Making My Book REAL

Velveteen Rabbit

“’What is REAL?,’ asked the Rabbit one day….”

And when a writer really loves an idea, a book can become real. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit in the eponymous children’s book by Margery Williams, for a writer’s story to become REAL takes a very long time. (In fact, you might find bald spots and missing buttons just like Rabbit!) It’s not just the writing that evolves, it’s the believing in yourself that takes time to develop. Like many writers I know, my “Not Enough” voice peppered me with doubts, whispering things like, “Well, that poem is pretty good, but will you ever be able to write lines like that again?” Thankfully, I know enough now to banish that voice to a far corner in my house and ignore her.

Writing a book involves a willingness to put in long, solitary hours and to believe utterly in the future possibility that someone, somewhere might take a chance on your work. In my case, that meant a publisher taking a chance risk on someone who had never published a book before. But every step of the way, I kept refocusing on the small, daily tasks of writing a new poem or reworking some stubborn lines, or coming up with fresh images. The Altar of Innocence —my goal—loomed in the distance, like a lovely cottage surrounded by wildflowers. I could imagine it, and I knew one day I’d find it. But meanwhile, there were other tasks at hand. I used my ability to take a “yes, and” view—something I learned from improv classes. I visualized my end goal while working on very discreet daily tasks in order to get there.

I focused on one thing at a time with dogged persistence and refused to get lost in all of the “what ifs” that inevitably crept into my consciousness. Before I knew it, a box of books arrived on my porch. Early and unexpected. Ecstatic is not too grand a word to describe how I felt at that moment.   I hauled the box inside, hoisted it up on to the counter, grabbed the Exacto knife, slit the tape, and pulled off the layers of paper keeping my babies from sliding around. All the while, I prayed that they would be as beautiful as the proofs from the publisher.

When I finally held a copy of my book — MY book — in my hands, I felt a rush of gratitude to everyone who believed in me enough to help me make my book REAL. And gratitude for the editors along the way who published my poems, faithfully submitted, one-by-one—even those rejected over and over, and those published right away. And always, every step of the way, my dreams guided my efforts. It’s as if all of my experiences—as a mother, a teacher, a workshop leader, a writer—all of those lessons about love and loss, disappointment and setbacks—have guided me on the path to making my dreams become real. And I could almost hear what the Skin Horse advised the Velveteen Rabbit:


“‘It doesn’t happen all at once……You become. It takes a long time.’”

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On Poetry and Transformation

On Poetry and Transformation

Recently, I had a poem called “Marital Privilege” published in an anthology called Women Write Resistance, Poets Resist Gender Violence. Kelly Boyker of Menacing Hedge posted several poems and interviews with poets who participated in this important book. There is also an audio of each poet reading.  These poems speak to the many forms of violence used against women, yet paint a picture of hope and renewal.

Juggling As a Learning Tool

A couple of months ago, I presented at the Florida Creativity Conference X  in Sarasota, Florida. This year they partnered with South Florida University and the Florida Studio Theater for venue space, educational and theatrical workshops, and expertise.  I attended an all-day workshop on the brain where we explored the latest research on strategies for making the most of our memory’s capacity for learning and innovation. Very useful. On the other side of the spectrum, there was a facilitator who presented two workshops on how to use Legos for team-building and innovation.  But by far the workshop that sticks in my mind the most is the one where I almost learned to juggle.  

In a dining room full of people who were moving from one creative  experience to another, I decided just to watch Tony Esteves and see if I could pick up any tips on juggling. I’ve never been good at throwing and catching things smaller than a soccer ball, so I knew I was in for a challenge.  Of course, Tony made it look effortless and promised me I could learn the basics in 90 minutes of working with him.  His technique was what really hooked me and helped me to get over the fear of looking foolish.  “The first thing you do is just throw one ball into the air and then let it fall.”  No problem with that step.  Successful so far, so I kept going. “Now hold a ball in each hand, throw them in the air one after another, and just let them fall.”  So far I’m with him and thinking Tony is really a great teacher.  “Just shake it off, take 10 seconds, and refocus.”  Now came the big challenge. “Start with a ball in each hand, then throw them one at a time into the air, about a foot over your head, and catch each one.”  I hit my first wall.  I raised my hand above my waist, couldn’t toss the balls high enough, and didn’t even catch both balls after such a simple move.

