Hawking, only without need of a wheelchair. Everyone would just call him freak. He was way skinny, had a slight speech impediment…man, I feel awful. I never called him names myself, but I was guilty of snickering when others did. It was so strange how he became someone that even the bullied would pick on. Yuck.

Anger is like the zombie apocalypse. When you are squaring off against the undead you’re facing a no-win situation. You can’t kill them. And with one savage, infecting bite, suddenly you’re biting for the other team. Anger is also—like laughter and whooping cough—highly contagious. It spreads mercilessly from person to person, feeding off human frailty like a toddler to a juice box, until there’s no right or wrong, my way or the highway, only raging rage and full-on fury. Fighting fire with fire is only a win for fire…

QUESTION #6

I read an article last May about a mom who, upon hearing her daughter had been relentlessly teasing kids at school about their ugly clothes, removed her daughter’s clothes and left her only with two unstylish thrift store outfits. The girl was forced to wear those ugly clothes to school and feel the ridicule. The reaction to this story was divided into two camps:

1). The mother was (successful in) teaching her daughter empathy;

2). The mother was (successful in) displaying/modeling bullying actions herself.

Where do you fall on this? And how can we encourage and teach empathy and/or how it feels to be on the other end of the cruelty?

Even though I feel a little embarrassed to say this, my first reaction is: yeah…way to go, weird mother! I don’t if this type of public shaming is always the right thing to do—or even if it is at ANY time—but, as a parent, I know how hard to is to accept when your kid has done something awful to another kid, and to force them to make it right. Perhaps that’s the key. Ideally, it would be best if you didn’t have to force them but, instead, convinced them what they were doing was wrong and brainstorm ways of rectifying the situation. That would be ideal. But I think one thing we are losing in our modern society is the concept of empathy. As a writer, I really think that one of the main strengths of reading, especially novels, is that they put you into the perspective of another person. And that ability, to see life through someone else’s eyes, is crucial to becoming a fully-realized human being. That’s why I get so worried when I read about kids not picking up novels like they used to. And, I don’t know if anyone has seen that Conan O’Brien show with Louis CK where he talks about cellphones, but there was one bit where he was talking about how technology makes it so much easier to be a bully because you don’t have to see the reaction: how awful someone feels when they are being bullied. You can just send something awful into the ether and not have to deal with it. Like being in a bomber and dropping bombs on some city, where you don’t have to see all the people you’ve killed. So I worry about the death of empathy. Anyway, I don’t know if forcing empathy upon a bully works—I can imagine it fueling a lot of animosity—but I would think that at least in some cases, a bully might actually “get it.” And I’m all for engaged parents who want to help their kids be better citizens, short of beating them which would only perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

QUESTION #7

If you could have a conversation with or write a letter to your younger self, what would you tell that kid? What advice would you give to deal with school bullies? Or with faculty who stood around and did nothing? What can you say to take your younger self from that feeling of powerlessness to empowerment? And what about the timetable? What sort of realistic progress should you expect to see? How and when can you hope to wake up without the sense of heaviness and clouds and impending doom every school morning? What would you tell your younger self about the future?

Being an adolescent is hard. Harder now than ever, actually. Especially with all of the adult tools nowadays that only kids have the disposable time to completely utilize for evil. The key to it all is perspective. Now, in retrospect, I know that that time was fleeting. Transitory. But a blip. Sure, it was awful at times, but now I know that it was just a patch of bad road. At the time, though, it seemed impossibly deep and impassably terrible. And it’s really hard to convince someone with no perspective to have perspective.

A bully is basically no different than their victim, only he or she tends to keep their bruises on the inside. That anger makes you feel like you just at a hive of molten-hot bees. And that’s why most bullies, quite understandably, try their best to uncork that bottled rage and pour it all over anyone and everyone at hand.”

Anyway, Auntie Heather’s Less Than Three Conference was a life changer. And, while I would love to attend again, here’s hoping there’s no need for an anti-bullying conference in the future! Oh…and here are some blogs that covered the wonderful Less Than Three conference far better than I…be sure to check them out!

http://www.yainterrobang.com/2013/10/27/less-than-three-conference-rallies-against-bullying/

http://middlegrademinded.blogspot.com/2013/10/less-than-three-anti-bullying-conference.html

http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2013/10/less-then-three-conference-by-matthew.html

http://antibullyproject.com/2013/10/26/jordans-story-abp2013-lessthanthree-jordanbrooks/

 

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The League of Extraordinary Writers!

