A Writing Retreat for Every High School?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a great writing teacher, how one inspires kids to write, and how you get the very best out of them. I believe all kids, all people, in fact, have the ability to write something true, evocative and powerful. But how do you reach that point in your writing? How do you help kids get there?

In the last several months, I’ve visited a lot of schools talking about writing and “Trafficked.” I’ve taught several writing workshops and I’ve met many writing/language arts teachers, and at every school, I’ve learned something from a great librarian or teacher. Today I want to talk to you about one very special experience I had recently, right before Hurricane Sandy, when I was brought in to teach at a teen writing retreat for Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York.

The real star of the workshop was an amazing English teacher and poet named Diane Sarna who began the writing retreat for the kids several years ago and has organized it and taught at it every year since. She doesn’t get paid extra for this, but gets paid back in the love she receives from these students. The trust she’s built up with them is what brings forth the incredible results. These kids can really write.

From the first day she brought me in, I knew I’d come into something magical. In her high school classroom, innovative writing experiments line the walls. On a clothesline, t-shirts were pinned up with poetry written on them. It was one of the most creative classrooms I’d ever seen. She asked me to come back and meet with some students because she explained the students get to pick the writer they want to teach them at the retreat. I was awed: I had found a school and a teacher that trusted its students to make important decisions. Go here to check out Diane Sarna’s website.

So, I met with four kids who asked me smart, sensitive questions about teaching and writing. Then they all left and I assumed Diane would talk with them later and let me know what they’d decided. Instead, she offered me the job on the spot. I asked her how she knew and she said they’d planned a secret gesture. If the kids liked me, they would do this gesture as they were leaving. If it wasn’t unanimous, they’d talk, but I guess they’d all touched their noses and I was good to go.

The retreat goes from Friday to Sunday and the kids stay out a rustic cabin setting about twenty minutes from their school, which was originally the country home for the vaudeville star, Major Bowes. The location was inspirational in its own right.

Any kid at the high school can apply to go and it’s first come, first served. I believe it costs the kids around 30 each to pay for food and accommodation. The writer is paid for with a grant. They accept 30 kids and it fills up on the first day. Most of the kids don’t know each other and they’re all different ages, but Diane makes it work.

They leave after school on Friday and that night is all about getting to know one another, writing together, sitting around a fire and playing music. By the time I arrived on Saturday, the kids were comfortable with each other. Right from the first writing experiment I did with them, several kids were willing to share.

We went for a walk in the woods and around the grounds to find an object to write about. I brought in scents and we wrote about the memories they evoked. The students listened to clips from This American Life and we talked about voice and wrote some pieces in the voices of people we knew. We drank copious amounts of hot chocolate with marshmallows and had amazing food. We wrote and shared some more. Diane was a solid presence in the room, always laughing with them, and being firm when she needed to be. Two other teachers volunteered their time too, cooking the meals and staying with the kids at night to supervise them. They all willingly gave up their weekend to create this experience for these kids, an experience I’m sure will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

That night, after dinner, the teachers transformed the dining room into this magical space where the lights were turned off and candles were lined up around the room and on all the tables.

The kids then went around the circle, one by one, reading poetry or creative non-fiction and singing songs they wrote, while playing the guitar. I counted four guitars. Every time someone finished reading, everyone snapped their fingers in appreciation. I’ve never experienced snapping before in this setting. It was subtle and honoring.

Finally, I said goodnight and drove home, thinking about these kids and how this school and this teacher were making a huge difference. I’m sure the kids stayed up late, playing music and sharing their work. The next morning, they ate pancakes and headed home. I don’t know how you could leave that retreat without feeling inspired and having a greater sense of confidence about who you are as a writer and as a person. And, man, if we can do that for teens, it can make all the difference in the world.

I hope reading about this might inspire some other teachers or librarians at high schools to think about starting their own writing retreat. You give up a weekend, but you change everything about your dynamic with the students and you give these kids an opportunity to believe in their writing and believe in themselves.


