Bird by Bird

 By Ellen Leventhal

Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

What a simple and brilliant statement. Anne Lamott (my new pretend BFF whom I have never met) tells a story of a time when her brother was overwhelmed with the enormity of a task before him. He had to write a report on birds that was due the next day, and he was far from ready to tackle that task. This young man was surrounded with books and paper, but had no idea how to get started. The task was huge, but his wise father put his arms around the boy and gave him some sage advice. “Bird by bird, buddy,” he said. “Just take it bird by bird.” So simple. So brilliant.

That statement is the basis for Anne Lamott’s bestseller, Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Ms. Lamott (Oh, since she’s my pretend BFF, I’m going to call her Anne).. Anne starts her book on writing talking about reading. She came from a family where reading was a priority and going to the library was a weekly event. Her father was both a reader and a writer. Makes sense to me. In my world, reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. I read about writing, and I write about reading. And writing.  They can’t really be split. In fact, according to Anne, “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” She’s really smart, that imaginary pal of mine.

As a teacher, I encourage my kids to mark up their books. Read, think, and write. I want to see notes and highlighting and question marks all over their books. Of course, there is the question of the ownership of said books, so I hand out scads of sticky notes in the beginning of the school year. I wouldn’t want the kids to deface someone else’s property. I admit that I’ve seen my share of body parts drawn on these notes, but I have also seen lots of great notes. One of my favorite things is when a sticky note (or a margin) has a comment relating a passage to another book. One of my favorite notes was “Like when Leslie dies in Bridge to Terabithia, but this guy didn’t do something stupid.” This was a real sticky note comment. To be honest, that remark took about five sticky notes, but still, I like it. The next thing that happened almost brought tears to my eyes. Not because I was still mourning Leslie Burke (although every time I read that book I keep hoping for a different ending), but because this child then said, “Look at the poem I wrote about it.” Reading and writing intertwined again.

Bird by Bird has great advice for life in general, but I started reading it to get me through some sticky patches in my writing life. Anne’s insight has gotten me unstuck when writer’s block was my constant companion. Her small assignments helped me find focus in my manuscripts. And her tip of looking at first drafts as Polaroid pictures has validated my writing.  She says that writing a first draft is like a watching a Polaroid picture develop. You’re not really supposed to know what it will look like until it finishes developing. Since I’m not always sure where my characters will take me, this is comforting. Sometimes once the Polaroid is developed, I find a minor character lurking behind a major one and decide his life story is the one begging to be told.

Reading, writing, and life in general can be difficult at times. Anne Lamott talks about “Sh*&^y first drafts.” (Only she spells the whole word out. This is a G rated blog.) Let’s think about writing as life. Just like first drafts, we should be allowed do overs in life. And if we take life challenges one step at a time, bird by bird, maybe they won’t seem insurmountable.

Thanks, pretend BFF. Whereas some “self-help” books, tell the reader to get up off her chair and just do something, this book, filled with humor and insight has encouraged me to get back in my chair and write. And just take it bird by bird.

 

 

 

 

Write This Way To A Successful School Year

by Ellen Rothberg

I can feel it. I can taste it. I can smell it. It’s the beginning of a new school year and it’s right around the corner! Unlike a New Year’s Resolution, we don’t have to make a promise to get fit, lose ten pounds or even find a new love interest. We  just have to put on our new shoes, pack up our freshly sharpened number twos and head out, with a sense of great expectation, to find our educational fortune. Ah, but what if you are, in fact, the teacher? Or the assistant principal? Or, like me, the guidance counselor? Then we have double-duty. We must find a way to reach our returning students, while garnering a bit of self-fulfillment, a sort of “cherry-on-the-top” of the sundae that has become the Back-to-School Restaurant Week!

So, in honor of Back-to-School, Houston Restaurant Week (which is really a month), and my never-ending search for the perfect beginning of the school year pair of shoes (both stylish and able to leap small children in a single bound), I offer my top ten positive goals to increase career satisfaction and keep my mind off the donuts that will undoubtedly be lining the workroom for the next few weeks.

10. I Will Climb Every Mountain. I hiked this summer in Colorado. I am not an outdoorsy type, but I accepted the challenge. This school year, I will hike the four city blocks between my office and second grade, five, no, six times per day, even if I am not looking for a second grader.

9. I Will Let A Smile Be My Umbrella. Rainy Day Dismissals? No problem! Can’t find the extra shoes I always keep on hand. No worries. This year I will realize that dry feet are highly overrated.

8. I Will Conquer  Pink Eye. Is there an app for that? I will wash my hands until they feel like sandpaper and buy all the hand sanitizer I can find on sale at Walmart.

7. Is That a Roach or a Longhorn? Roaches in Houston are so big, we can saddle them up and ride them around the playground. This year, I will rope and tie me a big one and show him off at the Livestock Show & Rodeo.

6. I Will Know That Elvis Has Left the Building. At the same Livestock Show & Rodeo, I will sit ringside for Blake Shelton, and not in the nosebleed section. I will politely decline when he asks me to sing a duet and then gradually give in after several minutes of coaxing.

5. I will Convince the Houston Texans that Manziel is Not  Too Little to Play in the NFL. I will turn back the hands of time to the point where the Texans forgot that they needed a quarterback and offer my opinion, which they will quickly acknowledge and agree with.

4. I Will Eat at Every Houston Eatery Offering a Special Three Course Meal During Restaurant Week and I Will Not Gain Even One Pound. It’s for a good cause – feeding the homeless. This is my crazy goal list – I get to say whatever I like.

3. I Will Remind Every Politician in America That Children are the World’s Most Important Asset. They will agree with me and act accordingly when it comes to legislation affecting those seeking to enter the U.S.

2. I Will Abolish School Paperwork.

1. I Will Make a Difference in at Least One Child’s Life.

Someone please rescue me from what has become a full on nightmare of positivity! I know, I know I am totally off topic. This year, I will probably not conquer my fear of the infamous Houston tree roach, especially the one who invariably shows up in my office and then hides out just waiting to scare me. I will not conquer the mountain of paperwork haunting me at school and home. I will not learn every name of every child in my school by Halloween. I will try, though, to make a difference in the lives of my students. And that is my goal for the new school year! What’s yours?