Little Libraries

In the U.S., April 3-9, 2022, is National Library week. In honor of this, here is a repost about Little Libraries I wrote for UntitledTown.

When I was a kid, I used to beg my parents to take me to the library – probably every day. Of course, this wasn’t always possible despite their willingness to feed my book addiction. So when the city bookmobile started making a stop at the other end of our block, they were thrilled. Every week, I walked down the block with my arm full of books and exchanged it for another pile that I would haul back home. The driver and I were on a first name basis, and he would even take requests and bring books he thought I would enjoy.

These days, bookmobiles are a thing of the past (well, they still exist, but are few and far between). Life-sized libraries still exist, and the librarians who work in them are still magicians – but we can’t assume that everyone has access. 

Did you know that research shows that children who grow up without access to books are, on average, three years behind when starting school than those with access? While libraries do amazing work to help bridge this gap, they can’t reach everyone.

With this year’s UntitledTown theme of community, we couldn’t possible not talk about the man who made it his life’s work to get books into the neighborhoods (and hands) of those that didn’t have easy access to books and, in many cases, libraries. That man, from Hudson, WI, was Todd Bol. In 2009, he built a model of a one room schoolhouse, filled it with books, and placed it in his yard – providing 24/7 access to books to those in his neighborhood. People loved it so much that he made more and gave them away to this friends and family to set up in their own yards.

What started as a tribute to his mother, a teacher, quickly became an inspirational goal. Along with Rick Brooks from UW-Madison, Bol aspired to fund the creation of 2,508 Little Libraries by the end of 2013. They ended up achieving that goal a year and a half early, turning their work into a global book-sharing movement.

Though Bol passed away in October 2018 from complications of pancreatic cancer, the non-profit organization he launched remains active. In the days leading up to his death, he noted, “I really believe in a Little Free Library on every block and a book in every hand. I believe people can fix their neighborhoods, fix their communities, develop systems of sharing, learn from each other, and see that they have a better place on this planet to live.”

As of last year, a decade after Bol built and placed the first Little Library, there are over 90,000 registered Little Libraries in over 90 countries.

Though he spent the last decade of his life as the creative force behind the Little Library movement, he was also a teacher, a lifelong entrepreneur, a father, and a husband. “He was the best, most generous, goofy, and kind person,” his son Austin noted. “He taught us to be kind to others. To many he was an innovator and genuine change maker. To us, he was dad. We will miss him always.”

2015 marked the debut of The Little Free Library Book, written by Margret Aldrich, and published by Coffee House Press.

Here are a couple pictures of some of my favorite libraries:

Campground in Manitoba Canada
Honey Bee Island – border between Ontario and NY
Worcester Massachusetts Bookmobile

National Poetry Month – Rudy Francisco

Why Poetry Matters // Repost from my work with UntitledTown

When offered the chance to write about why poetry matters, I jumped at it – because poetry matters to me: as a writer, as a reader, as a teacher, as a living, breathing human being trying to make sense of the world around me and the world inside of me. So this would certainly be a fun and easy task, right?

But the moment I sat down to put together my thoughts on the topic, panic set in. Quickly. Because how does one put into words why poetry matters – and in under a thousand words, even? Well, this one, after staring down the intimidation of that blinking cursor for far too long, reached out:

“My initial reaction to that question – “why poetry matters?” – is to bristle a little bit at the premise, that poetry is in need of defending. For initiates, people who have discovered the pleasures of poetry, its value is implicit. It’s an unquestioned presence in their lives.” ~ Casey Thayer, Self-Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur (Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series, 2015) and Rational Anthem (Miller Williams Poetry Prize, 2022)

“To me, poetry serves as a way to communicate those things that are buried inside that conventional prose can’t reach. It’s the electricity of words and sound and space. It’s the feeling of touching a lover’s hand for the first time, or the last. It means I can say the phrases that sound insane but mean the world to someone.” ~ Brian Baumgart, Rules for Loving Right (Sweet Publications, 2017)

