Reader’s Question: How do you beat writer’s block?

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That blank page can be so intimidating.

Q: What do you do about writer’s block? How do you combat it?*

A: My best strategy for beating writer’s block is preventing it. I try to set myself up for success by being very casual about what I’m going to do. Instead of letting myself think, “Today I must write the brilliant opening scene of this novel, the one that will make the world stop and take notice,” I say things to myself like, “Today I’m going to play around with some openers, see if anything clicks.” This no-stakes writing is what I call zero-drafting. Zero pressure, zero expectations; infinite possibilities.

If a scene isn’t working out, I just skip the parts I’m getting stuck on and write in brackets what I’m going to go back and do later. Like I’ll write: [put in killer description of Lexi here]. Or, to borrow Tayari Jones’s analogy, I give myself permission to “eat the marshmallows first” and skip to the good stuff I feel like writing. (Click here for my earlier post on skipping to the good parts.)

*Question courtesy of the National Writing Project and readers of Figment.com for the National Day on Writing. Read highlights of the event in this post or listen to me and four other guests talk about the National Day on Writing for the NWP blogtalk radio program here.

What the French Know About Food: Less is More

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In Paris, there’s a bakery on every corner offering buttery croissants, but residents are still slim enough to fit into elevators the size of coffins. What do the French know? This is the third of several posts on food and lifestyle in the city of lights. Read the first one here and the second one here.

By American standards, the fridge in our Paris apartment is more appropriate for an office cubicle than a family of three. But it’s normal by Paris standards, and it reflects a general underlying assumption the French here seem to have about food: less is more.

Let me be clear that I’m not speaking of the cliché of the tiny portions in French restaurants. That may be the case at some five-star joints serving gold-encrusted truffles over a bed of straight saffron. (We wouldn’t know; we haven’t been anywhere like that for reasons of budget and toddler.)

What you don’t find, though, are the mad-cheap, mad-huge portions of a place like IHOP in the U.S. Three pancakes? 7 Euros, thank you. One espresso? 3 Euros, thank you. No such thing as a bottomless cup of coffee.

The French have a much stronger sense of the law of diminishing returns (Economics 101, anyone?) as it applies to food: one cookie may bring you much pleasure. A second cookie may bring you additional pleasure, but never as much as the first cookie. A third cookie may bring pleasure, but it’s even less than the second cookie. And so on from there.

The American philosophy? Keep eating cookies as long as there is a trace of pleasure. The French philosophy? Stop after the first cookie and really savor. It will never be that good again if you keep going.

French supermarkets sell packages of eight cookies rather than eighty. Ice cream comes in “family-size” cartons small enough to confuse your average American into thinking it’s a single serving. Even spaghetti sauce comes in dainty little jars.

Let me loop back to our fridge. Here’s my theory about why a teensy fridge cuts it around here. Parisians don’t panic at the idea of “running out” of something, so they don’t feel compelled to stock up. They buy what they need for the next few days without worrying about what they might need in the case of a surprise visit from a troop of boyscouts. One consequence, I think, is that there’s not an endless supply of sweets and salty treats awaiting consumption on the shelf. There might be a treat or two, but after that, it’s game over.

(Until, of course, you pop out and have to walk past all those bread and pastry shops.)

A Paris Thanksgiving

Arnulfo Pérez

We did pretty well with our dinner abroad!

Last week we celebrated our first major holiday here in Paris–Thanksgiving! We had a bit of an adventure just finding our usual staples like canned pumpkin. Maybe for Christmas we’ll try to make our meal with all French ingredients, but this time around we needed our familiar Libby pumpkin and Pepperidge Farm stuffing.

It was a little strange being the only ones gearing up for a holiday… for everyone else here, Thursday was just another day, but we worked hard to preserve that Thanksgiving specialness composed of family, food, and gratitude.

The turkey was prepared rotisserie style by our friendly neighborhood butcher. It cost us 40 Euros (!!), but it was delicious. After getting over his initial skepticism, Liam gobbled up heaps of dark and light meat. The sweet potato stuffing and mashed potatoes were ignored by this little food critic, though.

The aftermath of our meal. Well, boys, I might not be making 10 gallons of chicken soup, but how about some turkey stew?

A piece of Arnie’s pumpkin pie and my oatmeal cookies to be shared with Liam’s nursery school teacher.

Disaster Preparedness: Chocolate Burns, Ashley Learns

Arnulfo jumped in to document the disaster. I am still finding chocolate splatters.

I like to think of myself as a sensible person. In practice, though, I seem to be guilty of thoughtlessness far more often than I’d like to admit. And sometimes it burns.

