Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Talking about writing in a farming town--my town

Last week I returned to my home town in Maine and to the school that has the same name as my high school, though not the same building, Leavitt Institute.  I came as a guest to talk about writing with high school students who live in the Androscoggin Valley.  It was an honor and a thought-provoking experience to go back to where I had learned of Caesar, Shakespeare, the Pythagorean Theorem. I glanced around, hoping to see my wonderful mentors. And I think they must have been there.

The Androscoggin Valley has been a farming area for almost three hundred years. There aren't as many farms now as in the fifties and sixties when I was growing up. But there are enough for students to be writing their own picture books about farm equipment, goats and sheep, apple orchards, and veterinary clinics.  We talked about books people have written about farms, about who tells the story. Even a barn can tell the story--as in the wonderful book by Debby Atwell. We talked about opening lines and recalled that E.B. White wrote four opening lines before he got to, "Where's Papa going with that axe?"

I realized, in talking to various high school classes those two days last week, how much is on the line when any of us writes. And perhaps more is on the line when high schoolers write. Those of us who've been doing it for a while realize we don't always do it right. I think high schoolers may expect that they are supposed to write it right from the very first word.  I hope I set them straight--or at least a little closer to straight.

I had the pleasure of spending some time with one of my best friends from my growing up years--Sharon Hathaway, who has taught at the high school long enough to have quite a number of former students who remember her classes fondly.

Right now she is teaching a class on the agriculture of the Androscoggin Valley and hers are the students writing about goats and sheep, farm equipment, apple orchards.  And her students maintain a school vegetable garden and memorial garden.

It was good to spend a few hours with her.

And I was glad to meet Leavitt school librarian, Judith Lashman, who has one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever seen--with plenty of books, and plenty of chairs to sit in to read those books, and plenty of windows where readers can look up and see trees.

I ran into a couple of other friends in that library, friends from Hamline. Ron Koertge's new book Coaltown Jesus was prominently displayed, as was Gene Yang's  Boxers and Saints.

I've thought a lot about writing over the past decades and wanted to share so much with these students, some of whom probably don't think too much about writing, and some of whom may, but how to condense all those years of trying and failing, trying and occasionally failing better?

What I finally ending up saying was that it was important find what they loved in the place they lived, to write about what they cared about and that they should not expect to write it right the first time, they should give themselves permission to write it wrong.

Androscoggin River