Category Archives: Writing

A Strange, Strange Time

Giraffes

Photo by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash

What a strange, strange time!

The only other period of my life equally weighed down with fear and uncertainty was the Cuban missile crisis, a time we all miraculously passed through without harm.  (More than fifty years later we know how truly miraculous that safe passage was.  And it wasn’t our government that kept us safe!)

I will never forget being a young English teacher standing in front of my high school class when the principal’s voice came over the sound system giving us evacuation instructions.

I’m not a particularly brave person.  I grew up with a father who was terrified of the world.  He fretted about every conceivable threat to our physical safety and, having struggled through the Great Depression, spoke often and solemnly of “when the next Depression comes.”

He has accompanied me all my adult life, whispering, warning, promising disaster.  I seem to have no way to turn off that dark voice.

Nonetheless, a pandemic never even made the list.

Which just goes to show that worrying isn’t the solution to anything.

But if worrying doesn’t help, what does?

A friend of mine, long before these fraught times, came up with the answer.  Grace and Gratitude.  Grace, the infinite gifts to be discovered in every life.  Gratitude, the deep appreciation of those gifts.

To keep the two before her, my friend found a photo of two giraffes and named them Grace and Gratitude and put them on her wall.  Liking the idea, I found a photo of two giraffes, too, and they adorn the wall right in front of my computer.

The problem, though, with putting something up on a wall that you look at every day for many hours of the day is that it doesn’t take long to quit seeing it entirely.

Until the world collapses around you.

Then you wake and see again.

So here I am at my computer looking at my giraffes, really looking at them, and remembering my friend’s wisdom that came out of a gentler time.

My life has been messy.  I have taken so many missteps.  I started out knowing so little about myself.  And it has taken such a long time to know, to accept, to love this person I am.

But through all the mess a core has held true.  I wanted to write, and I have written.  I wanted to turn my innermost self into words, into story, and I have lived by words and story.  I wanted to cast those words, those stories into the world, and it has been one of the deepest gifts of my life that the world has received them.

And what has been returned to me from that writing and from having that writing received is the gift of my own self.  I know myself better now.  I love myself better now.

And knowing and loving myself, I have more to give.

Which is what seems to give life value . . . that giving.  Whatever form it takes.  It’s easy to know your life matters when you can see your impact on others.

But sometimes even the opportunity for giving is taken away, and then what do you have?

My wise friend, the one who named her giraffes Grace and Gratitude, is a healer.  Even after leaving her profession behind, she has continued to find multiple ways to bring healing to those she touches.  And now, under the rules of this pandemic, she lives alone with little contact with this world so in need of healing.

“Is there anything I can do for you from a distance?” I asked yesterday.

“Help me figure out the purpose of my life,” she answered.

Just a small request from a healer shut off from healing.

But she knows.  She already knows.  And when she forgets, her giraffes will remind her.

We live in Grace, in the gift of breath, the gift of heartbeat, the gift of life itself.  Because all life is a gift.  Even life we do not choose to have among us like this living virus is part of a larger, sacred whole.

We live in Gratitude, because that is our reason for being here.  To know life in all its abundance, in all its pain.  To celebrate its lifeness as every cell of our bodies celebrates our existence.

And the only thing we must do to earn that celebration is to be.  Just to be.

Necessary.

Justified.

Holy.

And our purpose?  To receive Grace with Gratitude.

It is enough.

Even in these strange times!

The Lonely Prawn

Lonely Child

Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

It never surprises me when it happens.  In fact, after nearly fifty years as a children’s writer, it usually gives me a good laugh.

What am I talking about?  The potshots “grown-up” writers love to take at anything written for the young.

I watched the film Wonder Boys the other eveningRe-watched it would be the more appropriate term, because I’m certain I had seen the film before, but so long ago that every line was new to me, albeit each arrived carrying a whiff of deja-vu.

The film, for those who haven’t seen it either once or twice, is about a novelist/professor who, after a spectacular success with his first novel, cannot finish his second.  And it’s about his brilliant and troubled—aren’t all brilliant writers also troubled?—student.

(I sometimes grow annoyed with the way writers are depicted on the screen, poor neurotic, suffering and insufferable souls.   But then I remind myself that the people behind that depiction are, themselves, writers and decide we have permission to poke fun at ourselves.)

The line that caught my attention occurred during a writers’ festival.  It’s the final gathering and those who placed a manuscript with an editor during the weekend are being congratulated.  Before we get to our brilliant but troubled student, the sale of a children’s book is announced.  The title, The Lonely Prawn.

If you’re someone out there writing for children or who actually knows children’s books, you get the joke.  But what I react to isn’t so much the amused contempt for children’s literature revealed in such a title; it’s the much deeper, darker contempt for childhood itself that lies beneath it.

