courthouse flag

We, the Jury

courthouse flagWhen I think about my own year in review, one thing that stands out is my summer service as a juror on a murder trial.

I have many takeaways from the experience. But what I’ve been contemplating most as I watch the media wrap-ups of the year’s most important stories is how the experience shaped my own perception of some nationally covered events. There have been a couple of jury decisions (grand juries, in these cases) that have gained intense national attention and censure—cases where the headlines often start with the words “Jury Fails…” And every time I see someone seeming to blame those jurors, I cringe.

Because something unusual happened as my jury experience ended. Immediately after delivering our verdict, the jurors I served with and I walked into a side room to collect our cell phones—and the deputy who had been guarding us throughout our deliberations began vociferously scolding us for making what she thought was the wrong decision about the defendant’s guilt. Her verbal attack came as a complete shock—the emotional equivalent of another of the year’s big news stories, the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” The consequence is that even months later, every time I hear someone on the news call out those other more high-profile jurors as the “bad guys,” I am instantly defensive. I am transported back to that moment in the courthouse, being reprimanded all over again for trying to do the best I could at an enormously difficult task.

Admittedly, I don’t know near enough about the information or instructions the jurors in these big national cases received. Maybe they were also doing their best—or maybe they were acting out of personal bias or bigotry. And admittedly, I wasn’t on a grand jury, which I know works differently. But I’m choosing to give the jurors in those high-profile, nationally followed cases the benefit of the doubt.

Because here is what my experience as a jury member was like: You are given an enormous amount of information, some of it contradictory or unclear, and asked to make a decision that will have enormous consequences for the accused, for the grieving family of the victim, and for the community where you live. You are asked to set aside your personal feelings and to follow the law as it has been interpreted for you by the legal representatives in the courtroom. You are banned from discussing the case with anyone whose opinion you value, or from researching your questions to pin down missing details. All this at a time that you’ve had a hard time sleeping because of the things you’ve seen and heard during witnesses’ testimony. Being a juror is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was made much harder, in my case, by being told I’d failed at it as soon as I’d finished.

I have no doubt that there are problems in our law enforcement and legal systems that need to be fixed. These same systems ask everyday people like me—and maybe next year, you—to take on the job of delivering justice. Based on my own experience, I’m inclined to believe that most jurors, given this challenge, will do the best job they can. But individual jurors can’t fix systemic problems by themselves. Only “We”—the jury at large, acting together—can bring about real change.

 

spider

It’s the Thought That Counts

spiderTwo of the best gifts I ever received came from my twin nephews when they were just itty-bitty guys. They were old enough to understand that sometimes birthdays or holidays bring cards, and that sometimes people tuck cash into these cards as a way of saying to the recipient: “I love you—go buy something special.”

That year, for my birthday, they each gave me a card with something extra tucked inside. One of the cards held a quarter and a dime—a hefty portion of a preschooler’s net worth. In the other card was a plastic spider, the kind of object beloved by small boys everywhere. In that moment, I knew that I was truly loved. They had each given me something that to the world held little material value, but that to them was precious. They brought to life that phrase we use when we mean that what matters is not the value, but the feeling behind the gift.

The season of holiday gift-giving is in full swing, and I confess that some days I feel like I don’t have the time, energy, or money this year to purchase gifts that reflect the thoughtfulness the recipients on my list deserve. I love finding the just-right present for someone, but the reality is that can be time-consuming. With juggling work and visiting my mom at the assisted living facility and a tricky knee that is turning regular household tasks into time-consuming jobs, I feel stretched already, without adding holiday craziness to the picture.

But I don’t want gift-giving to be just another obligation. The people I give gifts to wouldn’t want that for me, and it turns the act of giving the gifts into something that is completely counter to why I give them in the first place. When given with thought and care, gifts should also be a gift to the giver, a way of sealing a contract of love or friendship. My choices this year seem to come down to either foregoing gift-giving altogether (I promise you, my loved ones would understand!), or finding a way to do it with the true spirit of giving.

My choice? I’m going to somehow make the time to get out there and find the perfect presents, as a gift to myself. And here’s the notion I’m going to carry with me as I do it; I’m calling it “the thought that counts”:

Dear Person on My Gift List,

I care for you deeply.

