Category Archives: Writing

The Longest Night, the Sweetest Sound!

I couldn’t have imagined a sweeter or more fulfilling way to draw my extended 80th birthday celebration to a close.

I began celebrating in October by taking my daughter and daughter-in-law to Vermont to revisit my old teaching home at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

In November, my actual birth month, my daughter gave me a party, and various friends invited me to smaller celebrations.  My daughter hosted a family party, too.  (She was busy those days.)  My birthday gift was the surprise of finding my grandson Barrett home from Tampa, Florida, for the occasion.  Then on the actual date my partner, Barb, and I had a delightful just-us evening at a restaurant we hadn’t explored before.

Longest Night

But the climax came on December 9th.  Barb and I traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, for a musical performance of my picture book The Longest Night, created and performed by Community MusicWorks.  The program, Songs of Darkness and Light, included a folktale from Brazil, “How We Got the Night,” along with my winter solstice picture book.

Community MusicWorks is a community-based organization that uses music education and performance to build lasting and meaningful relationships between children, families and professional musicians.  Thirteen resident musicians perform concerts throughout Providence and surrounding communities and offer a free after-school music education program.  This is the third year they have performed The Longest Night.  It was my first time to be able to attend.

I was utterly charmed!  Storyteller Valerie Tutson read, no, she performed my text.  Ted Lewin’s stunning watercolors filled a screen.  And various musicians, some wearing half masks of the animals in the story—crow, moose, fox, chickadee—played Schoenberg and Bach and Haydn, carrying the story forward on wings of song.

Ted and I were asked to join the musicians on the stage at the end of the performance to talk about our work on the book, so I had a chance to explain my inspiration for this small story.

The Longest Night, I told them, began with a question: Why, I asked myself, does the longest night fall at the beginning of winter, not in the middle?  Wouldn’t the middle make more sense?

The answer when I went searching for it turned out to be simple.  As the days grow shorter and colder, the ground freezes and snow falls and stays.  Once the ground is covered with snow, the sun’s rays reflect and bounce back into space, leaving behind little warmth for our air.  And so the longest night becomes the beginning of winter because the climb out is harder and slower than the drop in.

I was delighted to know that, because it tells me more than why winter stays.  It tells me also that with every day growing longer, the beginning of winter is also our first step toward spring!

What a heartening thought, especially for us winter-locked Minnesotans.

And what a life-enhancing experience to hear a piece of mine that I particularly love come to life through another artistic medium

I’ll confess that when I rose at the end of the program to step up onto that stage, Valerie, the storyteller, had to reach down to give this old lady a helping hand.  I’m 80 now and 80 showed.  But oh . . . I am 80 and so blessed!

The Opposite of Spare Time

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living. An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling… None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it… I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.

 

Ursala LeGuin

Write On!

Credit: Tracy Walsh | Minnesota Good Age

My daughter, Beth-Alison, posts my blogs and quotes for me, and she calls me faithfully when I’ve failed to deliver what she needs according to the schedule we have agreed upon.  An interesting reversal of roles that is, no doubt, only the beginning of a much more substantial reversal that I prefer not to spend too much time thinking about.

So I’ve just hung up from talking to her and from justifying my tardiness in giving her my first-week-of-December blog.  Of course, I explained why I was late, like a kid explaining why there simply hasn’t been time to clean her room.

My explanation?  I’m moving into the final chapters of my latest revision of Sunshine, the novel I have been slogging through for entirely too long, and I’m building momentum, and I just can’t make myself put the novel down to pick up something else.  Even when the something else has a deadline, and Sunshine doesn’t.

“But I’ll do it,” I promised.  “I’ll get it to you very soon.”

Beth-Alison was kind, understanding, but she still needs the blog.

That being the case, I’ve decided to cheat.  An article just came out in Minnesota Good Age Magazine about me, about my turning 80, and about my work.  The author of the article, Julie Kendrick, did a very nice job of interviewing and writing.  The photographer, Tracy Walsh, has given me a lot of new photos.  (Posing for photos is one of my least favorite activities, ranking close to scrubbing floors.)  So why not take advantage of their good work?

Here is the URL for the article.

http://bit.ly/2KJZ93s

Happy reading.

On Letting Go

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

I suppose I write about revising as often as I do because I spend so much of my time doing it.

I write about revising also because I’m convinced that the difference between the amateur writer and the professional one is rarely a difference in native talent.  I have over my years of teaching encountered any number of highly talented writers, some with gifts I can’t touch, and some of those highly talented folks are still unpublished.

Of course, being published may not have been their goal, and if it’s not and they write for the pure joy of the process without ever longing for an audience, they have my full support.

But most people who write want readers, and they want to do more than hand their work around, they want to hold a finished book.  If you are one of those, then the skill you need to cultivate is revision.

And the first step in learning to revise is learning to let go.

