What Agatha Christie Taught Me About Writing

Having recently finished Agatha Christie’s Autobiography, published in 1977,  I wanted to put down for reference some of the things her reminiscences brought me to conclude about life as a successful writer.  As the best-selling novelist of all time, Christie’s habits and beliefs about the writing life carry weight, and she does go against the modern “best practice” in several ways.

  1. Ruminate before you write.  Christie says she would decide all the technical and specific turns and twists of her plots, those amazing threads of surprising detail that led her to be called Queen of Mystery, before  beginning.  Then she would write the words in a straightforward and businesslike way.
  2. It’s okay to be rejected and to be ignored … for a while.  Her first novel was rejected several times, then sent to the publisher who ultimately bought it — but they made her wait for that acceptance; they didn’t get back to her for two years.  She had forgotten the project by the time they contacted her.
  3. Write the beginning and then the end. Once you’ve got the beginning and the end, the middle will fill in easily.  And the emotional intensity of starting the book, for the writer, will carry over into the ending and sustain the project.
  4. Don’t edit other writer’s work — wow, that’s a big one, but she didn’t do it.  How would she know about what would work for someone else and someone else’s readers? She certainly didn’t want to be responsible for discouraging someone who needed encouragement. And besides — she was busy writing her own books!
  5. See the world — there seems no doubt that Christie’s travels with her first husband, circumnavigating the globe, and her second husband in the Middle East significantly contributed to her creative outflow, as she wrote mystery after mystery about the places and people she had seen.
  6. Copy real people in your books.  Christie acknowledges that she used her own friends, neighbors and people she observed on the train or in the market as models.
  7. A novelist is not a critic, so don’t be self-critical.  Christie maintained that she didn’t actually know which book was her best.
  8. Take risks — what is life for if you can’t take a chance?
  9. Don’t waste too much time re-writing.  She reported that she once wrote a book in three days flat and that when she re-read it, she thought “it’s just right.”  She sent it off and it was published and received well. And finally,
  10. The publisher is not necessarily your friend.  Christie’s first publisher took advantage of her inexperience by offering her a low sum and putting her under contract for her first five books.  That would have been deadly for the career of the average novelist, for whom five books might have been over half their lifetime output.  However, for Christie, it was just a learning experience, and at her lifetime rate of one to two books per year she was able to get an agent and a much better deal with a second publisher. She ultimately finished a total of 90 books.

Although it’s long (my edition is 644 pages) I can heartily recommend  “An Autobiography:  Agatha Christie.”  It’s quite a journey, and now that I’ve finished, I feel a little of that melancholy that one feels on saying goodbye to a treasured friend who is going on a long journey. ] As she concludes, meditating on death, she does not seem afraid of what is to come, but grateful.  “Thank God for this good life, and for all the love that has been given to me,” she writes in closing.  All I can say is, sorry to see you go, Agatha, but I can’t say with all your novels, short stories and plays still here, you left us empty handed!

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Job Fair Diary Day Two

This morning I had another job fair to attend.  My job fair enthusiasm having flagged a bit, I considered the prospect of staying home.  Then, realizing that This is the Time to Look For New Jobs, I got up,  got my resumes, and went down to the appointed senior high school, where parked outside was a sea of cars, showing that a huge number of my teacher colleagues were already there.  Inside were greeters, nametags, and tiger-striped bubble gum on a table.

Smile. Smile.  Exhibit Most Charming Version of Self.  No negativity.  You can do it!

Suddenly the impulse to run into the rest room and stay there.  No.  The sooner I went to meet the school representatives, the sooner I could go home and have breakfast.  I plunged in.  I approached the first table, decorated with (I can’t remember but these are some themes I saw)

a) supersized stuffed animals

b) balloon bouquets

c) Dr. Suess-themed memorabilia

d) cardboard cutouts depicting the habitat of the school’s mascot:  dessert, jungle, and polar ice cap (my personal favorite)

Do they make all these props just for the job fair, I wonder?  No of course not.  They have this stuff in hand for *any* event at which the school must represent itself. I feel relieved by this thought, somehow.

