Friday, March 23, 2012

John Noel, another Exeter Writer

I want everyone to meet John Noel, another member of the Visalia-Exeter Writers and contributor to Leaves from the Valley Oak.

Welcome, John and thanks for joining me on my blog. Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in York, Pennsylvania, a small industrial city with a claim to being the first capital of the United States. I grew up playing in Penn Common, which had been given to the city by the Penn family.  Across the street from our row house Revolutionary War General “Mad Anthony” Wayne had executed mutinous soldiers. Confederate troops had camped on the common when York became the northernmost city captured by the Rebels in the Civil War. Perhaps such surroundings gave me my lifelong love of history.

My family moved to California as I entered high school, and I went on to Fresno State to graduate with a degree in history. I taught in the Exeter area for 39 years. My wife Patsy and I have five children and seven grandchildren. Other than reading and writing, my main vice is playing in rock bands with other old guys.

How long have you been writing, and what was the stimulus that got you started?

I started early. The men of my family were newspaper men of one sort or another, so writing was natural and encouraged. As I got older, my skills saved many a grade as I whipped out a credible paper on a Sunday for Monday delivery.  To supplement my teacher’s salary, I began writing part time for local newspapers.  Needing to fit the information within the limitations of column inches taught me how to whittle away excess verbiage and leave the good stuff.

But my real stimulus was teaching writing in the era of Whole Language. The movement emphasized metacognitive thinking: How do we learn to write? What do writers do? I read a myriad of how-to books on writing, reading, and organizing a writer’s workshop within the classroom. As part of the teaching process I wrote along with my students. They had to see my own trials and tribulations, my own successes and failures as I prepared pieces for classroom publication. We had to establish a community of writers within the classroom, a safe harbor where budding writers could take risks and rely on each other for support. One learns to write by writing. That’s what I did, and that’s what I hope my students took away from their time with me.

The stories and poems in the anthology are really fun to read. Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas have always been hard for me. I worked best in a newspaper-type environment. My editor would tell me what he or she wanted and give me a certain space to fill. These days I mostly write autobiographical vignettes that I hope my grandchildren may get a kick out of some day.

How did your upbringing color your writing?

As I said, my family was in the newspaper business. Even as a child I read two newspapers every day. My early attempts at writing were encouraged both at home and in school.

What books or authors have influenced you in your writing style?

I have always been drawn to nostalgic writers who tell of their youth with warmth and humor. Jean Shepherd (A Christmas Story) would be my go-to example. When I dabble in poetry, my style (but unfortunately not the depth of my talent) leans toward e.e. cummings and Charles Bukowski. I also write poetry for children in the vein of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

What’s been your most rewarding experience during the writing process?

I guess my most joyful single moment would have to be when I got the phone call from Children’s Writer that I had won the grand prize in their history article contest. But overall, my most rewarding times were when I was writing with kids. To see young writers making breakthroughs was priceless.

What’s your latest project?

I have two that I am polishing at the moment. Both are slightly embellished but mostly true stories from my youth. The Chronsiter Chronicles is about unrequited puppy love, and The Spelling Bee is the tale of childhood adventures with creative spelling.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Journaling, Diaries and Such

The nice thing about any kind of journal is that there’s no wrong way to do it, and no one proper thing to write about. I keep my journal in my computer. It’s much easier for me than a notebook. I prefer typing to longhand—too slow. My journal is a catch-all for story ideas, notes about people and the things I learned during conferences I attend, and progress on my book. It’s also filled with remarks about things I observe when I’m out and about town. Journaling is such a habit now that I wouldn’t feel the day was complete if I didn’t leave a comment.
As I was about to enter junior high, my brother, eight years my senior, gave me a diary for my birthday. He gave me a piece of advice along with it. “Don’t write anything in this that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the local newspaper.” I’ve kept that in mind. Years later, I tossed that diary in the trash. I regret doing it. Although I doubt there was anything of significance in the contents, I’d like to be able to go back and read what that girl had to say about her world.
I kept a diary during my early high school years too. I ran across it the other day and read a few pages. Not very inspirational, mostly comments about the amount of homework I had, the movies I saw, and the boys I was dating, and not much about what I was thinking. But with only five lines, what can you say? I did a lot of homework and complained about it almost every day.
After my marriage, not long after graduation, and the birth of my children, I had no time for a journal, though I sure wish I had kept one. I also wish I’d kept a journal when I was in nurse’s training. Some very interesting and funny things happened.
 I’ve kept copies of the letters I’ve written over the years, and in a way, they are a journal too. I’ve always been a letter writer, mostly to my favorite aunt, but also to cousins in Wisconsin where I was born. When I got my first computer in 1984, I began printing a copy of my letters for a file. The file is pretty thick now, and though I rarely read them, I know they are a record of the ups and downs of life. I was doing a lot of genealogical work then, and I wrote numerous letters related to that. Now I keep my copies in a file in my computer.
My first real writer’s journal started in 1991 because I was taking a creative writing class at the local college. It was a requirement for the class. We had to turn in our journals once a week for review and comments from the instructor. From that point on, I knew that journaling would be important to me.
With email, twitter, Facebook and blogs, I sometimes wonder if journaling will become a thing of the past—like letter writing. I hope not. Do other writers keep a journal? I’d be curious to know how many do.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Starting a Writer's Journal

A journal is one of the best tools a writer can provide for themselves. And it’s so easy to start. You can use a hard bound notebook, a composition book from the local drug store, or a file in your computer. Or you could simply write on scraps of paper and toss them in an empty shoe box, though I wouldn’t advise that method.
The first thing to decide when you’re thinking about starting a writer’s journal is where you are most likely to use it. It’s important to keep it in a place that will draw your attention, such as beside your bed, your easy chair, or maybe in “start up” in your computer so that it will pop up when you start your computer.
If you’ve never kept a journal before, you might wonder what you’d record. How about story ideas for future projects, observations of scenes or people you come across in everyday life, or the progress made with current writing. It can be used to keep notes when you attend a writer’s conference or comments from your writer’s critique group. Recording dreams might lead to story idea. If you’re a poet, a line or two scribbled might lead to a new creation.
You read books, I’m sure. Use your journal for a book review. It’s for your eyes only, so expound on the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Record a quote you really liked or an example of badly written parts. Did it have too many adverbs or run on sentences? Give it your best critique.
Most people think they don’t have time for journaling. You might be surprised, if you give it a try. Take the first step. Write a line a day. Or a whole page on the weekend. After a month, go back and read what you’ve written. You might decide to add to it, or you might want to edit what you’ve written. Either way, it’s good practice. And months later I think you’ll be glad you started your journal.
I’ve been journaling since I was a teenager, and next time I’ll tell you about some of my experience.