“In my early twenties, I sort of woke up and looked around my life – with two young sons, and a partner who was all wrong for me – and realized I was utterly lost. I was staying up nights writing terrible rhyming poems in a brown recliner by one dim light. I had no idea then that I was trying to save my life – that I was climbing my way back to myself. For the first time in years – maybe in my entire life – I was tending my desire to ask questions and to move forward – to live.” ~ Lisa Fay Coutley, In the Carnival of Breathing (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), Errata (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), and Tether (Black Lawrence Press, 2020)

“Poetry allows us to speak and communicate some of the most emotional parts of life in a compact way that reaches all kinds of people. It crosses the boundaries of culture, gender, race, religion, class, and belief. It gives us a glimpse into the realities of one another.” ~ Heather A Johnson

The thing is, poetry matters. It matters to those trying to figure out who they are. It matters to those trying to make sense of current events or sense of their individual pasts. It matters to those trying to find their voice, their community. It matters to the Syrian refugees (original link is broken). It matters to the South Africa’s Struggle Poets. It matters to the youth learning about language and culture. It matters to the spoken word movement that has turned poets into rock stars, poems into things that go viral, and readers into groupies who mouth the words like song lyrics – it matters because it brings people together with art in a time where the world can feel so absolutely isolating.

Today, poetry has many faces, allows any who wishes to join in. It allows freedom for those who need to let their voices romp but also structure for those who require it. Poetry connects people through shared experience and allows windows into difference. It is witness. It is history. It is adventure. It is safe space and terrifying territory all at once. Poetry can be a subtle conversation. It can be a rally cry. “Poetry,” Thayer states, “is a medicine. For some, creative expression is the only platform available to them to work out questions, especially questions of identity and selfhood. In this way, it’s therapeutic.”

So why does poetry matter?

Simply put: because we need it to.

Each week, I’ll be sharing a poet whose work I enjoy and admire. In some instances, I’ve had the privilege of hearing them read their work in public. This is not the case with Rudy Francisco (yet, anyway), but I’ve been a big fan of his poetry (as many have) for some time. Francisco has a way with words that is intoxicating. He can take a simple news article and turn it into a thing of beauty. Don’t believe me? Then listen to this and this. I’ll wait.

See what I mean? I can’t recommend Francisco enough. He is definitely someone to study. And even if you “don’t like poetry,” he’s someone to listen to.

You can find links to his books (No Gravity, No Gravity Part II, Helium, and I’ll Fly Away) on his website, as well as fall down a rabbit hole of his poetry performances on YouTube. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

A Story a Day: Month Four

For this month, I wanted to read stories specifically by disabled writers. I found the stories below by searching for literary journals that accepted only stories from such authors. As with the previous three months, I have no idea what these stories are about – the goal is simply to experience new writing. Feel free to read along!

  1. Deforestation and Other Side Effects” by Tiffany Promise
  2.  “anatomy of a burning thing” by Monica Robinson
  3.  “The Year of Internal Optimism” by Laur A. Freymiller
  4.  “Snowfall Sarcophagus” by AJ Cunder
  5.  “Storytelling” by Jack Croxall
  6.  “Recycle” by Joyce W. Bergman
  7.  “Living with Peggy Sue” by Jay Merriman
  8.  “Be Still” by Chris Pellizzari
  9.  “Skinned” by Keletso Mopai
  10.  “Proud” by Marc Littman
  11.  “Blind by Fate” by Connor Sassmannshausen
  12.  “About the Decorations” by Cade Leebron
  13.  “Thirst” by Cosi Nayovitz
  14.  “A Borderline’s Survival Kit” by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
  15.  “Molting” by Jesse Rice-Evans
  16.  “The Glitter Factory” (or, she had always suffered from someone else’s prophecy)” by Kara Dorris
  17.  “Through History, Changeling” by L.C. Elliot
  18.  “New Jersey Devil Vignettes I-V” by L.R. Bird
  19.  “Subject” by Megan Nicole R. Wildhood
  20.  “After Sodom Burned (Or, From the Prehistory of X-Ray Astronomy)” by Vittoria Lion
  21.  “Laati” by Abrona Lee Pandi Aden
  22.  “Second Story Window” by Shannon Cassidy
  23.  “Everyone Says I Miss You” Shannon O’Connor
  24.  “A First Date” by Bill Tope
  25.  “A Christmas Tale for the Disenchanted” by Mack Blickley Part 1 & Part 2
  26.  “Death of the Author” by Shahd Alshammari
  27.  “Weary Dreams” by A. C. Riffer
  28.  “The Potter’s Notch Predicament” by Ed N. White
  29.  “Toby’s Garden” by Ana Vidosavljevic
  30.  “Little Ninjas” by Suzanna Kamata