I value the many gifts you bring to me by sharing my life.

In that spirit, I hope you will accept this plastic spider as a sign of my love.

Happy holidays!

Lisa

books

Cyber Someday

booksIn light of “Cyber Monday” tomorrow, I’ve been thinking about how much my work life has been changed by “cyber everything.” My first job in publishing was in 1985. The publisher’s entire marketing department shared one clunky computer, yet somehow we worked together to put out regular catalogs featuring hundreds of titles. When we proofread, we had to make sure to check for tape marks, because the production department taped catalog pieces together by hand. A couple of years after I’d started, we got a fresh-out-of-college addition to the marketing department who brought word of a magic new technology that could transport printed images from one corner of the world to another—which on first hearing sounded so absurd we thought he was inventing it. We asked for the name of this astonishing innovation, and he said it was called a “facsimile machine.”

It’s not quite thirty years later, and I’m still working in publishing, except now on the writing side of the equation. And my job title is not the only thing that has changed. As an author I use not just my laptop, but also a smartphone and a Kindle to do my work. Even as a design klutz, I create promotional flyers by moving images and text around on my computer by myself—not a tape mark to be found. The once-magical facsimile machine has been so out-distanced by other technologies that I’m taken aback when someone requests that I fax them something. In fact, a good part of my work now revolves around technology: keeping up with social media, Skyping with writers I mentor, researching on the Internet.

And yet I’m also reminded of the answer given by one of my publishing bosses, Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press, who died last Sunday. When people would ask him if he feared the demise of the book, he would answer that books as we know them are so perfectly designed for their function that they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Allan had no doubt that books would far outlast him.

And of course stories—and for that matter, libraries!—have been around for not just hundreds, but thousands of years. I have no doubt that new-fangled “cyber someday” inventions will continue to change my professional life. But as a teller of tales and a filler of library shelves, I have thousands of years of history behind me. I think they call that “job security.”

young reader

My Secret Superpower

young readerNovember brings gray, gloom, and one of my favorite Thursdays of the year: Give to the Max Day (here in Minnesota). It’s a day when givers throughout the state donate to their favorite nonprofit organizations via an online site. There are matching grants galore, Golden Ticket winners, and this year, principals who flew a zipline at the Mall of America dressed as super heroes to generate enthusiasm for school donations.

I’m a big dork, and I love the whole thing. I even make a point each year of opening the website shortly before midnight so I can watch the final countdown and see if the total surpasses years past. Once again, I cheered to myself as the 2014 number crept over the $18 million total (more than a million dollar jump over 2013).

I grew up seeing the spirit of giving in action. My parents modeled their belief in supporting causes that are important to them. So although my income often feels stretched, I love to donate what I can, and it’s fun to do some of that giving on a day that makes givers feel like a celebrated part of the community.

After all, I don’t have direct control over where my tax dollars will go. Even the best-intended politician might make choices I can’t support. But I can make a donation to my local library system and know this: Because of my support, my favorite smell in the whole wide world—the smell I call “library book”—will be able to waft its way into the nostrils of even more young readers. Once they have been entranced by that magical odor in the way that I once was, who knows where they might choose to take their lives?

The power to connect kids with books is indeed life-changing: and that, my friends, is a superpower that any super hero would envy!

lone leaf against winter

Winter’s First Storm Is Coming: A To-Do List

lone leaf against winterCover: rose bushes, grill, my head with the blanket (out of a sense of pure denial).

Unearth: snow scrapers, shovels, gloves, boots, scarf, my Minnesota mettle.

Create backup plan for: getting to school visit in the morning, getting to event in the evening, surviving until spring.

Debate: What’s the bigger risk, the fickle-in-the-cold garage door, leaving the car on the snowy street, or taking up Olympic bobsledding?

Consider: remaining yard work. Decide it can wait until May.

Remember: I did that last year, too.

Stock up on: hot cocoa, suet for birds, carrots for snowmen noses.

Remind myself: In seven months, it will all be over.

Wonder: WHY do I live in Minnesota?

 

leaf pile

Leaf Pile

My

crunchy,

crackly, prickly pile

of whirligigs, please wait awhile.