But Tony kept encouraging me. “Shake it off. Take 10 seconds before you try again. Refocus.”   I relaxed. Everyone around me was smiling. My partner was already juggling.  Pressure.  So I picked up the balls again, tossed them on the air, one after another, and caught them.  That little bit of success emboldened me to try tossing the balls from one hand to the next and catch each in quick succession.  Another wall. I dropped the balls and they went rolling across the floor, under a table, and out of sight. I smiled at Tony and shrugged my shoulders.  “Ann, just keep at it. I promise, if you just give it five minutes a day, in a month’s time you’ll be juggling. Just try it.”

Later, when I talked with Tony over dinner and asked him how he got into juggling and performing at conferences, he told me he’d been an English teacher in many countries around the world.  Not only had he taught himself how to juggle, but he had also taught thousands of adults and kids how to manage those three leather-covered objects that had so baffled my hands. Tony knew what all teachers know and what often gets left out of a classroom experience: Managing all the balls takes practice.  Mistakes are part of learning. Consistency and persistence yield success. 

Here’s what I’m taking back to my classroom after that humbling yet enlightening experience.

  1. Start with the basics: Just like Tony starts every potential juggler with one ball tossed and caught, let the students work on one or two skills at a time until they develop some confidence.  I’m looking at how I have crafted all of my assignments and considering how to pare them down to include fewer new tasks. 
  2. Relax and take a break in-between attempts:  The 10 second pause that was so essential to regaining focus when juggling serves as a reminder to slow and vary some of the pacing of the assignments.  What could a pause look like in my class?  Perhaps we’ll do group work after some intense writing tasks. Or maybe we’ll do pair-share activities after a reading assignment.  Or  energize with brain-gym activities after completing a workshop.  What ideas come to mind for you?
  3. Practice something every day. Tony urged me to give juggling a try for just five minutes a day. I’m thinking he knows that five minutes won’t scare me and I’ll probably do it longer than that, which will boost my chance for success.  If my students would just write a paragraph a day and focus on word choice one week and then pacing another week, they’d most likely see some very interesting growth as writers over the course of the semester. 

As for me, I’ve just ordered the set of juggling balls from Amazon and I’ll be doing my five minutes a day. It’s one challenge I really want to master. And my teacher believes that I can.



Love Drives Out Fear

Love Drives Out Fear

The Beatles: “All You Need is Love”

I am very disheartened by so many things happening in the United States and throughout the world, and I have been puzzling over what I can do. I thought of the scripture verse below paired with the Beatles’ song, “All You Need is Love,” because love drives out fear. So this old hippy chick is sending out love to everyone in hopes of driving out fear. Sort of like the Care Bears…….share!!!!!


“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’

1 John, 4:18

The Playdough-Poetry Connection






What do you think of when you hear the word revision? For most writers, revision signals that you’ve already completed at least one draft of a piece of writing and now it’s for pruning and polishing the work to get it ready for publication. To many of my college students, it seems to mean a painful process that the teacher recommends to get a better grade. And to the fourth graders I just finished working with in a poetry residency, it seems to mean recopying a piece of writing and fixing spelling errors.  But as I’ve grown in my writing skills over the years, revision has come to mean something very different to me. Revision means I’ve already done the hard work of thinking up an idea and committing it to paper.  Getting the first draft is much more likely to scare me then revising what I’ve already written. But I’m a seasoned writer with lots of revision experience tucked into my writer’s backpack.  How could I teach this skill to fourth graders?

I knew my best bet for finding teaching resources was to do a web search, and I found a wonderful, hands-on activity on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing.  As I read through the post entitled “Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!” by April Halprin Wayland , I knew I’d found my lesson.  But even April’s well-structured lesson needed a bit of revision for the group that I had in mind.  Here’s a description of the lesson I did at Swansfield Elementary in Columbia, Maryland, as part of a five week poetry residency in the fourth grade sponsored by the PTA and funded through a grant from the Howard County Arts Council.  While I thought the playdough activity would be fabulous, I realized that the teachers might need a heads-up, so I sent an email the day before telling them what to expect.

