The Fabulous Gaithersburg Book Festival


Betty Hafner, Seema Reza and myself.

All I can say is, WOW!
I’m home and thrilled that I was chosen to participate in the 8th Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival.

Here in Charlottesville we have the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, a four-day program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. It’s a lovely event that brings in book-people from all over the country, including authors, those in the process of writing a book, those who aspire to become writers, and those who  read voraciously. I attend every year and it’s where I first met the woman who became my publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, who was here as part of a panel discussing the role of publicists in the book-marketing process.

Me, Mayor Jud Ashman, and Betty Hafner

But the Gaithersburg Book Festival is a celebration of a different stripe. Set up in tents in the park surrounding City Hall, it is a one day event run by the city of Gaithersburg, in Maryland, and a host of local volunteers of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds, from kids to elders. Mayor Jud Ashman, also the Founder and Chair of the festival, was there greeting and welcoming everyone. It was wonderful! I felt like I was part of a huge family celebration with attendees, authors, and those who did all of the work to bring the festival to fruition. It was an amazing event illustrating deep love and appreciation for books and those who write them

I wasn’t able to stay all day as we had to get back to C’ville for the show, Death of a Salesman, which Bill directed for Live Arts. My sweet man missed opening night on Friday to accompany me and lend me his support. What more can this woman ask for proof of true love?!?

Had I been able to stay around until the end of the day, one of things I would have loved to attend among many others, was a MULTILINGUAL STORY TIME, that ran all day long. For twenty minutes children of all ages could listen to stories read to them in Spanish, Portuguese, Farsi, Amharic, French, and English.

The panel that I participated in was moderated by Larry Matthews, also an author. It was a wonderful opportunity to sit with two other woman writers, Betty Hafner and Seema Reza, who have also written memoirs and to talk about the why, how, and importance of telling personal stories.

I’m told that last years festival was held on a day of torrential rain and was attended by 15,000 people. This years attendance on a gray, cool day, was expected to be between 22,000 to 25,000 with a rough guess of 23,000 people there at the time I was given these figures.

I’m thinking of going back next year just for the fun of it!!

Are You A Story Teller?

A page out of my visual journal, using cut out words and pictures.

A page out of my visual journal, using cut out words and pictures.

I’m a storyteller. You’re a story teller. And so is every one you pass on the street. I’m also a writer and tell stories about my life here on my blog. But the stories I write here are not the ones I’m talking about in this piece.

I’m talking about the stories that can fill up my head on a hourly basis about who I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going, what the world should be like, and how things are going to turn out even before any event begins to unfold.

Those stories are usually about fear, wishful thinking, how things are supposed to be, and blame. They’re inventive ways of dealing with the possibility of being disappointed, building hope, or preparing for things we’re afraid will happen … like being humiliated, or just plain terrified. They’re often about the end of my world or about how I’m  going to be the world’s next biggest and brightest star.

Like when I was about eight years old and truly believed I was going to win a beautiful palomino pony because I sent in the very best, most awesome name for that pony … Star. When it was announced that some kid in New Jersey won the pony instead of me, I was angry and complained that somebody had made a seriously terrible, horrible mistake. No name was as good as the one I sent in!!!! I was being cheated.

Stories like that have at times stopped me dead in my tracks and kept me from moving forward. Crazy as it sounds I thought that if I worried myself to death that which I was worried about would go away.

When we’re busy and not paying attention, our minds have a way of running and sometimes ruining our days, for  at least a while. A beautiful afternoon walking the dogs can turn into a nightmare because I hear thunder in the distance and I’m sure we’re not going to make it home before we’re struck and killed by lightning.

I can also go the way of being so full of myself that I just know that my memoir will be #1 on every best seller list within two days of launching it. Yeah, right!

Stories of that ilk can make me laugh when I look back, but if I’m constantly building dramas in my head and being neurotic and narcissistic, it can be a real problem. These days I’m trying to break this very silly habit and retire from the drama.  Our world is full enough of that stuff and I don’t need to adding more.

So instead of playing truth or fantasy with myself, I’m working hard to stop making these ridiculous tales up. If I’m worried about something, I work at letting it go by asking, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” And I tell myself that life is a great adventure and worth every moment, even the ones we wish wouldn’t happen.

