Happiness and Freedom

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Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learn to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.

Epictetus, 55 – 135

Sequel, Anyone?

Have you ever thought of taking the book Runt and making it a young adult series? Or at least adding a second book? I fell in love with this book as a young girl and here I am at 21 and I still adore this book and wonder why a sequel was not written. If you would be open to it I would love to send you some of the ideas I had about turning it into a 2 part collection. I myself am a published poet. Please let me know your opinions.


RuntIt’s not an unusual query except for one thing.  That question typically comes from young readers who have just now discovered my novel Runt and are looking for a sequel. The fact that L is 21, read Runt as a child and is still thinking about my story, still wanting more of my characters, wanting even to contribute ideas for that more, quite captures my heart. And it brings me to an explanation.

I had once intended to write a sequel for Runt, but I never did.

The story of Runt is the story of a wolf pup, the last of a litter born to a pair of wild parents in the wilderness.  The last born and, as the title reveals, the runt.  The other pups are all given names that have to do with their strongest skill, their most important means of serving the pack—Leader, Sniffer, Runner, Thinker. But this last one, who looks exactly like his dark father, is so undersized that he has little chance of surviving, let alone serving the pack. Or so his father assumes when he sees him. And thus the name Runt.

As the story plays out, Runt does survive. He struggles to prove himself to his father and fails, again and again, but by the end he finds his voice, calls his hungry family to a feast, and earns the name Singer. A perfect set up for a sequel. Even the title of the story was obvious, Singer.

I knew how my second story would play out. Singer would begin with the young wolf leaving his family, striking out on his own and would end with his finding a mate and with the birth of his first pups.

I began by rereading Runt to find out, first, if I still liked it, if I wanted to return to the world of that story. I did. The setting, the characters, the possibilities for more story all came alive in my mind. So I began to research the lives of wolves again, to place myself solidly in their world.  And as I deepened the knowledge I had gathered to write the first book, something began to happen.

When I wrote Runt, I was emulating an author I deeply admired when I was a child, Felix Salten, who wrote books steeped in the natural world, such as Bambi, books in which the animal characters remained true to their real natures except for one thing. He gave them the power of human speech. And so that is what I did. I remained completely true to the reality of wolves in the natural world except for giving them the power of human speech.

Returning to my research, though, I began to notice something I had not noticed—perhaps chosen not to notice?—when I was preparing to write the first book. We understand the real communication of wolves among themselves only very partially, but we do know it is intricate, nuanced, complex, highly refined. To give them human speech, however much I had needed to do so for the purposes of my story, doesn’t enhance their reality. It diminishes it.

Ultimately, I decided that while I was still very fond of Runt, certainly didn’t feel I needed to apologize for anything about it, including its talking animals, I had grown to respect wolves too deeply to invest them with speech again, at least not while I was also trying to demonstrate their reality.

And so what probably would have been a successful sequel was shelved before it ever reached paper.

Does this decision matter now, except perhaps to L and the other occasional readers who long for another story about my gutsy but challenged wolf pup. Not very much. Except, perhaps, as an example of the deepening questions we writers must ask ourselves every time we set out to tell a story.

What implicit assumptions lie beneath our stories? Who or what might be helped by those assumptions? Who or what might they hurt?

It’s the question we have come belatedly to ask when we storytellers reach into human cultures not our own. It’s one we need to hold up about our natural world, too.

The Thing is to Love Life

The thing is

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it,

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it…

Then you hold life like a face

between your palms, a plain face,

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you again.

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Ellen Bass

When It’s All a Pile of Sh* * *

Has it happened to you?  You’ve worked hard and with good heart all day.  Your manuscript seems to be going well.  Before you step away, you go back to reread your day’s output, and you’re satisfied.  More than satisfied, maybe.  You are really pleased.  Your words sing.  You can feel their music deep in your belly.

You wake the next morning.  Sunrise, breakfast, birds scrabbling at the feeder. You return to your work with the same good heart that carried you through the day before.  Before you can write the next line, though, before you can imagine the next word, you do what you do every morning.  You pause to reread the newest pages, to get back into the rhythm of the piece.

But . . . surprise!  Those pages have mutated during the night!  How could you have been pleased with this?  Only now can you see clearly.  It’s all a pile of sh***!

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Even after all these years of writing, all these years of publishing, I still find myself upended from time to time when in the midst of working on a manuscript.

In the early stages of my career, I often made a mistake that contributed to that kind of upending.  When I finished writing for the day, I would set the pages next to my typewriter—yes, it was a typewriter then, by today’s standards an instrument only slightly more advanced than a quill pen—I would set the pages next to my typewriter and move into the demands of my evening.  Making supper, checking homework, baths and pajamas and night-time stories.

Throughout the evening, though, I would find myself detouring through my study.  (It wasn’t much of a detour.  My study was a convenient passageway for everyone in the family to everyplace else in the house, but that’s another story.)  And truth be told, the detour didn’t occur just once or twice.  I detoured again and again through the evening.  Every time I passed my typewriter and that newly minted stack of pages, I paused, picked them up, and read them.  That’s rather nice, I would say to myself. And you did it!

Then I’d return to the demands of house and children, content.

You can guess what happened the next morning when I sat down to my work.  I would pick up those same pages, read them in preparation for climbing back into my story, and find that they were dead, flat, terrible . . . a pile of sh**!  It was as though I had sucked all the life out of them the evening before.

The solution to that one was easy.  I learned not to peek at my new work again until the next time I’m ready to work.  That way the pages stay fresh.

So I no longer read and reread my work in progress when I’m not working on it.  But even without that, my perception of it can change radically from day to day.  That has been especially true with my memoir.  Some days when I go back to read I can say, quite objectively, “This works.”  And some days I sit down at the computer, pull up the manuscript . . . and want to throw up.

I don’t like anything I see.  My language, my form, my topics.  Especially I don’t like the person I’m writing about!

Solution?  Perhaps I should read some self-help books on building self-esteem.  But I have so many other more important books I want to read.  And I’m not sure self-esteem is a permanent commodity, anyway.

I could take my emotional temperature, make sure it registers high-regard, before I allow myself access to the manuscript.  But how easily that could turn into an excuse for not writing anything at all!

Or perhaps I should simply remind myself that my father was right, that it is absolutely disgusting to talk about myself this way.  That would be an easy way to decide to discard months, years of work.  But truth be told, part of my reason for writing the memoir was to undo some of my father’s truths.

So instead I do, day after day, what most of us do.  I keep muddling through.  I’ve discovered, after all, that my disdain for my writing or for my story’s main character isn’t usually permanent.

Or when the yuck factor is especially strong I set the whole thing aside in favor of walking the dog.  Or having lunch with a friend.  Or writing a blog.  Then I come back to it later.

Most of these solutions work pretty well, but sometimes I still find myself wondering.

Am I the only one?  Does anyone else wake up on a sunny morning and find work that was perfectly fine the day before has turned into a pile of sh**?

The Odds Against Us

…the odds against us are endless,

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our chances of being alive together
statistically nonexistent;
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah’s Witnesses
agree that it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who – but for endless if’s –
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

 –  Lisel Mueller