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 FRESH FROM THE INKWELL 

Curse of the Dampeners

PRAIRIE WRITERS ASSIGNMENT, APRIL 2017 - HAZEL JEAN SPIRE


CURSE OF THE DAMPENERS

Jean loved to write. Jean lived to write.

That was before the voices began.

From the time she discovered the power of words, essays and stories poured from Jean’s pencil, earning stars of red, blue, even gold, from her teachers. Hearing of Jean’s prolific output, Mr. Carter walked across the playground to lend her a book with a turquoise cover— Let’s Write a Story—about how to become an author!

A dream was born. Poetry flowed from Jean’s fountain pen, and found a place in the school magazine. But then the Dream Dampeners moved in: insidious, naysaying voices that cramped her style for decades to follow.

"Those whimsical tales might suffice for grade school, but this is College."

"Your syntax is all wrong."

"Will you ever get paid for this?"

"Boys don’t like stories about girls."

"You can’t get your foot in the door without an agent."

"An agent won’t take on a writer without a platform."

"Your zip code is too obscure. You must move to New York City."

When she was not writing, Jean loved to draw. Jean lived to draw.

That was before the voices began.

In grade school, her stories were embellished with colored pencil scenes, which Miss Cassell allowed Jean to outline with Indian ink in her secret cubby behind the 5th grade classroom. With the encouragement of Mum, Dad, and Miss Wheeler, she entered her seascapes in the Baptist Festival.

That was before the Negatories took root: niggling questions as to whether Jean was wasting her time.

"What good is art to you?"

"Artist is such a pretentious word."

"I could show you someone with REAL talent."

For a while, these ruthless intruders drove out all hopes of success in the arts, either visual or literary. So many of them took up residence that she could no longer pinpoint the source or validity of the voices. People who knew what they were talking about, or those who knew nothing? Her own deep-seated insecurity, or sheer laziness?

At each stage of life, with each relocation, Jean’s passions resurfaced. She would dust off her sketchbook, buy a new journal, and seek out kindred spirits. In due course, she learned how—and where—to prepare manuscripts to submission and paintings for exhibition.

That was before the voices returned—with a vengeance.

"Rhyme doesn’t sell."

"Kids want to read about today’s time, not history."

"Memoirs by unknowns are hard to sell."

"Agents only take on young authors, for career-long relationships."

"Top houses want attractive faces on their book jackets."

"Never write without an outline."

"You don’t have an art degree, or backing from prestigious galleries."

"Editors are looking for a something fresh, something edgy."

"This is too quirky, too controversial."

"Cozy stories are passé."

Jean took the hurdles in her stride. She decorated her gigantic trash can with rejection letters, and won a string of awards.

The Dampeners and the Negatories went on murmuring.

"It’s a local contest, not a Pulitzer Prize."

"There were only five entries."

"Sure, you sold a painting, but only to someone who knows you."

Eventually, Jean racked up credits with magazines.

"Just Sunday school take-home papers and regional rags," the voices countered.

Finally, three years after signing a contract, Jean’s first middle-grade mystery came out. Now would the voices let up? Not a chance.

"One spouse and two friends make a poor showing at a book event."

"Did you see the lines round the block for that other author?"

"Your little paperback will get lost among the hefty stacks of the latest Harry Potter."

"Chain bookstores won’t place works by small presses, and Indies are going out of business."

Nevertheless, Jean kept writing--and painting. She invited the voices of Discernment to take up lodging instead. She acknowledged the truths about mergers and budget cuts, with gratitude for the emergence of self-publishing options.

She did it for the adventure, finding her place in the fellowship of writers and artists, who graciously shared the benefit of their experience. In due course, Jean would do the same for the students following in her footsteps. Read More 

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TUSCANY, O TUSCANY!

PRAIRIES WRITERS HOMEWORK:
FIRST 10 WORDS WERE PULLED AT RANDOM FROM A BOOK

“I want to take a closer look at the mural,” I tell my coworkers, as the last student leaves the building.

The library buzzes with preparations for my farewell party, due to start in thirty minutes. Fruit, veg, cupcakes, napkins are laid out in rainbow order. A Yellow Brick Road made of butcher paper is unfurled across the top of the bookshelves, for attendees to sign.

I walk on down the hallway, and enter the teachers’ lounge.

The boldness of the mural always takes me by surprise. Should it have more distance–like Veronese’s “Wedding at Cana” at one end of a huge gallery in the Louvre—for viewers to get a proper perspective on the Italian landscape? But we don’t have that kind of space at College Street Elementary.

Cuisine, literature, movies, home décor, everything is Tuscan in 2010, it seems. The faculty had grown tired of the previous mural, a fishing scene in muted tones, after a decade of lunching beside it. Our principal had conspired with Susan and decided we needed Tuscany.

So, how did it fall to yours truly to create the new mural? Because I am the Art Specialist. But what made me think I had time for this, my biggest undertaking yet, six foot by twelve? Flattery, mostly, plus the challenge and the fun of it.

I love paint! After watching the kids produce art for five years, it was my turn—with help from an overhead projector and a team of volunteers. They slapped primer over the old mural, and we searched online for soothing images of cypress trees and whitewashed villas.

While a clatter of utensils and voices echoes from the library, I take a closer look at the mural.