Protecting Our Kids

Last Friday, twenty kids were gunned down at their school, Sandy Hill Elementary. They were in first grade, starting out their lives, independent from their parents, at least for that short time while they were in school. Their parents, at work or at home, had no way to protect them, didn’t even know their children were in danger until it was too late. Six teachers tried, bravely, to stop the shooter, and they lost their lives doing so. No one can get close to a murderer firing a semi-automatic weapon.

I’m a mom of two kids in elementary school and this tragedy has hit close to home. It could have been my kids. It could have been any of our kids. This has been happening far too often and it simply cannot happen again. So what do we do?

As a young adult novelist and a writing teacher/coach who goes into a lot of under-resourced schools, I can tell you that this violence is a part of many kids’ every day lives. They walk through streets filled with gang members who could shoot them down at any minute. They go through metal detectors to get into their schools, watched by a battalion of security guards. Sandy Hook is a typical suburb of New York City, a place where people can usually shield themselves from the reality that many kids and teens face every day. In this case, violence followed them into their sanctuary and this made us all realize that nobody is safe. Anyone can buy a gun. So, for people to say that guns are not the issue, truly, that’s ridiculous. This is a huge part of the issue and it’s an easy first step. The tougher you make it to get a gun, the longer it will take for someone to get it, and the more chances people will have to intervene in the meantime.

Here is Obama, giving solace to the victims and talking about gun control. One of his best speeches after one of our worst tragedies:

People are citing mass shootings in other apparently peaceful countries, like Norway and Canada, saying gun control is not the issue. But what they don’t say is that those incidents are rare, possibly the only massacre that these countries have ever encountered, not the fourth one in a single year. We won’t end these massacres entirely, but we can certainly decrease their frequency. Also, on a daily basis, we can decrease the number of kids and teens who are killed walking to and from school.

Gun control is not the only solution. We need to look at everything from access to mental health care to services for the poor to how we treat one another. We need to bring a greater sense of peace into our daily lives, in all of our interactions with everyone we meet. As a culture, we need to look at how we promote and glorify violence. How do we spread fear, anger and hatred in our own lives and in our own families? How can we uplift the people we come into contact with? How can we show our kids how special they are?

Read this post by Michael Moore on other causes.

I don’t have all the answers, but I think that instead of feeling helpless about this situation, we could look at our immediate circle of people and make a positive movement toward peace. This will spread from one circle of people to the next until maybe the next person on the edge of madness will be drawn into one of these circles and this will make all the difference. Maybe it seems too simple, but it’s so simple that we can all do it and it just might work.

Plus, we need to stop already with the guns. Email your representative and tell them how you feel. 


Obama or Romney to End Human Trafficking and Child Slavery?

So you care about ending human trafficking in our lifetime? Ending child slavery? How has Obama done in the last 4 years? Recently, this September, Obama gave a speech on ending human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative:

“It ought to concern every person, because it’s a debasement of our common humanity.  It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric.  It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets.  It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime.  I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name—modern slavery.”

“Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time, and the United States will continue to lead it…”

–President Barack Obama, September 25, 2011


What has Obama’s administration done to make a tangible difference in the fight against human trafficking?

  1. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed an OSCE conference on preventing human trafficking held in Vienna, Austria, on 14-15 September 2009.
  2. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed published in newspapers around the country calling for an end to human trafficking in November 9, 2010.
  3. In December 2011, President Obama declared January to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
  4. In March 2012, President Obama directed his administration to double efforts to end human trafficking and created the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking in Persons. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed this Task Force.
  5. On September 24, 2012, Obama announced several initiatives based on the recommendations of this task force.
  6. At that time, Obama issued an Executive Order that requires compliance with the existing zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking in government contracting and more importantly, provides agencies with tools to ensure compliance. In the past, government contractors and subcontractors have charged workers fees that they have to pay off, essentially creating indentured slaves.
  7. The administration is providing tools and training for local law enforcement to identify and help trafficking victims within their communities.
  8. The administration has partnered with Goldman Sachs Foundation to provide 6 million dollars in assistance to communities who are forming comprehensive plans to help victims of trafficking.
  9. Obama is streamlining the current procedures for T-Visas, which are the visas available to victims of trafficking so that they can stay in America and help prosecute the traffickers.
  10. Obama has called on countries worldwide to enact and enforce laws preventing and punishing human trafficking.