Big Day

I generally only post on Fridays, but today was a good day – and in a time where those can feel rare, I thought I’d break my schedule for these moments.

The first big moment came this morning when I sat down to read my story – today marks day 90 of my #365Stories #AStoryADay challenge. 90 Days. 90 Stories. 504,647 words. This has been such a fun challenge for so many reasons – but my favorite is just the experience of these stories that I wouldn’t have otherwise come in contact with. (My favorite story thus far is “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu – I highly recommend checking it out.) Nine more months full of new adventures await!

The other big moment came when I arrived home and checked my mail – and found the printed proof of the Kenya project, Voices of Jane Adeny Memorial School, waiting for me! This project started a decade ago when I was taking some classes for fun at the nearby university. I never expected this academic endeavor would have landed me in Kenya. I never could have anticipated the bumps in the road to getting this put together and published. But here we are – a GIANT step closer. My weekend will, amongst work-related things, be spent reading over this and trying to find any issues with formatting and any remaining typos (with the understanding and humility to realize there will likely remain a typo or two no matter how many times I read through this). Just feeling so many feelings now that I’m finally holding this.

2022 Poetry Challenge

I’ve offered to collect prompts for my writing group’s poetry challenge for the month of April, which in the U.S. is National Poetry Month (among a lot of other things). Thanks to the internet for allowing me to scour and collect the following list:

  1. Write a poem that engages with a strange and fascinating fact. It could be an odd piece of history or something just plain weird.
  2. Write a poem that includes images that engage all five senses.
  3. Write a poem that takes the form of a warning label . . . for yourself!
  4. Take one of the following statements of something impossible, and then write a poem in which the impossible thing happens:
    • The sun can’t rise in the west.
    • A circle can’t have corners.
    • Pigs can’t fly.
    • The clock can’t strike thirteen.
    • The stars cannot rearrange themselves in the sky.
    • A mouse can’t eat an elephant.
  5. Write a poem that humanizes your favorite villain.
  6. Write a poem of simultaneity – in which multiple things are happing at once. Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”
  7. Write a poem that is about something abstract – perhaps an ideal like “beauty” or “justice,” but which discusses or describes that abstraction in the form of concrete nouns.
  8. Write an ode praising something society has told you that you need to be ashamed of.
  9. Turn on the radio to a station of music you don’t traditionally listen to. Don’t turn it off until you’ve finished a poem.
  10. Write a poem on how to do something mundane most people take for granted, such as how to tie your shoes, how to turn on a lamp, or how to pour a cup of coffee.
  11. Write a poem with no more than twenty-five words, including the title.
  12. Write a poem about a thunderstorm in your attic (or another form of weather indoors).
  13. Write a poem about a person you lost contact with several years ago.
  14. Pick up the book nearest to you. The last line of the book is the first line of your poem.
  15. Think about something you own that is broken and write about possible ways to fix it. Duct tape? A hammer and nails? Get metaphorical/abstract/fantasy.
  16. Write a poem about after the party – when all of your guests have gone home.
  17. Write a poem telling someone they were wrong and why.
  18. Write a poem where you admit you were wrong and why.
  19. Imagine there are ladders that take you up to the clouds. What could be up there? What feelings do you have about climbing the ladders, or is there a mystery as to how they got there in the first place?
  20. Write a poem about the magic word someone needs to access your true self.
  21. Write a poem about doing your least favorite chore.
  22. Write a poem about building a fire.
  23. Write a poem about waking up.
  24. Write a poem about the necessity of making mistakes.
  25. Write an ode to a stranger you see on the street.
  26. Write about feeling lost in a crowd.
  27. Write a poem that personifies a letter that never made it to its recipient.
  28. Write about the last picture that you took.
  29. Write about why the keys get lost – perhaps what the keys are saving the person from down the line by delaying them.
  30. Write a poem in which the words or meaning of a familiar phrase get up-ended. For example, if you chose the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine,” you might reverse that into something like: “a broken thread; I’m late, so many lost.”

