School’s (Already) Out for Summer: Educational Enrichment During Covid-19

Across the country, schools are shuttered in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic, in some states (like mine) for the rest of the school year. Yesterday afternoon, Governor Northam of Virginia announced that all private and public schools will remain closed through at least the end of this academic year. This announcement no doubt panicked parents, and I know firsthand, saddened many teachers. To their own surprise, even many students were disappointed. Within minutes of the Governor’s announcement, I received a flurry of emails from distraught students, many of them containing messages like, “I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss school!” For my own part, I feel cheated out of the time I thought I still had with a group of students I really enjoyed and care about, and that just scrapes the top of the iceberg of my emotions right now.

No one knows yet what this extended closure will mean for grades, graduations, or promotions, but in the meantime, we need to make sure our children and students stay engaged, active, and productive. This could be a great opportunity to get to know each other, our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves better. Below are some resources colleagues have shared with me, as well as some I created myself, to help children, parents, and educators navigate these uncertain times.

All Ages

Listen to a Story

This morning, a colleague of mine who is also a parent shared that while schools are closed, Audible is offering free audiobooks for kids and teens. If you’re working from home and want to offer your children more than another TV show or movie, offer them an audiobook! You can ask younger children to draw pictures of what they heard, and older children to write summaries or reviews.

Become a Citizen Scientist: Zooniverse

Another colleague notified all of the teachers in our city at the middle and high school levels about Zooniverse, which allows students (and parents and teachers!) to become citizen scientists. The hands-on involvement in real projects and studies lends to the authenticity of the task, and can be not only educational, but also empowering. Children can choose which projects to be a part of, according to their own interests, talents, and skills. Projects are available for various ages catering to all kinds of interests with a range of topics, including art, language, biology, climate, nature, medicine, social science, physics, and more.

Preschool to Early Elementary

Write to Pete the Cat

Our superintendent sent along an invitation to become pen pals with Pete the Cat. Many young children are familiar with the beloved feline literary character. Right now, children can engage with him through letter-writing. Writing a letter to Pete the Cat could help activate your child’s imagine, as well as help him or her practice his spelling, handwriting, and grammar skills. You could even pick a certain topic to focus on (writing a specific letter your child struggles to write, spelling a specific word, using a specific type of punctuation, etc.) as you help your child write the letter.

Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts can be a great way to get outside, get moving, and activate the mind and imagination. So far, I have created and completed two, both with children between the

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The Littles (Nacho, left and Soda, right) during our scavenger hunt at Forest Hill Avenue Park in Richmond.

ages of 4 and 7. One is geared towards teaching children a little bit of the history of their city (in this case, Richmond, Virginia) while the other teaches them just a little bit about ecology and the food chain. Make your own or, if you’re local, use mine!

The Rocketts Landing and VA Capital Trail Scavenger Hunt takes place in Rocketts Landing and on the Virginia Capital Trail. If you turn right, which is what we did, the out-and-back route is about 2.75 miles long. Our group of two children, five adults, and two tiny dogs completed it in just under two hours.

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Nacho during our scavenger hunt along the Virginia Capital Trail in Richmond.

As its name implies, the Forest Hill Avenue Park Scavenger Hunt takes place in Richmond’s Forest Hill Avenue Park. It’s about 1.6 miles long and our group of three adults, four children, and two little dogs took about two hours to complete it (we spent a lot of time playing on the rocks and in the creek).

Late Elementary through High School

Become a Primary Source for Historians: Journal

Writing in journals is a good practice for the mental health and emotional well-being of people of all ages, as well as for improving their writing skills; stimulating their minds and imaginations; and, in these unprecedented times, providing genuine, primary sources for historians in the future. Before asking your children or students to write, have them read this article, shared with me by a colleague, on how important their journal entries could become. Sometimes, writing for an actual audience increases motivation and purpose. As poet Denise Riley writes, “You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.” The ideas in the article should provide young writers with this “feeling of futurity.”

“You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.”

-poet Denise Riley

Middle and High School

Read a Book

Students often don’t have time to read for pleasure, with homework, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and sports practices monopolizing most of their time. This period of social distancing is the perfect opportunity for students to enjoy a good book (or several). Below is a list of book recommendations I shared with my high school students a few days ago. I would recommend clicking the link to learn more about any given book before handing it off to your child or recommending it to your students. Some are better suited to specific age groups than others.

