Riding Piggy Back

The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book isn’t just that they are fun to write, which they are.  They are sometimes enormously difficult, too, but still fun.

It isn’t that they are short, either, though short has its own blessings.  And its own challenges.  I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s apology for having written such a long letter.  He didn’t have time, he explained to his correspondent, to write a short one.

The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book, though, is to win the privilege of riding piggy back on a talented artist.

The first time an actual copy of one of my picture books arrives at my door always feels like Christmas, even if I have seen the illustrations through every step of the process, which I sometimes do.

Here are my words!  My words!  And look.  A person with talent beyond my richest imaginings has brought them to life on the page.

What a gift!

Winter Dance, my latest picture book, illustrated by Richard Jones, emerged into the world in October.  It has garnered three starred reviews, from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.  (A starred review singles out a book as one of the best of the season.)  And it couldn’t be more clear that Richard’s illustrations are the primary reason for those stars.

I don’t say that out of false modesty.  My words are charmingly simple and even lyrical.  There is a touch of humor, too, something my work isn’t noted for.  And the text conveys solid information about animal behavior in winter.

But it’s Richard’s winsome fox, his appealing landscapes, his entire winter world that captures anyone who picks up this book, including reviewers.

. . .it’s Jones’ soft-lined, textured illustrations that steal the show, as they cast beautiful forest scenes across the page, using a cool wintry palette against which the fox’s orangey-red fur pops.  (Booklist)

Jones’ full-page illustrations, done in rich, muted earth tones, are stunningly designed and executed. (Kirkus)

Bauer’s verselike text pairs gracefully with smudgy and similarly understated scenes from British illustrator Jones: the text and artwork work in tandem to suggest the hushed onset of winter while carrying readers forward with the swiftness of a snow flurry.  (Publisher’s Weekly)

This particular picture-book text required weeks—even months—of writing and rewriting.  In fact, for reasons too complicated to explain here, I had to reconceive the whole thing after the editor had committed to my first version, a story about spring.  The editor turned down my first two, three, four attempts to revise before she and I together came up with the idea of a fox and the first snowfall and before I finally found a way to make those elements work.

I haven’t asked Richard how long it took for him to create his appealing paintings, but I’ll guarantee that despite the length of my labor, he labored longer and harder.

The writer has to come up with the idea, and the idea is key, of course.  But without the artist’s bringing another whole world of ideas to the page, the story would be only half born.

Thank you, Richard Jones, for your amazing work.  And thank you to all of the illustrators who, over the years, have brought my picture book texts to life.

I love riding piggy back!

Language

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Language attempts, among other functions, to describe reality. But then, in a turnabout, it actively shapes and creates how reality is seen. Language limits the perception of reality.

Jon Rappoport

The Way Story Lives in Us

There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery. The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.                                                                      A. Powell Davies

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I posted this quote recently here in this spot.  I posted it as I do all my quotes, because it captured my heart when I read it, so I wanted to pass it on.  But on the day it sprang to new life on my website, I found myself pausing over it again.  Not just admiring the words, the thought.  Not just wanting to pass them on as “true.”  But wanting to name the truth in my own life.

No mystery greater than our own mystery.

Every piece of fiction I have ever written has come out of “a thought [I] cannot quite think.”

I start with an idea that captures my imagination.  There has to be struggle embedded in the idea.  There is no story, at least in the traditional western sense of story, without struggle.  But I start with something I pluck from the air or from a newspaper story or from something that happened to me when I was a kid just because it seems interesting.  And if the idea is truly interesting to me, other ideas begin to fly to it, like iron filings to a magnet.  It builds.  And builds.

I never ask myself why I’m thinking of writing this particular story.  Asking why would be a bit like slicing open a cat to see what makes her purr.  I just keep turning the idea in my mind.  And if it truly belongs to me—it keeps growing.

But I still don’t know what makes it my story.  I just sit down and write it.

Sometimes I don’t know why I wrote this particular story until reviewers and readers begin to talk to me about it, to tell me what my words mean to them.  And then, at last, I can say . . . “Oh!  Of course!”  Sometimes I begin to understand as I reach my story’s conclusion.  (And interestingly enough, I always know where my story will end before I write the first word, but still it’s the writing of it that reveals its truth to me.)

My story becomes “the thought that lives in [me] without [my] being able to think it.”  Which is precisely why I am compelled to bring it into the world as a story.

I wonder sometimes, have always wondered, whether someday I will no longer need to cloak my unknown self in story.  Is it possible to become so transparent to myself that I won’t be compelled to search out my own mystery this way?

But then A. Powell Davis also said, “The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”

“That is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning.”

“And the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”

Where have I ever heard a deeper, truer expression of the way story lives in us?

A work in progress

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In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.

Steven King

On Growing Older . . . Old

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Why is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?

To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door.  But old . . . at least in this youth-driven society, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance.  Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-us word . . . death.

I am approaching my birthday this month.  It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to.  In a week I will be 79.

Can you name the number?

Forty didn’t trouble me a bit.  I had a friend, somewhat older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age.  It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.”  And she was right!  I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident . . . and still young.

Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare.  As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all.  Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security, and for the self-employed that is no small thing.  I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me.  Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal.  (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.”  That’s what Medicare is, and it works!  It works better than any other pay-for-care system offered in this backward country.)

When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party . . . at my request, I should add.  It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me.  Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.

“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.

She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”

But this is 79!  And yes, I might as well name the number.  Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!

For the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix.  Not that I’ve given up trying.  I walk vigorously two or three times a day.  I do Pilates three times a week.  I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene.  Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.

From time to time, bits fall off.

And my mind?  That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about.  I can still produce a workable manuscript.  I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too.  But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.

My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.

Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement.  Who is ever prepared?  After all, old has never been something to aspire to . . . despite the alternative.  A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.”  And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.

I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be.  I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all.  I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings into a room.

I want to use these years to live.  Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those.  We all have enough of those.

I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully.  And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.