What still needs to be done?

  1. The criminal code needs to be strengthened so that those government contractors who break the law will have their contracts revoked and face jail time.
  2. The anti-human trafficking bill that is stalling in committee and contains these changes to the criminal code needs to be passed.
  3. We need to enforce punitive measures against countries which don’t comply with international laws against human trafficking.

What would Romney do?

Romney has not discussed ending human trafficking as one of his objectives while in office. In fact, at the same Clinton Global Initiative where Obama talked about human trafficking, Romney talked about linking foreign aid to the expansion of free enterprise. Go ahead, listen to him. Not quite the same as Obama. He is very pro-business and not very pro-poor. With all the ways he wants to cut help to America’s poor, it’s unlikely he’s going to want to give any funding to help the victims of trafficking in America and around the world. So, my guess is that the abuse of the poorest segment of our international population is not going to be a huge priority. What do you think?

Tomorrow, please, go out and vote. Vote from your heart.



Standing Up to the Bullies

I started standing up for bullied kids when I was in 6th grade. I just couldn’t stand to see someone being picked on. Here’s a guest post, Not On My Watch, for Deborah Reber’s Heart of Gold Girls blog. I wrote about my first and only fist fight in 6th Grade. Sometimes it only takes one. It wasn’t that I didn’t get bullied later – I did, and quite terribly. My very best friends turned on me in my first year of high school. It was horrible. For about a year, I never felt more alone.

However, it made me even more passionate in the belief that kids need to stand up for one another and people in general need to stand up for one another. I don’t believe in minding your own business when someone is being cruel.

There are so many more nice people and kids in the world than mean ones. We outnumber them – we can win. I believe in standing up to bullies, both when you’re young and as you get older. To me, Trafficked is just another way to stand up to the bullies. Go here to read more.


Putting down the Phone and Getting Bored = Increased Creativity

I believe the key to a creative life is having the ability to observe humanity and to capture it, to illuminate it in some way. How do we do this? How do we expand our ability to observe? I think we have to step back from society’s push to constantly entertain ourselves, and instead, allow ourselves to be bored. We need to put down our devices for a segment of the day in order to let our minds drift.

Having said that, I’m as guilty as anyone. My fingers itch for the phone and I think I’ll just take a little peek, get my fix. Sometimes I pick up the phone during stoplights for a quick tweet or even worse, as much as I vow to leave my phone alone when I’m with my kids, I find myself checking my email while I’m pushing one of them on the swings. (Is anything as boring as swing pushing?) I see the need to disconnect from the world on my phone and to connect with the world right in front of me, but it’s a battle I fight every day.

An article in the New York Times this morning reported that motorist-related deaths in NYC have gone up by 23% in the last year. This was attributed to distracted walking and distracted driving. In other words, we are dying because we’re texting/tweeting while walking and driving. Our devices are causing our deaths, which is nothing new and no big surprise, for sure, but it made me think about what else we are losing. We are losing our ability to live in the present and this ability is very tied to our creativity.

Nothing is more creative for me than walking in New York City. I usually keep my phone in my pocket during these walks. I watch all the people and I see their little ticks and think about their lives. I imagine what their homes look like, what they do for fun and what odd things they do when no one is looking. Often they’re gazing down at their phones while I’m staring at them. (You got a staring problem, lady? Yes, I do.) Then I write.

If I had my head down the whole time, texting or Facebooking or tweeting, I’d miss out. New York City is a magnet for creative people – artists, photographers, writers, painters – for a reason. You see so much humanity every day by walking around and noticing. With your head up. Cell phone in pocket.

We are so afraid of being bored, but that is just what we need. The brain searches for stimulation, searches, searches, and then bang, you see something that you might never have seen if you weren’t bored. You imagine something. You come up with the best story idea you’ve ever had.