Many years ago, after I’d published my second novel for young people, a journalist was sent out to interview me for our community paper.  When he arrived, it couldn’t have been more obvious that he considered the story he’d been assigned—a housewife who’d published a kiddie book—beneath him.  After a brief and annoying conversation, I handed him a copy of the novel and said, “Read it and then come back if you want to talk to me.”

He returned with a whole different set of questions, beginning with “How can you write things like that for kids?”

I think the mistake that many people make, a mistake even some who are trying to write for young readers make, is one of “othering.”  We cannot believe that children are yet human beings, that they have serious and complex inner lives and thus that serious and complex literature can serve them.

And this despite the fact that we all enter the world as infants and live long years as children and never leave the deep impact of that experience behind.  Why then do we block out both conscious memory of and respect for childhood?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to recall our own powerlessness, our total dependence on those who met our needs so imperfectly.

Perhaps it is also because we live in a society immersed in a profound ageism, one that denigrates both young and old, dismisses youth as not being important yet, age as being past all importance.

But then that’s another blog entirely, isn’t it?

One of my memories of being a child in the 1940’s is of standing in a circle of my mothers’ friends who were talking about me.  They discussed me as though I might be a lamp or a table, some object completely without awareness.

Don’t they know I’m a person? I thought.

They didn’t.

And then I also thought, Wouldn’t they be surprised to know what’s going on inside my head?

They would have.

More than seven decades later, the grown-ups struggle with that concept still.  That children are real, that they contain whole worlds of thoughts and feelings, that they deserve a complex and demanding literature . . . and that, believe it or not, such a literature exists.

I do hope, though, that poor lonely prawn does finally find a friend.

 

 

A Writer’s Most Creative Act

Bird in hand

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

I’ve said it before and I still believe it, so I might as well say it again.

Letting go can be a writer’s most creative act.

And the most difficult, too.

I’ve offered this piece of advice to my students many times, but each time I do I’ve been reminding myself as well, hoping when the time comes that knowing it will help.

I’ve just finished a project, a picture book, would you believe, that has occupied me wholly for months.  For hours nearly every day, I have researched and written and written and rewritten.  And then researched some more and started over from the beginning.  Many times.

The text has finally coalesced, so I find myself stepping off into that place I arrive at every time I encounter the vacuum of no-work-waiting.  Each morning I rise and say . . . “So?”  After confronting that “So?” for a week or two, I began rummaging in an abandoned young-adult novel that has been waiting in the wings.  I wrote about the beginnings of that encounter two weeks ago.

The novel was called Blue-Eyed Wolf.  Whatever else changed about it from one iteration to the next—and much did—it was always called Blue-Eyed Wolf.  It opens with a stolen glimpse of a litter of wolf pups.

But almost without my consent, as I tiptoe back inside my story, my setting insists upon changing.

It is changing because I used that northern Minnesota wilderness setting where an encounter with a litter of wolf pups is possible for another novel.  That one, called Sunshine, will be out in the spring of 2021.

Of course, many, many stories can occur in northern Minnesota.  I even had the good sense to avoid an encounter with wolves in Sunshine in order to leave that territory untouched in case I decided to return to this novelBut when I began to regather Blue-Eyed Wolf I discovered, to my dismay, that, even without using the wolves, I seem to have used up much of the emotional juice that land of woods and lakes holds for me. In story form anyway.

So this novel has to find another setting, one that still calls to me.

Where else to turn except to the cement-milling community in north central Illinois where I grew up?  The place where I lived out my childhood seems to be endlessly juicy.

This change feels both necessary and good.  I know it is good because it is energizing.  I can feel the noisy, dusty cement mill; the small Midwestern town; the muddy river that runs through the woods, can feel all of it pulling new ideas into my story the way a magnet draws iron filings.

But still . . . everyone knows there are no wolves with eyes of any color at all in Illinois.

And oh, how I miss those wolves!

They were, as my agent pointed out gently when I complained to him of their loss, “always mostly metaphoric, yes?”  And he is right.  Of course.  Surely I can find another metaphor to carry my story.

To carry my heart, I started to say, because that is what those wolves were doing.

But how do I move forward after discarding my story’s heart?

This is where I take a deep breath and pause to consider that lecture about “letting go.”  I remember even the gesture I used to make, the way I held my hand out in front of me, palm up, fingers folded, then opened it slowly.  As though I were releasing a small bird into flight.

And that is pretty much the way it feels.  A bird taking flight, leaving me standing here with an empty hand.

Which is why I return to that lecture, repeat it again, to myself this time.

“Letting go can be a writer’s most creative act.”

Now for the hard part . . . waiting for another bird to find my open hand!

The Walking Solution

walking in the snow

Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash

I have long known that if all the keyboards were to disappear off the face of the Earth my career would be over.  I don’t know why, but the act of pushing words through a pencil onto a piece of paper has always been painfully difficult for me.  Until I learned to type, my stories existed only inside my head.