I go and approach the first table.

“Certification?” is the first question every time.

“Early childhood through 4th.”

“Grade Level preference?” That’s the second one.

“4th or 1st.”

“That’s rather an unusual pair to choose.”  Okay, it’s true.

“It’s all about reading,”  I tell them.  “Reading is my passion.”  Now it’s time to sell myself.  I remember Barbra Streisand singing in Funny Girl, “I am the greatest star, I am by far, but no one knows it.”  But really that idea coexists with the idea that I’m not good enough for any of these people.  Where did this bipolar self-assessment come from, and how do I keep it from operating? I need these two opposite self-assessments to shut up long enough so I can answer job interview questions without freezing up and looking foolish.

“What is the one thing you did this year which defines you as a teacher?” I’m asked.

My brain screams silently.   “Why didn’t you prep for some of these questions before leaving the house this morning?????”

I give a coherent answer about every child being special, even those who struggle, with the story of a child in my class who has done so.  But I’m not sure it goes over well.

Some of the lines are long.  While waiting I talk to other teachers who are also waiting, who have various reasons for being here.  I wonder what the principals will say when they get done? Will they look in the stacks of dozens, maybe hundreds of resumes that they received today? If so, will they see mine?

I do know that last year after the job fair last year I did get a couple calls — after I gave up looking and re-signed with my school, so I wasn’t able to go to the interviews — but it was something.  Months too late, but something.

One of the women I met has been working for years in a very high-need school.  “It’s 45 minutes from my house,” she said.  “I have to get something else! I already told my principal I couldn’t come back.”

“You resigned?”

“Yep.”

Wow.  Radical step. Talk about burning bridges!

“I’m gonna get another job, whatever it takes!” she tells me.

I have to say I admired her courage.  Of all those who were milling around the tables, trying to be the one, the star, she was a realist.  If she got a desperate phone call from a principal who’d had a teacher leave suddenly in August, she’d be ready.

Would I be in my new classroom by then?  Well, as we say in the building, “more will be revealed.”  And also this, which I said to a new teacher I met outside the front door.

“When they want you, they really want you,  but when they don’t, you’ve gotta wait until they do.”  And putting out a lot of resumes is one way of doing that.

 

 

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Job Fair Diary

Well, I did it, I went to the job fair of our local school district (I teach in the larger district “next door,” so to speak) and handed in my resume to 33 different school representatives in just over 4 hours.  I had many conversations.  (I’m adding in here to the original post that it was really positive that I’d started my Master’s degree in reading at UT Tyler.  I could see that the school representatives felt that distinction, along with being a grade chair, put my in a respectable position.)

And yet one conversation sticks out with me more than the others.  I was talking to a reading specialist at a school on the other side of the freeway, and she looked over my resume, asked a few questions, and somewhere in there I made a comment about  matching teachers with personalities of  the schools at which they will work.

“Oh no, it’s not about personalities, it’s about qualifications,” she said.

I thought to myself, “but I’ve got all the qualifications and then some … ” Every year people at all ability levels from first-year college graduate to veterans of 20 years with 3 TOY awards get hired.    I have to say I assume there’s a strong personality component to getting a teaching job.

Am I missing something here?  What do you think?  Is there a personality match component to teacher hires?

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Could it possibly be true that CS Lewis was a misogynist (someone who hates women)?

C.S. Lewis statue, in Belfast, looking into the mythical wardrobe.
C.S. Lewis statue, in Belfast, looking into the mythical wardrobe.

I started writing this post months ago, after a toss-off comment by someone at work who thought they had read something about C.S. Lewis’ misogny somewhere.

