Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 4

Hi everyone,

Sandy Asher and I hope that you’ve enjoyed our conversations this month in Writers at Work about our personal experiences and thoughts on how we’ve asked ourselves, “What else is out there?” and then set out in pursuit.

Today’s concluding remarks come from Sandy.

Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 4: Sandy
September 30, 2014

Uh-oh, David. Sounds as if you’ve wandered awfully close to the Forest of People Who Do Not Hug at those academic gatherings. You’ve accomplished great things there, but hold tight to your map so you can find your way back out!

As for me, my latest adventure in discovering “What else is out there?” has taken me deep into hugging territory. In fact, it’s all about hugging experts: very young children. And it was my granddaughter, a hug specialist, who led me down this marvelous path when she was three years old.

It all began in December of 2008. My daughter and son-in-law had been offered free lodging in London over the holidays while U.K.-based friends traveled back to the United States to visit their own family. Their house had a spare bedroom, airfares to England were affordable in the dead of winter, and the grandkids would be in residence, so, of course, off we went.

But before leaving home, I went on-line and booked tickets for three shows being performed during out stay by theater groups who specialized in work for young audiences. My daughter, granddaughter, and I would attend; the grandson was still too young for live theater, so he would spend that time with his dad and granddad.

All of the performances were professional, and each was unique. One was almost wordless, but visually beautiful as it explored nightfall, bedtime, and falling asleep from a child’s point of view. Another was a raucous adaptation of a Raold Dahl story I’d never heard of, “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me,” complete with huge puppets and a Keystone Cops kind of frenetic energy.

And then there was the third, “How Long Is a Piece of String?” created and performed by Tim Webb’s astonishing Oily Cart Theatre. The other performances were excellent and well attended. This one was a life changer. This was “What else is out there?” with frosting and jimmies and a cherry on top! It featured a kind of theater for the very young that was new to me, but not to Oily Cart and their Artistic Director, Tim Webb. They’ve been creating and touring new works for 30 years now, specializing in theater for the very young (0 – 3 and 3 – 5, mostly), and in theater for young people with special needs.

No, that is not a typo. They do theater for children under a year old, and their parents, of course. In small groups. They also do theater for no more than a handful of seriously challenged children and their caregivers at a time, and I believe they’ve done one piece where the audience consisted of one child at a time, plus caregiver(s). No need to take my word for it. Visit their website at http://www.oilycart.org.uk, follow them on Facebook, and, to see clips of actual performances, search for them on YouTube.com. I recommend starting with “Oily Cart + String Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Air Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Blue,” and “Oily Cart + Blue Balloon” for examples of their work with and for all of those populations. You can also see interviews with Tim Webb, Artistic Director and resident genius.

Okay, so there we were – daughter, granddaughter, and moi – on a cold, crisp December afternoon in London, excited about going to the theater but completely unaware of what we were about to experience. When about 15 children, mostly 3 – 5 year olds, and their accompanying adults had assembled in the lobby, we were instructed to put one hand on a red string and follow it to where the play would be taking place. This took us to a cavernous black box theater space. I knew immediately something extraordinary was about to happen because there were all sorts of string-related gizmos, designs, and contraptions on the walls and a musician was singing us to our seats while playing – what else? – stringed instruments. What followed was something called “full immersion” theater, an approach in which children become an integral part of the play and fully experience the world of the story through their senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

At first, I was holding my granddaughter’s hand and leading her into the experience, but within five minutes, all of the children had left their adults behind and taken up residence in the world of the play. The Pied Piper has nothing on the Oily Cart company! And then the magic took over for me, too. Seated with the rest of the adults in the center of the room as the action moved around us in all directions, I realized this was great theater for everyone, child and adult. It had everything: a clever story well-acted, delightful music, and spectacular visual imagery – heightened by the breathtaking sight of our own little ones totally enjoying themselves as they learned to care for yarn doll babies, worked the Rube Goldberg-style gizmos, rowed a boat while being spritzed by water, crossed a rope bridge, bathed their babies in cascades of multi-colored bubbles, and finally tucked them into a caravan of cribs to be reunited with their String Parents.

I fell madly in love – with Oily Cart, with “How Long Is a Piece of String?” and with the concept of full-immersion theater for the very young. I returned home determined to write that kind of play. My picture book Here Comes Gosling! seemed a good place to start – children could join Froggie and Rabbit in a variety of activities involving their senses. (We’re more restrictive about serving children food here in the U.S., so “taste” ended up as pretend-eating rather than actual ingesting.) At an American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference, I read the book at a Playwrights Slam session and announced that I needed a theater group to work with me on developing a full-immersion script for the very young. Patricia Zimmer, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, came forward immediately, saying she’d worked with a large Head Start school in her area before and could see this as a great match.