  • My Grandmother Asked me to Tell You She’s SorryFredrik Backman (I am reading this right now and it is SO GOOD!)
  • Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys (I read this about a year ago and recommended it to my parents and my neighbor, all of whom loved it. It’s YA historical fiction, based on real events that happened during WWII. It’s a look at WWII that you’ve probably never gotten before.)
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck (One of my all-time favorite books, this novel is by author who wrote Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley) **Note: My academic classes read Of Mice and Men earlier this year, while my honors class read Travels with Charley as one of their summer reading books.**
  • Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (another one of my all-time favorite books)
  • Dog Songs: Poems, Mary Oliver (Admittedly, I haven’t read this yet, but I want to!)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (really uplifting read; nonfiction by a Holocaust survivor–yes, an uplifting book about the Holocaust…!) **Note: This would be a particular timely read given the current pandemic.**
  • The Things They CarriedTim O’Brien (somewhat autobiographical essays about the Vietnam War from a Vietnam War veteran)
  • Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, Shauna Niequist (nonfiction; about living a life that is more important and meaningful to you instead of trying to always conform to society’s expectations; it is SLIGHTLY religious, FYI; really spoke to me when I read it!)

Rewrite the Ending

Ask students to think of a book, the end of which they did not like (most of my students were appalled at the way Of Mice and Men and The Crucible ended). After having them read a summary of the work or watch the film (if available) to refresh their memories, ask them to rewrite the ending as they wish it had been.

Reasons for Optimism

While much about the current times can seem bleak, scary, and confusing, this period of social distancing and sacrifice can also prove a time of increased creativity, new perspectives, innovation, introspection, and enrichment.

Consider the advice provided in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “To keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.” Or, perhaps even more timely: “But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.” And finally: “…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”

“But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Though many people feel isolated and alone due to quarantines and social distancing, we are fortunate that in this day and age, we have innumerable resources available to us to stay connected: social media, cell phones, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc. While there has been concern that people, in particular young people, have become too reliant on or even addicted to their devices and technology, this period of relative isolation might serve to remind us that while screens can provide for temporary connectivity, the human presence–face-to-face conversation, a hug, a handshake, someone to sit beside at the movies or the dinner table–provides an invaluable connection. While texting and calling can help us stay in touch right now, I believe we will also all be reminded of the importance of interpersonal communication and genuine relationships.

 

 

Planning a Night In for the Literary

In my neck of the woods in central Virginia, the weather has been unseasonably warm, with the exception of a five-day cold snap a week or so ago. We’ve had no excuse this winter to snuggle up inside and hibernate (at least not yet). In fact, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen lots of photos of the Littles running around outside without their sweaters on. Still, there’s something about these winter months that puts me in the mood for cozy nights in, and if you’re in a clime colder than mine, you might be looking for ways to stimulate your creativity out of its cold-induced stupor. Here are a few ideas.

Game Night

  • Scrabble

  • Liebrary

  • Balderdash

Of course Scrabble is the go-to game to exercise your lexicon, but what about your creativity and bookishness? Liebrary requires players to write a fake first line of a real work of literature in an attempt to fool the other players into believing it is the genuine first line of the work. The “liebrarian” rolls a dice determining which genre the work of literature will come from, and then draws a card from that genre. The card bears the title, author, and summary of the book, as well as the real first line. The liebrarian shares with the players everything except the first line. Players then compose a first line and hand it to the liebrarian, who reads off all the first lines, including the real one. Players have to guess which line is the true first line. Essentially, it’s Balderdash for books.

For more writerly games, check out “5 games for writers” by Kevin Paul Tracy of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Movie Night

  • The Professor and the Madman

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My husband and I rented The Professor and the Madman from a RedBox in the Northern Neck back in the fall. We loved it so much that instead of returning it to the RedBox the next morning, we went ahead and bought it from the RedBox instead. Watching this movie allows viewers to learn the history of the Oxford dictionary and appreciate the intricacy of language. I have to admit that the history of the Oxford dictionary was never something I wondered about. In fact, I suppose I’ve generally just taken the existence of the dictionary for granted. This movie made me see its existence, creation, and continual evolution in a whole new light, and gave a human story to the history.

I haven’t yet seen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I want to. It tells the story of post-WWII writer who, while writing about their experiences during the war, forms a relationship with the inhabitants of Guernsey Island. It’s told via letters shared between the writer and the residents–so basically, it’s a story told through writing, about a writer, writing a book. What’s not to love?