Cave Point

Even before the pandemic, Cave Point was my happy place. It’s got everything – hiking, water, excellent splash opportunities. During the pandemic, it’s become a safe haven for my mental health, whether I stop by on my own or adventure with my dear friend, Jen.

Credit: Jen McDonald*

It really doesn’t matter what time of year one heads to Cave Point – it’s always beautiful. And calming. Even when there’s freezing rain or such strong wind that the splashes easily overshadow (and drench) anyone who is standing on the cliffs. Which is why safety is always the key. Especially when the cliff tops are covered in ice – which adds to the beauty, but also requires proper equipment.

Last weekend, I headed up to Cave Point with a couple friends, and the water was so calm and low that we were able to climb down (safely, of course) one of the cliffs and use our ice cleats along the limestone below – normally under water. We could not have asked for a more beautiful day. (Though don’t let the pics deceive – it was cold, like -8 wind chill cold – which is why I again say proper equipment is important.)

Credit: Jen McDonald*

Cave Point is located on Lake Michigan between the towns of Valmy and Jacksonport on the Door County Peninsula, the “thumb” of the state of Wisconsin. The cliffs are made of dolomite and limestone, part of the Niagara Escarpment that runs under the entire county, and have been carved by centuries of beatings from the lake.

In the 1930s, the Door County Board of Supervisors had the forethought to preserve nineteen acres, which is today known as Cave Point County Park. If you’re feeling up to some traipsing through the woods, there is a trail along the shore that will take you all the way to Whitefish Dunes State Park. During the summer, there are picnic benches you can sit at and eat lunch (please take all trash out with you). If you’re an experienced diver, you can access dozens of underwater caves. If you like to kayak, there is a launch about a mile north of the park.

I highly recommend finding a good spot to sit and watch the water – and wait for the perfect splash.

*Whenever we go to Cave Point, Jen and I sneak pics of one another as we explore. These two are ones she snuck of me. 🙂

What do you wish someone had told you when you first began to write?

Recently, I was asked “What do you wish someone had told you when you first began to write?” And honestly, it stumped me in the same way “What is your favorite book?” or “Who is your favorite author?” stumps me – in that I have far too many answers that I can’t possibly narrow it down to one. If I had a chance to sit young-me down and have a conversation about writing, I’d probably overwhelm the poor girl. So instead I sat with the question for a bit, and I finally came back with – I wish I had been allowed to take it seriously earlier.

People are often shocked to find out that I actually started college as a business major (well, people who know me are shocked, at least). It felt like a safe choice – something I knew I could do that I would be able to support myself with. But it wasn’t the thing I wanted to do. I wanted to write. But the chances of making a living on that are fairly slim (at least in my world at the time) – and I had been raised that stability was to be the number one choice in one’s career.

A couple months into my first semester of college, though, I was bored to tears. I changed my major to English, deciding to follow another childhood dream of mine – teaching (yeah, the pay is not the best – but it could hopefully put a roof over my head and keep me close to the thing I truly love – I mean, someone actually wants to pay me to talk about writing all day? Sign me up.).

College was the first time I allowed myself to be serious about my writing, which wasn’t necessarily supported by everyone in my life. This turned out to be an important boundary for me, however. So if given the chance, I would sit down young-me and tell her, “If you want to write, then write. Even if every single person around you doesn’t take it seriously, you can. You don’t need anyone else’s permission.”