It was! We took Patricia’s university students into the Head Start classrooms to test out my ideas with real, live 3 – 5 year olds and later performed the finished play for them. I will never forget the moment when the children were gathered around a red-and-white picnic blanket, playing “Dance and Freeze” with Froggie, Rabbit, Goose, Gander, and baby Gosling and giggling madly while their parents and teachers grinned ear-to-ear in the background. “I did it!” I thought. “They’re experiencing this dance at this picnic in this imaginary world because of the words I put on a page.” And then I thought, “How can I ever again write a play in which preschoolers don’t get up and dance?”

Well, I calmed down, of course. And so did they, sitting quietly to listen to Froggie read a story before filing out through the greenery-decorated archway that had led them into this new world and would now take them back to their everyday lives. After other productions in Austin, TX and Bentonville, AR, the stage version of Here Comes Gosling! is headed toward publication by Dramatic Publishing Company. I hope it keeps a lot of little people dancing for a very long time.

I’m now working on a new script for the same age group, “Chicken Story Time.” Through “full-immersion theater,” very young children discover “what else is out there.” And so do I!

Hugs, everybody!

Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 3

Hi everyone,

Today we bring you Part 3 in the new series in Writers at Work, a conversation between Sandy Asher and me that invites readers into the chat with your own thoughts on the subject. It’s my turn again so away I go.

Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 3: David
September 23, 2014

“Don a rooster mask and crow?” Really? Sandy, I think I’ll stick to poems and stories! But I would like to hear a recording of a roomful of playwrights limbering up their barnyard chorus. Hmmm. Maybe you could make a recording and play it as background music for a staged sequel to Too Many Frogs called Too Many Roosters. Just a thought.

So now it’s back to me. In Part 1, I wrote about my decision in the late 90s to break into the educational market. I had a reason, a plan. My logic was to become better known among the university folks who teach children’s literature and write about authors and poets who create it. I wanted to go to the source so that new teachers would already have an idea about my work. I got my share of comeuppances along the way but teachers are above all generous so I had plenty of help and encouragement as I toiled along unfamiliar pathways.

It didn’t take long to learn some important differences between writing for kids (via trade books) and writing to teachers about kids (via educational publications). For example I learned that trade book authors “speak” at conferences while educational book authors “present.” The way in which national conferences treat trade book authors has changed during the past fifteen years. These days fewer of us are featured in conference programs. Looking back, I made the transition almost without realizing at the time that I’d made a lucky choice which gave me a second option.

Sandy, as we’ve mentioned before, nothing is easy or uncomplicated about this business no matter whose yard we’re playing in. One of my early initiations into the educational market was learning how to write and submit a proposal to present at a conference. I went online, downloaded a submission form, blinked and swallowed rapidly, asked myself, “Why? Why?” and tackled the blanks. Who was I? What did I propose to present? In what way would my presentation be useful to classroom teachers? What credentials could I offer germane to the occasion? Who should attend my sessions? And on.

On my first submission, I was accepted but conference planners paired me with another presenter and told us we’d each have half of the allotted time. The other party and I were strangers. She was repelled by the requirement of sharing, especially with a trade book writer! After a terse exchange, she contacted the conference chair and refused to appear. I got the whole hour. Nanner nanner nanner. Next I was paired with a different professor, again someone I didn’t know. We met for the first time a few minutes before going on. We got through it but it wasn’t the most professional act you ever saw.

Then came a conference where I met Mary Jo Fresch at an authors’ reception. She’s a professor of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University and loves children’s literature. Our friendship was immediate and it wasn’t long before we not only started presenting together but writing books too. We now have five titles in print and are working on a sixth. Our presentations draw well. Our current proposal, which includes two others, is already submitted for IRA in St. Louis next year. There is never a guarantee of acceptance. One year at NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) Mary Jo, Margaret (Peggy) Harkins, and I packed a large room. Every seat was taken and people sat on the floor along the walls while others in the hall craned to look in. The next year NCTE turned down our proposal which, by the way, included one of the big names in education, a man who is a frequent keynote speaker.