“What?” I asked.  And yet, I thought I knew what the writer was talking about.  There are a couple of moments in Lewis’ books where women seem to get short shrift, in particular beautiful ones, for example, the scene in which Lucy stares into a spell book and looks at a spell to make one “Beautiful Beyond the Lot of Mortals” and is rebuked for her vain desires by a picture of an angry Aslan roaring.  These moments in the books seemed incidental, and perhaps related to the author’s single life and lack of success with women until fairly late in life.  (One wonders if he would have even written these books had he had the comforts of hearth and home and family to distract him.  As Garrison Keillor writers, “no happy man writes his memoirs … ” But I digress.

The main proponent of the Lewis-as-misogynist appears to be a man called Phillip Hensher who laid out his arguments in the article, “Don’t let your children go to Narnia” dated December 4, 1998 (my God once these stories get started they have a very long life, don’t they!) which calls the books “ghastly, priggish “revoltingly mean-minded books, written to corrupt,” half-witted, money-making drivel … ” “frightful” “the most corrupting feature of it all is the poverty of the imagination” and “vehicles for a narrow-minded man’s pet obsessions” Whew.

Now wait just a minute there.

The truth is, all that adjectival attack makes me think Hensher’s motive may be more philosophical or political than artistic.  And it turns out, his personal philosophy, as suggested by his story collection,  could be summarized according to the Guardian as “ there are two specific types of existence. There is the life worth living … the life devoted to excellence, and then there is just getting by. ”

It would seem the hoi polloi need not apply to attain a life worth living.  Personal worth by way of personal excellence is very far from Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” or any Christianity for that matter.  But one can’t really critique Lewis and the Narnia books on the basis of Lewis being Christian.  It’s too obvious and blase’.  You have to come up with a more persuasive and creative critique, like misogyny.

The Crown, the Queen, and the French Guy

A statue of the Queen on horseback

In the 9th episode of the The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II shows her interest in horses … and it’s implied she has a interest in her horse’s trainer as well.  Prince Phillip is not amused.

I have to say this won my sympathy.  After all, horses are a passion of mine — and I feel the Queen’s interest in  Lord Porchester, or “Porchey,” the trainer,  is natural.  Why my first effort at writing a novel concerned a woman who fell in love with a horse trainer.  It’s a female fantasy of some type.

But the truth is, in real life here in America, young single men are a rarity at the stable.  We have a lot of young women in breeches, some middle aged women in jeans, and some older men in baggy clothing, helping wives daughters and girlfriends.  But by and large, the men at the stable don’t ride, and they’re not single.  Not really.  I’ve only ever seen one or two actual young men riding at my own stable in my horsemanship history.  One of them was Mike K., who was, like me at the time, a 7th grader.  He  had a fast dun quarter horse and claimed he had had lots of relationships with girls, due to his own natural charm, not to mention the positive-math situation of being a horseman … he claimed to have had some kind of tryst in the feed cabinet, a long low wooden box with a lid that you could have lain down in. I steered clear of him.  His sincerity was wanting.  Then there was another guy at another stable; they say he served 8 years for murder.  No, I’m not making this up.  The point is,  if you’re looking for an eligible bachelor, the stable is about the last place to go.

Until just recently.

I have been taking my 17 year old daughter for riding lessons.  The other day we pulled up, and I saw him:  “Look, Jo, it’s the French Guy.”

“What is the French Guy?” she asked, not understanding.

“There’s this guy, his name is Girard or something, and he’s a man,  he speaks French and he’s taking riding lessons.  And he’s not ugly!”

She looked at me like I was rather nuts.  “So?”  She has only been riding for a few weeks, she doesn’t know the actual odds of a decent looking young man, let alone one with a French accent, washing up at a boarding stable.

“There he is!” I said.  “Riding on that big sorrel horse!”

Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester
Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester, was the horseman upon whom the character called “Porchey” is based in The Crown.

Jo dismissed me with a wave of the hand.  Not yet a committed horsewoman, she didn’t understand the rarity of the phenomenon.  And I suppose she had a point:  she’s too young, and I’m too old.