Maybe at that stoplight, instead of getting in a quick tweet, I’d see an almost dead deer twitching, not yet road kill, but hooves still kicking a little, and that moment would enter some piece of writing, like a blog post, perhaps. Perhaps while I’m pushing my child on the swings, instead of checking email, I would see a bee land on her and flick it away at just the right moment and this moment of heroism would enter a piece of writing. And, as another plus, my kid wouldn’t get stung.

In Thanks To Bloggers: A Six Month Anniversary

This week I passed my six-month book anniversary and as a result, I’ve been reflecting on TRAFFICKED, where it was and where it has come. Before the book came out, I never could have imagined how busy I would be doing readings, interviews and guest blog posts for the entire six months. Today I want to talk about these guest blog posts, blogger reviews and interviews and how intensely grateful I am to the bloggers who’ve helped me. Without them, there wouldn’t have been radio shows, newspaper and magazine articles, readings, or invites to conferences.

TRAFFICKED did not start out as a big book. It wasn’t a racehorse that was pounding ahead of all the other books even before its pub date (February 16). In fact, I’d say few people had heard about it in the month before it came out. If you looked online, truly, there was nothing. That TRAFFICKED has experienced any level of success is due mostly to amazing book bloggers who got behind the book and started talking about it.

For the month before TRAFFICKED came out, all I did was write guest posts for bloggers who generously hosted me.  Many of them also reviewed the book and continue to review the book, even six months later, which is unheard of. Conventional wisdom is if the book doesn’t take off in three months, it’s dead, but TRAFFICKED is the little engine that could.

TRAFFICKED is a little different from most books because it speaks to one of the most important issues of our day, modern-day slavery, an issue more and more people are learning about. As people become aware about the issue, they learn about the book. They go online. TRAFFICKED has received amazing reviews from all of the big reviewers for which I’m also very grateful. Every time one came out, I wept. The first one that came out was Kirkus. I was in the car at a stoplight when I started reading it. I had steeled myself not to care, but I burst into tears, I was so relieved. The light changed and I had to pull the car over. However, the reviews are not what you see online. If you type in TRAFFICKED and Kim Purcell into Google, you will find page after page of bloggers talking about the book or hosting me. They have spread the word to readers. Thank God.

Recently, an author threatened to publish a blacklist of bad bloggers on his blog. He was annoyed that bloggers hadn’t reviewed his book, even though he claimed they’d promised a review. Sadly, he didn’t talk once about all the amazing bloggers out there who are working their butts off – for free.

These bloggers are mostly students and they have jobs. I think back to when I was a university student and I can’t imagine running a successful blog. Every spare minute I wasn’t working or in classes, I was studying or working out. (I was on the rowing team.) I didn’t have a spare minute. When you consider all the books these bloggers read, the hours they must put in is incredible. I barely had time to read for pleasure in university and reading is my favorite thing to do, besides writing. The bloggers don’t just read; they write about the books. They aren’t doing this for free books, despite what that author said. You can get free books at the library. Come on, now. They are doing it because they love books and they want to help us authors, and for that, I’m awe-struck. They have to review the big books for their readers, but they also choose to review the smaller books, just because.

Thanks to all the bloggers for their reviews and blog posts, to all of the bloggers who have even mentioned TRAFFICKED on Twitter and to all the bloggers who will review TRAFFICKED or host me in the future. You are not only making a huge difference to the life of this little book, but you are also promoting awareness about a very serious issue which affects the lives of teenage girls around the world.


5 Tricks to Overcome Your Writing Fear and Start Writing Like a Maniac

Do you feel afraid when you sit down to write? Is your heart beating faster? Do you feel anxious that you won’t write beautifully or maybe you won’t even make sense? Well, good. It means you care. Now, to turn that anxiety into magic, follow these steps:

1. Set a standard time to write every day. Your brain will start to get ready before you sit down and you’ll be more creative. Also, if you allow other things to be scheduled during your writing time, you’ll reach the end of the day and you won’t have done it. Some people write in bursts and then take long breaks, but most of the successful writers I know have a schedule.

2. Get your body moving before your writing time. Either walk, run or swim, and do it alone. While you are moving, start thinking about what you’ll be writing. Get in the zone before you actually sit down.

