My City is Burning

Fire

Photo by Cris DiNoto on Unsplash

My city is burning.

Yes, I live in Minnesota, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where a police officer knelt on an unarmed black man’s neck while three other officers—and many members of our community—stood watching.  You probably know the story.  The black man died.

As I write this the ashes of those fires are still hot.  And there is no guarantee there won’t be more fires tonight or the night after.  Or the night after that.

Will we ever learn to see by the light of those fires?

This terrible moment in time makes me stop, once again, to examine my own history.

I grew up in the mill housing at the edge of a small Midwestern town.  It was a working-class community, exclusively white, mostly eastern Europeans and Irish.  My dad was the chemist at the cement mill and our family was English.  We were part of the community and never quite belonged.

Our town was one of three that had grown up across from one another along a river in northern Illinois, and I learned at a young age that there had once been a sign.  It was one of those don’t-let-the-sun-set-on-you-in-this-town kind of signs.  I never found proof that the sign had actually existed, but the reality of the warning certainly did.  Those who weren’t supposed to let the sun set on them knew who they were and stayed away.

Which means I grew up in a profoundly segregated world.  I always knew it was segregated and my parents taught me that segregation was wrong.  But still, I didn’t have a clue what it meant to be non-white and excluded or what my own whiteness might mean.

I remember loving Al Jolson films.  I was well into adulthood before I had even a glimmer of understanding of the insult in a black-face performance.

Even more important, I didn’t know that I didn’t know.  And I didn’t know that my whole society, the dominant society that I took to represent the whole of it, was at least as ignorant as I.  Only recently I stumbled onto the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and realizing it was a classic I’d never seen, settled in to enjoy.

Who doesn’t love Audrey Hepburn in her big sunglasses and tiny black dresses?  But then there was Mickey Rooney as a clumsy, screaming Asian man with a whole set of extra dentures to make him suitably buck-toothed. I was beyond appalled!  Did such a characterization ever seemed funny?

All of which puts me in mind of something I encountered in last year’s fine documentary on Toni Morrison.  The film quoted a line from a reviewer—white, of course—of one of her early novels.  He said something like, “Maybe someday she’ll grow up and write for and about real people.”

That one doesn’t even require a comment.

We all come into the world trapped inside our own skulls, inside our own skins. We gather into groups and name ourselves “the people,” and we find a word for everyone else that means “the other.”  The whole world does it.

And when any one group gains power over others, that power will not be—has never been—used well.

I was born into that dominant group.  Born into an inauspicious milling community but with a white skin. I have spent my life trying to see past the limitations of my whiteness, but true understanding hasn’t been easy to come by.

I do know something about being other.  I am an old lesbian, so I have had no choice but to learn about otherness.  But not only am I still protected by my white skin, I lived so long in the heterosexual world before I ever acknowledged my sexuality that without even wanting to do so, I pass.  (Once another lesbian said to me, “You’re a good spokesperson for our community because you look so safe.”)

We in this “white country” are finally being forced to recognize the multicultural world we actually live in.  Our journey of recognition is often a clumsy one.  And sometimes we are more than inept, we are vicious.

We in the children’s book world are being forced to make the journey into a multicultural world, too.  And I could say the same thing about clumsiness, ineptness, even viciousness for us.

It’s a steep learning curve for those who started out believing that we were the standard by which all others should be judged, that everyone else when they finally got there would, of course, want to be just like us.

I am encouraged, though, to know that the identity I was born into and have always lived in, the trap of my white skin, is finally cracking open.  Just a bit.

Open enough, I hope, to let some of the light of otherness shine in.

I regret deeply that sometimes that light has to come from fires.

Peace on Earth

Peace

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Praise god or the gods, the unknown,
that which imagined us, which stays
our hand, our murderous hand,
and gives us still,
in the shadow of death,
our daily life,
and the dream still
of goodwill, of peace on earth.

Denise Levertov

Enough

Sun

Photo by Luis Graterol on Unsplash

It must have been nearly fifty years ago, the moment when the idea hit me.  I was in the early stages of defining my life by my writing, by the daily process of shaping meaning out of words.  And a thought I had long understood but never truly examined stopped me in my tracks.

Our sun one day will die.  In something like five billion years it will expand into a red giant and gobble up this precious Earth.  And in that time all remnants of our civilization, all remnants of us, will be obliterated.

I had known this for a long time, of course.  Intellectually, anyway.  But what struck me that day was the realization that not a single word I write will survive!

What is the point? I found myself asking the surrounding air.  Why write anything if it’s not going to last?

Looking back at that moment I can’t help but smile at the solemn young woman asking such a question.  In the first place that the death of our sun will bring the end to humanity rather than our accomplishing it ourselves is the very epitome of wishful thinking.

And beyond that, who did I think I was going to be?  Shakespeare?

Between then and now, I have published more than one-hundred small books.  And though I haven’t taken a count, the majority of them must already be obliterated . . . or at least out of print.

So much for waiting for the sun to gobble up the meaning I’ve been so busy thrusting at the world.

However, the question I asked that day is still as profound as it is narcissistic.  What does anything mean if meaning doesn’t last?

And slowly, I’ve begun to gather some kind of an answer.  An answer for myself, anyway.  I am here, everything I think and believe and understand is here in this moment.  That is all I—or anyone—will ever have.  This now.

My life is simultaneously long and fleeting.  Oh, how long and oh, how fleeting!