I touch the sunburnt tiles of the foreground building marked ALBERGO, an inn or restaurant. It is smooth, buttery, just the right tint of vermilion—a blend of students’ tempera, household latex, and acrylic flow medium. The shadows under the eaves are Patty’s work, applying what she’d learned in a watercolor class.

Angela, Wendy, and Debbie, less experienced but most enthusiastic, had filled the penciled fields with various greens and browns, using a nice dry-brush texture. We had twirled our brush-tips Van Gogh-style around the foliage, and debated the colors of the sailboats on the distant lake.

Are those purple splotches under the row of poplars unrealistic? That’s all right, if our aim is a place of escape, an oasis from the day-to-day stress of teaching.

Now I scan the boxy roofs, windows, chimneys of Tuscany, and see that all is well. I pull a black Sharpie marker from the pocket of my paint-spattered apron, to sign and date the bottom right corner--giving credit to Tan Chun, whose work inspired us.

My eyes follow the earth’s overlapping curves toward the farthest hills. The mural needs one final touch. In the cloud-blown sky, I place a bird, a simple V, the kind children like to draw. I add a second, then a third, each smaller than the previous one.

They represent three retirees: Patty, Debbie, and me, winging our way to new lives beyond the classroom—or in my case, beyond Texas to Kansas.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” drifts down the hall from a CD player.

It is time to go greet my guests and join the party. Read More 

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V: VANDERGRIFF

How do authors come up with names for characters? Their own lives? The telephone directory? The sound of a name, or its meaning/connotation? All of the above?

Jandy’s favorite teacher at the International school in Iran got her last name from Vandergriff Park in Arlington, Texas. It had a special association for me. My SCBWI chapter held workshops and conferences in a building there, before we outgrew it. As with many of my own teachers, I don’t even know Miss Vandergriff’s first name! Presumably I gave her one. It must be in the bio sheet I drafted when I began to plot SECRET OT THE SEVENTH GATE. So I can look it up if needed.

Miss Vandergriff wears her hair In a French knot, paints her fingernails pearly pink, and wears a jasmine fragrance. That much I rememember. She may not appear physically in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. I’m not ruling it out, as most Americans have left Iran by 1979, or soon will. Maryam heard a rumor that she was engaged to an Iranian pilot, so she may choose to stay. But her influence over Jandy’s life continues.

Admiring her set for the Ali Baba show, Miss Vandergriff had pronounced her the “best little artist this side of the Dez River!” This gives Jandy confidence to pursue art when she returns to Hickory Bend. Might she become the "best little artist this side of the Red River"? Unable to fit art into her class schedule, she volunteers to paint scenery for a local production of Alice in Wonderland.

Jandy had also been in Miss Vandergriff's class for 8th grade English, but Maryam attended a separate class with students whose second language was English. For the lesson featured in SEVENTH GATE, Jandy created an Arabian Nights tale (number 1,002) while listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" - absorbing Persian and Russian culture at the same time.

A teacher's approach to life and work affects kids' lives in big and small ways, for better or for worse. His or her words are imprinted on minds and report cards for decades to come. Read More 

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O: OBSTACLES

Jandy's adjustment to life back in Hickory Bend after three years in Iran is fraught with setbacks. Classmates ridicule gaps in her knowledge of rock music; teachers berate her ignorance about American history. The school counselor insists that Jandy still lacks one math class, and they cannot fit art in her schedule. Then Mom suggests a nerdy tutor to boost her chemistry grade. Relatives wonder why Dad ever took that job overseas, and the Islamic Revolution hasn't helped matters.

Old friends have moved on to new pursuits - band, cheerleading, athletics. If only Maryam were here! Communication with Iran, by mail or phone, has broken down. Brother Cal is upset that his dog disappeared while staying with Maryam, and takes it out on Jandy. But if they can't work together, how will they solve the Riddle of the Samovar? That knotty problem carries enough complications of its own.

Maryam's arrival in Texas, which should be an exciting, longed-for event, is hampered by resentment from Cal and prejudice from a clique of mean girls. Worse yet, Jandy's attempts to get her a role in "Alice" backfire, when students (protesting the shah's admittance into the US) take over the Embassy in Tehran. No wonder she feels like Alice down the rabbit hole. Read More 
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H: HISTORY

Having been to Daniel’s tomb, Esther’s palace, and other ancient Persian landmarks, Jandy Graham is no dummy regarding world history. But when it comes to US history, she is made to feel like a complete idiot by teachers and classmates at Hickory Bend Junior High.

Boring Warring embarrasses Jandy by asking her to spell Appomattox while her mind is on more interesting subjects such as art. She cannot tell him what a courthouse had to do with the Civil War. Time after time during her first semester back in Texas, gaps in Jandy’s knowledge are exposed like holes in her jeans revealing Mickey Mouse underwear. She enjoys learning about how ordinary people lived in previous eras, but can never remember dates of battles and presidents, unlike her brother Cal. “I’m not a numbers person,” is Jandy’s excuse.

“Didn’t they teach you anything at that school in Eye-ran?” the counselor asks, as she checks Jandy’s credits and finds them deficient in geometry.

Mom suggests the pastor’s nerdy son, a math whiz, to be her tutor. But who will help with US History if Jandy fails the final and has to re-take the class? That will mean she can’t take art next semester. Worse yet, she might not even graduate 8th grade.

While Jandy’s academic record is not the main problem in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR, it plays into her despondency over leaving friends in Iran (especially Maryam) and failing to regain a foothold in her childhood home. Read More 
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