Literally.

A couple of weeks ago, after teaching a long day, I came home and decided the time was right for baking. Nevermind that it was after nine, pretty late for starting a new project. Nor that my brain was a bit fuzzy. I wanted to make a cake.

Fast-forward to me stirring a pot of chocolate and butter over an improvised double boiler: two pans nested together, the bottom one filled with simmering water.

In the back of my mind, I knew something was wrong. Vaguely, though. I was using a burner that gets very hot very fast, and I was thinking, “maybe I ought to turn down the fire.” About that moment, there was an extremely loud POP! as one of the pans exploded off of the stove. Chocolate and boiling water splattered all over the kitchen. And all over me.

And it scared the shit out of me.

I managed to burn about half of my left arm and hand (all first-degree burns–ugly and painful, but not too serious). Most of all, I was terrified at the thought that Liam could have been playing there while I was cooking.

How do we learn from disasters? A book I read some time ago–The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable–suggests that when things go seriously wrong, we often make the mistake of only changing our behavior with regard to the specific causes of the initial (improbable) event. To quote the book description: “We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don’t know.” 9/11 is a prime example; we’ve adjusted airport security as a consequence, but instead we should (also) anticipate other, different sorts of threats.

For me, then, the moral of my mess ought not merely to be “DON’T USE TWO POTS THAT ARE TOO SIMILAR IN SIZE FOR YOUR CHEAP-O DOUBLE BOILER.” Instead, I need to think: what is it about this situation (whatever it may be) that might be unsafe? Is there anything that could become unsafe? I hope my scar will remind me of this. For more thoughts on scars, cruise back to this post from my archives.

(Needless to say, we have purchased a fire extinguisher for our Paris apartment, and Liam is banned from the kitchen when I’m cooking.)

Debates in education everyone should care about: Critique of the Common Core (and why we might need it anyway)

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I just read a scathing critique of the coming Common Core standards, which would propose to standardize education across the nation. Since I’m not in the public school classroom at the moment–and I’m not even in the U.S.–I’ve been pretty removed from the debate. But I have heard reasons for concern firsthand. For example, that the architects of the Common Core standards were barely paying attention to what’s worked, ignoring lessons learned in states with strong schools.

If the portrayal of the Common Core in this article is accurate, it points to even more reason for worry among those of us who believe in the value of fiction and personal writing to engage learners. This passage of the article casts the Common Core–and its main author, David Coleman–in an especially damning light: 

Coleman  is on a  mission to slash  both the amount of personal narrative in writing  and the amount of fiction in  reading. This is based not on any experience teaching –except at the University of London–but because, he insists, readers gain “world knowledge” through nonfiction, which he calls “informational text.”  Listening to Coleman evokes  Kafka’s The Castle: “You have been in the village a few days and already think you know everything better than everyone here.” The difference is that Coleman provides no evidence that he’s been in the public school village even a few days.

Skeptics who might doubt that replacing  Brown Bear, Brown Bear with a Wikipedia entry on Ursus arctos will stave  off our nation’s economic woes  might wonder: Why, if fiction is no more vital than leftover turnips, is there a Nobel Prize in Literature and not  in lawyers’ briefs or material from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Web site (listed as a Common Core  exemplary text).

I agree that the thrust of many of the recommendations–especially the slash and burn approach to fiction and personal writing–are disturbing. In fact, they fly in the face of what worked for me as an educator with students most in need of inspiring instruction. And in the face of my values as a writer of books that matter for teen.

Still,  isn’t there a difference between saying that _these_ standards are misguided and saying that a national set of standards is necessarily misguided? After all, curricular standards themselves are not new; they exist (usually in flawed form) state by state.

I’m the first to balk at the idea of a high-stakes multiple-choice test that turns third grade for low-income kids into a year-long drill practice instead of a world of discovery. The first year of TAKS in Texas, there were elementary kids in the school where I tutored puking in the bathroom because they were so frightened about the tests. Ditto that for the exit-level TAKS test that special-ed and ELL students must take without modifications.

But.

I did see firsthand that the more rigorous and actually decent TAKS ELA exam in Texas forced educators (who had been passing along students without even making sure they could write a single coherent paragraph using textual evidence) to do what they were supposed to do all along: educate. As in, Educate Every Student. Not just the ones who were easy to teach, already wrote well, and spoke perfect English.

They finally had to pay attention to students (usually from communities with a history of being underserved) who previously were ignored. They had to pay attention because there was some standard in place, and because the test forced some accountability.