But there is another physical ability I have been granted that helps with my writing almost as much as keyboards.

I can walk.

Yes, I know.  That’s a bit like saying I can sing opera because I know how to fish.

But not quite.

Let me take today, for example.  I have had a young-adult novel rummaging around in my head for several years now.  More than just in my head.  At one point I had almost 200 pages of it down.

And then I lost faith in what I was doing, put it aside, went on to something else.

A couple of years ago during a long car ride, my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, brought up that novel I had laid aside.  He hoped I would return to it.  (To my astonishment, he could remember those almost-200 pages in more detail than I could.)  I raised various objections.  He raised various solutions.  And then I nodded . . . and went on to work on other things.

But when someone you believe in believes in you, their belief becomes part of your own psyche.  So that novel, the possibility of that novel has never gone away.  Even though, when I moved to my new house, I gave away all my research books, the books I had read and highlighted and tabbed with sticky notes, it still didn’t go away.  (“I’m never going back to that novel,” I told myself sternly as I filled grocery bags with “unnecessary” stuff.)

So guess where I am now, where I’m thinking about being anyway.  Of course, back to that long-ago novel.

I’ve sorted through a number of solutions for the problems I was having.  Experimented with a new form, found a new voice.  But one question remained, and it kept flummoxing me.

The novel is set in 1968, a time that the story seems to need.  But in the previous draft, for all my copious research I couldn’t quite get hold of the feel of that time.

Yes, I know I lived through that disastrous year.  In 1968 I was 30, in fact, and should have been very much present.  But I was a mommy, my life completely absorbed by babies.  The world happened someplace else.  Someplace I paid little attention to.  What I did experience that year occurred at such a distance—partly because of those babies, partly because of my own capacity to turn inward and let the world fly by—that little registered.

Which leaves me dependent on research to reinvent what so many know in their bones!

Not an enviable task.

And it leaves me using an old brain to try to hold the myriad events of 1968 against my characters’ personal struggles.

Just thinking about repeating all that discarded research, about trying to coordinate the complexity of that time with my story, leaves me feeling cross-eyed.

So I came back to it all again today.  I let it bang around in my head for a while and got nowhere.  “Dump it again!” I told myself.  “Go on to something else,” I said.  Though I have nothing else in my mind to go on to at the moment.

Finally I gave myself an order, the one I usually deliver at such moments.

GO FOR A WALK!

And I did.

I don’t know what it is about walking.  The snow lay deep and untouched across the frozen lake I circled.  The air was crisp and fresh.  The rhythm of my steps brought every cell of my body alive.

And every cell of my brain.

By the end of the walk, by the time I emerged from the trees and could see the cheerful red of my car waiting for me in the parking lot, I had a solution.  It’s a bit odd, this solution my feet beat out of the asphalt path, but it might work.

And when I sit down tomorrow, if it doesn’t?

Well, I’ll go for a walk again.  There is nothing like it for getting my writing under control.

I am enormously grateful for my keyboard.  Always have been, always will be.

But, oh, I am even more grateful for my feet!

 

Both Science and Story

campfire

Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

“The border is porous.  Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth.  But the value of knowledge remains.”

That statement is part of a passage I returned to again and again in my multiple readings of a fascinating book called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli, in that passage, talks first about “the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years.”  Then he moves on to speak of “the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah—scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly but can follow traces of.”

“The confusion,” he adds, “between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.  The separation is a subtle one:  the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in the night’s storytelling.”

We need both, he says, but he concludes with, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

That statement stuck in my head.  “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

And that is the power of science.  It is what science accomplishes that storytelling cannot.  It can fill our bellies with real antelope meat.

My father was a chemist, a brilliant man, but so much a concrete thinker that, when I embarked on an English literature major in college, he asked, “What is there to learn?”

For him story was merely plot.

That story and science can co-exist—must co-exist if we are to survive in this bewildering world—never occurred to him.  Thus, I have spent much of my life proving the story side of the equation, leaving science for others to attend to.

(I have been glad enough, though, to feast on the conspicuous rewards science has brought into the world over the eight decades of my life.)

But story and science are coming together for me these days.  I am intrigued by the insights I can glean—meager as they are, because my understanding is so limited—from quantum physics.  Science is telling us what mystics have told us for centuries, that we are part of everything and everything is part of us.

An insight that moves me profoundly, one that inhabits my soul and changes me in deep, invisible ways.

And that’s the way story works, too.  We don’t just read stories or listen to them.  We live them.  And in the living, we are, inevitably, transformed.

Yes, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”  And eating is not just necessary to our survival.  It is profoundly good.

How grateful I am to the minds that have fed me in so many ways, like bringing me the computer that is capturing and disseminating my words today.

As I am grateful to those who have made my life larger through story.

The two co-exist, informing one another, supporting one another, and that is one of the greatest blessings of being alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that we can honor both science and story.