Netflix and Chill

  • Anne with an E

  • You

One of my favorite book series growing up was the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The character of Anne Shirley not only contributed to my desire to be a writer (I have vivid memories of incorporating the phrase “alabaster brow” into much of my writing in middle school after reading it in an Anne of Green Gables book), but also influenced my personality and life philosophy. I wholeheartedly embrace(d) the idea of kindred spirits and at least partially because of the description of Anne “drinking in the beautiful sunset,” a line that has stayed with me over decades, I have an insatiable thirst for natural beauty–largely manifested in an obsession with sunsets and sunrises. I also share Anne’s dislike for math, and as a middle school student, found great comfort in our shared torture at its hands. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered the Netflix series Anne with an E, based on one of my childhood literary heroes. I have watched the first season and just started the second. It is just as whimsical and lovely as I remember, and also tackles some interesting contemporary social issues (to be sure, Maud’s writing did the same in its own historical and social context).

You tells the story of a struggling writer and grad student, and her ill-fated (total understatement) romance with a bookstore owner named Joe. To read an analysis deeper and more insightful than mine, click here.

Writing Contests

If it’s too cold to get outside, stay in and send your writing out instead. The contest windows for the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) writing and photography contests close February 1 and February 15, and the Poetry Society of Virginia (PSoV) Annual Contest closes every year on Poe’s birthday, January 19. You might also want to download this free guide to 2020 winter writing contests. Chilly winter days are made for summoning your muse out of hibernation, thawing out your creativity, and snuggling up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate, a couple of dogs, and your ideas.

 

Vote for my Essay about the Littles in the Petco Foundation Holiday Wishes Grant Campaign People’s Choice Awards!

Those of you who follow me on Instagram in addition to reading this blog have already met The Littles, at least virtually. They’re two precious chihuahua-terriers we adopted from the Richmond SPCA in June. They’re littermates, and just celebrated their first birthday on November 17. Nacho is our little man, and Soda is our little lady.

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We adopted Nacho (left) and Soda (right) in June 2019. The essay I wrote about how they brighten my life will earn between $5,000 and $100,000 for the Richmond SPCA. The amount will be revealed at an event on December 20 at our local Petco. The essay could earn up to an additional $25,000 the shelter if it places in the People’s Choice Awards! Please vote for us here. (Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots)

A few weeks after we adopted them, and knowing that I teach English and write a considerable amount (in April, I held a book signing to raise money for the shelter with Jack and Sadie’s story in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog), the shelter reached out to ask me if I would write an essay and submit it to the Petco Foundation Holiday Wishes Grant Campaign in an effort to earn funds for the shelter. Always eager to write, especially about my dogs and for a worthy cause, I gladly accepted, honored to have been asked.

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In November, I was notified that my essay about how Soda and Nacho brighten my life is a winning essay! I almost cried. At the time, the Littles weren’t even a year old, and they were (are!) already doing great things. On December 20 at 10:30 am, at the Petco in Carytown, the amount of the grant that will be awarded to the Richmond SPCA will be revealed (as will the amount of the Petco shopping spree The Littles and I will get to enjoy).

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We adopted Nacho (left) and Soda (right) in June 2019. The essay I wrote about how they brighten my life will earn between $5,000 and $100,000 for the Richmond SPCA. The amount will be revealed at an event on December 20 at our local Petco. The essay could earn up to an additional $25,000 the shelter if it places in the People’s Choice Awards! Please vote for us here. (Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots)

Between now and then, though, we have another opportunity to earn money for the shelter! Right now, my essay and the Richmond SPCA are in the running for the People’s Choice Award. The shelter stands to win up to $25,000 in addition to the grant they will already receive. To read and vote for my essay, click here–and please please please spread the word!

One of the most fulfilling things I get to use my writing to do is serve worthwhile causes and benefit worthy organizations. Your vote for my essay can help me do that!

My First Three Book Signings

Shortly after I learned that Jack’s story, “The Reward,” would be included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the DogI also learned that I could hold readings and book signings. I was so excited to get the word out about the book and Jack’s part in it, and even more excited when I realized I could use his story to raise money for organizations important to the two of us. I immediately began reaching out and planning. I contacted the Richmond SPCA because Jack loved his many agility classes there. In addition, Jack, Sadie, and my parents’ pug, Smokey, completed the shelter’s one-mile Dog Jog a few years ago, and I have both run the 5k Dog Jog and volunteered at the race. I contacted Richmond Animal League (RAL), because Jack and Sadie inspired me to volunteer there for four or five years. Finally, I contacted Bay Quarter Shores (BQS), because Jack and Sadie loved to go there, my husband and I got married there (Sadie was at the wedding rehearsal), and the story takes place there.

Richmond SPCA

My very first reading and book signing took place Saturday, April 27, from 1:00 to 3:00 at the Richmond SPCA. I planned to sell books for $15 each, with $10 of each purchase staying right there at the SPCA to benefit the animals.

