Nobody asked you to write that novel

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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.

  1. Be the tortoise, not the hare. You learn a lot by taking your time, paying attention to what is going on around you, and keeping at it. Every draft is first and foremost an exploration before it is a work of art. You have to finish exploring before you begin shaping, so it is all important to get to the end of the first draft.
  2. Read a lot. You take in a great deal of knowledge without intending to. Familiarity and pleasure breed ease. When you read other novels, you get models of what to do and what not to do. When you read other sorts of literature, your idea of what a novel is shapes itself by contrast. And every subject requires some sort of research, if only to stimulate your own ideas.
  3. Look and listen. Never hesitate to watch people, eavesdrop, and ask “innocent” questions. You want to know how individuals comport themselves. Novels thrive on the energy of real life. Characters in novels seek to emulate human variety. You cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.
  4. Exhaust your own curiosity about your project before showing it to someone else. Let your own ideas play out without getting input from others, then, after you show them your work, use their responses as input to push you forward. It may take you several drafts and a long time to come to the end of your ability to tackle a given subject, and when you do, you might be satisfied or dissatisfied with your product. If you are dissatisfied, the input of others will give you ideas for how to shape your novel further. If you are satisfied, the input of others will let you know if your novel is readable and accessible.
  5. Focus on enjoying the process and let the rewards, such as they are or might be, take care of themselves. If you love the process, you will be happy. If you focus on possible rewards, you will be unhappy.

So, even though nobody asked you to write that novel, you may, you should, and good luck to you!

Jane Smiley from an interview with Publisher’s Weekly

The Privilege of Hope

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Hope . . . is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. . . . It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

These words come from “the great Czech playwright turned dissident turned president, Vaclav Havel.”  And the phrase I just quoted, as well as the larger quote above, comes from the amazing newsletter by Maria Popova called brainpickings.

If you haven’t yet discovered brainpickings, I recommend both reading and supporting it.  I promise Maria Popova will enlarge your life or, at the very least, your mind.

But here is the question Havel’s words left me with.  How can those of us who write for children do our work without hope?  For that matter, how does anyone write anything for anyone without hope?  I can’t imagine, day after day, finding the energy to gather words of despair.  And what would be the point of putting them out into the world?

I’m not talking about cheerfulness or false reassurance when I speak of hope, and Havel isn’t either.  I’m talking about something deeper, harder . . . harder to come by, maybe.  Certainly harder to live.

I’m talking about a hope nutritious enough to feed to children.

If you, as I do, look out at our world—our spiraling-out-of-control climate, our spiraling-out-of-control political system, our spiraling-out-of-control wars—and find yourself filled with apprehension, then how do you put all that aside to write a picture book for the most tender of the young?  Or even a novel for teens?

What do we have to say?

Duck?  Disaster is on its way?

I’ve been struggling with that question lately.  The truth is that my view of our world has never been a confident one, and I have struggled with that lack of confidence my entire career.  I have come up with two very simple answers.  (Let the simplicity of my answers serve as warning.  For better and for worse—and it is both—I have been gifted with a reductionist mind.)

The first answer I have found is to turn outward.  I mean truly outward.  Lately I have been reading books about the Universe in all its mystery, about the stars, about quantum mechanics.  I don’t understand all I read.  Truth be told, I understand only a fraction of it.  But it fills me with wonder.  It fills me with “Wow!”  And that, that “Wow!”, is what I want to bring to my life and to my writing.

My second answer is the opposite, to turn inward.  Profoundly inward.  To find the deepest truths of relationships, the deepest truths of my own heart.  And to carry those into my life, my work.  Because such truths can never be about despair, no matter how much pain they may hold.  Such truths embody healing at their very core.

Havel also said this:

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

Havel says, “Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul.”  But I don’t think he means that hope is something we a born with like brown eyes or a sunny disposition.

Hope is something we must teach ourselves, day after day after day.  And once we have a firm hold on it, then—and only then—can we be privileged to carry our hope to the young.

The Birth Day of Life

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i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

e. e. cummings

On Finding a New Vision

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When I’m teaching, I often talk about revision as re-vision, finding a new vision.  It sounds good, talking about it that way.

But the reality is that a new vision can be hard to come by.  And letting go of the old vision to make room for the new can be even harder.

In fact, letting go can sometimes be the most difficult part of writing . . . and the most creative part of it.

I have been working since shortly after I completed the text of my most recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars, on coming up with a companion book.  Mostly because the territory I researched in order to write it still compelled me.  Also, because reaching for the stars seems the most credible way of reaching for the hope so needed to write any kind of children’s book in this disheartening world.

First I came up with a text the editor said was “lovely.”  But she also said it was too much like The Stuff of Stars.  Even if I had wanted to take it to another editor for another opinion, I couldn’t, given the inevitable non-compete clause I had signed.  If it was too much like it was too much like to be out there from another publisher.

So with a great deal of sighing, I let that one go.

I thought and rethought and, in the meantime, I went on probing the stars, the origins of our universe, the fundamental nature of reality as scientists today can define it.  Through a friend, I came across a fascinating book by an Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, called Seven Brief Lessons and Physics.  I read and reread it.  And reread it again.  I can’t say still that I understand it, but it fascinates me.

And from that I began to reenter my idea of a companion book to The Stuff of Stars.

I worked and worked and worked on it.  Worked, first, to discover my core concept, to understand for myself what I wanted to say.

Worked, next, to frame what I had discovered into lyrical language, language that could carry my ideas through their musicality so that a child could listen and enjoy, even if understanding come later.

Worked, finally, to draw the whole into a pleasing shape and to balance that shape against the needs of the larger world.

And then, at last, I presented it to the one editor I wanted to have it.

The manuscript engages her.  It interests her.  Enough, even, for her to begin to think about illustrators.

But not in the form it exists.  Too much crammed into my text.  She suggests instead I use a long Afterword to explain what I want to explain.  The text itself she wants to be simpler, cleaner.

And she is probably right.  She’s an editor who is usually right.  Which doesn’t keep my heart from being attached, still, to the text precisely as I submitted it to her.

Attached and working at letting go.

Another sigh here.  A long one.

So this is where I remember giving that lecture on revision.  I remember the demonstration I used to give on letting go, my arm stretched out before me, my hand firmly closed, holding.  My hand opening slowly, releasing . . . releasing . . .  As though I were giving a baby bird the opportunity of flight.

My heart releasing, too.  Just a bit.

The most creative act of all.

Letting go.

But not an easy one.

Revising.  Re-visioning.

Does it get easier for having done it so many times before?  It doesn’t feel easy in the moment, but perhaps it is.

It feels a bit like setting out to swim across a wide, cold lake.  If I’ve done it a dozen times before, two dozen, a hundred, then I know, at least, that my strokes have accomplished the task in the past, that they will probably accomplish it again if I don’t lose heart.

So that’s what I’m working on first . . . my heart.

Once my heart has settled into the new approach to a story I truly want to tell, all the rest will follow.

A new vision.

You are a Marvel

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When will we teach our children in school what they are? We should say to each of them: do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body — what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel?

Pablo Casals