The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
Basho – 1600
The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
Basho – 1600
It was one of those amusing Freudian slips.
Last week I posted a quote on this blog from Kelly Barnhill’s Newbery acceptance speech and dated the speech as having been delivered in 1987. Kelly would have been fourteen years old in 1987. I don’t know her though she lives in my community, but when the good folks at Winding Oak who manage my website caught my error, I looked her up.
The real year of Kelly’s speech was 2017. How did I come by 1987? That’s the year my novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor.
A couple of times a month two good friends and I gather for conversation. Our topic, aging. We are old ladies, though I’m farther along the old-lady spectrum than either of them. We talk about our fears, our hopes, the deep changes we are experiencing. We own up to what we are losing, celebrate the places where we are still learning, still growing. We’ve decided that it’s perfectly all right to talk about our physical ailments, too, something we don’t usually put on display. And at the end of our conversation we look at one another, take a deep breath, and say, “Thank you. This was really useful!”
The day before my thirty-year slip with the date of Kelly’s speech appeared on my website, we three had been talking about the young who are taking our places. One of these friends is a retired psychology professor. She said she still sees reference to her published articles, but she knows they will grow fewer. “Once research is more than ten years old,” she said, and her words trailed into a shrug. And yet she has moved on to new territory, a master gardener, a fabric artist. Roles she had little time for when she was immersed in her career.
The other is a retired therapist. She with some others founded an institute designed to bring psychology and spirituality under the same roof. She talked about how all of her companions in that groundbreaking work have moved on in one way or another, and yet how satisfying it was to go back and see that what they founded still thrives.
And I am still a working writer, though my work leaves my desk at a much slower rate these days. And I spoke about the way the field that has challenged and sustained me for more than forty years has evolved in my wake. I suspect that many of my early novels would never be published today, not because they were bad novels but because the world wants something different now. Even so I feel validated by these changing standards, not erased by them. I was one of many who helped create a world that made it possible for these new standards, these new writers to grow.
Recently, I read Kelly’s Newbery award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon. (I listened to it, actually, a new kind of “reading” I have discovered as I make my way back and forth across the city in a succession of thirty-minute segments. It seems that everyplace I go is thirty minutes away.) And I was delighted by the grace of the writing and the wisdom of the writer. By the world she created out of ancient elements while making her story wholly new. By the skill of the narrator, too, in this audio rendition.
And I thought . . . how lucky I am to belong to a field that contains Kelly Barnhill and Katherine Paterson and Neil Gaiman and Kate DiCamillo and Kevin Henkes and Debby Dahl Edwardson and all the as yet unknown writers who will follow us as we tumble, one after another, into obscurity. What a blessing to have been a part of all that good work.
If, for a brief moment, I conflated Kelly’s award with my own . . . so be it. I’m glad to have flashed across the stage with her, if only in my own mind. (If you go back to check on the mistake, you’ll find it corrected now.)
What matters isn’t that my day in the sun has passed or that even Kelly’s is passing. What matters is that the work, our work, day by day by day, is good. What matters is that we each lived our gifts, brought them singing into the world. (This, not just for my fellow writers, but for my old-lady friends who did other good work as well.)
What matters is that, however minutely, our living and thus our song changed the world forever.
Books are powerful. For good or ill. They can literally rewrite a person’s sense of themselves, and they can rewrite the world around us.
(from her 2017 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech)
There are certain writing topics I return to in this space many times. I return to them partly because I believe they are important and talking about them can be helpful to all of us who write. But I return to them, also, because I keep rediscovering them for myself, year after year after year.
The end lies in the beginning is one of those topics that I have had reason to rediscover recently.
When I am preparing to write a story, any story, I know several things before I begin to write. Who my main character is and what he or she struggles with. (I prefer the word struggle to conflict, because struggle is active. I have read too many manuscripts from developing writers where the main character sits around looking at/thinking about a conflict page after page. I want that character to stand up and struggle.)
Who the secondary characters will be and what relationship they have with that character’s struggle. Do they help or are they part of the problem? That is character and plot in one package, even though much of it isn’t worked out yet.
Finally, I know what a resolution is going to feel like.
Usually I know the climactic moment that will bring the story to that resolution, too, but it is the feeling of the resolution that draws me forward when I sit down to write. I want to get there so I can feel it, too. And it is, not incidentally, the feeling accompanying that resolution that embodies my story’s meaning.
There is no one perfect way to create any story. There is only the way that works for each of us individually. I know writers who sit down and write, page after page after page, seeking their story. And these are accomplished writers for whom the story eventually appears. I am too much of a linear thinker to work that way. For me, it would be like setting off on a trip without first deciding whether my destination is New York or California. I’d feel I was wasting a lot of miles/pages.
Even with my very intentional destination, though, I can sometimes get to the end and find it doesn’t snap into place. Those final moments don’t move me and thus will not move my readers.
When that happens I don’t return to the chapter just before the end one to see what went wrong. Always, I go back to Chapter 1. Somehow I didn’t lay out this moment properly. And there I will find what’s missing, the piece that will allow the final chapter to fulfill its promise.
As I write this, I am concluding my work on a young novella called Sunshine. (Concluding, that is, until it’s in an editor’s hands whose insights I’ll be grateful for.) As usual, I had the ending in mind the whole time I was writing. In fact, for the last several weeks I’ve been hurrying to get there, because it was going to feel so good to write it. (Another of my linear traits, I never write scenes out of order. If I wrote my ending before I got there, I’d have too little reason to finish the story.) But when I arrived at that final scene . . . well, it didn’t quite click.
So . . . I flew back to Chapter 1, and there I found something missing, something I could imbed to carry forward to the final chapter.
You are my Sunshine,
my only Sunshine.
You make me happy . . .
Writing fiction is an organic process, one—whatever our method—that is spun out of our very bones. Still, there are tricks of the trade useful to know, and that’s one of them.
The end lies in the beginning.
Let me say to the writers out there: attempt something unknown. Attempt something that is dangerous to you. No, even more: attempt something impossible. After all, how do we expect our books to change the lives of our readers if they don’t change our own lives, first?