When I arrived, the staff had already set a table up for me in the lobby, to the left of the reception desk and right in front of the gift shop. The reading was to take place in the adoption center.

The audience for the reading was sparse, with my husband and parents making up about a third of those in attendance. Still, I stood up in front of the room with Sadie beside me and read Jack’s story. I made it to the last few sentences before my voice broke, and I gave up trying to hold back tears. When I finished reading and looked up, many of the audience members were wiping away tears.

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Sadie stands beside me for most of my reading at the Richmond SPCA in April.

As I made my way to the book signing table, a woman from the audience approached me. As serendipity would have it, she told me she owns a place in White Stone, a town in the Northern Neck of Virginia not far from the scene of the story. We chatted for several minutes about dogs and the Northern Neck, and she purchased a book for her sister, whose dog had just passed away.

The next person to approach my table was a journalism student at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He explained to me that he’d been assigned to attend and report on an event, and he had chosen mine. I expected him, as a journalism student, to have a few questions, but he asked only three, took my card, and went on his way.

Next, a woman who arrived specifically for the reading and book signing approached. She bought the book and explained she has several sisters, one of whom has six dogs. The sisters plan to mail the book between themselves. “It’ll be The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book instead of the traveling pants,” she told me. I love the idea of Jack’s story–and all the other stories in the book–traveling around the country.

One of the highlights of the event was when a troop of young Girl Scouts lined up to pet Sadie. They were learning how to properly approach and interact with a dog. Sadie remained calm on the floor, letting each little girl approach her, offer her a sniff of her hand, and gently pat her head.

In the end, the two hours raised $160 for shelter where Jack loved his agility classes.

Richmond Animal League at Cafe Zata

My second event was, appropriately, a dog-friendly reading and signing that took place on the outdoor patio at Cafe Zata. I was pretty excited to be the cafe’s first-ever patio event, and that dogs would be invited to attend. It was also exciting to see my name beside the word “author” on the sidewalk sign Zata had set out to advertise the event, which would raise money for Richmond Animal League.

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My friend and fellow writer, Lauren Mosher (left), and I pose outside of Cafe Zata beside the sidewalk sign advertising the May 18 book reading and signing to benefit RAL. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots

This event took place on Saturday, May 18, from 1:00-3:00 pm. Despite the heat, it was exceptionally well-attended. Every chair on the patio was full, and several dogs panted in the shade under the umbrellas. I felt so supported. Two volunteers from RAL attended, along with Gertrude, a beagle available for adoption at the shelter. Several of my friends, family members, and neighbors were there. A few strangers and even an old high school friend (and her dog) came. My friend Jamie, who owns Radiant Snapshots, photographed the event for me, and my friend Lauren, a fellow writer and longtime RAL volunteer, introduced me to the crowd before I began reading.

As with my reading at the SPCA, I cried, and I was told later by a few people in the audience–some of whom knew Jack–that they teared up, as well.

After the event, I was parched, so once the patio had cleared out and I had cleaned up all my materials, I went inside to purchase a cold drink. The owner generously gave it to me for free, and I was happy to hear that the reading had brought in some extra business.

In the end, we raised $285 for RAL that day.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

Bay Quarter Shores

My third reading took place Memorial Day weekend, on Saturday, May 25, at 4:30 pm during the annual Bay Quarter Shores Memorial Day potluck and picnic. The reading and book signing was a fundraiser for BQS, where story takes place. Jack loved to go there and swim, walk on beach, walk on the nature trails, SUP, and ride on the speed boat. In the end, we raised $140 for BQS.

I cried more at this event than at the others, despite the experience behind me at this point, perhaps because I was standing so close to where the story takes place, and it was only the second time I’d been there without Jack.

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I read Jack’s story at the Bay Quarter Shores Clubhouse Memorial Day weekend. Right outside is the setting of the story.

People came up to me to tell me they cried, too. People told me about dogs they recently lost and showed me photos. Dogs really do bring people together. One woman said she couldn’t bear to buy the book right now because she had lost her dog two weeks prior, and that I should write a piece about loss. I told her I already did.

In preparation for my three events, I had ordered 60 books–and I am all sold out. I’m looking forward to possibly another event or two this summer, and maybe one in September. It was so fulfilling to give back to groups that have meant a lot to me and my pack. I love being able to use my writing this way. My main takeaways are not procedural or logistic. They are this: Dogs bring people together–and I have the most loving, supportive family and friends a girl could ask for.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

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The above photo features Soda, clearly a natural pin-pup girl (get it!), at Pony Pasture Rapids this past weekend. Help make her a calendar girl with your donation to RAL!