When I walked into the room carrying a plastic tub of small Play-Doh cans, the kids were immediately excited. After I assured everyone that they would indeed get to make something with the playdough, I wrote the word “Revision” on the board.  Then I broke it down into the prefix “re” and the root “vision” to explain that  revision is the act of seeing a piece of writing in a new way and making it better.  The students were used to seeing me wear my purple poetry glasses—to help me see the world with different eyes—so it was not a big leap for them to imagine seeing a piece of writing in a new light.  We had constantly revised as we worked on our group poems—changing words, selecting phrases, and deciding what to keep and what to set aside. But what did playdough have to do with writing poetry? Let me recap the lesson and you’ll find out.


Here’s what you need:

  • construction paper for a smooth and clean work surface
  • one can of Play-Doh for each child
  • a writing sample to revise as a demonstration
  • drafts of  student work to revise


  1. Each child places a piece of construction paper on the desk to provide a work surface and to keep the desk clean.
  2. Classroom helpers pass out the cans of playdough. It’s nice if you have enough cans for each child to select two colors, but the students seemed very happy having one can to work with.
  3. Direct the students to make a sculpture of anything they want. Most students made animals, food, or people.
  4. Tell the children that since they are creating a piece of art, it needs to have a title and when they finish the sculpture, they write the title on the artist’s mat. I allowed about 12-15 minutes for this portion of the activity. Most students seemed to need this much time.
  5. Next, the students take a gallery walk around the classroom to observe everyone’s sculptures.  They consider the question, “What inspires me?” as a way to cue themselves to think about revision. I allowed about 5-6 minutes for this portion of the lesson.
  6. Once they complete the gallery walk and sit down, students are directed to make one change to their sculpture, any change that they can imagine (except to squish up the work and begin again). Then there are to make a note about what they changed.
  7. Select several students to present their sculptures to the whole class using the title of the work and then describing the one change they made.
  8. Demonstrate your revision process on a poem that the class drafted together; discuss why you chose to make certain changes.
  9. Allow the students to revise a draft from a previous lesson.


The room buzzed with possibility and excitement as the children tore open the jars of playdough and began squishing it around.  The process was the same in every class—some students got to work immediately and had a definite result in mind while others just held the playdough and said they didn’t know what to do. I advised them to “Just roll, pinch, and squeeze it until an idea comes to you. Let the dough guide your imagination.”  Within a few minutes, everyone was completely absorbed in the activity and quietly lost in the world of possibility.  The gallery walk provided a space for the students to admire everyone’s work before revising their own and  sharing with each other.  Due to the time constraints imposed by a 45 minute session, I had to limit the sharing and moved on to demonstrating the writing component of the playdough-poetry connection.

For my revision process, I selected the previous week’s class-poem on telling a fairy tale in a different voice.  The students had co-written a poem based on the story of Aladdin and told the tale in the voice of the genie. During that lesson, we had worked on the poetic devise of repetition, including sounds, words, and phrases. Additionally, many students wrote their draft poems in a paragraph format, so I showed them how to make the poem look pretty on the page–an idea that my friend Grace Cavalieri shared with me—a much simpler concept than explaining formal linebreaks and very visual—which connected nicely to the playdough session.

While I had to move on to the next class before the students completed their revisions, I felt that the goal of the lesson had been achieved-to show that revision is something all artists do and that it provides an opportunity to make changes to something that is already good.  Happy revising! And if you get stuck for some inspiration, you can always count on playdough.


Resource: See the April Halprin Wayland’s version of the lesson here:

“Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!”

on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing. 

The blog originally ran on September 9, 2011.

Play-Doh image courtesy of:







The Washington Review of Books by Grace Cavalieri

Grace reviews many wonderful and provocative books in her most recent posting. For anyone who is concerned about the rising tide of sexual assault–in dating relationships, on college campuses, in the military, and  in marriage–this review will encourage you to add Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence to your list of must-have poetry books.  The poetry is suitable for use in a women’s studies course, a domestic violence center, or a counseling center as well as a personal library.