Changing the World. You can do it, too. How Rotary and Writers Make Stories for Good

What does it mean to find story? And what are the key elements to success as a writer and Rotarian?

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This is the speech I give to Rotarians when they ask me for an inspiring speech versus straight-up public image training. 

I’m sharing it here because:

  1. I think more than Rotarians should hear it.
  2. I don’t know how often I’ll get to give it.
  3. It’s important to me.

Since 2007, I’ve traditionally published about 15 books, including an anti-bullying anthology, an internationally and NYT bestselling series, and medal-winners. I’ve learned a few things about story since then and I’ve learned a lot of things about people. One of the things I’ve learned is that:

Rotary and Writing Kids Books Have a Lot in Common. 

Why?

Because we are both telling stories and we are both using those stories to make a better world, to build connection and community

So how did I get published? How does anyone get published? That’s a big question people always ask. I quit my job as the editor of the Ellsworth Weekly, went to VCFA to get a master’s degree, a year later submitted my first book to an editor I knew nothing about other than he seemed super cool, and got lucky. 

But it’s about more than that.

It’s about content, craft and contacts

Content is what you want to say

Craft is how well you say it

Contacts are the final step of getting it out there in the world. And everyone is hyper focused on that step, but it’s the least important one. What matters is Character, Plot, Theme, Process, Beginnings, Middles and Ends. 

And that’s pretty much it. Have something to say. Work on saying it well. Send it out into the world. Cross your fingers. 

But writing is truly bigger than that, and deeper than that and it reminds me a lot of Rotary. 

The purpose of writing is to tell a story for motivation and engagement. It’s your purpose as a Rotarian

You look into this world, the one we are living in now,

Beyond our walls, beyond our borders

Within our walls, within our borders

And you know that the incredible exists

Incredible hate

Incredible love.

Incredible need.

And we sit here, the creations of this world of love, this world of pain and hate, of guns and bombs, of poets and artists and Rotarians

And our hearts scream for goodness

And our brains long for logic

And ours and others bodies break and mend and break again.

We are the creation of the world of stories around us, a world of the incredible.

And our children are too.

And This leads to more questions and wonderings about both the people we work with and About ourselves

What does it mean to find story when you are the one who is oppressed?

What does it mean to find story when you are the one who is barely surviving in your own life?

When your mother cries to sleep every night because she can’t find a job, pay bills, fix the furnace. 

What does it mean to find a story full of magic when you are dying for magic in your own life?

When your body doesn’t work the way other kids’ bodies work? When your body gets used in ways it is not supposed to be used? 

When people make fun of your clothes, your sex, your gender, the way you say your s’s, the shade of your skin, the curl in your hair, your last name, your first name, the way you see letters backwards, the way you see or don’t see at all, the way you learn, the way you love?

What does it mean when there are these stories out there – these magical truths – these enchanted people and places when you are just barely managing to survive? 

It means there are tiny life lines. 

It means there are little pieces of help. 

That’s what Rotary’s story is and that is what children’s books are about. 

Story is powerful. We’ve know that for forever.

Books are burned and banned because people fear them. 

Books are powerful because they are (as Ben Howard sings) information wrapped up in empathy, they are reflections of our world as it is, how it was and how it should be.

And people fear that. 

The world of fantasy is a world within books and without and the evil creatures that kids meet in these books? 

The only difference for some of them? 

The only difference is one is on the page and one is in their house. 

The only difference is one is in a book and one is in their street, their church, their classroom, their playground.

Monsters and heroes are everywhere. Fantasy novels just make those monsters and heroes bigger, the stakes seem higher when you are fighting a dark wizard or the god of war. 

Books and Rotary offers hope. They show us that there are other ways of living. There are lives and worlds greater than our own and if these lives can imagined, what does it mean about our own lives? It means we can reimagine our lives, too. 

My father was the truck driving son of a communist stock broker.

As a toddler, my father stood on the streets of Staten Island passing out political pamphlets that he couldn’t read. People spat on him for views he could not even read. They threw his pamphlets in puddles, in horse excrement in his face.

He never made it past fourth grade.

He was the smartest man I ever knew. 

He could read people’s souls, understand their stories, their sorrows and explain to you about quantum mechanics.

But he thought he was dumb.

All his life.

Because he couldn’t read. 

Sometimes, I get so sad because I think of all the things he could have become if he could read a bit better.

Knowledge Empowers Us to Want to Help

That knowledge only makes me want to work harder for all the kids I write for. I want them to have the ability and story that my dad didn’t get to enjoy

And that knowledge, I know, does the same to you. 

The thing about Rotarians and writers is that we can’t be “contained.”

We have to sing out our stories, sing out our advocacy, give voice to the powerless, because our hearts… our hearts won’t let us be quiet.

We are the people who protect the enchanted, until they can protect themselves. 