If Soda and Nacho raise…

$125, we can cover the cost of microchips for 15 animals

$250, we can cover the cost of a spay/neuter surgery for 5 kittens

$500, we can cover the cost of one day of Parvovirus treatment

$1,000, we can cover the cost of heartworm treatment for 3 dogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Writing Buddies have Four Paws

It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.

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The view I was treated to when I let Jack decide which way we should walk one January morning in 2015.

The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.

I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.

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Kat Simons, local Richmond radio personality, was kind enough to have Jack, Sadie, and me into the studio for an interview this afternoon. We talked about my upcoming fundraisers for two local animal shelters and the soon-to-be-released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, in bookstores April 9.

Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.

Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.

A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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Sadie and Jack pose with a few copies of the book they’re in.

My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.

If I don’t already have enough to thank my precious little dogs for, I can now add publication, book signings, fundraisers, and a radio interview to the list of experiences they’ve given me.

 

Why You Should Join Writing Groups and Organizations

During a recent visit to the Northern Neck, I found myself sitting across from my aunt at a Mexican restaurant where we had met for lunch, along with my uncle, my husband, and my parents. As we noshed on tortilla chips, waiting for our burritos and fajitas and taco salads to arrive, she observed, “So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.” Her observation is completely accurate. (And, if I know her, she’ll probably take credit for inspiring this blog post–as she should.)

While writing itself often requires at least some solitude, “no man is an island.” Since I’ve gotten more involved with Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) and James River Writers, my writing has taken off, and I am learning more than I ever knew there was to learn–about writing, publishing, networking, motivation, you name it.

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My mom, me, my friend, Ashley, and my dad enjoy lunch at The Market at Grelen after the PSOV awards ceremony and poetry reading.

One of the benefits of becoming involved in–or at least aware of–the various writing groups in your area is learning about opportunities to enter contests. The Poetry Society or Virginia (of which I am also now a member) holds a contest I learned about when I attended the James River Writers Annual Conference. I entered several poems, and one earned second-place sonnet in one category of the contest. Not only did this success bolster my self-esteem and increase my enthusiasm, but it also meant I got to attend an awards ceremony and luncheon at a nursery near the mountains, where I not only had the opportunity to read my poem to an audience of fellow poets, but where I also got to sit in a greenhouse on a hillside and listen to dozens and dozens of other poets read their winning poems. I left the awards ceremony inspired, awed, and filled with creative energy. (I also bought a dragon plant I’d been eyeing in the greenhouse throughout the readings. It’s my poetree, and since I brought it home and re-potted it last April, it has grown and thrived in tandem with my writing practice.)

In addition to the opportunity to enter and maybe win writing contests, becoming involved with writing groups gives you the inside scoop on classes, workshops, and conferences. I learned about the year-long novel-writing class I enrolled in at VisArts at

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Ashley and I outside the Double Tree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, with our Excellence-in-Craft award plaques.

the James River Writers Annual Conference. Had I not joined that group and attended that conference, I never would’ve learned of or taken that class. Had I not taken that class, I can almost guarantee you I would not have finished my second manuscript, and if I had (which is unlikely), it would not be nearly as strong as it is (though it still needs some work).

 

Participating in the class at VisArts not only ensured I completed my manuscript, but also allowed me to meet several other really talented writers, people I learned a lot from and who are still helping me with my writing today. And if that isn’t enough, it was through taking this class that I was asked by a classmate to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show with her. (Shameless plug: The next one is this Wednesday! Topic: How to Write a Killer Synopsis.) This opportunity has been priceless, and we’ve only just begun. Already, I have met so many intelligent, literary people; learned a TON about the writing industry; and been inspired over and over again. My involvement in James River Writers paved the way for me to take the VisArts class, which in turn paved the way for me to become more deeply involved with James River Writers.

My involvement in VOWA may also soon support my role as co-chair of The Writing Show. Yesterday, I attended VOWA’s Annual Conference. One of the panel discussions centered on how to please an editor. It just so happens the May Writing Show topic centers on how to make freelance writing financially rewarding. My hope is to contact one of the editors I heard speak to VOWA yesterday about speaking at The Writing Show in May.

“So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.”

Finally, I learned about Life in 10 Minutes at a James River Writers class a few years ago. Since learning of Life in 10, I have taken several of their workshops, attended a one-day event, and taken a class. These experiences have produced several pieces of writing, a few of which have gone on to appear in sweatpantsandcoffee.com, Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and more. I even got to interview Valley Haggard for a blog post, which was later republished in WriteHackr Magazine. The same class where I learned about Life in 10 Minutes was also the reason I finished my first manuscript.

Joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.

Through a James River Writers newsletter, I learned about Cafe Zata, which is going to make an excellent outdoor venue for a dog-friendly book signing and reading coming up in May.

Joining writing groups and participating in their contests, classes, conferences, and workshops is not the only decision that has helped support my writing–my family, fellow writers, friends, and colleagues have also played a role–but joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.

 

Take a Hike! (Or a Walk… Or a Run…) And Then Write

I hadn’t run the first mile of this morning’s run when my mistake occurred to me, striding into my consciousness as clearly as the morning sun shone through the frigid air. I stopped mid-stride and unlocked my cell phone, accessing my e-mail.

“My pre-morning run mind must’ve been misfiring,” I typed as fast my thumbs could dance across the screen, in an attempt to explain the initial, embarrassingly erroneous e-mail I had sent not 20 minutes before setting out for this run. My mind, unaware of its own cloudiness before my run, had suddenly cleared as I ran. As my body warmed up to the run, my thoughts, too, became more awake and fluid and ran through my mind freely, unencumbered by any morning fog.

We all know people who live by the mantra: “But first, coffee.” I feel a similar sentiment, but my coffee is a morning walk with my dogs or a morning run (or, on a particularly good day, both).

walk III
Jack, Sadie, and I enjoy a November morning walk on the shores of the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, not far from the scene that inspired my essay, “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, set to be released April 9.

I don’t do anything important before my morning dog walk (I mean, besides breakfast–the most important meal of the day). I don’t have the mind for it yet. I need the time to move around outside in the fresh air and quiet, to gather my thoughts from wherever they roosted for the night and sort through them. My day–at least, the productive part of it–cannot start without this ritual: breathing the morning air, communing with nature, watching the morning roll in as my morning mind-fog rolls out. My body burns the calories and my mind burns off its fog.

I find the act of walking or hiking or running outside integral not only to my preparation for the day, but also to my writing. My personal essay “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, to be released April 9, was

walk II
Sadie enjoys the boardwalk at Henricus Historical Park one morning this fall.

inspired by and tells the tale of a morning walk with my dogs. My essay, “The Mountains are Calling” describes, in part, a hike in Montana. My piece, “The moon was late to the party” also centers on a walk. While out walking or running, I have met countless interesting neighbors about whom I have written articles for The Villages News. I’ve even written longform articles about the benefits of walking your dog and how to maximize the advantages of your dog walk. Many of the descriptions of nature in my poetry, manuscripts, essays, and short stories come from scenes I witnessed or thoughts I had while out walking, hiking, or running.

Several years ago, I read a profile of a poet in Poets & Writers Magazine. I wish I could remember his name and the exact quote, but what I do remember is this: He loved to go for walks. He explained that he would begin a walk, his mind full of worries and stress over his own and the world’s problems. By the time he finished his walk, the

walk
Jack finds his stride on an early morning walk in Callao, Virginia.

problems were still there, but the worry and stress were gone. A walk’s ability to peel the worry way from problems allows us to think about them more clearly. This holds true not only for problems in our lives, but also for obstacles in our writing. I don’t typically begin a run or walk or hike with the intention of unraveling the knots in my tangled plot or finding a word to rhyme with “marathon” or “silver,” but often, the solutions and ideas simply present themselves as I move, as if the unrestrained movement of my body also releases my thoughts to wander my mind without hindrance or boundary.

This past summer, a neighbor let me borrow her copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningNow, several months later, one aspect of the book I remember most vividly is Murakami’s conviction that he runs so he can keep writing. And indeed, there are many parallels between running a long race and writing a long work.

“Don’t talk to me; I haven’t had my coffee yet” has never held true for me (which is good, because I don’t drink coffee, so I would be decidedly anti-social if it were true), but the same concept does hold true if I haven’t been outside for a walk yet.

The Christmas Letter: Why a Mass Text or a Social Media Post Won’t Cut It

Christmas Letter
This year’s Christmas-card kit: a one-page letter, holiday stamps, a family portrait, and a signed card.

“We were going to send you a Christmas card, but just look for our ‘Merry Christmas’ mass text message instead.” That flippant statement blared over my car’s radio speakers as I drove to work listening to Christmas music earlier this week. It’s true–I myself will send out a few “Merry Christmas” texts of my own come Christmas day, but not in the form of a mass text to the majority of my contact list. I will send them to a few intimate friends and family members as a small reminder that I am thinking of them, that I love them, that I truly wish them a happy holiday. And these texts will not be in the stead of my annual, page-long Christmas letter, sent in a signed holiday card, in some cases with a personal message and wallet-sized family portrait.