Students’ education should go well beyond the test and national standards. Certainly it should not be limited to a sterile “information-only” diet. But standardization does draw attention to disparities and offer opportunities to raise the bar for students who are currently getting a sub-par education.

So my question is, what can we do to get a better set of common core standards into place? How do we use this as an opportunity to readjust our shared compass?

Sounds like we, as a nation, are in need of some soul-searching writing far more than we need another informational text.

Sweet Life in Paris: It’s sweet, but there are quirks…

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There are some books that just have to find you at the right moment to be loved. The Sweet Life in Paris is like that, a bit. But I’m pretty sure I would have felt like author David Lebovitz–with his social awkwardness, love for chocolate, and baking passion–was a kindred spirit even if we didn’t both live in Paris. Now, though, I have this idea that if we bumped into each other on the streets of Paris, we’d be best buds. Maybe I’ll see him some time eating tacos at Candelaria, the one decent Latin-infused spot we’ve found.

Obviously–for anyone whose been to Lebovitz’s awesome website and blog–the recipes are fantastic. They’re classy but not snooty or overly complicated. And they all tie into the various stories he shares in some way.

But what I really loved were all the anecdotes about daily life in Paris–complete with all its complications, contradictions, and even annoyances. One cranky reviewer complained that the book is not really about a sweet life at all; Lebovitz makes living in Paris look like hard work. As someone living in Paris, I have to say that it can be hard work–especially at first. Let me add bewildering, too, as you can probably tell from my arrival post and my list of Paris surprises. I found myself giggling and muttering “amens” as Lebovitz described his failures and occasional successes.

Another quick note in response to Lebovitz’s few detractors (one called him the updated version of the “Ugly American”). That strikes me as very unfair. One thing I loved about the book is how you could tell that Lebovitz hasn’t become a new person living in Paris–he’s his old self in a new location. The very idea that it’s okay not to be transformed by Paris is a bit of a relief.  Lebovitz left me feeling that it’s okay not to blend in 100% and pass for Parisian all the time. That’s a relief for me as an adult who will probably never perfect my French accent–or my scarf-tying abilities.

Here’s my favorite bit:

The image people have of my life in Paris is that each fabulous day begins with a trip to the bakery for my morning croissant, which I eat while catching up with the current events by reading Le Monde at my corner café. (The beret is optional.) Then I spend the rest of my day discussing Sartre over in the Latin Quarter or strolling the halls of the Louvre with a sketchpad, ending with my sunset ascent of the Eiffel Tower before heading to one of the Michelin three-star restaurants for an extravagant dinner.

Let Arnie and me tell you this together with DL: it is so not like that. Because, really, people, how glamorous do you think our life in Paris is with a toddler? We’re having a good time, but it’s more sandboxes and baguettes than fancy dishes. Anyway, read The Sweet Life in Paris and imagine things a bit closer to the expat life in the city of lights.

Faking it: Dealing with shyness in the classroom

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Every time I meet a new group of students, I ask them to tell me about themselves. Where are they from? What have their experiences with English or literature been in the past? And what’s something most people don’t know about them?

These are questions I answer myself, and I always tell my students on the first day this “secret” about myself: most people don’t know that I’m actually very shy.

It’s important for me to share this with them for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s not at all obvious. My classroom persona is actually a bit over the top. I’m very smiley, I crack bad jokes, and I address behaviors that don’t meet my expectations mostly through humor. If students avoid the front rows, for example, I make a big show of surprise and then explain that I went to extra trouble to bathe and put on deodorant. 

I also think it’s important to bring shyness into the conversation because, in every class, there’s usually a solid contingent of students who would rather not speak. Ever. Of course, in a language-learning classroom (right now I teach English as a foreign language in Paris) this won’t work. Students have to open their mouths, engage, and interact to make any serious growth in their English. So before I ask students to interact with each other, I let them know that it’s a challenge for me, too. 

And I tell them it’s okay to fake it.

Because that’s really the only way I know of dealing with my shyness, and it’s been my strategy ever since I began teaching in 2004. I just pretend I’m not shy. I say to myself, what would an outgoing person do right now? And then I do it. Most of the time, it works fine, and I’m sometimes even able to forget that deep down inside I’d infinitely prefer to be tucked safely away in the stacks of a library. 

Also, faking it has its compensations. I always, always learn something from my students, which wouldn’t happen if I let them stay silent. And pushing myself in the classroom stretches me and has made me more able to enter social situations that previously would have terrified me.

