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A New and a Little Scary Place

June 6, 2013

Tags: How bad dancing helps me stay in touch with school-age readers ...

Originally posted on The Wild Writers Web site ...

A bunch of years ago I took a six-week swing dance class here in Boulder. I had always loved watching the expert dancers on the dance floor—the timing, the spins and rocks, the lifts, the glee. The good hoofers made it look so effortless, so fluid—so fun!

Our instructors were great—gifted and patient. But by the second class I realized something that made my heart and stomach sink: I … was … a … slow … learner. I had to practice the most basic “step, step, rock step” a couple dozen times before it started to make any kind of connection between my brain and feet. Simple spin? My partner was lucky I didn’t tear out her arm by turning the wrong way. Partner Charleston? Give that girl some shin pads.

Oh, and then have us do a “show-what-you-know” during class? Anxiety turned to dread amped up to breath-holding fright as the instructors went down the line of dancers. When our turn came, I couldn’t remember even how to start! The only sound in my brain was the static of self-consciousness. (I think I drooled.)

As a kid and youth, I had a rep as a fast learner—at least that’s how I remember it. I had played sports and been in the high school band and done musicals and theater—but that was a long time before this. Somehow I thought ingrained confidence from those experiences would automatically kick in.

Instead, I finished those six weeks with an in-depth knowledge of the inner life of the wallflower. And as much as I told myself to relax and just have fun, I was constantly fending off self-consciousness about being the dork with two left clown shoes.

Along the way, though, I had a revelation as it related to my writing for kids. Self-conscious wallflowers? That is how many, many kids feel every day as they head off to music lessons or basketball practice or the classroom—especially as the bus carries them into adolescence. They are constantly facing new challenges and learning new things, and many (most?) must navigate social fears and self-doubt as well as the content—curricular or otherwise.

This helped renew my affection and compassion for my young readers. I want to write for them in ways that reassure them that yes, there are challenges and setbacks, but struggles and mistakes are part and parcel of life. So let’s be patient and kind with ourselves and others so the shy, wonderful things that live inside us feel safe enough to emerge from the shadows. I want to show in my stories that living life and enjoying it is not about being the best or even particularly good at what we try. It is about showing up, opening ourselves to sense and beauty, and taking part at whatever level our abilities and personalities allow.

When I want a reminder about the reality of kids’ lives, I now know one of the best things I can do is try something that makes me nervous. I try to experience the sweaty palms and the heart-bending thrills of going outside my comfort zone—failing, falling down, laughing, then getting back up and trying again.

Those of us who work with young people should occasionally seek that out; because “The New And a Little Scary” is a place where kids live every day.

Cool Quotes

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have dome them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly ... who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

-Theodore Roosevelt

"The question is not what a man can scorn, or disparage, or find fault with, but what he can love, and value, and appreciate."
-John Ruskin

It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know.
-Marcie Hersman

The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.
- Paul Ehrlich

Nothing softeneth the Arrogance of our Nature like a
Mixture of some Frailties.
It is by them that we are best told,
that we must not strike too hard
upon others
because we ourselves do
so often deserve blows.
They pull our Rage by the sleeve
and whisper
Gentleness to us in our censures.


Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty
and frightened.
Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

“We are here and it is now. The way I see it is, after that, everything tends towards guesswork.”
-Didactylos in Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

"Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It's one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.

"You can do it."

-Sherman Alexie, from
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

"It is blissfully simple to strike a savvy, sophisticated pose by attacking someone else’s creations, but the old adage is right: Any fool can burn down a barn. Building one is something else again." -Martha Beck

"Live in the active voice rather than the passive. Think more about what you make happen than what is happening."
-William De Witt Hyde

"The soul of a child demands these mighty passions, opposition and adversity."
-Isak Dinesen

"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, 'I'll try again tomorrow.'"
-Mary Anne Radmacher

"That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time."
-John Stuart Mill

"The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit."
-Wade Davis

"It is so easy to be cynical. It's an accurate reflection of reality. It's much harder; it takes a philosophical point of view, to be optimistic. You have to work at it every day. One of the joys of working with children is that they are still unspoiled by cynicism."
-Yo-Yo Ma

"Story means pleasure, as distinct from art; it would rather gratify than edify.
But stories also protect us from chaos, and maybe that’s what we, unblinkered at the end of the twentieth century, find ourselves craving. Implicit in the extraordinary revival of storytelling is the possibility that we need stories—that they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle, and end of our personal and collective trajectories. It is possible that narrative is as important to writing as the human body is to representational painting. We have returned to narratives—in many fields of knowledge—because it is impossible to live without them."
-Bill Buford, 1996

"Adulthood is the consequence of decisions made by a teenager."

"Kids are not stupid. They're just short." —Jack Prelutsky