I sometimes remind myself that this was my “what else is out there” plan to find new work and become better known in educational circles. It has taken on a life of its own but in the beginning I envisioned it as a way to promote my name and my trade books. On with my story. There’s the matter of money to pay for these conference trips. By the time I learn if I’ve been accepted, many of my publishers have completed their author support budget for the year. If I don’t present, they won’t help me. But if I don’t tell them in time, they can’t help me. If I present at more than one conference during the year, they may not be able to help me. Universities tend to provide conference funding for their main professors as part of the “publish or perish” big picture. Trade authors have no one to turn to if our publishers can’t help. Sandy, I’m not whining about this. Okay, I’m whining, but not BIG whining, just LITTLE whining. If we want to play in someone else’s neighborhood, we have to play nice and accept their rules. I’m glad I made the effort and happy to have become part of the educational publishing crowd.

Sandy, I’m about ready to pass this back to you, but there’s one more point I want to make. It’s another aspect of the educational writing business. I find myself doing a lot of pro bono work. I am delighted, flattered, and honored when asked to contribute something to a journal or book. Recently I wrote a chapter in a book for classroom teachers. Of the twenty-one authors, I was one of two not involved directly in education, mostly at the university level. The other author was James Cross Giblin. Did I work hard on that 20-page, 5,600 word manuscript? You bet I did! I wanted it to be my best effort and I worked hard on it for a good many weeks. How much was I paid? Not a dime.

Not long ago I was invited to write an article for a planned issue of a respected journal. Four professors and a number of others were involved and everyone worked hard. Chalk off another several weeks. When all was ready, we had a nasty jolt. The journal’s editor resigned and was replaced by someone with different ideas about the direction the journal should take. Our issue was cancelled. I have a good article now, taking a long nap in a file.

That’s it. What else is out there? Plenty. Writers write and we’re a curious lot to boot. Over the years I’ve gone from fiction to nonfiction to poetry to how-to books to digital publishing to educational publishing. The list of possibilities is long, my friend. I wonder what we’ll try next?

Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 2

Hi everyone,

Welcome to Part 2 in the current Writers at Work conversation between Sandy Asher and me about being writers. I led off last Tuesday so today it’s my pleasure to bring you Sandy. Drum roll please.

Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 2: Sandy
September 16, 2014

“Historians don’t hug.”

That was my husband Harvey’s observation when he joined me for one of my conferences years ago and realized why I couldn’t wait to get to my events while he simply trudged off to his as a professional obligation of his long career as a professor of history.

People who write for young people hug. A lot. We don’t read one another’s work with an eye toward getting published by refuting it. We do respond to one another’s work, usually in small groups – and, okay, sometimes with an editor as mediator – but the goal is never self-serving or competitive. We can’t write one another’s books, poems, or plays, and we’re enthusiastic audiences and readers. So when we get together, we aim at making the dream each of us dreams for each of our own creations come true.

Respecting children and their literature, understanding the challenges and frustrations of our chosen field, working toward the same goals, we get close. Close enough to hug. It’s an excellent perk of the job, don’t you think, David?

That closeness takes on a slightly different importance in playwriting, which is my main “what-else-is-out-there.” I majored in English and only minored in Theater, so I was never fully in the loop. When we moved to Springfield, MO, I worked alone and mailed scripts out, much as I did with stories, articles, and poems. Winning a few playwriting contests helped get those particular plays produced once, but what about other productions in other theaters? There were many long dry spells. It took me years to uncover the big secret: theatrical producers and directors tend not to take chances on new scripts unless they feel a personal connection to the playwright.

Why? Because theater is a community effort. Sure, as book-writers and magazine-writers, we encounter editors and art directors and marketing people. But we rarely get to meet them, and we certainly don’t interact with them on a daily basis. They go about their jobs, sometimes with our approval and often without it. In live theater, the cast and crew are in one another’s lives for hours a day, every day, for weeks, months, even years of rehearsal and performance. The four members of the Children’s Theater of Charlotte’s Tarradiddle Players just spent an entire school year traveling the southeast together in one van, doing 110 performances of my adaptation of “Too Many Frogs” plus other plays for other ages, day in and day out, weekends included. Can you imagine the in-your-face closeness of that? A cast has to be chosen for compatibility, patience, and endurance as well as talent. And often with a new script, the playwright is in the room from auditions through rehearsals through at least the opening performance. Not much will be accomplished if everyone gets on everyone else’s nerves.