Technology has seemingly diminished our need for the annual holiday update, decreasing the value of a year summarized in an annual Christmas letter. After all, we can post anything to social media for all to see with the swipe of a finger across a screen. And just like that–POOF!–the need to sit down and spend time writing a Christmas letter, signing a card, and addressing an envelope have vanished.

When I was a kid, my parents always sent out a Christmas letter detailing our family’s year in the trips we had taken, the family and friends we had visited or hosted, our most recent move, the achievements we had experienced, etc. Many of my parents’ friends and family members did the same. I loved reading everyone’s annual update, typically folded neatly into a festive card, which my parents would tape to the garage door until it was completely covered in Christmas cards. I always loved that colorful door, decorated with season’s greetings from people we loved.

When I was a kid, I loved reading everyone’s annual update, typically folded neatly into a festive card, which my parents would tape to the garage door until it was completely covered in Christmas cards.

Now that I am an adult, in many respects living in a world very different from the one I inhabited as a child, technology has seemingly diminished our need for the annual holiday update, decreasing the value of a year summarized in an annual Christmas letter. After all, we can post any major milestones, achievements, sorrows, job changes, moves, new arrivals, and adventures to social media for all to see with the swipe of a finger across a screen. And just like that–POOF!–the need to sit down and spend time writing a Christmas letter, signing a card, and addressing an envelope have vanished. If anyone wants to know what we’ve been up to, they can check our Facebook page or our Instagram account or our Twitter feed.

The need to let someone know you’re thinking of them goes beyond a “like” on Facebook or Instagram. Why not put in a little more effort (it’s just once a year!), and take the time to sign a card? Even better–write a quick personalized message. You know–in your handwriting. With a pen.

But these posts, while informative and fun and entertaining, are impersonal announcements. They do not say to any one friend or family member or neighbor, “Hey–I wanted you to know about this. You are special to me. I am making an extra special effort to stay in touch with you, because you matter to me.” Similarly, while studies have shown we all get a little kick out of “likes” and comments on our social media posts, as well as a thrill out of the sound of the text message alert on our phones, the need to let someone know you’re thinking of them goes beyond a “like” on Facebook or Instagram. If you truly care about someone, why not put in a little more effort (it’s just once a year!), and take the time to sign a card? Even better–write a quick, personalized message. You know–in your handwriting. With a pen.

Composing a Christmas letter provides an excellent opportunity for you to reflect on the year. It gives you space to sit down and look back on the growth you and your loved ones have experienced in the past 12 months, allows you to go back and savor the year before a new one begins, and might even help provide some clarification regarding what your priorities for the new year might be.

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Along with saying to loved ones, “Hey, look! You’re so special to me, you made my Christmas card list!”, composing a Christmas letter provides an excellent opportunity for you to reflect on the year. The things you remember from the year and the things you want to include in your letter are likely the things that were most important to you, or that made the most impact on you. It gives you space to sit down and look back on the growth you and your loved ones have experienced in the past 12 months. The changes you have made. The goals you have achieved. The trips you have taken. All the things we quickly post to social media, and then likely forget about until they show up on TimeHop or in our Memories on Facebook. Writing a Christmas letter allows you to go back and savor the year before a new one begins, and might even help provide some clarification regarding what your priorities for the new year might be.

Writing my Christmas letter and signing my cards doesn’t feel like a chore; it feels like a beloved holiday tradition.

A few days ago, I was talking to my sister about Christmas cards and letters. We both agreed that sitting down to address envelopes for our annual holiday mailings was therapeutic. We watch a favorite TV show or listen to Christmas music and just leisurely write out our cards. It gives us reason for pause, a break from the go-go-go. For those moments while I am writing my letter, signing my cards, and addressing my envelopes, nothing else is on my mind. All the thoughts running through my head involve the highlights of my year, or the loved ones whose names and addresses I’m handwriting on the page. It doesn’t feel like a chore; it feels like a beloved holiday tradition.

I should say that even as I bemoan the lost art of writing Christmas letters and signing Christmas cards, many people do still send them–and I eagerly check my mailbox every day from Black Friday to New Year’s Eve in anticipation of receiving them. I don’t adhere them to my door like my parents did when I was growing up, but I do display them–in a kind of Christmas card garland. The cards and letters and family photos cling festively to a strand of Christmas lights adorning my back entryway, where I walk under them every time I leave home, and every time I come back in. These greeting cards bring me joy when I find them in my mailbox, when I walk under them to leave home, and when I walk under them to return. They fill my heart with Christmas cheer. I dare a mass text message to do that.