Don’t skitter-scamper on your way, until

I’ve had my fill of play−amidst your geometric forms

that smell of summer thunder storms. Brisk autumn’s ready

to be done. Wind whisks a-                                                                                    .

way                                                                         n

my                                                             u

l e a   f        p   i     l     e        f

 

Copyright © 2014 Lisa Bullard

 

leaf pile

 

 

bunny

Watch Me Pull a Rabbit out of My Hat

bunnyI love teaching writing to adult beginners; their enthusiasm is contagious. It reminds me why I first wanted to be a writer myself, and it helps me reclaim some of my own early exhilaration. It grounds me once again in the basics of how to most effectively reach readers—I have to think through the “magician’s tricks” that more experienced writers routinely pull off, and figure out how to explain the practical steps that go into creating that magic for someone who is still half-convinced that it truly is magic. And in working through that process, I remember to go back to the basics—those foundational tricks that writers eventually learn to wield with supreme showmanship—myself.

One piece of writing advice that often puzzles beginners is the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Here’s a brief explanation and a writing activity (excerpted from my new book Get Started in Writing for Children) that my students have found both informative and fun over the years:

Showing is when you deeply engage readers, immersing them inside the action, sensory experiences, and emotions that the viewpoint character is experiencing. Telling, on the other hand, is more of a journalistic summary.

Activity: Showing instead of telling

For this activity, you are going to practice showing three different words—the words in boldface below (in three separate pieces of writing, not combining the words in the same piece). You can create a straightforward description of the word, or develop a scene where the word is featured in some way; your approach is not the issue. The goal is to convey the essence of that word to readers so that they feel like they are experiencing it.

Here’s the catch: you can’t use any form of the word in boldface, or any form of the list of words underneath the word in question. This will force you to think outside the box and bring the word to life in a way other than using the most obvious language.

Here is your first word:

Thunderstorm

  • Rain
  • Thunder
  • Lightning
  • Shower
  • Wet

So, you are to bring the word “thunderstorm” to life for your readers without using any of these words, or forms of these words such as “storm,” “raining,” or “showering.”

Once you have finished the first word, move on to these two words:

Covet

  • Want
  • Desire
  • Yearn
  • Possess
  • Have

Haunted

  • Ghost
  • Spirit
  • Spooky
  • Obsessed
  • Supernatural

Excerpted from the book Get Started in Writing for Children, copyright © Lisa Bullard, 2014.

Get Started in Writing for Children

cow sign

Takesies Backsies

cow signWhen my three nephews were little boys, my mom and I regularly took them on overnights and weekends. We relished our time on our own with the kids and with each other. And as much as the boys loved to talk, we often outdid them.

“Lisa,” one of the kids once said, “Will you and Grandma ever run out of things to say to each other?” I laughed and shook my head.

Another time, the boys heard me use the word “ironic” and asked what it meant. I confess, the English major in me always quivered with delight when they asked me to define terms. But as the “Is it ironic?” website—where you can actually cast your vote on something’s inherent irony—confirms, “Judging by its constant, and sometimes baffling, misuse, it is clear that irony is a very misunderstood concept.” Especially, perhaps, when a person is trying to define it for the under-nine crowd.

So I ended up giving a highly garbled and somewhat inappropriate example that culminated in a woman’s untimely death. I tried to rebound by reassuring them it wasn’t a real woman, it was just a bad made-up story I had come up with on the spot, but there are so often no takesies backsies in life when you really need them. My attempt to retract my definition only cemented it in the boys’ brains. For the next year-plus, whenever Mom or I would use the word ironic in our never-ending conversations, the kids would look at each other and then shout in unison, “And then she died.” We got a lot of suspicious looks in restaurants.

This dark side of irony was an ongoing undercurrent for me last year on this day, the publication date for my book Turn Left at the Cow. My mom had celebrated my other books with me at various stages of development, but this time, for my first novel, I decided I wanted to wait to have her read it until I could place a finished book in her hands. She was, after all, the person who had taught me to treasure books, to love reading, to savor words. I anticipated the moment of handing her that finished copy with great delight, imagining the questions she might ask me once she’d read the story.

