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10 Tips for Young Writers Entering Contests

  1. Follow directions

Picture this: You are having dinner with friends at a restaurant. You order a cheeseburger with fries. The server brings out the food and hands you a plate with lasagna and salad. You kindly tell the server: “My order is inaccurate. I asked for a cheeseburger and fries.” 

The server replies: “I know, but here’s what the cook made. Here’s the bill. Enjoy.” Server walks away. More than likely, you would contact the manager to rectify the issue. You would not eat and pay for a meal you did not order. And just as you were baffled and a tad bit annoyed when the server gave you an order that was incredibly wrong, the same effect occurs when you don’t follow directions. 

If the contest rules say, submit 5 poems. Don’t submit 6. Rules and guidelines are established for specific reasons. For example, when you are directed to not include your name on the submission. Most likely, the organizers want to reduce or eliminate bias or favoritism in the selection process. They hope to be objective. This works in your favor because your work will receive greater consideration. 

You work hard (hopefully) in creating your work so don’t let your efforts be in vain by being disqualified for not following the rules.

2. Refine the title.

Although some judges may skip over your title, most will read it first. They will be introduced to your poem by way of the title. Make a good impression. Spend time crafting and revising your title. One of my biggest writing struggles is creating titles. I had a professor who advised reading through the table of contents of various poetry books and making a list of titles that stuck out. Those titles became models for my own. This is a simple way to grow in your title-writing ability. 

3. Revise the work. 

In journalism, we were taught to “kill our darlings.” This means removing text that you may love but isn’t serving the piece well. You can only do this by being objective when reviewing your work. You have to train yourself to not be overly attached to your words. Keep a journal where you catalog your darlings. They may be bettered suited in other poems. 

4. Revise your work. 

Yes, I intentionally listed this twice because I think it’s that important. Most writers – even those with Pulitzer Prizes and national awards – revise their work. The process is unique, but it is done nonetheless. Revision is your way to make your work stronger, clearer, bolder. You improve as a writer and the piece improves as a work of art. Don’t neglect this step. Here’s an example of a prominent poet, Nikky Finney, who extensively revised her work.

5. Ditch filler words

Just because a word sounds cool or fancy doesn’t mean it belongs in your work. Every word should carry weight. This requires you to be intentional as a writer. I have noticed with young writers the trend of sprinkling swear words or sexual innuendos throughout their writing that does not aid the piece. Language is a vast, beautiful field. No need to solely rely on four-letter words and f-bombs to convey emotion. Turn to the dictionary, not the swear jar. 

6. Heal before sharing. 

Many writers, particularly poets, enter writing by way of trauma. Counselors often incorporate journaling into therapy to help clients process pain. Writing is a place where the broken can heal. However, it is possible to share work that is undeveloped because the creator hasn’t healed from the traumatic event(s). In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown, writes: “I only share when I have no unmet needs that I am trying to fill. I firmly believe that being vulnerable with a larger audience is only a good idea if the healing is tied to the sharing, not to the expectations I might have for the response I get.”  

7. Study form.

Many young poets have not studied forms, so they opt to write in free verse. This is fine. I write mostly in free verse. However, what makes poetry poetry is that there is a rhyme to the reason. It is not random. Form is a cornerstone of poetry. Line length should be intentional. Line breaks should be intentional. Stanza should be intentional. ‘I just felt like starting a new line’ is NOT an intention. It’s laziness. Everything you do in your poem should be tied back to the heartbeat of the poem. 

8. Cut cliches

Poems with them are boring to read and are unoriginal. Your poem can easily stand out by using original, fresh language. This will stem from a rich vocabulary. Read vastly and often. Start a notebook where you gather interesting words. Strive to learn knew words and incorporate them into your daily speech. 

9. Read poetry. Real poetry.

I may step on toes with the following statement. But it must be said. A lot of what is circulating around on social media as ‘poetry’ is short, life advice you would find in a fortune cookie. They are proverbs at best. 

Just because I call something poetry doesn’t make it poetry. No matter how many likes I get on social media or how many of my friends tell me it’s great. Poetry should be poetic. Poetry should have rhythm and rich language. Poetry should have form. 

I know it’s popular to redefine terms and push the envelope of what is poetry. I respect that. At times, definitions have been used to restrict, confine and even keep folks out. It is useful to re-examine definitions. People’s misuse of definitions doesn’t mean definitions are bad. 

Make sure you’re not calling your writing poetry simply because of laziness or a rebellion in learning the form. This leads to my final point.

