Grit and Magic

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Part of learning to create things well is just practice—putting in your time, keeping at it, refusing to give up when you make mistakes, which you are going to do a lot. Nowadays, people are calling the willingness to persist like this: grit. And yet there is another aspect to this business of creating things—call it joy, or inspiration, or magic, or whatever. And this part has very little to do with stiffening your spine and pushing past difficulties. So, in Falcon, I tried to evoke that delicate balancing act of grit and magic.

Susan Fletcher

LoonSong Again

LoonSong

This is my fourth year to write about, LoonSong, the unique Writers’ Retreat on Elbow Lake in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.

It is coming up again this fall, from Thursday, September 5th, through Monday, September 9th.  And once more, it will be magical.

Or at least it will be magical if it happens.

The lake will be there for certain.  And the singing loons.  And the beach.  And the kayaks waiting for paddlers.  The lovely old lodge will be there and the cabins.  The hushed woods all about.

The question is whether we will be there.

The faculty are in the wings and filled with enthusiasm.  Meg Medina, winner of the 2019 Newbery Award and author of other award-winning young-adult and middle grade novels and picture books.  Elisabeth Partridge, one of the most preeminent nonfiction writers in our field and winner of many awards.  Varian Johnson, author of nine novels, including The Parker Inheritance which was named a 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book along with many other honors.  Holly West, editor at Felwel & Friends and the YA imprint Swoon Reads.  Brent Taylor, a literary agent at Triada US.  Sarah Aronson, Carol McAfee, Debby Dahl Edwardson and me.

This will be my fourth year to attend and teach at LoonSong, and it has been magical every time.  There are other writers’ workshop/retreats around, of course, but two things make this one unique.

One is the place.  You couldn’t find a more serene and heart-filling location than the edge of a lake, surrounded by forest, a few miles from the Canadian border.  The very air will give you hope from your first breath.

Sunset at LoonSong

The second is size.  Because our facilities have room for only a small group, the entire workshop/retreat could better be billed as a long conversation.  There is no line between attenders and presenters.  We are a wide spectrum, some just beginning, others who have published for a long time.  But we are all writers together.

And once we’re there, we’re all in it together, playing and talking and listening and eating and learning from one another.

LoonSong is sponsored by Vermont College of Fine Arts, and if you’re interested in learning about the VCFA Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, there will be opportunity for that.  Some VCFA folks come just to be with other VCFA folks.  But those from VCFA comprise only about a third of our group.  Many from the Hamline MFA program here in Minnesota also attend and we’re grateful for their presence.  And many come with no connection to any MFA program at all, nor is any needed, because LoonSong is most profoundly place to be with other writers.

The work of writing is the most blessed I know.  But it is also deeply isolating.  All of us, whether we’re just wading into the cold water of our first manuscripts or have been writing long enough to sometimes feel a bit weary, need the stimulation and the encouragement and the understanding of other writers from time to time.  It’s what keeps us writing.

LoonSong offers that and so much more!

But I’ll be candid.  I’m not here to say, “Hurry to sign up while we still have a few spots open,” because the truth is we have more than a few spots open.  Sign-ups have been slow this year.

It’s a hard thing to come up with money for a conference.  Conferences are expensive.  They have to be expensive, because everything about making them happen costs big time.

But it’s also financially challenging to put on a conference, and if we don’t get full enrollment we’re going to have to close down this year.  We are nowhere near full enrollment yet.  In fact, last I heard there were still some of those highly prized single rooms available.

If you’re already signed up and want LoonSong to happen, then beat the bushes for friends who might join you.  If you’ve been watching our postings for a long time and thinking, Someday I’m going to do that, then make 2019 that someday.  If you’re hearing about LoonSong for the first time, then explore www.loonsong.org . . . and join us.  We would be so delighted to meet you there.

This gathering of children’s and young-adult writers is too good to miss.  And it is much too good to see go under.

Novel-Writing

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My favorite thing to remember about novel-writing is an observation I saw taped to a friend’s wall in her office in graduate school: “Nobody asked you to write that novel”. Therefore novel-writing is a choice–you can always stop, always keep going. You are free to do whatever you want. Most novelists come to writing novels because they have been avid readers. Almost all novels, because they are capacious and hard to contain, are imperfect. Normally, “perfect” and “ambitious” cannot co-exist in the same novel. Therefore, most readers have plenty of opinions about how even a wonderful, beloved, and thrilling novel might be made just a little better. And so we try it. And we discover that it is both harder and easier than it looks.

Jane Smiley

On Understanding

The Stuff of Stars

“Will younger children understand the scale of this text?” the reviewer asked about my recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars.

For better and for worse, those of us who publish are expected to remain silent before such questions, and I have.  This one, however, begs an answer, so I’ll cheat a little and give my answer here.

“Of course not!”

I must add, though, “It depends on what you mean by understanding.”  Because the success of my text depends far less on “understanding,” either the understanding of those younger readers or adults, than it does on letting my readers feel.  My text is meant to open them to something just beyond their comprehension . . . beyond my comprehension, too.

To her credit, the reviewer also went on to say, “More likely they will just take it on faith and be mesmerized by the remarkable art.”

I couldn’t possibly agree more.  The art brings my text alive in a way I couldn’t have dreamed.  And having Ekua Holmes as the illustrator of my text is a bit like being the tail on a comet.

But I would argue that the words—if they are doing their job—mesmerize, too.  Through sound and association, through rhythm and shape, they open a door to something larger, something we all can feel with a depth and authority that surpasses any understanding.

I joined a poetry group once to read and discuss poetry.  I thought, This will be a nice way to spend an evening, talking about poetry.  And I showed up for my first meeting with a high heart.

I attended only once.

I discovered that while I love reading poetry, feeling it, carrying it in my heart, I don’t love talking about it.  I sat through the evening thinking, “I’ve read it.  I’ve taken it into my bones.  What is there to say?”

I didn’t mind listening to others, who had far more to say than I, but little of what was said enhanced my experience of the poem we had just read.

Let me be clear.  I’m not against all literary analysis.  A good piece, poetry or prose, is layered, and it’s too easy to read across the top layer.  But a lot of analysis reminds me of dissecting a frog.  There can be much to learn in such a process, but when you are done, the frog is usually dead.

When I wrote The Stuff of Stars, I didn’t ask myself whether young children would understand the origins of our universe, the birth of our planet, or even their own births.  I asked myself only whether this was an appropriate subject for reverence, for awe, for delight.

I knew it was.

And if my words combined with Ekua’s incredible art create reverence, awe, delight . . . well, we have all understood.

The Time Will Come

Photo by Bekah Russom on Unsplash

The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome, And say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott