Come Alive

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Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

 

Howard Thurman

Confusing and Troubling Times

Photo by Morgan Basham on UnsplashKaren

I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer.  My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them.  What’s a girl to do?  In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create?  Do you have the same thoughts?  If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?

This is a question Karen Cushman posed to her fellow writers in 2017.  I intended to respond to it then, but I find no evidence that I ever did.  The question seems even more appropriate, more urgent today, so I’m going to tackle it now.

How do I free myself to write during these confusing and troubling times?

I have one friend, an artist in a field different from mine, who keeps these confusing and troubling times in check by abstaining from news entirely.  And that works for her.  But while I honor her choice, it’s not mine.  I don’t see how I can be a responsible citizen that way.  I do, however, limit the amount of time I spend taking in the news.  In particular, I abstain from almost all news that comes by way of television.  Most of what is offered there is less news than it is high-impact entertainment, meant to sell the products that ride on its back more than to inform.

I do read my local newspaper.  I do get news from sources I trust on the internet.  (That last is problematic, of course, because the sources I trust are sure to support my own views of the world, and as more of us get our information from such radically different sources with such profoundly different truths to convey, we all grow less and less able to communicate with one another.)

But the issue here isn’t who has the truth.  It’s how we live—and write—with the truths we embrace.  With the lack of substantive hope those truths support.

My answer has been to attempt to reach, day after day, deeper, farther, beyond the news of the day.  My answer, for instance, to the ravages of our climate has been The Stuff of Stars.  I won’t say to our children, We adults have failed to keep out world intact, now it’s up to you to fix it!  Rather I say, Look!  See our universe!  See this incredible Earth!  See your own amazing self!  All magnificent!  All sacred!

And I dream that if my readers know in their hearts the sacredness of the Earth and of their own selves, they will in some small way live differently into whatever lies ahead.

I dream, too, of writing a picture book about Peace.  I capitalize the word, because I’m not talking about soft, squishy peace, the kind of feel-good stuff that all little old ladies believe in.  I’m talking about Peace as a vibrant force that has the power and authority to change history.  I have a dear friend who speaks of humans as both mammals, nurturers, and as predators, creatures who kill to survive.  I want to find the Peace that lies on the other side of that truth, and I want to write it in such a way that the very young—and the very old—can believe in it.

It’s not much of an answer, I know.  It certainly isn’t an answer that fixes anything.  But it is the best I have.

What is your answer, especially those of you out there who also write for children?  Where does your hope lie?  Surely we can’t speak to children without hope.  Surely we can’t live our own lives without it.

I would love to hear your answers, and I’ll post as many of them as I can.

Write to me.  How do you live your hope?  How do you communicate it?

The Most Regretful People

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The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

 

Mary Oliver

“Marvelous!”

“Marvelous!”  That’s what the editor said.  She was describing my revision of Sunshine, the novel I have been immersed in—bogged down in would probably be a better description—for the last two years and more.

There will be more work to do, of course.  I can often send a picture-book manuscript in clean.  But with a novel of any complexity, if my editor can’t open the door to revisions each step along the way I feel abandoned.  Fearful of presenting myself to the world naked.

Those final rounds of revisions, my last chance to dress my story to meet the reading public, are invaluable.  It isn’t just that it takes only the smallest of slips to catch a reviewer’s eye.  Far more important, small slips can leave readers dissatisfied, even if they may be less able than reviewers to name the cause of their disaffection.

And sometimes, even with a manuscript I’ve been laboring over long and long, it’s not a matter of small slips but of deep insights that evade me.

Another person’s vision can open me to the reason the story chose me in the beginning.

Ten months ago I submitted Sunshine to the editor I most wanted to work with.  It was her first time to see it, and she said, “There is a lot I like about the novel, and I think it has the potential to be a very very powerful read, but it also puzzled me a bit tonally.”  And so I took that puzzlement in hand and waded back in.

And in.

And in.

There is more than one reason why Sunshine has come close to defeating me.  I started with a fun idea, a boy with an imaginary dog.  Not a three-year-old, the age when many children have imaginary friends, but an older boy still immersed in a very solid fantasy.  But having begun with that premise, I then had to answer a crucial question.  Why?  Why has he clung to his imaginary companion for so long?  What need does the little dog fulfill?

The answer that came to me was simple, or at least it seemed so at the time.  His mother abandoned him when he was three, and without being consciously aware, he has used Sunshine to fill in the hole she left.  Missing mothers I understand from the child’s perspective.  Though my own mother was pretty much omnipresent, I experienced another kind of abandonment as a child that I return to again and again in my stories.  But having him reconnect with his mother, a woman who has not just walked away but stayed away, proved far more difficult.  Because this time I had to understand, not just the child, but the mother!

Such a choice is so foreign to my own heart that I had difficulty explaining it to myself . . . except in the most black and white and therefore melodramatic terms.

In this last draft I found my way to the mother in part by making her a writer and letting the pull of the writing be a piece of what took her away.  I came closer also by reducing the weight of the childhood crisis I’d used to justify her choice, allowing her to be less dramatically wounded and thus more complex.

I also started out with an angry boy and ultimately gave up the anger, however justified it might be.  Instead, he is now naively hopeful, determined to remake the connection with his long-lost mother.

I made that deep change after happening upon a film in which a young teen girl was fiercely and constantly angry with her incapacitated mother.  Despite my knowing that anger was the only weapon the girl had against the abandonment of her mother’s illness, by halfway through the film I could no longer bear her petulance.  I turned away from the film and back to Sunshine and found another way for Ben to react.

And so, in a two-character story both characters evolved in profound ways while the story’s action remained essentially the same.  Which made my journey a long one.

Once in a while, I enter a story knowing everything I need to know.  I know it in both head and heart.  When that happens, I move swiftly and the story almost writes itself.

Once in a while.

And then there’s the rest of the time.

I tell myself what I used to tell my students:  It’s the very difficulty of the process that gives me opportunity.  If it were easier to create fiction, if the process were more transparent, the rest of the world would have already produced all the market could bear.

And then where would I be?

Nature’s Imperative

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The only imperative that nature utters is: ‘Look. Listen. Attend.’

C. S. Lewis