As for Elizabeth, although she’s the right age,  the show makes it appear that everything was on the up and up except for a few midnight phone calls.  I have to admit, I sympathize.  It’s not every day one meets a man who’s your same age and enjoys riding horses, and is presentable and single.  In fact, for more horsewomen, it’s never.

What is a Master Teacher and How Do You Become One?

Master teacher
Master teachers develop over years of practice and reflection.

Exemplary Teachers is a topic we grad students are writing about this weekend, and exemplary as a term is certainly complicated, especially since it’s used as part of State Board of Ed accountability standards for schools. The term I usually hear about individual teachers in my building  is “Master Teacher.”

These folks tend to be characterized as strong managers, firmly in grasp of curriculum and instruction, and unusually empathetic toward students. Each one of them presumably started out as a young teacher surveying his or her classroom and the relative chaos that tends to exist in that first year, and worked hard to develop the three areas of skill: management, curriculum, and empathy. Classroom management will come to most who earnestly seek it, born out of the teacher’s desire to implement the curriculum that appears necessary but which can not be effectively taught without routines and procedures.

At some point in every young teacher’s development, he or she will “hit the wall:” The student or students cannot or will not do what is expected. At that point, the teacher faces a choice: either blame the student or change the teaching approach.  Perhaps this is where the master teacher is truly born.

When we decide to change our approach, it almost always involves the way the student is spoken to. The idea of how adult speech drives childhood development is familiar to me. As a young mother, I read about how children develop cognitively. An older friend emphasized to me the importance of honoring young children’s feelings as a way of helping them cope with life difficulties of all types. It’s important to listen closely and fully and respond with interest, especially when a child perceives there is a problem. In the classroom, remembering to use this skill with the children who need it most is difficult and it is something I can work on. Because, ironically but perhaps naturally, the students who deeply need this practice are the hardest ones  to apply it to. As I was taught in my alternative certification course,  “we will be judged  not by the students who are highest-achieving, but by what we did with those who struggle most.”

The Master Teacher can teach the difficult students well.  In my mind, it’s almost that simple.

The Crown and I

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II

We’ve been watching the Netflix series “The Crown” about the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and boy, is it something. First recommended by my daughter, who binge-watched it over a weekend (the first season is only ten episodes) The Crown combines a remarkable mix of inspirational pomp, circumstance, and pageantry with a moderately dysfunctional family and what might be called the dark truth of rule: that leadership is ultimately about service.

And oh, the costumes. After tonight’s episode, #8, in which Elizabeth had 100 dresses made for her tour of the Commonwealth (which I now realize has 52 countries, far more than I hard thought) I rushed back to the computer to search on Vogue.com for patterns for 50’s dresses.

50's dress Vogue 8999
Vogue 8999 is a perfect example of a retro 50’s dress of the type I seek.

After passing up all the strapless models (even if I dared wear one — where would I go in it) I found a couple of promising numbers, including Vogue 8999, which I thought might be just the thing for church or date night.

I have to say I will stop at the hats, though they are intriguing.

 

Satisfying Slime and All That

satisfying slime
satisfying slime — from pixabay

In various venues I am seeing questions regarding why kids don’t read as many books as they used to, or at least so it seems. In my quest to figure this out, I instituted the digital diet at Christmas and also a closer scrutiny of what my children actually were doing. In the case of my 17 year old daughter, it seemed she was spending a lot of time looking deeply at her cell phone. Usually she seemed to be watching music videos. But yesterday I snuck up on her and saw that the screen was currently displaying: Slime!

Now, lest you think that this slime was the type you find under the bridge, think again. Slime is something I have known about since my children were little, and one of my boys got a jar of toy green slime for Christmas, which next wound up on his little brother’s hair. Later, as a teacher, I learned that “making slime” can be a science project for upper elementary. To make this slime, you use glue, borax, and food color.

