Category Archives: Journal

Knowing My Own Mind

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There are times when I don’t know my own mind.  Worse, there are times when I think I know my mind perfectly well and then find an entirely different mind on a later visit to my opinions.

Which feels almost as though I have no mind at all.

Some time ago one of my favorite writers came out with a new novel.  I had been waiting for her next book for years, so, of course, I signed up to have it pop into my electronic reader at the first opportunity.  It did, and I read it eagerly.

I was disappointed.  Deeply.

It wasn’t that the novel was badly written.  This author isn’t capable of bad writing.  It was just that I didn’t care about the people she explored so deeply.  And even knowing their complexities, one layer exposed after another, didn’t make me want to spend time with them.

I didn’t have to wait nearly so long for her next book.  This time, though, I read it with caution, with my newly acquired discontent.  (Once burned.)  This novel was . . . okay.  But I wasn’t in love.  I had been in love with her early novels.  Besotted, really.

Now another book is out.  In a series of interwoven short stories my once-favorite author explored many of the characters from the previous novel, the one I didn’t dislike but that had never quite captured me.

And before I had quite decided to do so, I had finished the latest offering and gone back to reread the previous novel.  The okay one.  And I found myself rereading the book I had been so tepid about with new respect, even full-blown appreciation. Obviously, the book hadn’t changed on the page.

Next I intend to return to the first book that disappointed me.  Will the change in me, whatever caused it, now make room for that one, too?

As someone who has for many years mentored my fellow writers, I find myself wondering.  Is my opinion any more reliable, any less emotionally based when I am evaluating a manuscript than it is when I approach a published novel?

When I critique a manuscript I always try, if I possibly can, to read it twice.  Sometimes a strongly held opinion from my first reading dissolves on the second.  When that happens, I usually trust the second reading.  And, especially if it’s a long manuscript, I rarely risk a third.

Is nothing in my mind solid, certain?  Are my opinions based on anything except emotion?  Is all the logic in the world simply something I pile around me to justify my mood?

When I’m responding to published work and the opinions I hold are only my own, the question is merely a matter of curiosity. Something to take out and wonder at in wondering moments.  How solid is this thing I think of as self with all its supporting framework of opinion?

When I’m responding to a manuscript-in-process, the question is one of profound responsibility.  My opinion will impact another person’s work.  And what if my response is, indeed, a product of my mood?  What harm might I do to a piece of writing in the name of helping?

The question is even more disconcerting when I face my own work.  Some days I am utterly confident of this new novel I’m pecking away at.  Others I’m equally convinced that my entire premise is bogus.

I have long known that nothing impacts my writing output more than my confidence.  If I’m certain that this piece I’m working on is truly good and I’m loving writing it, the words flow.  (The true value of what I produce is a matter for later discernment, my own and others.)  When I doubt myself, each word arrives after a slog through mud.

How I wish there were a reliable way to keep my writing flowing, to keep my soul brimming with confidence.

Emotions are slippery, often hard to recognize and name, certainly impossible to keep marching in a straight line, and yet I’m convinced this supposedly logic-driven world is more accurately an emotion-driven one.

It’s a scary thought!

Let the things that enter your life wake you up.

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Let the things that enter your life wake you up.

 

Life’s work is to wake up, to let the things that enter into your life wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will. It’s going to stick around until you learn your lesson, at any rate. You can leave your marriage, you can quit your job, you can only go where people are going to praise you, you can manipulate your world until you are blue in the face to try to make it always smooth, but the same old demons will always come up until finally you have learned your lesson, the lesson they came to teach you. Then those same demons will appear as friendly, warmhearted companions on the path.                                                                                                                                           Pema Chodron

I read because …

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“I read because one life isn’t enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody.”

Richard Peck

White Privilege and a Career as a Children’s Author

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She is my cousin and a dear friend, someone I love very much.  And she was defending me as part of the support for her argument.

We had tumbled into a conversation about Black Lives Matter, specifically about the term “white privilege,” which offended her.  I have heard the same from some other white friends.  The one whose response speaks to me most clearly is Jewish, and surely her life has not been one of “white privilege,” whatever the tint of her skin.  Yet I believe hearing it said does have a way of opening eyes.

When I said so, my cousin protested, “Don’t you see how it denigrates all the hard work you have done to get where you are?  It suggests everything was just handed to you because you are white.”

We ended the conversation disagreeing amicably, but I kept thinking about what she said.  “It suggests everything was just handed to you because you are white.”

It took me a while to realize how true that is.  Not everything, maybe, but a great deal.

Yes, I have worked hard.  I still do.  And my hard work has much to do with where I am now in my career as a children’s writer.  I haven’t just learned how to write one thing and then kept doing it.  I have explored.  I have stretched.  I have tried and failed and tried again.  The failures don’t show when you look at my publication record, but they are there, tucked away in my computer . . . and in my heart.

And yet for all the hard work, for all the mix of success and failure, I know that my being white has always given me a leg up.

I began publishing in 1976, and if in 1976 I had been black and writing the kind of deeply interior stories that are given to me, who would have published them?  Stories about being a black child in a world hostile to black children?  If I had the literary chops of a Virginia Hamilton, maybe, but I’m not Virginia Hamilton.  And if some brave publisher had taken me on, who would have then purchased my books after they found their way into the world?

(I once heard a Midwestern children’s book-store owner say, “We put books with a black child on the cover on the shelf, and they stay on the shelf until we send them back to the publisher.”  Of course, the reasons for that are various, for one that too many whites don’t see a story about a black child as being of interest to, appropriate for their white children.  For another that history has taught blacks not to expect to find anything relevant to their children on the shelves of a book store.)

And beyond the reality that forty years ago black writers had little chance of finding publication another even starker reality looms.  I have achieved what success I have, the publication of just over 100 books, because I was given the profound privilege of time in which to develop my craft.

I was married and the mother of two young children when I decided to turn my desire to write into the actual work of writing.  And all I had to do was make the decision and then work to implement it.  My then husband was a clergyman.  His salary was pretty limited as clergy salaries tend to be.  But it covered our family’s needs well enough that I could forego salaried work to tackle my unlikely dream.

Even today, when publishers are, presumably anyway, more open to writers of color that is the privilege that keeps too many from even tapping at the gate, let alone storming it.  You have to be able to work for a long time, for most of us it takes years, without earning anything at all before you have a chance of entering the ranks of published writers.  And while there are plenty of white people these days for whom taking that kind of time to develop a skill is a profound challenge, certainly many more than when I was young, there are even more people of color who haven’t the time or the energy or the heart at the end of a long day of surviving to explore a career as a writer.

I wish writers of every hew could be discovered on the basis of merit and supported while they find their stories, develop their craft, polish their work to a fine glow.  If only we could go back to the time when kings chose their own personal artists and musicians and paid for them to live and create.  I suppose, though, there were problems with that system, too.  We’ll never know how many talented artists and musicians never came to the attention of a king.

Would I give up the privilege that made my career possible if I could return in time to do so?  Of course, not.  But now my career plays out its final years in a different time, one when the pendulum of attention, at least to already published work, has swung to the side of people of color.  And I step back, in my privileged whiteness, and say, “At last!”  and “Hurrah!”

I only wish the swing of that pendulum could reach those who aren’t getting a chance to discover what they can create.

Be Patient Toward all that is Unsolved in your Heart

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Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.

Rainer Maria Rilke