What’s in a Name? (Author Edition)

I still remember the first time I saw my name in print. The experience was exhilarating. In a “right place, right time” scenario, I had learned that the county paper was looking for someone to write the weekly column of my town’s news (the previous person having just retired). I was a freshman in high school, but, as the kids say these days, I decided to shoot my shot, even though I was certain they would never hire a fifteen-year-old. But they did.

My first column appeared on December 19, 1997 – my first and last name in small print below the bold text of my town’s name. I know this because each week, my mother cut out my columns and collected them in one of those old school photo albums, the ones with the sticky pages and the clear plastic sheet you peel off and then settle back over whatever you are trying to preserve. All four albums (one for each year I wrote the column) are currently sitting on my bookshelf. This is probably the first time I’ve looked at it since I wrote it, and I’ve already found an error.

For all those inquiring minds out there – I got paid a whopping fifty cents an inch. I was lucky if my month paycheck hit double digits.

But the pay didn’t matter – I was already living a (short) life-long dream of seeing my name in print.

When I got to college and started writing short stories and poems and submitting them to places, I came upon a question that all writers will face (though some will likely never bat an eye at it) – what should my byline be? In some instances (like my college’s literary journal), I opted for my first and last name. For some other pieces, though, that I sent out into the world, I opted for a pen name. Why? Because I was afraid who might find it. Not in a – I wrote mean things about them sort of way – but in a – what if they make fun of me for taking this seriously sort of way? That feeling took a long time to stamp down. (And honestly, looking back, I realize these people would never have randomly googled my name looking for something I might have written, anyway.)

Today, I opt for my full name. Part of this is to take ownership and pride over my writing. I worked hard on it, after all. The other, the use of my middle name, is a bit deeper – it’s to honor my maternal grandmother, from whom I received the name. But also – I’ve stopped caring who takes me seriously or not. I take it seriously.

It’s a personal thing, what you decide to use as your byline. If your want to use a pen name because you’re worried about what people will think of your work – remember that no matter what, there will be people who love it and people who don’t. Here’s a great article to help you with your decision – The Pros and Cons of Using a Pen Name by Kelly Notaras.

Just don’t underestimate the exhilaration of holding your first book (or article or story or poem) and seeing your name. I still get goosebumps. 🙂

A Story a Day: Month Three

For this month, I chose (kind of) at random stories from Granta, the literary quarterly from Cambridge University, something I’d stumbled upon in my search for stories. I say ‘kind of’ because I scrolled through their list and chose any story that I came across – but skipped over the excerpts because I wanted stand-alone stories. As with the previous two months, I have no idea what these stories are about – the goal is simply to experience new writing. Feel free to read along!

  1. Faith” Sayaka Murata
  2. Have You Met My Husband” by Amy Silverberg
  3. In Bright Light” by Paul Dalla Rosa
  4. My Phantoms” Gwendoline Riley
  5. Pebbles” Max Porter
  6. Me, Rory and Aurora” by Jonas Eika
  7. Your Delicate Body” by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  8. I Cleaned the –” by Kanya D’Elmeida
  9. Granddaughter of the Octopus” by Remy Ngamije
  10. Compartment” by Ursula Scavenius (Translated by Jennifer Russell)
  11. Donut County” by Kate Lister Campbell
  12. A Page Pounded Clean” by Kathryn Scanlan
  13. Jean Betrays Memory” by David Hayden
  14. An Adult Taste” by Kang Young-sook (Translated by Janet Hong)
  15. In the Aftermath” by Eva Freeman
  16. Cuba” by Vanessa Onwuemezi
  17. The Repeat Room” by Jesse Ball
  18. A Last Chance in Whitefish” by Adam O’Fallon Price
  19. Mbiu Dash” by Okwiri Oduor
  20. Licked Clean” by Sammy Wright
  21. Gororau (Borderlands)” by Elizabeth O’Connor
  22. Fertile Soil” by Katherine Gibson
  23. The Disappearance of Mumma Dell” by Roland Watson-Grant
  24. Upper Extremity” by Clair Luchette
  25. Turnstones” by Carol Farrelly
  26. Exit Father” by Mai Nardone
  27. People Who Live Here” by Holly Pester
  28. Orientation” by Ben Pester
  29. Inti Raymi” by Mónica Ojeda (Translated by Sarah Booker)
  30. Juancho, Baile” by José Ardila
  31. Buda Flaite” by Paulina Flores (Translated by Megan McDowell)