10. Learn the craft.

I recently did a writing workshop, and I shared work from four respected poets. One of whom was Joy Harjo, the U.S.’s first Poet Laureate who is Native American. Most of the students had never heard of the poets I shared. Granted, I don’t expect young writers to know the name of every well-known poet. But, reading is the single best way to learn about the craft. Read poets from various periods of history and parts of the world. Learning the craft improves you as a writer. How you ask others to read your work when you are actively reading and supporting the work of other writers?

Hopefully, these tips will help you as you send your poems out into the world. 

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Benefits of Coloring

Did you know there are at least 10 benefits of your children coloring? Here are those 10 reasons according to Color Psychology.org.

1. Improves motor skills

2. Prepares kids for school

3. Stimulates creativity

4. Contributes to better handwriting

5. Improves color awareness, recognition and discernment

6. Improves focus and and to eye coordination

7. Helps instill boundaries, structure and spacial awareness

8. Improves confidence and self esteem

9. Allows self-expression

10. Calming and therapeutic

My latest book, How to Create a World, has ample pages where kids can color and experience those benefits. The book also has doodling pages. If you are looking for a simple way to keep your child engaged academically for the reminder of the summer, you definitely want to order my book. Kids can color, doodle and write poems all in one book. Order your copy today.

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From My Bookshelf: How to Not Always Be Working

One of my personal challenges as a creative is to not have every minute of every day filled. This has been an issue in my late that dates back to when I was in high school. I joined multiple clubs and organizations to be build my leadership skills and to qualify for scholarships. I worked a part-time job at Subway so I could earn money for personal things and save money for college. I remember one week I worked around 30 hours while being in advanced and honors college.

College was similar. Although I was blessed with a full scholarship, I still needed money for life and that required me to work. My habit of being in multiple organizations and constantly being busy continued. I have some moments were I trimmed back. But, I generally am a person who has a compact schedule.

A lot of this seems from working to secure a future and gain provision. I was in school organizations in high school because I was trying to earn scholarships so I would have a better future. I worked in college so my basic needs would be met. Fast forward a decade or so to a culture that is constantly wired by technology. 5 pm is no longer the end of the work day. The world wide web allows us to work from anywhere, anytime, and many of us have not learned how to switch on the off button.

This has caused us to sleep less, eat more unhealthy, exercise less, and we’re definitely not laughing enough. I recently realized that having my time occupied so much meant that my creativity was being drained. My mind didn’t know how to sit before a blank page and let words spill out. I was so used to grinding and marking things off of a ridiculously impossible to-do list.

What I learned from Marlee Grace’s book How to Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care was some strategies to stop doing that. One of the recommendation Marlee makes is to decided the place where work will occur and to not do work anywhere else. Many times I study, lesson plan and write from my blue couch. It’s comfortable. I have a blanket, and it’s next to a window. However, I typically am more productive when I am ‘working’ from a desk.

From the book, I realized my brain needs the separation of when I am working and when I am not. That can have a lot to do with location. One of my first jobs was babysitting. I loved working with infants. They were a lot of fun, and they slept often. I noticed that I put a baby in a sleeper or swaddled the baby, he or she instinctually knew it was time to sleep. Once I suggested to a parents of twins, that we not keep the babies in sleepers all day to help regulate their sleep schedule. Believe or not, it worked.

After reading this book, I have decided that the blue couch will be a space to relax and recline. No more working from my blue couch. In Chapter 3, she poses the question: What is not work? This is a good question to ask yourself because we may say we don’t work all the time. But if you’re checking your email frequently or scrolling through social media often, you my friend are working. It’s helpful to define what is work and to set some time restrictions around when you will work. And likewise, it’s helpful to name what isn’t working and to make sure you have a steady rhythm of work and recreation.

When I trained for races, I was pondered the significance that rest days were just as important as run days. And that rest days helped protect me from injury on my run days. Maybe a simple boost to your creativity is not a $500 conference or a $2,000 coach, but for you to schedule a couple hours of rest or recreation.

Chapter 6 encourages us to take a break. I’m taking that advice this summer, and I am not doing any readings, workshops or events in June or July. I want to avoid burning out and quitting altogether due to exhaustion. I want to proactive and care about myself as a vessel of creative. I want to have a regular pattern of taking breaks. Just like rest days are vital for runners, breaks are vital for humans. You can choose what and when your breaks are. I have heard many great leaders say that each year, they schedule their breaks. Take a break on purpose. Not just when you reach exhaustion.