An Open Letter to Parents Who Worry about What Their Teens Write

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A little while back a mom emailed me because she was worried about the topics her teen daughter was choosing to write about (including incest, violence, and other uncomfy topics). Since then, I’ve gotten a few similar letters, so I thought I would share my thoughts on ways of responding respectfully to teen writing–even when it doesn’t look like what parents might prefer.

If the topic of teen writing/reading as a starting place for crucial conversations interests you, check out my post on the whole “YA books are too dark” controversy. 

Dear parents,

Thanks for your confidence that I might have some wisdom to offer. Here’s my take as a writer, teacher, and also a mom.

I get why you’re concerned about your teens’ writing. Still, I think the best thing to do is to keep the lines of communication open and not try to control what they explore in writing. Ditto for their reading. The reality is that teens will read what they want–either with our knowledge or (if we try to limit their access) without it. But when we know what they’re reading (and even read the same things), we can use that material as a starting point for important discussions.

To be honest, it’s my experience that by age 12-13, many young people are either involved in or intrigued by what we parents consider “adult” behaviors. Helping our teens navigate these adult waters–that’s the privilege (and burden!) of parenting and mentoring.

One thought: talk with your teen about why the situations they’ve  written about intrigue them. See if you can’t also help them see the blessing of a “boring” life as well as the depth of the scars that those “interesting” experiences might leave on those who have suffered them. I hear from young people with “boring” lives who say that reading my first novel, WHAT CAN’T WAIT, made them appreciate their parents’ support and involvement–even those aspects that they might previously have resented.

Hope this helps!

Ashley Hope Pérez

What the French Know About Food: Buy Fresh

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In Paris, there’s a bakery on every corner offering buttery croissants, but residents are still slim enough to fit into elevators the size of coffins. What do the French know? This is the second of several posts on food and lifestyle in the city of lights. Read the first here.

Paris has supermarkets, and you can buy produce in them as in any U.S. store. But most people get their fruits and veggies from neighborhood open-air markets one or two days during the week year round.

These are not a few stalls of local farmers; we have our choice of hundreds of vendors. The variety far outstrips what you see in the local Monoprix or Franprix, and unlike most outdoor markets in the U.S., the prices are actually lower than the supermarkets.

Of course, just because it looks like a farmer’s market doesn’t mean it is; most of the produce comes from central distribution centers. (For a peek at these, check out the lovely movie, Paris, with Juliette Binoche.) Unless produce is labeled “AB” (for “agriculture bíologique” the equivalent to our “organic”), it is almost certainly raised with “traditional” methods.

But there’s much to be said for how these markets put produce–traditional or not–within easy reach of people in all of Paris’s neighborhoods. Whereas fruits and veggies are some of the priciest items on our grocery lists in the States, here we can fill our large sack for less than 13 Euros. Snack food items are much more expensive in France relative to these healthy options. (For a point of comparison, watch Food, Inc, which gets inside the U.S. diet.)

So there it is: veggies cheaper than sweets. One more Paris secret.

U.S. cities (especially the NYs and Chicagos), what would it take to get an affordable outdoor market for your residents?

How to Starve Your Brain to Make It Create

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Here’s today crazy idea for creativity in a nutshell: deprive yourself of everything interesting and stimulating to force your brain to generate something interesting of its own.

Before you get too amazed or weirded out on me, let me announce that I cannot take credit for this plan: it comes from Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. Tharp is a hugely creative person (dancer and choreographer), but she chalks most of that success up to discipline. Here’s a bit from Chapter 1 to show you what I mean:

After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves — write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon — but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit… More than anything, this book is about preparation: In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.

But back to the specific suggestion I mentioned–that of taking away input. What does Tharp’s advice mean for those of us who have been raised on the notion of feeding creativity?

For starters, Tharp is not saying that writers should stop reading and learning from great books. Tharp will be the first to tell us that we should attend with great care to works we admire (should like to stop people everywhere from listening to music while they work, for example. We ought to be single-mindedly listening to really honor the music).

But when it’s time to create, Tharp advocates an absolute fast, no goodies for the brain. Bore yourself so that you will make something up out of desperation.

Tharp describes not even letting herself read the label on the cereal box, but even if you don’t want to go that far, consider scaling back your multi-tasking and entertainment fillers. Instead of texting or playing fruit ninja (guilty, guilty), try using time waiting in line, on the metro, driving, or whatever to cook the project you’re working on. What small problem can you turn over in your mind? What small advance can you make?

Especially when I’m in the revision phase of a project, I have to scale my audiobook listening way back to make sure that my brain stays on the job of my book.

So there, go forth and get bored. And then get creative.

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All materials © 2022 Ashley Hope Pérez. Author website by Websy Daisy.