My first children’s novel came into the world in 1976, and it happened to command attention.  That wasn’t because of any inherent value in my work but because of the kind of work I happened to need to do.  The 1970’s were the time of what was called “the new realism” in children’s literature, a much more tame realism than what we see today without requiring any kind of label, and realism happened to be what I needed to write.

Having come out of a generation of children who were consistently lied to—“for our own protection,” you understand—and having had a mother who was spectacularly good at protective lying, I came into my career with a fierce need for truthtelling.  Children deserved the truth, after all.  They needed it!

I look at my “cutting-edge” novels now and wonder whether they would even be published today.  Certainly most aren’t being read.  I confess I haven’t the slightest desire to read them myself.

And so the reality is that I don’t have to wait for the sun to gobble up my work.  It came into the world with its own self-destruct button.

As we all do.

But does it matter that those books happened, even if they are gone now?

It takes the perspective of age to look back and say with confidence, yes, it does.  It matters because of the ripple effect.

My being in the world, this book of mine being in the world, will make a difference to someone, however small.  And inevitably that difference will be passed on to someone else, probably someone neither my book not I ever had contact with.

And on and on and on from there.

It’s all we have, I think.  We writers.

We humans.

We are here to make what difference we can, and it doesn’t matter whether the noticeable impact from that difference lasts minutes or eons, it will be in our world forever.

Until the sun gobbles us up, of course.

But then I’m not going to worry about that.  I’m not even going to spend my days bewailing the more immediate endings hovering out there.

I have this moment, after all.  And it is enough.

Grit and Magic

Falcon

. . . part of learning to create things well is just practice—putting in your time, keeping at it, refusing to give up when you make mistakes, which you are going to do a lot. Nowadays, people are calling the willingness to persist like this: grit. And yet there is another aspect to this business of creating things—call it joy, or inspiration, or magic, or whatever. And this part has very little to do with stiffening your spine and pushing past difficulties. So, in Falcon, I tried to evoke that delicate balancing act of grit and magic.

Susan Fletcher

Inhabiting Our Stories

This Blog was written before the Corona virus arrived in the U.S.  In fact, I had several blogs already prepared when our world fell apart.  I have considered whether to set these next few blogs aside and write solely about what we are all thinking and talking about, but I’ve decided that it might be a relief to think about, talk about something else.

mother and son

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Last time I wrote here, I was contemplating the way I use the failures of plays and films to recognize the crucial difference between drama and melodrama.  As I said then, drama rises out of character, out of who that character is and what she needs.  Melodrama is imposed on characters from outside, often to serve the writer’s purposes.

But as helpful as it is to note drama tipping into melodrama in a film, recognizing that problem in someone else’s work doesn’t necessarily keep me from enjoying melodrama in my own work.  Melodrama can be compelling to its author.

Here is an example from a scene I struggled with in Sunshine, my upcoming novel(Candlewick, spring, 2021.)

In early versions, in many early versions, the story pivoted around a climactic scene in which my main character’s mother, frantic because he has been gone much too long after taking off on his own, surprises him on his return by grabbing him by the neck and nearly choking him.  “Where the hell have you been?”

It was a powerful moment, and I loved it.  A gut kick for both character and reader.  I could feel that scene moment right down to my toes.  But I struggled with everything that followed.  The boy is sullen, furious, convinced his mother tried to kill him. The mother, this mother who had abandoned her son long before, is apologetic.  And where do I go from there?  I had difficulty raising the stakes.

Finally a trusted reader said, “I wonder if this particular mother would really react that way.”

Just that.

I didn’t want to hear it.  I didn’t want to hear the faintest suggestion that this beloved moment, this powerful moment might not be serving my story.  That was my key scene!  But her question sent me examining, however reluctantly, the deeper disconnection in this mother-son story.  And what I found was something that couldn’t be expressed in over-the-top anger.

How would my story play out, I dared to ask myself, if this mother, instead of being enraged, was so intent on her own life, her own work that she didn’t even notice her son had been gone much too long?  After all, a parent’s anger in such a moment comes out of deep caring.  What if her greeting revealed her own disconnection instead, the disconnection that lay at the heart of my story?

It was a difficult turnaround to make, not because it was hard to write the new scene but because it was hard to let go of the old.  But after a deep sigh—sighs are always permitted—I tossed the scene I loved (not too far in case I changed my mind down the road) and wrote the new one.

And it worked.  I could tell instantly that it worked, even though I was still loved the scene it replaced.

And most important, the mother’s very different response gave me room to move forward.

It isn’t easy to recognize the too-strong moment in our own stories, melodrama instead of drama.  It’s much easier to identify what is over the top in someone else’s work, easier to recognize what is being played for instant effect rather than to deepen character and story.

I talked last time about identifying those too-strong moments in film or on the stage.    But the key to identifying, of course, isn’t just to critique.  It’s to carry what we notice back to our own work.

Each time we see and name melodrama, we’re better equipped to recognize it at home.

Recognize it and soften it into a story moment that deepens, leaves our readers vibrating from a pulled punch instead of slammed into oblivion.

So hurrah for all the films and plays and novels that are executed with subtlety and nuance.  And hurrah, too, for the ones that let their bones show.

What great teachers they are!

And hurrah for our own work when we can recognize each character’s truth and bring that to the page.

The most powerful impact story can offer isn’t the villain and the helpless maiden, however fast the locomotive is rushing.  It is characters who stay true to themselves on the page.

Only then is there room for our own souls to inhabit our stories.