School Visits: Baton Rouge, La.

univ-lab

I recently got back from a trio of school visits in Baton Rouge — I talked Jupiter Pirates, writing and storytelling with kids at Episcopal High School, University Lab School and Glasgow Middle School. (Those are the kids from University Lab School above, letting out a pretty tremendous “ARRRR!!!!” to get our session going.)

This was a homecoming of sorts for me — half a lifetime ago I cut my teeth as a painfully green newspaper intern at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, about 90 minutes downriver from Baton Rouge. I was an intern in New Orleans for two summers, and the Times-Picayune’s editors were exceedingly kind to my mistakes, which I now shudder to recall. The second summer, I traveled around Louisiana and Mississippi writing stories about the Mississippi River, checking in with river pilots and flood-control engineers and other folks whose lives were shaped by the river. So it was a blast finding myself back in Louisiana talking about a very different kind of writing, and a joy to zoom along the River Road south of Baton Rouge at sunset, just yards from the river that taught me so many valuable writing lessons.

My first stop was Episcopal, where the kids had great theories about why Blackbeard looks like his hair is on fire in a famous old woodcut of the North Carolina pirate. We also had a good conversation about the value of revising and making our peace with outlining. Some of the younger kids had some interesting questions about cover art — as always, I’m blessed to have the awesome Tom Lintern doing the honors for Jupiter Pirates.

I spent the next day at University Lab School, where I did two extended sessions on writing and storytelling. I showed the clip of Luke Skywalker arguing with Uncle Owen and then staring at the twin suns of Tatooine, which sparked a lively conversation about George Lucas’s childhood, inspiration and whether escapist literature is really so escapist. I really liked one question from a girl who was worried about writing something “cheesy.” My response was that she shouldn’t worry about it — if the story she wanted to tell was heartfelt and honestly told, it wouldn’t come off as cheesy for the readers she wanted to reach. And, OK, just in case it’s always a good idea to have someone you trust as a reader take a look.

Between sessions at University Lab I had lunch with about two dozen kids whose work had been recognized in a state writing contest. We talked ideas, the writing process, revisions and the joys and frustration of writing. The kids had some great thoughts about writing and were kind enough to send me home with an anthology of their work.

My third and last stop was Glasgow Middle School, where I was the kids’ final event — PRESSURE!!! — before an eight-day break. At Glasgow the conversation turned to movies, and I explained options and how the hard fact is that most options don’t turn into movies. (But the writer still gets paid, so options are still definitely a Good Thing.) One student asked me an interesting question about pursuing writing in college courses, and I talked about English classes, MFA programs and the like but said that the only requirement for writing was to live and want to tell a story. He was 14, so I told him he was in the 14th year of Writing College.

It was a wonderful trip, though now I have to rest up a bit and turn my attention to Rescue Ships, which has proved a stubborn book to write so far. Enormous thanks to Margaret Boudreaux, Martha Guarisco, Shandi Fazely and Lucy Smith at Episcopal; to Candice Ryals at University Lab School; and to Jackie Palka and Dianne Talbot at Glasgow. (Apologies if I missed anybody — this tour was a whirlwind!) I’m grateful to Erich and Katie Sternberg and Kathryn and Henry Kissam and friends for making connections and for their kind company, and big hugs to my pals Craig Damrauer, Desiree Andrepont, Pableaux Johnson and Gigi Solis for connections, company, food and lodging along the way.

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My next school visit will be just a bit closer to home — in late May I’ll be traveling all of three blocks to talk Jupiter Pirates right here in Brooklyn. If you’re interested in having me visit your school or library, please contact me at jupiterpirates@gmail.com. I’m comfortable with classes K-12 and can talk books, storytelling, tips for a happier writing process, or most anything else you can think of. Since time spent visiting is time not writing, I do typically charge for author visits — my baseline is $500 a day depending on location, situation, and so forth — but if that gives you pause, let me know what you have in mind and we’ll see if we can figure something out. I love watching kids get up from their desks excited about reading, storytelling, and writing, so if I can help, give me a shout!