I noticed my daughter asking for borax a month ago. “Why?” I asked.

“To make slime.”

Sure enough, the next day I found a small bowl of blue slime covered on the counter top. I tried to look in and test it.

“Don’t!” she said. “You haven’t washed your hands! And besides it’s not very good.”

“What constitutes good slime?”

“It has to stretch and spread smoothly,” she replied.

I put this down in my mind under the category of Modern Teenagers Don’t Make Sense and forgot about it. Until I saw the slime video.

“What is this!” I demanded:  it was slime-manipulating hands on video.   She had combined two of her most non-productive behaviors: staring at the cell phone and wasting time on recipes designed for a brain break in a 5th grade classroom.

“Mom! Slime videos are a thing! Lots of people watch them! There are instagrammers who have over a million subscribers, all on slime videos.  Now this here … ” she switched the window to a fetching picture of a pile of bright pink slime that seemed by its even, ridged appearance to have been squirted out of a pastry tube, “is butter slime.  Super spreadable. ” Two hands came out of the edges of the video and began stretching the slime in all directions.

This was one of those moments when mom retreats to her room to collect her thoughts. Later in the evening, I got a call from her older brother who’s in the navy. “Your sister is watching videos of slime,” I told him. “I’m ready to retire to Bedlam.”

“Oh Mom.  Those are just satisfying videos.  It’s a thing now.  Some are of slime, others show how to do woodworking, or just paint pouring together and mixing up.  Personally I like the ones of how to make hard candy.  They take you from the beginning, getting out the sugar and butter, all the way through mixing, cooking, cooling, stretching it until it’s only a half inch thick, then breaking it into bite sized pieces … ”

Conclusion:  I was faced with a choice.  Either accept that slime videos are perfectly normal and could be seen, in fact as “cool,” or … admit that I am “out of it, over the hill.”

It’s a hard choice and I’m going to have to get back to you on it.

 

 

 

 

My favorite blog posts in February

girl reading bookSome of these are recent blog posts, others are resources I’ve discovered that have been out there for a while.

Education News

First of all, there is the growing question about nationwide practices regarding special education services.  In this article from EdWeek, it is argued that “RTI can be used as a “legally persuasive” way to avoid Child Find (the law that mandates  identification of learning disabilities) in other words, to avoid paying for special education.

The New Texas A-F School Grades have drawn some fire from educators and superintendents, who say that the ratings continue the nationwide high stakes testing practice of punishing schools which serve the poor:  New A-F grades make low income schools look worse .

The problem of adult-generated unrealistic goals was brought home to me when I checked my daughter’s high school’s Federal report card.   It would seem that currently, 42% of all STAAR tests were passed by Texas students at Final Level II or 70%.  That means that 58% of students failed to get 70%.  What is going on here!  What would happen to teachers if they failed 6 our of 10 kids in the class?  I know from being an urban teacher that  at many schools they allow you to pass the STAAR at 52%, but still — shouldn’t the test just be easier?

Teaching

This next story took me back to my days of teaching kindergarten, when a brave colleague, when she was informed that objectives previously taught in first grade would now be moved down to kindergarten, told our administrator: “These objectives are not developmentally appropriate to where the students are academically!” And she refused to teach them in kinder.

No, she did not get fired.  And how did this moving down of objectives happen?  It seems to have some basis in the lack of knowledge of the behavior, potentialities and development of real children.  As David Ayers of Toronto,  Ontario writes, most “ teaching college graduates are purposely left untrained in the basics of how to teach kids to read.”  He continues, that for some unexplained reason, teacher’s colleges continue, even many decades on, to purposely and invariably ignore input from related fields which study cognitive development…

Then there’s news–or old news–on the education funding front.   Touching on the issue of teacher pay, and the burning question to those who know about it of “Why private school teachers get paid less.” is this story from the Atlantic.    The article is old, but the reasons have remained the same.

