With a nod to Isaac — file under “Blown Away”

Is it irony or divine comedy that “back to school” always coincides with hurricanes brewing? Just as the kids get squished back into blessed routine, the tropics churn up their unruly unpredictability.

Actually, I long for more of a parallel. For school to be more hurricane-like, for the atmospheric conditions of public education to be ripe for the tossing and turning of minds, for downpours of creativity, for lightening strikes and high winds of rampant curiosity, for shaking things up. I’d prefer never to hear the term “curriculum standards” again. But despite the stifling pressures of our modern educational bureaucracy — that perfect storm of smaller budget, bigger classes, high-stakes standardized tests and the woefully inadequate benchmarks of “Adequate Yearly Progress” —  there IS good stuff happening in our kids’ classrooms, and out of classrooms too, especially when it comes to inspiring young literary imaginations in Charleston.

Olive Gardner at Write of Summer camp, a few summers ago

Though he’d be quick to share the credit with multitudes of other teachers, one curly-headed nice guy stands out, in my book, as the literary arts champion for Charleston’s young writers and readers. That would be Jonathan Sanchez, owner of Blue Bicycle Books, founder and director of the Write of Summer writing camp, and brilliant instigator of YALLFest (the country’s premier Young Adult literary festival, coming up on November 10, more on that in upcoming posts).

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Write of Summer, in which kids in grades 3 – 12 forgo fun trips to the swimming pool and beach to sit around and…write. And have a blast doing it. My girls loved it back in the good ol’ days when they were young enough to go, and every parent I know whose kid has been a camper raves as well. Jonathan is the Huck Finn of pen and paper — he turns writing into a wild adventure. Turns the daunting prospect of creating a poem into fun and games. He gives kids permission, and pointers, to play with words, and the result is verse and prose that is fresh, loose, bold and heartening. Childlike, in the purest, best sense of the word.

Want proof? Here’s an example of what Moultrie Middle School 8th grader Nina Howard (a 3-summer alumna of Sanchez’s camp) turned out at Write of Summer camp this year, using one of Sanchez’s prompts.


Write a Poem Poem

Write a poem that clicks in your brain

Like a train’s wheels on a track

Let it be braided into bracelets

That you buy

At touristy shops

And let it be braided

Into hair

Write a poem that paints itself

On walls

That people will sign their names on

Write a poem that likes to drink

Mott’s apple juice

On Thursdays

Let it drink all its drinks

With curly straws

And write a poem that likes to eat trail mix

With purple cranberries



Write a poem that holds the door for strangers

And waves at people passing by

Especially at grandmas, and nuns

And your old catholic school teacher Sister Adelheid

And if it sees Maria Von Trapp, let it wave at her too

Let it grow peonies in its garden

And let it weed it




Write a poem that steals ideas

From copyrighted things

If it wants to

And let it steal words said by

Winston Churchill

And lima beans

Let your poem


Styrofoam lunch trays

It doesn’t have to start a revolution

But at least let it take a stand

Write a poem that smells like

Cinnamon raisin bread

Fresh out of the oven

When all

The other poems

Smell like plastic

Write a poem that buys


From the second floor of department stores

So that it can flip pancakes

For its daughter


And if your poems a girl

Have it marry someone with the last name Kelly

So its daughter’s name

Can be Grace Kelly

That might make her

Popular in school

Write a poem that doesn’t care

If the other poems laugh when it quotes Fat Albert

“He who throws mud only looses


Write a poem

That chops onions to hide its crying

Write a poem

That just likes to


Whatever it wants

Or just




~~ by Nina Howard


It’s HERE! Cuisine & comics launched to higher countertops

Today maybe the day before school starts for most of us (thank God!), but in the rarified echelons of toothy literature and delicious comic books, today is monumental for other reasons. August 21st is the grand debut for the world’s first cookbook comic book, thanks to the unhinged antics of the multi-talented Charleston native Grady Hendrix and his wife, the heralded chef and vegetable whisperer, Amanda Cohen.

In the food-centric Big Apple, Amanda’s restaurant, Dirt Candy, is to vegetables what the Museum of Modern Art is to Andy Warhol. And now her much awaited cookbook, thanks to the deranged genius of her husband, is breaking new artistic ground as well. If you don’t believe me, just watch this:

Order your copy today, and stay tuned to Literary Charleston for local book signing info. I’ll be sure to warn you before Grady and Amanda head South.

Semi-Charmed, and Highly-Inspiring (and funny)

I can’t wait to meet Nora Zelevansky.

Not only is she hilarious, accomplished and incredibly courteous in her spunky and prompt replies to my emails, she’s ventured into the vast and daunting territory that I and so many non-fiction writers  say we’d like to explore one day. She’s embraced the f-word — fiction. And had her first effort, Semi-Charmed Life, published. By a real publishing house. She’s semi-charmed, or rather, very charmed, indeed.

Nora Zelevansky is not a novice –  she’s a working freelance journalist whose articles appear in notable outlets like Elle, Self, InStyle, the Los Angeles Times and Salon.com, but for her first foray into fiction, she needed a little nudge, a support system, a boost. And so she tapped, or typed, her charms through NaNoWriMo.