We are the ones who say – You are the girl in the story who will one day save this world. We say –  you are the boy who will rid us of the monster beneath the bed. 

It’s our responsibility. We must lift as we climb. We must lift as we teach. We must lift as we write and as we live and as we flip pancakes.

It doesn’t always happen that way

I was in the 7th grade, when a teacher told me,

“Carrie, you will never become anything with those s’s. Nobody will ever take you seriously because of those s’s. Nobody will ever hire. Nor love a girl who sounds like you.”

He made me afraid of my own voice.

He took away my heart. He took away my story.

A writer’s job is to build worlds for children that reflect possibility and magic. We are to make the best worlds we possibly can, piece by piece, word by word, symbol by symbol.

We are to put our souls in them. So that the kids can grab on and soar. If the boy wizard can survive. So can I. If the girl can stop time. So can I. 

So can I. 

Kids need to know that there is darkness around them, that this world is incredible, but that they are enchanted. That they can overcome what they need to overcome. That they can not only survive, but that they can light up the world with their magic. 

So can I.

So can they.

So can you.

Stories create potential outcomes. 

We have to expand worlds, not shrink them. We have to include and empower. We have to open our mind and our hearts as writers and teachers so that there are possibilities and hope. 

Let me tell you why I am a writer. I write because I want to make connections. I write to try to understand the world and help kids or adults understand it too. 

The Marathon

I went to the Boston Marathon to cheer on my friend Lori who was running to raise money to fight cancer the year of the bomb. I walked and set up for taking pictures. I didn’t expect to see Lori for an hour, so I hung out with some people from New Jersey, talked to some cops. I took some pictures and kept wondering if I should walk the rest of the route to get ready for when Lori crossed the finish line. Logically, I knew I should, but my gut kept me back. One of my friends called, and as we talked the first explosion went off.

“What was that?” he said.

“That was bad,” I answered. “It was an explosion. It was absolutely an explosion.”

Then the second explosion happened. And I hung up. And I looked at the cops. And the cops both lifted up their portable radios to their ears. That was not a good sign. Then they began to run towards the finish line along a parallel road. That was a worse sign, especially since one of the cops looked like he never ran. Ever.  

I followed them. It smelled of smoke. It smelled of fear and confusion. Cops and medics and volunteers swarmed the area. Blood pooled on clothing and the ground. Debris was everywhere. People were crying and hysterical. The police turned me around.

So, I turned around. I regret that now. I don’t know how I could have helped. I am not a trained emergency medical technician. I regret that, too.

So, I went back to where I had been taking pictures. Runners were wandering around still, confused, cold. They had a combination of runner’s fatigue and shock. Shivering and stunned, they were desperately trying to contact family members. Some walked in circles because they didn’t know how not to keep moving, but they also didn’t know where to go. They had spent 25 miles moving forward, towards this one destination called the finish line and now they were stuck, aimless. Their ultimate goal was suddenly gone, devastated by two bombs. Those of us who were there to watch, gave them our cell phones so they could call family members who were waiting for them. They were waiting for them right by the bombs. We gave the runners money so they could get on the T when it worked again. We gave them our coats.

“How will I give it back to you?” one runner asked as she shrugged on a dark green fleece.

“You don’t need to. You never need to,” a man next to me told her.

“I have to,” she murmured. “I have to.”

I gave away my coat. I passed around my phone.

One woman said, “Please tell me it wasn’t the subway. My kids are on the subway.”

“It wasn’t the subway,” I tell her. “It was the finish line.”

She cocked her head. “What? No? How?”

That was the question: How? We knew by then that it was probably a bomb, and the hows of making a bomb are easy, but the ‘how could you” is a harder question. 

“How?” she kept saying. “How?”

And then the police moved the runners out, they told us, the watchers, to go. So, we left, a massive exodus towards the bridge and Massachusetts Avenue. People were still sobbing. A man on a corner was reading from Boston.com on his iPhone trying to find out exactly what happened. People stood around him, strangers listening to him say the words, “explosions… injuries…”

Three girls were crying, young and scared and broken inside.

“They are so hurt. They hurt them. They are so hurt,” one girl kept repeating. We kept walking.

As I walked across the bridge, a woman on the phone sobbed to her friend, “It was so big. The explosion was so big. I dropped everything in my hands. I dropped my lens cap. I dropped my purse. I dropped it all. I called my sister. I called my friend. I called everyone. I just need to talk to someone. I feel so alone. It was awful. People were missing their legs. It was awful.”

And then she saw me, this talking woman, and I nodded at her and I grabbed her hand and squeezed it. She squeezed back. We kept walking.

A leather-jacket guy next to me was telling another guy in plaid that he had no way home. I gave him my cell. We kept walking.