In a more current offering, from Inside Higher Ed, despite savings from digital learning, university costs more than ever.  This is depressing in the extreme and has been going on apace for the last dozen or so years since we sent our oldest to college.

Teaching Practice:

Emotional needs are real needs: here’s Robert Ward writing on The Four Indespensible Aspects of Education. If the kid is not emotionally ready, the academic instruction is just not going to sink in!

@EducationRickshaw discussed 5 books to start a book club for teachers … including Clever Lands, about what successful foreign schools are doing that we don’t, and Trivium, a new work which concerns the classical education method.

This was my most retweeted post from Twitter this month:  “so there is a limit to how much clutter you should put in a primary classroom it appears … “Yes it does.  This post is via @TeacherToolkit.

A refreshing article on teacher collaboration from EduTopia discussed how  “A principal must do what it takes to remove the obstacle of ‘too much to do’ and ‘not enough time,'” according to Mary Beth Cunat, administrator at Wildwood IB Magnet School.  Cunat  vows to create blocks of time to allow grade level teams to help each other.  Hear, Hear!

Literacy Resources

I found a better chart of reading fluency at Reading Rockets. This one reflects actual student performance norms, unlike the original one I posted in “What is a struggling reader” which more reflects teacher goals or expectations.

For classical home schoolers, here’s A chronological format for teaching history  based on Charlotte Mason from Plumfield and Paideia.

And finally, If you’re in need of ideas for middle grade novels:    Best books for 5th and 6th graders.  from Intentional Homeschooling Blog.  I’ve read 8 of the 11, how about you?

 

 

 

 

Classical Sports for A Spiritual Journey

The Boxer of Quirinal, the Boxer of the Baths
The Boxer of Quirinal, bronze from the 1st century BC, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & MatthiasKabel

The ancients did not, in general, go in for team sports. When we were home schooling, we kept this in thought. Our sports were two: running road races (the proverbial 5K) and riding horseback. Both these sports allowed our kids to challenge themselves, enjoy the competition experience, track their progress and measure themselves against others. Both these sports, as it happens, were also “classical sports.”

Going back to Greece and Rome, and the original Olympics, we see track and field, running races, chariot racing, and boxing and wrestling, and that’s about it. Soccer goes back only to medieval times in Europe.  Football is only a little over 100 years old.

I recently enrolled my 17-year-old daughter in riding lessons again and when she asked why, I said, “because horseback riding is a spiritual experience. You will see.” Long an aspiring artist, she had been experiencing “artist’s block,” and hadn’t been drawing for months, or a year.  She came home from riding lessons and resumed work on her drawings, produced some unusually good work, and got accepted into the studio of a working artist.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  It’s like I said, riding is spiritual.

For myself, cantering along in a circle, turning the horse in the other direction and making a lead change, there’s a moment of transcendence, when the horse and I seem to be of one mind.  When you sit on the back of a horse, you have a different perspective.  I like to think of the ancients when I ride, soldiers going to battle, or travelers, going from town to town, or noblemen like Nestor’s sons and Telemachus in the Odyssey, driving their chariots.  I feel connected to them, footfall after footfall, my horse is the descendant of their horses, and I am the descendant of the ancients as well.

I come home and I feel better, and the effect lasts for two to three days.  Work doesn’t seem so difficult, I am not tempted to say with joking exasperation, “there’s nothing on the internet!”*  As the song says, “I can see clearly now.”

Runners talk about the “runner’s high” and I there’s something spiritual about running as well.  I know team sports are The Thing in America.  But for some of us, the classical sports of the solitary athlete continue to hold sway.

So, think about yourself and your sports activities.  Do you run, swim, walk, do yoga (I do that, too) or play softball?  Isn’t it true, that you become a better version of yourself through sports?  The ancients believed that you did.  And so do I.

 

*This really means, “I checked my twitter feed and none of my friends are there on right now.”