To Fix The Entire World

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale…

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Moral Courage

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.

 

Robert F. Kennedy

Remembering Childhood

Marion 2nd Grade

Recently someone asked me, “Why is it that you have such detailed memories of your childhood?”  She commented that she did not.

I reached for an answer and came up with pure air.  Why do I remember?  Why doesn’t everyone?

Years ago, I had a student whose work was technically competent but quite lacking in emotional resonance.  One day during a manuscript consultation I said to her, “Tell me about your childhood.”  Her face began to glow.  “Oh,” she said.  “I had the most wonderful childhood!”

And that was precisely what was wrong with her work.

It’s not that you have to have had a uniquely difficult childhood to be able to write for children.  It is that nobody, nobody in the world has a wonderful childhood.  Exactly as nobody has a wonderful adulthood.  We all have days.  Some days are wonderful, to be sure.  Others are boring or challenging or downright painful.  But anyone who thinks she had a whole “wonderful childhood” has forgotten what that time was like.  And who can write successfully for children from such a place?

Ironically, though, I suspect that part of the reason I remember my childhood so vividly is because my mother was one of those “wonderful childhood” folks.  She spoke often of her own childhood on a Midwestern farm and always with deep reverence, so deep a reverence that I learned reverence, too.

My mother had such a strong need to remember her own childhood as perfect that she tried to make mine that way, too.  As a consequence she lied away every inconvenient truth.  And two passions pulled me into the career of my adult life, a profound reverence for childhood and an equally powerful need to tell children the truth.

I remember clearly the first time I ever wrote from that childhood place.  I was in college and, while I ordinarily occupied myself with more “productive” activities, things that might actually garner course credits, I sat down to my typewriter one quiet afternoon and tapped out a paragraph intended for no eyes but my own.  In a few words I described standing barefoot on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off into the cool tickle of the grass.  Only that.  But that paragraph emerged onto the page with lights flashing. “Important!  Important!” those lights said.  “Pay attention!  This matters!”

I did pay attention, because while the paragraph itself soon went the way of all scrap paper, the silken feel of the words, their heft and substance, stayed with me.  My mother’s reverence for childhood made those words shine.

It was many years later before I sat down to write about childhood again, and this time, carrying my other flag, I wrote about sexual abuse.  I had suffered such abuse as an adolescent at the hands of my family physician, but having distanced myself from that memory, I wrote instead out of a passionate defense of foster children, whom I had come to know too often suffered such abuse.

I wrote about sexual abuse so long before the “me-too” movement that no one quite knew what to do with the story that emerged.  Nonetheless, James Cross Giblin, perhaps the bravest editor in the children’s book industry at the time, brought Foster Child into the world.

Clearly, my mother’s deeply held reverence for the days of her childhood impacted me profoundly.  The ways she tried so hard to “protect” me did, too.  Does my ability to remember rise out of a curious mixture of reverence and defiance?

Perhaps.

Or maybe the answer is the same as the one I once received from my partner in response to a very different question.  When I first met her I was astonished to learn that she comes from a family of four daughters, all of them lesbian.  “How do you get statistics like that in one family?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied with a casual shrug.  “I guess we’re just lucky.”

And that’s me.  Lucky to have retained the textures of my childhood, the quiet, unpressured days; the grinding powerlessness; the longing for what I couldn’t even name; the humiliations; the soaring joys.

And lucky to have found good use for all I have carried with me from those days!

A Nation of Becoming

Multiracial

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

America is a nation that is always dynamically evolving—a nation of becoming, its composition and character constantly transformed by migrations from many corners of the world, its promise made manifest not by an assertion of a singular or supremacist racial and religious identity, but by the recognition of the interconnected realities of a complex of peoples, cultures, and religions that enrich everyone.

     Duncan Ryuken Williams

Creative Energy

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

It’s a topic I come back to many times, because it represents a core truth for me.

I can write only what feeds me, what gives me energy.

I watched many eager writers through a strenuous, two-year MFA program, and I was reminded again and again that one of the most important doors our students could learn to open was the one to their own best writing energy.

Sometimes what waits to be discovered is form, the particular form that speaks to each writer.  Not that any of us should be limited to one genre if our interest reaches wider, but there is usually a right place to start, novel or picture book or easy reader, nonfiction or verse.

Often what waits to be discovered, too, is a particular topic.  Many first novels are autobiographical because we all have issues rising out of childhood aching for resolution.  And what better way to resolve them than to create a person more capable of sorting them out than we ever were?

But after that start, after the first manuscript or two or three that mines the big stuff, how do we keep going?  For my part, I have learned to watch for anything that sizzles.  I don’t pick up an idea because it’s cute.  (That goes without saying.  Anyone who has read my work knows I have little interest in or skill for “cute.”)  I don’t take on a topic merely because I think it’s something I can sell.  I don’t even try out an idea because I believe it is important.

I immerse myself in a new project because it comes knocking on my brain with a certain electricity attached.

I am currently in a period of waiting for editorial notes on my latest novel.  While I wait I keep my hands—and my eyes—off the novel I’ve just sold so as to be able to approach it fresh when those notes come.  And so as not to go off in directions the editor won’t be expecting.

But I’m not just waiting.  I am slipping every day deeper and deeper into a pool of ideas.  Trying out my next project.

Some of the ideas I’ve tried out have let me know that they aren’t ready.  One, an early reader I started and abandoned years ago, came tumbling out of my computer and clicked this time.

But then I was back to the pool, searching for electricity.

One thing I found floating around was a young-adult novel I worked on a few years ago.  I had nearly 200 pages of a first draft and months and months of meticulous research when I ran out of energy and put it aside.

Very firmly aside.  When my agent, who had read those first pages, wondered why I didn’t return to it I had a half-a-dozen very solid reasons.

Recently, though, I found myself reading a YA novel in verse with an electric current running down my spine.  “What if?” I said to myself for the first time. “What if I tackled that abandoned novel again in verse?  Would that make a difference?  Would working in small pieces and different voices give the story more energy?  Would the different approach demanded by verse enable me to drop out some of the detail that overwhelmed me in my first draft?

And suddenly, character after character, verse after verse began to bloom in my mind.

Because that’s the way it works.  At least it’s the way it works for me.  When an idea is right it acts like a magnet gathering iron filings.  Everything . . . everything flies to the idea, enlarges it, energizes it.

The notes on the novel I’ve just sold will come, and I’ll find my way back inside that other energy that inspired a very different story and bring it to fulfillment.

In the meantime, though, in the meantime, I wake with my brain sizzling!

This . . . this is what I most need to say, to do, to be!

What greater privilege is there than being able to live and work where my deepest energy compels me?