PORTLAND, Maine — At the East End Community School last Friday morning, Sarah Braunstein arrived with coffee and an inspirational quote from Salvador Dali: “To gaze is to think.”
For the next 45 minutes, the author and short-story writer challenged second-, third- and fourth-graders to ponder the quote while writing. She also sat down three objects on a chair to prompt the budding scribes.
Once a week, Braunstein, 38, teaches a creative writing class called Power Pens. She developed the class to awaken children to the rewards of wordplay.
Power Pens is part of the school’s Rise and Shine program, which invites parents to volunteer their skills, from engineering to wellness, for the morning elective.
“We tapped into her talents,” said Marcia Gendron, the school’s principal. “She brings the author’s craft into the classroom,” which does more than increase literacy. It forms an important bond.
Braunstein has been teaching the class for two years to help enrich the environment in which her son goes to school.
Next fall, Braunstein will be a faculty fellow in fiction at Colby College, and this month, her short story “All You Have to Do” was published in The New Yorker. These public school students are learning from a real pro.
The author of “The Sweet Relief of Missing Children,” winner of the 2012 Maine Literary Award for fiction, said she was “dizzy with happiness” when she learned the storied magazine wanted to publish her fiction for the second time in two years.
“ All You Have to Do,” about a 16-year-old boy coming of age in the early 1970s and who wins an aluminum foil contest, is front and center on page 62 of the March 16 edition.
Placing work in the iconic magazine is a triumph. While E.B. White of Brooklin was a regular contributor, submissions from J.D. Salinger were rejected for years before he finally broke in with “ Slight Rebellion off Madison” in 1946.
“My son and I both jumped up and down,” said Braunstein at Portland’s Think Tank Coworking, where she works. “He got the importance of it.”
When her first story, “ Marjorie Lemke,” came out in The New Yorker in April 2013, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance threw her a reception at Mayo Street Arts in Portland.
“It was so beautiful. After that happened, [did] I want another story in The New Yorker? Hell yeah,” she said. “I want to be part of this community and make people proud.”
Between grading papers of undergraduates at Bowdoin College and graduate students at the University of Southern Maine, where she teaches fiction and creative writing, Braunstein always has a short story cooking.
“I think miraculous things happen all the time. Usually they become a dinner party anecdote or nothing at all. My job is to turn it into something deeper, fuller,” said the big-eyed sprite with close-cropped hair and a rapid rhythm.
The Connecticut native moved to Maine in 2007. It was amid the state’s natural beauty and buzz of Portland where her first novel, which was an O, The Oprah Magazine pick, took shape.
What kept her going? A place to showcase her work.
“I went into Longfellow Books and met the owners, Stuart Gersen and his partner Chris Bowe, stewards of this community. I wanted my book in that window. I wanted to make them proud,” said Braunstein, whose book is on the shelves, and, this week, whose autographed copies of The New Yorker are for sale.
Her next novel, which she expects to complete during the summer, is set in Portland. No release date is set for the as-yet untitled work.
Being welcomed into Maine’s vibrant writing community was seamless.
Before Portland, she lived in Iowa, New York and Oregon, but it was in the Port City where her writing life caught fire.
“I came ready to write to a place that seemed ready to receive writers,” said Braunstein.
The tankers merging with pleasure boats, the industrial ebb and flow of the working waterfront, speaks to her. Amid the lively literary community, she’s found fellowship.
“I don’t feel competition here. There is goodwill in Maine amongst the writers. It’s a smaller community; you can get attention which in New York City might be harder to receive,” she said.
Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, said Braunstein is the next generation of scribe making a name and life for themselves in Maine.
“She is setting a good example as a working, dedicated writer,” said Bodwell, who is impressed with Braunstein’s work ethic. “This kind of success doesn’t just fall into your lap. I feel like we are so lucky we have a tight-knit, supportive group of natives. We seem to collect people who are amazing.”
When Braunstein isn’t working on her own prose, she is helping to inspire others in their craft. From serious grad students, to pint-sized pencil holders, she is stimulating imagination.
“I think she is a really good writer,” said Antonio Hernandez, a second-grader in her class. “She teaches us to really come alive.”
And she offers them a tool to help process their busy, young lives.
“I like to use my writing to express how I feel,” said Eliza Endy, a third-grader. “I get to use my imagination and I love to write.”
Walking out of the school and into the biting March air, the feeling is mutual for Braunstein.
“I am not a morning person,” said Braunstein. “But I love getting up and working with these kids. It’s one of my favorite things.”