Sound like an “abracadabra” incantation for writers? It may be, but NaNoWriMo is also shorthand for National Novel Writing Month, an annual fiction frenzy in which the month of November becomes “30 days and nights of literary abandon.” NaNoWriMoers commit to cranking out 50,000 words in one month, or about 1,700 words a day in Nora’s case (during November 2009), and at the end, voila, a novel. That beats thawing the Thanksgiving turkey, if you ask me.


“I was nervous, but I just sort of launched into it and, as with a lot of things in life, the anticipation was more stressful than the actuality,” says Zelevansky, who wove her familiarity with fashion, style and Manhattan celebrity culture into her story but otherwise, did not do any plot outlining or story-mapping. She just sketched out a few of the major characters (Upper West Sider/ college student Beatrice Bernstein and Veruca Pfeffernoose, her “famous-for-nothing socialite” dorm room neighbor), scheduled her writing time, stocked up on Cherry Coke Zero, then dove in.


Granted, 99 percent of NaNoWriMo finished products are more like 50,000 words of valiant effort than anything remotely publishable, but Zelevansky’s satiric comedic mystery and delightfully quirky romp through coming-of-age dramas caught the eye of St. Martin’s Press and garnered her a two-book contract. Semi-Charmed Life hit bookstores this July, and she’s been off to the races ever since, with excellent reviews including those from Publishers Weekly and Elle. On Monday at 5 p.m., she gives a reading at Blue Bicycle Books.


“I would absolutely recommend the NaNo experience, and not just to professional writers.  This is a process, definitely in the vein of starting an exercise regimen, that makes you feel good and accomplished everyday.  It offers an outlet that’s separate from your daily life and, because it’s practically about free-associating, it also offers you a release.  And, it’s only for a month, so it’s doable!” says Zelevansky. “Can you already hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing?  Are you pumped?”


Come join me in meeting Nora and welcoming her to Charleston on Monday. Pick up a copy of Semi-Charmed Life; you’ll laugh out loud at her characters’ antics, and maybe get some encouragement for unleashing your own novel as NaNoWriMo rolls around again in T-minus 71 days.

You can find/follow Nora on Facebook and Twitter: Twitter handle is @missnoraz



Nora is also more than happy to talk to bookclubs, contact her via her website or at semicharmedbook@gmail.com.  http://norazelevansky.com/books/



From Place to Place


Our packed-to-the-gills minivan is finally unloaded, our week of family vacation to the Outer Banks officially over. This weekend’s finale nine-hour drive down the two-lane roads of eastern North Carolina, through has-been places like Maysville, past forgotten railroad stops in the middle of tobacco fields, was a trip down memory lane. A flashback to similar roads, even these same ones, I traveled as a child to and from the North Carolina beaches that were our annual summer pilgrimage, trips fortified by James Taylor on 8-track, Orange Crush and Coppertone. The drive also gave me plenty of time to reflect on the wonders of being away, the memory-making value of vacation, and to think about the difference between a touristy “get-away” and travel.

This distiction was explored in a recent New York Times essay, “Reclaiming Travel,” that caught my attention as my husband and I were Expedia-ing and Travelocitying last minute options to gather our troups before our oldest goes back to college (this week!) and the others start school. We had hopes of venturing to an eye-opening landscape, like Zion National Park — lands yet unseen by our notso globe-trotting family, but “no vacancy” deadends and exorbitant airfare re-routed us to Avon, North Carolina and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in search of elusive surfing swell.

Except for miles of undisturbed dunes and sea oats and the blissfully cooler, clearer water, it was a long haul to a terrain not terribly different from home. So what was the point? Family time beyond the bounds of our normal routine was enough for me — waiting out thunder storms over rounds of gin rummy; reading on the beach with my teenaged daughters; paddleboarding with my husband; an evening trip to the Dairy Queen. It was R&R — lovely, needed, and thoroughly enjoyed — but not real travel, I admit. In the essay, the authors ask, “So what distinguishes meaningful, fruitful travel from mere tourism? What turns travel into a quest rather than self-serving escapism?” and they offer this answer:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism. Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.

Interesting stuff to ponder, especially as my city, the nation’s Number One Tourist destination, empties itself of the PGA throngs. Like my minivan, Charleston and Kiawah are a little lighter today than yesterday, but what did those who came here take away? Can you come to Charleston (or leave it, in my case) not as a tourist, but as a traveler?
Well, yes, especially if you cross the path of Vikki Matsis while you are here. I first met Vikki when I was coordinating a “Poetry for the Planet” program, sponsored by the Sophia Institute and the Coastal Conservation League, maybe four or five years ago. Vikki took the stage that night at the City Gallery, with a full moon over Charleston Harbor in the background, and outshone that brilliant moon. Her poetry and her delivery were mezmerizing, and I’ve been a fan ever since. In addition to being a writer and performer, Vikki is the founder of Charleston’s acclaimed NotSo Hostel, where she perfects the art of hospitality, both welcoming and inspiring travelers.
And this Wedsnesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Blue Bicycle Books, Vikki will celebrate the publication of her new book, Inside an American Hostel: A Guidebook for Managers & Aspiring Owners. More than a guidebook, Inside is an ode to wanderlust, an invitation to venture outside our comfort zones. She offers here both a how-to and a poetic journey from the soul of a true traveler.
If you want a taste of Vikki’s well-traveled way with words, checkout the first video on this webpage (sorry, couldn’t embed link here), and then trek on over to Blue Bicycle Books on Wednesday evening. Become a traveler in your own town, or wherever it is your destiny is taking you.