I don’t mean writing and writing and writing and then throwing it all out.  That’s too easy.  (Or too hard, depending on how you look at it.)

I mean taking something you love from the tips of your toes and being willing to ask yourself, how might I see this differently? And then letting go of the way it landed on the page the first time. Or even the second or third or fourth time.

The secret, I’ve found, is to throw away any trace of “I got it wrong and dog-gone-it, now I have to fix it!” and begin instead with “I love this! Now how can I make it better?”

But to make it better, you have to start with giving up your commitment to the way it is. And that can be scary.

I’m not talking about killing your darlings, that too-often repeated advice. Sometimes your darlings stand up and call too much attention to themselves and therefore need to be buried, and sometimes they are darling because they are beautifully written and a perfect fit in your piece.

I’m talking about seeking feedback from folks you trust—or folks who have the capacity to publish your work if you get it right—and letting that feedback give you a new vision.  (That’s what re-vision is, after all. A new vision.)

Sometimes for me that new vision requires hearing a suggestion more than once.  I’m revising a novel now about a boy who has an imaginary dog. Before we sent it to the editor, my agent said to me, “I wonder if we find out too soon that the dog is imaginary.”  All I could think of was how much I loved the moment of revelation exactly as it stood at the end of the first chapter AND the amount of work such a change would make.

I said, “I don’t agree. Let’s send it.”

He did as I asked, and do you want to guess what the editor said? Among other things, “I wonder if we find out too soon that the dog is imaginary.”

By the second time I heard the comment, I suddenly had a new vision of my story’s possibilities. So I said, “You’re right.  Of course!” And I let go of my love of that end-of-the-first-chapter revelation and went to work.

(I also ate a little humble pie in appreciation of my agent.)

But that’s only one of many examples of letting go.

To make this struggling story work, I’ve had to let go of my main character’s core motivation, turn it inside out. I’ve thrown out a bedrock scene and found something stronger to put in its place. And once I really let go, I was able to see that the most important things that happen in my story can work better if they happen in a different order.

Wow! That’s exciting!

And it’s enormously satisfying that I’ll end up with a story that works for other readers.

If I hadn’t been willing to let go, though, I would have ended up with a failed novel.

A Small Word

Photo by Gabriel Lamza on Unsplash

It’s a small word, only three letters.  But it’s one of those words that can cause a lot of commotion.

I hesitated to use it, especially on the very opening spread of my picture book, but though I thought long and hard, I couldn’t find another that suited my purposes better.  Or at all.

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” and that’s how I felt about this choice.

Still, I said to my agent, Rubin, before he hand carried my new manuscript to the one editor I wanted to receive it, “Tell Liz if she wants me to change that one word, I will.”

Liz accepted my manuscript while snacking on the not-really-a-bribe scones Rubin brought that day, and she said, “The word can stay.”

The small word we were talking about is God.

The Stuff of Stars

Here is the way it is used in the opening of The Stuff of Stars:

 

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark

a speck floated,

invisible as thought,

weighty as God.

 

Now let me explain.  I am not a theist.  I haven’t been a theist since I was a very young woman, despite the fact that I had married a man who was preparing for seminary and a career as a priest in the Episcopal Church.  (Which is another long, in fact 28-year-long, story.)

And everyone knows the word God creates all kinds of problems in a children’s book.  Those who are theists are apt to want the God that is named to be only their own.  Those who are not don’t want God named at all.  And public schools and even private schools not related to churches back away from the word as they would a land mine capable of blasting them out of existence.

Still . . . I wanted to use the word God!  No other would do.

Why?

Because I couldn’t think of another in our lexicon that carries more . . . well, weight.

These days I belong to a Unitarian Universalist church, a church that is non-creedal.  A member of a UU church can believe in God passionately or be a convinced atheist.  UU’s subscribe to basic principles that are as far-reaching, in fact, I would say more far-reaching, than any creed, but, at least in my congregation, one of the most reliable ways to stir up dissent is to say “God” from the pulpit too many times in a row.

So I knew precisely what I was doing when I chose to use that word in my picture book.  I knew how much power the word has, both the power to communicate a deep truth and the power to offend.  I recognized, too, that I was writing about a topic, the Big Bang, that some see as anti-God, convinced that science’s explanation for the way our world came into being can’t coexist with the idea of God.

I certainly didn’t choose the word as appeasement to those who believe that God and science cannot be reconciled.  Such a conviction is so far from my own reality that the thought was never in my mind as I wrote.

What I was in my mind, what is in my mind every time I open The Stuff of Stars to see my words and Ekua’s astounding illustrations, is the awe, the reverence, the humble joy in which I stand before this universe . . . and before every miraculous child this universe brings to us.

What better way can there be to express that, all of that, than one small, three-letter word?  God.

Whoever we are, whatever we believe or don’t believe, it is a word with weight.