All You Need Is…Faith

Writing is an activity that, if one harbors aspirations of publishing, is fraught with rejection and disappointment. To be a writer is to cultivate and maintain a tough skin. Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home. So why do we keep trying? We keep writing, of course, because we love it or we are compelled to do it or both. But how do we maintain our enthusiasm about publishing anything, with the competition so stiff and the chances so low? The answer is simple: faith.

Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home.

Recently, I had three different faith-full experiences that I can draw on during my moments of self-doubt.

The first occurred at a friend’s house over the summer. One of my friends mentioned in passing that I was writing a novel, and her mother, who was visiting from out-of-state, looked at me wide-eyed. “You’re writing a novel?” she said in awe.

Before I could answer, my other friend chimed in. “It’s gonna be so good,” he said, nodding and smiling where he sat on the couch.

That was all I needed–a vote of confidence from friends, even just in passing. Just writing about the memory, the experience of which lasted maybe fifteen seconds, produces a lasting sense of optimism.

“It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.”

Several weeks before the incident at my friend’s house, I shared the first few chapters of my novel with my grandparents, both avid readers. When they called me with their critique, full of constructive criticism, my grandpa said he thought the book could inspire a cult following. Of course, grandparents should always have encouraging words for their grandchildren, but his praise was so specific, and his criticisms so insightful, that I believed in his belief in me–and my writing.

Finally, several instances that have occurred over the last year in my writing class at VisArts have also buoyed my spirits and summoned my muse.

One evening, as the instructor provided feedback on my week’s submission, I noticed he was using phrases like “When you get an agent”–“when,” not “if.” I tend to quantify my aspirations about publishing with “if,” implying I know it might never happen. But to hear someone else–someone who teaches creative writing at the university level–talk about “when” my novel gets published, was extremely reaffirming.

If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?

Another week, my instructor said, “If I’m an agent, this is the chapter that makes me want your book.” In an even more recent class, our instructor gave the entire class this advice about finishing the first draft of our novels: “It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.” He’s right. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you? Still, it helps when others believe in you, too. Their belief buoys yours, whenever you start to have your doubts.

About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story.

About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story. September 27 was Day One of that promise to myself. I wrote 940 words that night. I haven’t missed a day yet, and today will mark Day Twelve.

 

Found Time: 5 Tips to Find Time for Writing (and Reading)

You might be familiar with the term “found time,” which refers to time that unexpectedly opens up in our schedules–when a flight is delayed, when an appointment is canceled, when we miraculously finish the to-do’s on our list before we thought we would. Because one of the greatest obstacles to writing (and for me, to reading) seems to be finding time for it, it’s imperative that we A) find time and B) use found time to its fullest potential. While we’re all always incredibly busy, we might have more found time in our schedules than we realize, and we can use this time to support our literary lives, even with the rest of life seems to be getting in the way.

Make the Most of Mealtimes

If you find yourself eating a meal unaccompanied, write or read while you eat. You have to sit down and be still anyway–you can’t clean the house or go for a run while you eat–so it’s a great time to get out your laptop, journal, diary, or book and write or read. Plus, it makes you eat more slowly, which I’ve read is good for your health.

Be Prepared

In order to use found time, you have to be prepared to use found time. If time opens up in your day, but you don’t have the tools you need to use it (your book, pen, notebook, laptop–whatever), you’re going to be hard-pressed to be productive. For this reason, bring a notebook and writing utensil or your latest read with you everywhere. Then, when unexpected time arises, you can use it to write or read.

Use the Bathroom

Read or write when you use the bathroom. It might sound crass and it’s probably not hygienic, but it works. No one is going to bother you while you’re in there and, as with eating, you’re sitting down and being still, anyway. Take advantage of the time! What else are you gonna do with it (I mean, besides a No. 1 or a No. 2)?

Go to Bed

Or at least say you’re going to bed. Then, spend 15 to 30 minutes writing or reading before you turn out the lights for the night.

Keep a List Handy

For writing, make a list of topics, experiences, ideas, or memories you know you want to write about. That way, when you end up with a little unexpected time, you won’t have to waste any of it wondering what to write about–you can just pull out your list and pick from it.

While our lives are inevitably busy and sometimes chaotic, little pockets of time unexpectedly open up in our schedules now and again. When they do, be ready to use them to nurture your love of writing and reading!