As I was feeling thankful, a man in front of me went down on his knees on the sidewalk. It looked like he was praying, but he was really sobbing. We all stopped walking. People pat his back. People murmured things. He stood up and we kept walking again. We walked and walked and gradually the crowd thinned, and gradually the sobs lessened.

Life is about connections. 

As writers, we know that we have to connect with our readers. We have to make them care about the characters’ stories. 

And Rotary was built on that need for connection and the need to do good together. 

But the question is, how do we make those connections, those positive connections? Talking about Polio isn’t going to work for everyone.

We make connections by embracing and protecting the enchanted.  We do it by taking chances, by caring, by looking into the eyes of our readers or the people we’re giving wheelchairs to and seeing that spark, that magic, that hope that is there despite this world of the incredible.

We do it by giving ourselves to other Rotarians, readers, people we’re helping, over and over again and expecting nothing in return. 

But we always get something in return – We get connections.

It’s because of those connections and hope that I’m a Rotarian and why I am a writer. It is the only reason that I don’t quit either of those things. 

Content is what you want to say. What does Rotary want to say? What do the clubs want to say?

Craft is how well you say it. How do we help them to say these things? In Toronto, it’s about billboards. In small town Maine? Not so much. It’s about local people and friends inspiring others locally and doing good. 

Contacts are the final step of getting it out there in the world and here we can improve too. But not via email streams and unmotivating newsletters. Not if we want millennials. Not if we want young professionals. 

Our job is to tell the stories, make the stories, protect the Enchanted and realize that the Enchanted our sometimes ourselves.

We can’t give up. Why? Because the world needs good stories when all it hears is bad.


OUR PODCAST – DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE.

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WRITING AND OTHER NEWS

ART.

I do art stuff. You can find it and buy a print here. 

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TIME STOPPERS!

You can order my middle grade fantasy novel Time Stoppers Escape From the Badlands here or anywhere.

People call it a cross between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson but it’s set in Maine. It’s full of adventure, quirkiness and heart.

Time Stoppers Carrie Jones Middle grade fantasy

MOE BERG 

The Spy Who Played Baseball is a picture book biography about Moe Berg. And… there’s a movie out now about Moe Berg, a major league baseball player who became a spy. How cool is that?

It’s awesome and quirky and fun.

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FLYING AND ENHANCED

Men in Black meet Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You know it. You can buy them hereor anywhere.

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WRITING COACH

I offer solo writing coach services. For more about my individual coaching, click here.

I am super psyched to be teaching the six-month long Write. Submit. Support. class at the Writing Barn

THERE ARE ONLY TWO SPOTS LEFT AND SIGN-UP ENDS JANUARY 18TH.

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Things I Have Already Said, And Will Probably Have to Say Again

I have written about what happened to me my senior summer in multiple ways, the most recent time was in the anthology THINGS WE HAVEN’T SAID, which was released this year.

 

It was a party. I was not drunk. I didn’t drink in high school. I liked to brag that I was “weird enough without drinking.”

This is a weird thing to brag about, honestly.

 

The young man who assaulted me had mono. As I started college, I came down with mono. The Epstein-Barr virus that causes mono attacked my brain and gave me seizures and some cognitive degradation. That’s how I have epilepsy. Every time I have a seizure, I know that it’s a horrible, tangible legacy that my assailant left me for the rest of my life.

 

Also, yes, I used to be smarter. It’s hard not being as smart as I once was. It’s impacted my confidence and belief in my abilities.

 

And as the country listens to Professor Christine Blassey Ford’s testimony about her high school assault, I realize how incredibly lucky I was in the years after my own assault.

 

Yes, I lost IQ points.

 

Yes, I still occasionally have seizures.

 

No. I didn’t tell my family.

 

No. I didn’t tell most of my high school friends.

 

But I had people who believed me.

 

But I did tell the people in college that I trusted. Some of them were wonderful. Some? Not so much.  One guy insisted that we should have sex so I wouldn’t ever find sex scary. His drunken insistence was pretty overwhelming and not helpful at all. One guy eventually wrote about my assault in his memoir, not using my name, and making it into a bonding moment with his adopted brother who offered (I guess) to go beat my assailant up.

 

A couple years later, my boyfriend insisted that we help inform other woman about date rape. So, we enlisted real Maine judges, real Maine lawyers, classmates to play the roles of the rapist, witnesses, and had a trial in front of an auditorium full of students and people from Lewiston, Maine. It made the news.

 

I played the victim. He thought it would be empowering.

 

We didn’t have scripts. We had a set of facts and we had to present them according to our characters’ point of view.

 

And telling a story that was basically my own, but not my own, so that the process of the legal system could be shown and explained to other women and men who might someday need to report their own rapes? It was so hard. And I was hiding behind the façade that I was acting.