It wasn’t until I began participating in theater conferences that I learned how the business really works. And I do mean “participating,” sometimes as a panelist but often less formally. At conferences dedicated to children’s theater, sessions tend to be hands-on. A technique is presented and then everyone stands up and does it, as if they were children in a class or audience. At this summer’s American Alliance for Theater and Education conference in Denver, for instance, I found myself wearing a rooster mask and enthusiastically greeting a series of imaginary mornings. You just never know!

And you never know where such antics will lead. I’ve had more than one director whom I’d never met before come up after a session and tell me, “I like what you had to say in there. I’m interested in working with you.” One such occasion springs immediately to mind because the ramifications went way beyond being commissioned to write one new script. It involved the director of a children’s theater in Salem, OR. Our casual conversation during the break between two sessions led to a plan for working with senior citizens and middle-school students to create an original script about growing up in Oregon. The deal included two trips from Missoui to the Northwest, which just so happened to be where my son was living. Nice perk (and, yes, more hugs). This experience also led to commissions from other companies for other community-based scripts that have taken me to Omaha, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago . . . so far.

Another serendipidous AATE meeting was with the director of a children’s theater in York, PA. “I’ve been watching you,” she said, after inviting me to lunch. “I’d like you to do an adaptation of Little Women for my theater.” Apparently, directors are constantly running auditions, even when no one in the room knows they’re auditioning! This director and I have been friends ever since (hugs!), and working with her in York, PA, meant visiting a mutual friend in neighboring Lancaster, someone we’d both met at conferences (more hugs!). And that led to my moving to Lancaster after Harvey retired – and working on three new plays with these two friends since.

Showing up, as we know, is Step One of success in any field, but more so in theater, I think, than almost anywhere else. Networking at these conferences make a huge difference. Participating in more than one each year means really getting to know both the regulars and the newcomers and getting thoroughly inside the loop. Besides AATE, there’s One Theatre World, New Visions/New Voices, Write Now, and more. Getting involved with local theater groups, onstage or behind the scenes, is another great way to show up, learn, and network.

I’ve long suspected that one could be a hermit living on a mountain top and maintain a book or magazine writing career, as long as there was some way of getting one’s manscripts off the mountain and into the hands of editors. No one would care how long one’s beard had grown or how often one took a bath. Not so in theater, where a certain amount of hugging is practically a requirement. It’s a matter of getting out there to become part of “what else is out there.”

Willingness to don a rooster mask and crow on cue is considered a definite plus.

So, David, what else is out there for you?

Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 1

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the kickoff of a new series of Writers at Work. Sandy Asher and I hope you enjoy the conversation and make it richer by adding your thoughts and experiences.

Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 1: David
September 9, 2014

Sandy, I think there’s more to surviving as a writer than reacting to perceived changes in our niche markets. Maybe it has to do with our need to communicate about something that feels important. In previous WAW sessions I described how I began as a short story writer and segued to writing for children, beginning with picture books and, over the years, adding nonfiction, poetry, and educational books.

In this first part of WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE, I want to talk about my journey into educational books that began in 1997. At the time many teachers were expressing concern that they were expected to teach poetry but had little or no personal or professional experience in writing poems. After several such conversations I wondered if I might write a how-to-write-poetry book for classroom teachers. This, I think, is an example of two principles: write about what you know, and write about what interests you.

But guess what? I had no more idea how to write an educational book for teachers than many of them had about writing publishable poems for trade books. We loved the same kids but spoke to them in different languages. I had never been a classroom teacher. Had never taken a course in education. Never read a book written for teachers. The only teachers’ conferences I’d attended were to speak, not to listen and learn. Did I have a lot of nerve or what!
Many years earlier I’d gone to England to research a book I meant to write about English history. I came home discouraged but wiser. I didn’t know enough about my subject to ever write well about it. I scrapped the project. In this case I knew my subject but wasn’t sure how to translate from “writerly” to “teacherly.”

I needed to partner with a teacher, someone with national name recognition. Then I thought of Bee. Bernice Cullinan. Dr. Bernice E. Cullinan, professor at NYU, former president of International Reading Association, Poetry Editor-in-Chief for Boyds Mills Press, the publisher of my books of poetry. Bee loved my work and I loved her. I spoke with her about partnering on a book to help teachers teach poetry. She agreed.

Then I thought of Wendy Murray, my editor at Instructor, a publication of Scholastic. In 1994, Wendy had published a poem of mine with a brief article on writing poems. Since then Wendy had left the magazine side to join the educational book group. Next time I was in New York I pitched the idea and Wendy liked it. Back to Bee to outline a table of contents and agree on what I would write and what she would do.