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Dear Mr.Basye,

My name is [Fresca Von Happenstance], i go to [Licorice Juice High School] in [Osh Kosh, New Hampshire]. i am 11 yrs. old and im in the 6th grade. i got to meet you personally at the oregon writing festival when you signed my copy of HECK.i love it all ready even though im only on page 9.for my book report i was hoping to do a Q&A with you. 

HERE ARE THE QUESTIONS:

1. In 5 words describe your writing.

Darkly comic with weird twists.

2. Why do you write?

Because I can’t think of any other way to satisfyingly express the odd things in my head to the outside world. I’m a decent musician but not good enough to really feel satisfied that what I’m thinking is making it out intact. I used to draw but I am terrible. So writing just sort of happened and, like most anything, the more I did it, the better I got at it.

3. How many books have you written and in what genres?

I’ve written 7 1/2 books. Six of them have been published. They are all Heck books, so I guess you could call them supernatural humor books for middle-school kids.

4. What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast?

This is an intensely personal question, but I’m sure your intentions are admirable so I will indulge. I usually get up at 6:30-7 since my son has to go to school, like most children. I make breakfast and his lunch while my wife drives him to school. For breakfast, I usually make a really nasty protein shake: a banana, hemp seeds, blueberries, spinach, spiraling…and blender the slop together. Since I drink one of these every day I better darn well live to be 100. I also sometimes have eggs (over-easy) or oatmeal.

 5. Who is your biggest cheerleader?

I wish I had a giant cheerleader…that would be awesome! Like…50 feet-tall with pom-pons that block the sun! Her cheers deafening all within a three-mile radius! But you probably mean “who is my biggest supporter.” I’d have to say my family…mainly because they’re right here and would be mad if I didn’t. But, in all truth, they do help pick me up and dust me off if I need it. My agent is always supportive too, though I pay him to be that way.

6. What one word best describes you?

Dale.

7. Who are you reading right now?

I’m reading a few things now: the latest issue of the New Yorker; Morning Glories comics; and a book about Self-Publishing. So I like to mix it up. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I: The Pox Party by MT Anderson was the last novel I read. It was ok.

8. Give 3 great tips for newbie writers:

1) Write 2) Write 3) Write

Really…that’s it. It’s not about waiting for a great idea to visit your waiting brain. It’s about sitting down and writing something—anything—every day if you can. That’s what separates writers from wannabes. Actually writing, not just talking about it. Catching ideas in journals, writing them out, developing them, editing…it’s all writing and it’s all hard and it’s all wonderful.

9. Who was the most influence on you, in your past, for writing; a teacher, parent, or a sibling?

I had some pretty good teachers and my parents were supportive, but I was really only inspired or influenced by writers. I loved Roald Dahl, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov…mainly science fiction authors as a kid. They taught me to think about what was impossible, and make it seem possible.

10. What is your writing process like? How do you begin?

I begin by coming up with an awesome idea…and then instantly regretting it because that’s mean I have to do something about it. The most fun parts of writing are at the very beginning and at the very end. The “coming up with ideas” and the “editing down what I’ve written so it’s fun to read.” Everything in the middle is torture. The actually writing. That’s the part that makes you want to do anything BUT write! The facing the blank screen or piece of paper and trying to make sense of it all…the filling up of plot holes, etc. But I’ll begin with the idea then sketch it out…make an outline, and build the story from there. I like to know where I’m going when I set off on a story. Some writers are okay with just going for a drive, but that would “drive” me crazy…not knowing if I’m going to get lost or what. So I like to map it out with a detailed outline.

 

The Oregon Writing Festival WROCKED!

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I wanted to give a belated to thank you to all of the people responsible for organizing last Saturday’s (May 4th’s) phenomenal Oregon Writing Festival. The festival, co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Education and the Oregon Council of Teachers of English, brought about a thousand 4-12th grade students and more than 150 teachers and professional writers from across Oregon to Portland State University for a day of celebration of the practice of writing. I had the great pleasure of giving a rousing presentation to about 400 or so middle schoolers (when there are more than 30 they all suddenly seem like 400 or so) before signing a small library’s worth of Heck books, then did a workshop on creative writing to 20 AWESOME young writers, before signing more books. I haven’t had so much fun in a long, long time, which is sad, but there you go. Anyway, kudos to EVERYONE who attended: you all rocked my world. I hope I get the honor of doing it again next year!

And I am now enjoying the work of a few students who slyly or not-so slyly slipped me some of their writing. Such diversity in tone and content! Insane in my old man brain! Also, a few teachers asked me about whether or not they could use some of my materials for school, and—by all means—you can. Nothing I do is ever too cool for school. So simply drop me a line here!