When I heard the news back in January that Tina Marsh’s cancer had returned, I was shocked and saddened. I had been a part of her support community on her first bout. I knew I couldn’t be on the support team this time around, but when Sally Jacques created a fundraising event at Laguna Gloria for Tina, I was there. That evening led to this column, which I hope may lead to folks being inspired to send her love and support and who knows what else.
It only makes sense that a gathering of twenty-six children’s book writers would be a warm supportive affair. After all, the intention of our writing is to touch and expand the hearts of children and young adults. But we are writers and that means we have egos, which means we have fears, which means we can make snarky, jealous comments with the best of them. But deep in the heart of Texas, deep in the heart of Austin is this woman named Cynthia Leitich Smith who stuns and humbles me with her generosity and good ideas.
Her latest good idea was to gather twenty-seven children’s book writers, ask them to submit ten pages for a three day critique weekend and call it the Awesome Austin Writer’s Weekend (AAWW). The participants were: Brian Anderson, Varsha Bajaj, Chris Barton, Gene Brenek, Shana Burg, Anne Bustard, Tim Crow, Betty X. Davis, Meredith Davis, Alison Dellenbaugh, Erin Edwards, Debbie Gonzales, Helen Hemphill, P.J. Hoover, Varian Johnson, Julie Lake, Lindsey Lane, April Lurie, Mark Mitchell, Jane Peddicord, Liz Garton Scanlon, Greg Leitich Smith, Jo Whittemore, Phil Yates, and Jennifer Ziegler. Donna Bratton and Carmen Oliver assisted as pages.
Two months prior to the weekend, Cyn and her just-as-remarkable husband Greg Leitich Smith delivered 26 manuscripts to each of us. And we started reading. And reading. And reading. I know that I spent at least two hours on each ms, thinking about it, writing a critique, rereading the critique. By the time the weekend rolled around, I was deeply invested in each manuscript. And so was everyone else. Which was great. But it is also might have led to fist fights. That was where the magic of Cyn came in.
For three days, she led forty-minute discussions of each piece. What made it sane was Cyn’s sense of order. She started and ended each critique with positive comments. In between those comments, she led a hands-raised/called-upon discussion, which was both respectful and spirited. The writer of the ms. on critique listened. On pain of Cyn’s mischievous wrath. Every once in a while, Cyn would steer the discussion with questions of craft, thoughts about marketability and personal reflections.
By the end of the three days, I was wrung out. But I was energized, thrilled and deeply grateful to be a part of this community. I mean, down-on-my-knees thrilled and grateful.
As I head off next week to Vermont College to begin my MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults, I not only feel the support, love and recognition of my Austin community but I also feel ready to expand that sense of community to the writers I will meet in Vermont.
Just say AAWW.
My editor at GoodLife Magazine Ken Martin is a dream. First, he trusts me and believes in my thinking and writing. Second, his edits are subtle but make what I’ve written shine. Third, well, the list goes on but in the case of this month’s column, he knew when I told him that Rene’s story was a two parter, he had confidence in my thinking and gave me the space.
This month’s column was inspired by a chance email I received from Rene Craft. The email described her journey accepting that her son is autistic. It was such a moving and honest piece of writing that I asked if I could tell her story. She said yes and I got busy.
I was kind of struggling to come up with an idea for this month’s column. Because Austin had been such a hot bed of national politics for the last month, it only made sense that I think about families and politics. So I requested an audience with a fifth grade class at my daughter’s school to check out what eleven year olds might be thinking about Hillary vs. Barack vs McCain. I might as well have made coffee dates with each of their parents. I was about ready to pitch the notes from the class discussion when this memory of an argument I had with my Dad came crept out of hiding. And with it came this month’s column…