We each wrote an introduction. For the sections that followed I introduced and explained various elements of poetry. Bee provided commentary and activities for use in the classroom. So far so good.

Then we came to the part of my outline that dealt with verse. Bee struck it out, explaining that elementary children were not ready for verse and only free verse would work in the classroom. I put it back in. Children, I insisted, are perfectly capable of playing with rhyme and rhythm and most of their favorite poems are structured language rather than free verse.

She said absolutely not. I said absolutely yes. She said she would not have her name on a book that had verse in it. I said I would not have mine on a book that didn’t. We called for a meeting with our editor. Poor Wendy!

Back in New York we met in a conference room at Scholastic. Wendy sat midway along one side of a long table. Bee and a doctoral student of hers sat at one end. I sat at the other end. The meeting was stressful but it eventually ended with an agreement that verse would be included in the book if teachers (to be consulted) thought it was a good idea. They were, they did, and it was.

When I sent my next poetry manuscript to Boyds Mills Press, Bee was still too upset with me to edit me. Instead, my friend Jan Cheripko was thrown into the breach and edited my book, WILD COUNTRY. He did a fine job.

My “Bee” book came out in 1999 as EASY POETRY LESSONS THAT DAZZLE AND DELIGHT. Our long suffering editor felt compelled to write a note to go on the credit page, something you seldom see. Here it is in full.

“Four years ago David Harrison and Bee Cullinan decided to write a book together, going on the hunch that their different perspectives – that of a poet and of a teacher – would complement each other nicely. But they quickly discovered in this arranged marriage of authorship that their views on teaching poetry were remarkably different – and that they sometimes clashed. Bee favors free verse and questioned introducing too many details of structured verse to children, while David doggedly defended his belief that teaching iambic pentameter and the like wouldn’t turn children into staunch poetry phobes. Faxes, Fed-Exes, and phone calls flew back and forth between the three of us, revision upon revision towered like stacks of Saltines in our offices. Teachers were called upon to read drafts and give their views. Poems and lessons were added, deleted, tweaked, and debated until days before the production deadline. In the process, we reexamined our beliefs about teaching poetry and wound up with richer, broader perspectives. And in the end, Bee and David wrote a book that offers an eclectic mix of their sensibilities. This is its beauty and its strength. Too often in educational publishing we deliver one school of thought on a topic, and tune out others. Working with Bee and David taught me a lot about the wisdom of editing with an open mind and about the power of sticking to one’s convictions. Their passion as educators and poetry lovers is remarkable, and it produced a fine book. (And a whopping strain on my fax machine.) – Wendy Murray, editor”

Our book has done well. Bee and I kissed and made up long ago. She told me she had learned that verse is not a bad thing for children to write. I told her I had learned that teachers want less philosophy (from me) and more information with direct application in the classroom. Bee and I remain friends. She invited me to write the poetry chapter for the 3rd edition of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, co-edited with Deborah Wooten (University of Tennessee), and published by International Reading Association. I’m currently working on the poetry chapter for the 4th edition of the book. These days I belong to the major educational organizations and read their journals. I often present on educational issues at state and national conferences.

So, Sandy, my story has a happy ending. But there is a lesson in it. Be careful what you wish for. Or at least be prepared to take a few lumps along the way when you choose to investigate WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE!

Writers at Work is back

Hi everyone,

It has been a long while since Sandy Asher and I added to WRITERS AT WORK, the series in which we visit informally about various aspects of being writers. To refresh everyone’s memory of previous conversations, here’s a list of topics.


September 2010 The Care and Feeding of Ideas
October 2010 Obstacles to Writing
November 2010 Reality of Rejections
December 2010 Editorial Suggestions
January 2011 Perils and Joys of Writing in Many Genres
February 2011 Pros and Cons of Having an Agent
March 2011 Wrestling with Endings
May 2011 Dealing with Speaking Engagements
June 2011 We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
January 2012 Regarding the Emperor’s New Clothes
March 2012 About this Business of Internet Publishing
June 2013 Making On-line Challenges Work for You

So now we take up the thirteenth topic: WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE? And why is this timely? Because even during the short span of these chats the publishing world has undergone changes that impact writers around the world. Living by the philosophy that there will always be a need for good writing in some form, we find ourselves constantly contemplating the market, seeking ways to peddle our peaches (as folks around here used to say).
We hope that you will join us on each of the next four Tuesdays as we post Parts 1-4 of our conversation. As always, it’s an open forum that invites comments and shared experiences. I’ll go first next week on September 9. Hope you’ll join us.