Jun 26 2019
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Helena Writes #12: On citizenry and alphabetry

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers (Writing for Children and Midwifing a Small-Scale Memoir), has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In a blog series called Helena Writes, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time. Learn more about Helena through the Center’s Teacher Feature, her reflection on teaching writing, and her artist’s website.

In her 12th post, Helena muses on what it means to be a citizen vs. a consumer and offers an excellent writing exercise.

Heart and Principle

At the supermarket two weeks ago, I encountered a man. He’d knocked down a display. I couldn’t pass by with my wagon while he was picking it up.

I said, “I’ll wait…it’s usually me that does that…” –very female. I am protecting his pride.

He smiles. “You’re a good citizen,” I add.

He says, “If you knock something over you pick it up.” A principle. A morality play. But we had connected.

His work was done, we smiled, I walked on, pondering his sternness with himself and, I thought, likely with others. I’d had the sense that he was doing the right thing. Maybe he’d had to justify that bedrock response with a rationale, but I sensed it came from his heart.

I’d named him a good citizen. That may not be a popular nomenclature now—we’ve been deemed consumers for 35 years or so.

Consumers: that word was always a profanity.

I never saw myself in that word; like being called the wrong name, I didn’t turn my head. But in the last few years, the word citizen has risen in me. Again. I say again because I imagine people here may have seen themselves that way before the age of consumption, the present age of forgetfulness.

It’s passing now, the way I passed that man in the aisle of Shoprite. There is, as I see it, a dawning, a realization that something stronger than things is reclaiming its life. The Earth, for one—there’s something I ponder.

And as part of that, our humanity itself. This comes to me in my journal, a revelation. I think again of that man in Shoprite, doing his duty, taking life seriously, too.

It’s the nomenclature that seems to differentiate us from one another. Yet I see signs that we are a citizenry growing together everywhere.

A Sly Way to Practice Revision (and a good way to approach writing a picture book alphabet story)

Sometimes I ask a group to write for 10 or so minutes on something they do well.  I write with them.

So we have a draft, maybe a page, maybe two pages.

Then I ask everyone to find the alphabet, in sequence, in their draft.

Here’s a piece I did this year, along with a group:

AWE: An Artist’s Alphabet

A painter, An Artist, Art is the Air I Breathe. Board, Canvas, Colors, oil Crayons and the Day to paint, Every day that I can. A Fine artist, rather than a Graphic artist. I Have to do it. I see and then paint. Joy? Just what I have to do. Knowing. I’d call it that. Love. Yes. My Number One Passion, the thing that dwells in the Quick of me, within the mystery of life itself—a Quantum thing. In the Quiet of that Room, my Studio, a Sacred Space, Sitting down To work, seeing Underneath the surface of things; a doorway through Vision itself, inner Vision Wrought With paint, my palette, a Xylophone of color, Xeuxis* hovers! The Yearning to paint is always there, never satisfied, only for a short while, when a painting comes together—a moment of Zero gravity.

*Xeuxis, a 5th Century, B.C. painter noted for the verisimilitude of his work (via the British Dictionary of Definitions)

I think Manet, and Monet, artists I revere, would agree.  “C’est vrai!” I think they’d say, or, “It’s Za truth!”

Have fun with this! If you are approaching a picture book text, think back to childhood and explore a memory of something you loved then. The content will likely be childlike, and you might find you have come upon a text that will make a good 32-page picture book. Maybe a calling card to submit to the children’s market.

Will you try Helena’s alphabet exercise? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts

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