3. Do something you would never ordinarily do. Shake things up. Push yourself out of your safety zone in life. If you’d never normally walk up to a strange guy and ask him out, do it now. Just for the sake of your writing. Jump out of a plane. Go white water rafting. Send a letter to a writer you admire. Bring a bouquet of flowers to your neighbor with the sick kid. Drive a new way to work. Get lost. Start dancing in the middle of the sidewalk. And while you’re doing those things, stay fully present. Observe your emotions. Smell, touch, feel, hear, taste. Write about it. Apply it to your work in progress.

4. When you’re not writing, research, but not online or from books. Do it in person. I discovered the magic of this when I went up to a cop one day and asked to see the backseat of his car. I felt nervous, really nervous. Cops have always been scary to me. But he was very gracious and let me check it out. Did you know the backseats of police cars aren’t backseats? They’re more like plastic benches. The floor has a drain so that if someone’s puking or bleeding, they can hose it off. Gross, right? Plus, there was a reflector vest and the cop had thrown a Jamba Juice cup back there. Perfect details. I was way more inspired than if I’d gone on the Internet.

5. Read a book on writing. Even now, I love picking up one of my favorites when I’m stuck. I love On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost, and The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.

To read more about my own journey through writing fear, check out my recent guest blog post on Teen Librarian’s Toolbox about fear and my inspiration behind TRAFFICKED.

Warning Signs for Teens: Before You Are Trafficked

1. The person wants to move too fast. This could mean sex if they are posing as a boyfriend. But it also could mean they want you to make decisions faster than you’re ready to make them. For example, traffickers will tell girls from other countries that they need to agree to the “job” immediately or they’ll give it to someone else. Or they tell the girl she needs to be ready to travel in a week.

2. They want to move you from your home, which is your comfort zone and the place where people know you. Girls within America are often moved to a different state where they’re harder to track down. Girls from other countries might meet a “boyfriend” online who says very quickly that he will pay for her to come to America. It’s better to ask the guy to come to visit you. It’s safer and you can get help.

3. The other person is older and richer than you are. They buy you an excessive amount of gifts and you feel that you owe them something. They might even imply that you owe them something.

4. You start feeling like you need the person, can’t live without them.

5. You have to hide things about the person from people you know, your friends and your family. They might even make you choose, them or your family.

6. They ask you to do things that you think are morally wrong. They say, “If you love me, you’ll . . . ” You don’t feel comfortable, but you do what they ask you to do. Then they get you to do something else and soon you feel trapped.

7. Remember that the person could be a female. Traffickers use females to lure in young girls and gain their trust. You should also be suspicious of a female who’s making you feel pressured in any way or does any of the above behaviors.

If you find yourself in a relationship as described above, get out before it’s too late. Turn to a trusted adult in your life, such as a family member, friend, teacher or counselor, for help.

I recently wrote a guest blog about a girl I met who’d been sex trafficked at fifteen. For her story and the advice she had for young people like her, go to Denise Jaden’s YA Contemps blog.

Guest Post – Being a Canadian in LA and How It Helped Me Write Trafficked

I wrote this piece for the blog Burning Impossibly Bright because the person who usually writes this blog, Ambur Hostyn, is Canadian and I thought her Canadian audience might relate. Also, anyone who’s ever lived in LA and not fallen in love with it will know what I’m talking about.

Having said that, there were many good things about LA and I definitely learned to appreciate it in the ten years I lived there. In fact, in just a few weeks, on June 20th, I’ll be heading there for ALA annual conference and I’ll be doing a reading at the main branch of the LA library for LA Teen Reads Night on June 28th. I can’t wait to see all my friends and visit my old haunts and hang out in the place which inspired TRAFFICKED.

Guest Post: No English, A Different Kind of Prison

In this guest post for a Book and a Latte Blog, I talk about how many modern day slaves don’t speak English and how this can be its own prison. Not speaking the language can be terrifying, especially if you’re in a country illegally, and it leaves you especially vulnerable to exploitation. Thanks to Jen at a Book and a Latte for hosting me on her blog.