The good news is that scientists are finding that we can send our stories packing and change the way our brains operate by labeling our stories when they show up. I label mine silly stories, lies, wishful thinking, or horror stories. Another way I let them go is by putting them on pages in a visual journal, like the one in the photo.  Once I can SEE them, they become just what they are … thoughts, stories. They wash away into the gutter just like fallen leaves after a hard autumn rain.

I want to live in the moment, getting rid of expectations and judgement, letting go of fear and desire. I want to  live life as a thrilling escapade. Though it can be extreeemely difficult, it’s a step toward believing I can and will handle whatever comes along.

I can’t predict the future. So Why should I waste my precious time worrying and being scared? Life is all about learning and experiencing joy, sadness, pain, anger, fear, hatred, and oodles of love. Why not relax and let it happen?

Do you tell yourself Silly Stories? How do you wash them away?


Wishing you a beautiful, awe filled day!

On Being A Teacher And A Student

Me with yesterdays class of third graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School.

Me with yesterdays class of third graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School.

“Ooh! I have an idea!,” one boy with expressive brown eyes said, as his third grade classmates waved their hands, eager to get their own ideas out and up on the board as options for a story we would begin writing together.

I was at a local elementary schools where student teacher, Kassandra Hoffmeister, had invited me to come and talk to her class about writing. She had been told by another student teacher, Yarden Batson, about my visit with her class just a few weeks earlier.

I had met Yarden, earlier when I was looking for a house sitter. She came highly recommended and when she found out that I was a writer, with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, she asked if I’d visit her classroom to talk with the kids about writing. Having been away from a classroom setting for what seems like hundreds of years, I eagerly said yes. Not only did I want to step back in time a bit, I’d been concerned that students aren’t given much of a chance to write creatively these days. I thought going into the classroom to inspire kids to write would be a great way to give back to the world of creativity that I have been blessed being a part of.

When someone discovers that I am an artist as well as a writer, they often say, “I don’t have a creative bone in their body.” In response, I jump on my soapbox and try to convince them that they most likely haven’t given themselves a chance.

Creativity isn’t just for those who want to dance, paint, compose music, or write poetry. Everyone is blessed with “creative bones.” Those bones just need to be nurtured.

Creative thinkers rule the world even in science and math departments. Without the ability to step outside of the box, Steve Jobs would never have come up with the computer I’m using to write this blog post. Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t have invented the telephone, which now is something we all carry around in our pockets. Even the process of designing and constructing an environmentally friendly buildings is a creative act that gets those involved asking questions that no one has pondered before.

The easiest way to nurture creative thinking is to start early. A toddler’s first crayons help him or her to discover the world of color as they move their hands, spreading red, yellow and blue onto a piece of paper. Each piece of paper is the masterpiece of a young mind that hasn’t been strangled by the rule that one must color within the lines.

On my first visit to a third grade classroom, I took a cue from my husband, Bill, an actor, director, and a playwright. I used a story telling exercise he often uses with a newly assembled cast to help them get comfortable with each other and their new roles.

First, I helped the kids create a list of characters they felt drawn to tell a story about. We then worked on a list of settings in which a character might be found. The third list was made up of things the character wants or needs. The fun continues as the children vote on which character the story should be about, where the story is taking place, and the problem the character needs to solve. Sometimes other characters and settings are included as the story takes shape.

In the first class I worked with, the kids began developing a story about a young elephant visiting a football stadium, in hopes of being gifted with his favorite player’s jersey. Yesterday’s class came up with a California Sea Otter, named Jason, who found himself in a portal to the ancient world, where he hoped to find some cotton candy. We can laugh all we want at what seems like a crazy combination of story parts, but these kids are amazing at coming up with story lines that somehow make sense and that gets them started on a path that just might help them one day become creative geniuses.

At the end of my time with them, they’ve not only started the writing process, but we’ve usually had time to talk a little bit about titles, the structure of a paragraph, and the concept of the beginning, the middle and the end of their story. Later in the afternoon after I’m gone, each child finishes writing their own version of the story they started creating together.

What I find to be so much fun, is their enthusiasm and their willingness to leave what makes sense behind, as they jump freely into a world where they can be who they are and need to be. We older, stuck folks could learn a lot from watching them.

I believe that when a teacher stands in front of a classroom of children, the teacher becomes the student, as he or she has the opportunity to be introduced back into a world of creative being, that we too often leave behind as we get older and learned to color within the lines.