Tracking: Multiple Projects

Probably the most difficult thing I’ve found to track/wrap my head around is tracking multiple projects. This is new to me. In grad school, when I was writing multiple short stories all at once while working on my thesis, there still wasn’t all that much to track (mostly because there was one destination for these stories – my thesis). Currently, I’ve found myself in the position of having one book in the process of being published, two manuscripts ready to query, and two WIPs. I realize I’m fortunate to be in such a position – but sometimes, it’s just difficult to know where to put my focus. (Well, when my editor sends my book for edits, that’s obviously where my focus goes.) Part of the overwhelming feeling comes from the enormity of all of this. But like any large goal, we just need to break it down.

‘Query my manuscript’ can be broken down into a couple steps: 1) write query letter (which you will want to personalize to each agent), 2) write synopsis (several versions – I recommend 1 page, 2 page, 1000 words of or less – but be prepared that an agent may have another specification), 3) searching for possible agents, and then 4) submitting a specific number of queries each week.

Again, I use Excel to track agents I’ve submitted to (with headlines of the date I subbed, the agent’s name, agency, and email, what they request, and the URL to their agency page and/or MSWL or Agent Query page). When I submit, I fill the row in yellow. When I hear back, I change to red for rejection and green for a full request (and then to red when that’s rejected). It’s important to track the date you send your request – many won’t respond because of the volume they receive – so they may have a “if you don’t hear from me in X number of weeks, you can assume it’s a no.” Also, track the agency – some will request that you don’t sub to more than one agent at their agency at the same time. If the first rejects, though, you can sub another.

Small goals should also be feasible. A small goal is not “I’m going to sub fifty agents this week.” Maybe ten. Maybe five. Maybe fifteen. But fifty is a lot.

Checklist marked red with a red pen

My plan is to spend this week searching for possible agents to query. Starting the following week, I’ll submit ten a week, five per manuscript.

The second part of goals is accountability. For me, it’s writing them down in my planner. Like I said last week, I’m the queen of to do lists. If I can get it down on paper, then I’m not having to hold it in my head as something to do. But also, it’s super satisfying for me (someone who works well with intrinsic motivation) to check it off when it’s accomplished.

As for the WIPs – again, the process here will be a personal one. Some people are “I write an hour every single day” people while others attempt a specific word count.

REPEAT AFTER ME: You do not have to write every single day in order to be a writer. Folks who tell me, “Oh, come on, you can find fifteen minutes somewhere” clearly have no idea what it’s like to be a teacher who has some weeks that are overloaded with grading, or that some folks just can’t work in fifteen minute increments. I have a writing day – Fridays. I don’t expect to write any other day, though it is a bonus if I do discover some unexpected time to sit and write. I write this day in my planner, too. I put up boundaries (I mark this entire day as busy on my work calendar, and I have it in my syllabus email policy that I don’t check email on this day). I make it a priority. I also don’t put requirements on my writing goals (which I know, I know – goals need to be measurable!). I don’t count minutes in the seat or words on the page. For some people, these things help keep them moving, which is great. But again – if it doesn’t work for you, then don’t force it.

There are many ways to track your projects. Mine go onto my to do lists in my bullet journal. I also have a small group of writing friends that meet every week who help hold me accountable when I share these goals with them. But you can use Excel (or another such program) to track minutes/words/submissions. Use a planner or notebook. Whatever works best for you and you can easily access. I just promise – getting it down and out of your head makes it all seem much more manageable.