But books can be slow to grow, and it took over seven years from the time I first started writing it until I held the finished book. Almost exactly a year to the day before the book was finally published, my mom fell and broke her hip. The resulting surgeries and hospitalizations catapulted her slowly progressing memory loss into a full-blown dementia. Not long before I had a book to give her, it had become obvious that my mother could no longer read anything longer than a newspaper article: it was too difficult for her to keep the story in her head from one day to the next. Words kept slipping away from her on a regular basis, and our once never-ending conversations were now peppered with awkward silences.

I have been blessed, in the year since the publication date, by hearing lovely feedback about Turn Left at the Cow from friends and strangers alike. I value every offering of praise. And I don’t mean to imply that the entire experience of the book was spoiled by this lost opportunity with my mom. If you learn anything by surviving through a loved one’s dementia, it’s that you have to fight for the right to claim the good moments in life, too.

But a little bit more of the mother I once knew seems to have gone missing each time I see her. Turn Left at the Cow, by the way, has a lot of humorous moments—but it is also, at its core, the story of a child yearning for a missing parent. So basically what happened is that I waited too long to share my novel about a missing parent with my own parent, the person who taught me to love books in the first place—the person who is vanishing in front of my eyes.

No takesies backsies, remember? But I do think that perhaps now I have a better example of irony to share, the next time somebody asks.

twins

Hair’s the Thing

twinsSometimes I bump into a book character who is so  thoroughly lifelike that I catch myself expecting to meet him or her just around the next corner. The challenge for me as a writer is to figure out how to create this same kind of character: someone who will rise up out of the pages of my own story and captivate my readers. I often suggest to my writing classes that they try the exercise below, an activity that I call Time Capsule, found in this excerpt from my new book Get Started in Writing for Children:

The items a person values say a lot about him. What a child carries in his pocket or her backpack, hides in his closet or stores in her car, might all provide telling clues as to who they are.

For this writing activity, you are going to create a time capsule for your character. Typically someone would create a time capsule for an important new building; they would gather objects that reflect the particular time, place, and lifestyle of the people responsible for the building.

Select twenty objects that likewise reveal something important about your character. These might include: family photographs, sports trophies, t-shirts from favorite vacation spots, favorite books, artwork, scouting badges, journals, favorite toys, keepsakes, jewelry, favorite movies or music, technology items, etc. You don’t have to explain why you are including every item, but be specific. Don’t just say “her favorite book,” list the title of the actual book.

You have permission to break two of the laws of science: you have the ability to shrink a large object down to fit into your virtual time capsule, and you can preserve a favorite food item so that it doesn’t spoil. Don’t include any live creatures, however; instead, include something to represent them: a dog collar, a cat toy, a photograph.

If you are a very visual person, you might enjoy finding pictures and putting them together to create a visual representation of your character’s time capsule.

Then choose one item off your list and explain in further detail how it represents something critical about your character. Here is a real-life example. I have nephews who are identical twins. From the time they were two years old, every morning one of them would use a massive amount of hair product so that his hair stuck straight up. Once when he came to visit me overnight, he brought only a stuffed animal, a clean pair of underwear, and enough hair gel to style my entire neighborhood.

For years we tried to figure out this obsession of his—did he want to become a hair stylist? Was he vain? And then one day, one of my friends got him to explain.

“This is my own personal hair!” he said. “When I do this, nobody calls me my by brother’s name.”

For him, the hair product represented much more than what appeared on the surface: it was an expression of his search for personal identity and his desire to be seen as an individual separate from his identical twin.

Choose one of the items off of your character’s list and write a similar explanation of that item’s deeper meaning.

Excerpted from the book Get Started in Writing for Children, copyright © Lisa Bullard, 2014.

 Get Started in Writing for Children

leaf

The Leaf Beneath

leafHere is one of the favorite bits I’ve learned while researching one of my many children’s nonfiction books: The orange and yellow colors of fall leaves are already there, hiding under the green, all summer long. When autumn comes, and there is less sunlight, the green—the food-making part of the leaves—fades. And these colors have their chance to shine.

It makes me ask: What might be there waiting for me, once today’s green fades away?