Each chapter has testimonials from other creatives and exercises. It’s a quick read, which is another plus for those who are busy. I borrowed it from my local library, and I encourage you to doing the same. May you find your own method to not always working.

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Corinth Contraband Camp

During a recent trip to visit my family, I visited the Corinth Contraband Camp in Corinth, Mississippi. Corinth is about 45 minutes from hometown. We called it ‘Car-rent,’ and we traveled there on Saturdays for shopping. I had no idea of the camp’s history, even though it has always been in my backyard.

Let me give you a some history on the camp. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The news spread throughout the country, including plantations. During the Civil War, as Union troops traveled throughout the South slaves would flock to them in hopes of achieving freedom.

The Union forces defeated the Confederate Army at the Battle of Corinth. They seized the town, and as a result, hundreds and eventually thousands of slaves fled farms and plantations to find refugee and freedom there. African Americans were considered property during this time so term ‘contraband’ was given to identify them. Union General Grenville M. Dodge ordered that the camp be established to house them.

While there were several contraband camps during the Civil War, the one in Corinth was highly regarded. Less camp and more like a city, the Corinth Contraband Camp had two-room school, homes, church, and a hospital. The camp was located on Mary Phillip’s farm, which the Union army had seized. Contrabands worked the several hundreds of acres of the farm. They were fed from the crops of the farm and sold some of the vegetation in an open market. In May 1863, the U.S. government made $4,000 to $5,000 from the agricultural production of the camp. Unlike most camps, African Americans in Corinth were paid for their work. Union soldiers used them to help repair and rebuild railroads.

The site existed from November 1862 to December 1863. As many as 6,0000 African Americans lived there. Many of the men in the camp served in the Union army and formed the 55th United States Colored Troops. In December 1863, the camp moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

While I was at the camp, I sat on one of the benches and reflected on how I wish I had been taught this part of history when I was in grade school. I didn’t even know meaning of contraband as it relates to the Civil War. When I returned home and told my dad about the trip, he said he had never heard about this camp. This is a part of American history that needs to be told. We know that many African Americans sought freedom in the North and in Canada. But we don’t know that many of them sought freedom in Corinth. A town that know denotes itself as a retirement community.

In my view, the contraband camp is a bright spot in the dark history surrounding slavery and the U. S. Civil War. The camp may not have been paradise, but it was a place where many African Americans were able to experience freedom in some capacity for the first time. They learned how to read and to write. They were paid for their labor. They built houses that they lived in. They were able to marry without having to ask for their master’s permission. The road from slavery to freedom has been a long road with many exits and road stops. The Corinth Contraband Camp illustrates that part of the story.

The camp is off of the road a neighborhood and has a quarter-mile path. It’s definitely work a trip. The camp is managed by the National Park Service, and it’s free. I saw a couple of folks who were doing their morning exercise on the path. I appreciate the fact that the camp is a living monument were people are interacting with the site. It’s located right off the road of an ordinary neighborhood. You may even hear a train drive by. After you visit the camp, stop by the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, which is also a part of the National Park Service. It’s also free.

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Inspiring Young Poets

It was as a child that I fell in love with words. It began as a love affair of books. My father took me and my brother to the library weekly to check out new books. My favorites were the Babysitters Club, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley Twins. Once a month, my Aunt Ann picked me and my little brother up, and we headed down Woodward Avenue to Red House Books. There, we explored the shelves of used paperbacks to add to our collection. I counted and cataloged my books. I read on the way home from school, at the dinner table and under my covers at night. Books were a free passport that allowed a little girl from a small town in Alabama to explore the world.

From reading grew a desire to create my own stories. I began writing my own versions of The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew. I migrated from short stories to poetry. By the time I was a high schooler, I was writing for the Youth section of my daily newspaper.

Now, as an adult, I love going back to schools and organizations that serve children to lead writing workshops. Child have a vivid imagination and a curiosity for creativity. They are not held back by the many of the confines that restrict adult writers. The above picture is of a writing workshop I led with some girls from Zion Lutheran Church. They had been using my book How to Create a World to write poems. I came in to help them write poems to celebrate their mothers for Mother’s Day.

Children of various abilities and interests should be encouraged to tap into their writing abilities. You never know which child will become the next Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes. Creativity must be cultivated. If you are a teacher or a leader of an after school program, I would love to come and share poetry with your students. You can invite me to lead a writing workshop here. You can also order my book How to Create a World and use in your classroom, your kitchen or your community organization.