 

So, every tweak and twist of Professor Ford’s voice, every tremor and pause, both breaks my heart, and makes me ill with compassion, but also – it also makes me so amazed by how brave she’s being as she says things that she remembers, things like “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two.”

 

“You’ve never forgotten the laughter? You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you,” Senator Patrick Leahy said.

You don’t forget things like that.

I can’t forget Anita Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment from (now) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I saw how she was treated.

I remember.

Patrick Leahy was on the committee when Anita Hill testified back in 1991. He is on the committee now. Senators Hatch and Grassley were also on both committees.

Speaking truth matters. Surviving matters. Taking care of each other matters.

 

I’m in an organization that has a membership of about 35 women. Of those women, I know at least seven of them have been molested or sexually assaulted. These are leaders of the community. These are kind women who devote their lives to their community and family. And I know of seven of them who have openly stated that they’ve been hurt.

There are probably more.

 

And here’s the thing: What could they have become, what could they be doing, if they didn’t have to deal with that baggage?

 

What would this country be, this world be, if the borders of women’s bodies were respected? If they weren’t hurt by sexual assaults and have to deal with the trauma of that for so long? And it obviously isn’t just straight women, it’s non-binary people, it’s gay people, it’s men. What would we all be if we didn’t have to be derailed by violence? What would we all be if we didn’t have other people constantly doubt and deny our pain?

 

Spoiler alert: We’d be even more awesome.

 

That’s what our country needs to work towards. We need to work towards kindness, respect. We need to work towards caring about each other.

 

 

 

 

Remembering the Heroes on September 11th. One story.

This is what I post around Sept. 11 of every year. I am so sorry if you’ve read it before. A lot of things have changed in my life in 15 years. I went from being a newspaper reporter and city councilor to a newspaper editor to unemployed to a New York Times (and internationally) bestselling novelist. But how I feel about heroes will never change.

Ben died in 2016, after years and years of being a hero to the people of Shelter Island, New York, years and years of being a paramedic (one of the oldest in the country) and not only just saving people, but being the last one to comfort and touch the living.

The picture here is the one that ran with his obituary. I am not sure who took it and if you did and you want me to take it down, I will! Just let me know. It’s a great photo.

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It’s hard not to think about September 11 without thinking about loss.

That’s how it should be. But I do know that so many heroes that we never hear about worked hard on that day. It’s important to remember them too, because they are, I think, what it truly means to be an ideal American and an ideal person.

My uncle, Charlie, who lives in Maplewood, NJ was just across the shore when he saw the plane go into one of the tall towers in New York City. He was over 80 and a doctor. He was in World War II. He hates war.

He told me when he saw that plane full of people go into that tower full of people he said, “Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ…”

He mumbled it for a second, a prayer, a plea, a name, a hope. He said his heart sank right into the bottom of his feet as he stood there watching. He said like he felt like he stood there on the shore forever. He didn’t. He moved after a second. He went right over towards the towers, towards the death and the hurt and the terror and the screaming, and the whole time in his head he kept repeating those words, that name…. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.

He started to help people. He was over 80 breathing in all kinds of horrible things into lungs that were already tired and aged, but that didn’t stop him. He’d helped people all his life. He had served his country all his life. Nobody would have thought anything if he had turned around, walked away, got in his car and drove back to Maplewood.

But Charlie would have thought something though if he did that.
He could have never done that.

My former father-in-law, Ben, also over 80, is an EMT. He became one when he was 65. After years of being an executive, he wanted to feel like he did something good in his life, something helpful. He was part of the Red Cross disaster team. He went over to the site too, got grit out of people’s eyes, helped them breathe, helped them cope.
You ask him what it was like and he shakes his head slowly and says in his deep/hoarse voice, “God, that was an awful scene. Just an awful scene.”

Charlie and Ben weren’t firemen on duty or police officers like so many heroes that day were. They weren’t official first responders.

What I love about them is that they made the choice. They chose to go. They chose to help and they didn’t give a poop about how old they were, about how many people they’d already helped. They didn’t care about the ache in their bones or the fact that both their hearts were starting to fail. They cared about something else. They cared about people. So they went.

They will always be my heroes. They are just two of many, many stories that happened on that day and on other days. People can do awful things. We can hurt our loves, bomb each other, scream words of hate, glorify ignorance with bats and cars, ignore a smile of a cashier, be too busy to pay attention to a child.

But we can do beautiful things, too. We can love, and heal; we can put others first, rush to a scene of mayhem, put ourselves in peril on the off chance that we might be able to save a life, get grit out of an eye, give comfort, give a hug. And that… that is what makes people worth it. That is what makes people magic. That is what makes people heroes over and over again.

So, I will remember Ben and Charlie and so many others today. I won’t ignore the hate and pain and sorrow that happens on Sept. 11 or on any day of war or violence, but I choose to remember the good, too. I choose to remember the heroes.