Knowing My Own Mind

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There are times when I don’t know my own mind.  Worse, there are times when I think I know my mind perfectly well and then find an entirely different mind on a later visit to my opinions.

Which feels almost as though I have no mind at all.

Some time ago one of my favorite writers came out with a new novel.  I had been waiting for her next book for years, so, of course, I signed up to have it pop into my electronic reader at the first opportunity.  It did, and I read it eagerly.

I was disappointed.  Deeply.

It wasn’t that the novel was badly written.  This author isn’t capable of bad writing.  It was just that I didn’t care about the people she explored so deeply.  And even knowing their complexities, one layer exposed after another, didn’t make me want to spend time with them.

I didn’t have to wait nearly so long for her next book.  This time, though, I read it with caution, with my newly acquired discontent.  (Once burned.)  This novel was . . . okay.  But I wasn’t in love.  I had been in love with her early novels.  Besotted, really.

Now another book is out.  In a series of interwoven short stories my once-favorite author explored many of the characters from the previous novel, the one I didn’t dislike but that had never quite captured me.

And before I had quite decided to do so, I had finished the latest offering and gone back to reread the previous novel.  The okay one.  And I found myself rereading the book I had been so tepid about with new respect, even full-blown appreciation. Obviously, the book hadn’t changed on the page.

Next I intend to return to the first book that disappointed me.  Will the change in me, whatever caused it, now make room for that one, too?

As someone who has for many years mentored my fellow writers, I find myself wondering.  Is my opinion any more reliable, any less emotionally based when I am evaluating a manuscript than it is when I approach a published novel?

When I critique a manuscript I always try, if I possibly can, to read it twice.  Sometimes a strongly held opinion from my first reading dissolves on the second.  When that happens, I usually trust the second reading.  And, especially if it’s a long manuscript, I rarely risk a third.

Is nothing in my mind solid, certain?  Are my opinions based on anything except emotion?  Is all the logic in the world simply something I pile around me to justify my mood?

When I’m responding to published work and the opinions I hold are only my own, the question is merely a matter of curiosity. Something to take out and wonder at in wondering moments.  How solid is this thing I think of as self with all its supporting framework of opinion?

When I’m responding to a manuscript-in-process, the question is one of profound responsibility.  My opinion will impact another person’s work.  And what if my response is, indeed, a product of my mood?  What harm might I do to a piece of writing in the name of helping?

The question is even more disconcerting when I face my own work.  Some days I am utterly confident of this new novel I’m pecking away at.  Others I’m equally convinced that my entire premise is bogus.

I have long known that nothing impacts my writing output more than my confidence.  If I’m certain that this piece I’m working on is truly good and I’m loving writing it, the words flow.  (The true value of what I produce is a matter for later discernment, my own and others.)  When I doubt myself, each word arrives after a slog through mud.

How I wish there were a reliable way to keep my writing flowing, to keep my soul brimming with confidence.

Emotions are slippery, often hard to recognize and name, certainly impossible to keep marching in a straight line, and yet I’m convinced this supposedly logic-driven world is more accurately an emotion-driven one.

It’s a scary thought!

Let the things that enter your life wake you up.

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Let the things that enter your life wake you up.

 

Life’s work is to wake up, to let the things that enter into your life wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will. It’s going to stick around until you learn your lesson, at any rate. You can leave your marriage, you can quit your job, you can only go where people are going to praise you, you can manipulate your world until you are blue in the face to try to make it always smooth, but the same old demons will always come up until finally you have learned your lesson, the lesson they came to teach you. Then those same demons will appear as friendly, warmhearted companions on the path.                                                                                                                                           Pema Chodron

Where Does a Story Begin?

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I’ve heard it said so many times that it has almost become trite. A story begins the moment the main character confronts profound change.

I’ve also heard it said that writers tend to write their way into their stories.  We often need to lop off our first ten, twenty, thirty pages when we find our beginning.

But that isn’t me, I’ve always told myself.  By the time I sit down to write, I know exactly where my beginning lies.  In fact, I can’t remember a single time when I’ve had to lop off those opening pages.

Until now.

I’m currently working on a novella about a nine-year-old boy, Ben, and his dog, Sunshine.  The story is intended to be young, short, straightforward.  And knowing about beginnings as I do, I began with Ben listening to his father’s side of a telephone conversation with his mother, whom neither of them has seen for six long years.  Ben is about to discover that a new divorce agreement gives his mother the right to have him come visit . . . for a whole month.

A big change.  Right?  A good place to launch my story.  And my first two chapters were all about exploring and reacting to that change.

But there is something else going on.  There is always something else going on in my young, short, straightforward novels.  Sunshine, the dog, is presented as though she is a real dog, but she is only as real as Ben’s imagination can make her.  She is, in fact, a creation of his three-year-old mind, one that has hung around all these years as a creative substitute for his disappeared mother.

So, of course, my readers have to discover that, too, not just that Ben’s mother is going to be a problem for him to struggle with, but that the dog they have been introduced to in so visceral a way isn’t really there . . . except in Ben’s imagination.  I’m playing with my readers’ minds, making them believe in Sunshine as Ben does before allowing them to see Ben struggle to keep up his belief.

And so I began my story with Ben sitting on the stairs, one hand twined in Sunshine’s soft fur, trying to understand his father’s conversation. By the end of the first chapter, Sunshine vanishes and we understand, for the first time, the world we are in.  By the time we meet Ben’s mother in Chapter 3, my story is thoroughly set up.

And thoroughly is the operative word here.  My opening chapters were very thorough.

But the complexity of balancing these two situations, the long-ago disappearing mother, the newly disappearing dog, prompted me, when I was only about half-a-dozen chapters in, to seek out a reader.

On first reading, she pointed out some of the situations with Ben’s imaginary dog that she didn’t find believable. I rethought/rewrote those parts and moved forward.  I showed her those chapters again, and this time she was content with Ben’s imaginary dog.  But she surprised me by saying, “I wonder if this novel doesn’t start with Chapter 3.”

“Oh, it can’t,” I said.  “Because this is your second reading I think you’re missing the impact of the revelation that the dog is in Ben’s mind.  That’s what the first chapter is for, to reveal that.”

Clearly my conviction overpowered the conversation because she didn’t argue.

A bit of travel took me away from the manuscript for a week or so, and when I came back, I did what I always do when I’ve been interrupted.  I returned to page 1 and began rereading to get myself up to speed.

And guess what!  I found myself slogging through the reading of Chapters 1 and 2.  By the time I got to Chapter 3, I was relieved to discover that my story really did have a beginning.  Not the chapter as it was written, of course.  I had to present everything differently because that chapter now had no back story to lean on.  But my reader was precisely right.  My story began with Chapter 3.

One of the blessings of being a seasoned writer is that you keep making new mistakes.

And then can learn from them.

I read because …

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“I read because one life isn’t enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody.”

Richard Peck

The Magic of LoonSong

LoonSong, 2017, a retreat for children’s and young-adult writers.

We woke every morning to inspiration

beside a lake, deep in a forest, in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.

A place where Debby invited us into her dream.

Debbie Dahl Edwardson

It was a time of multilayered, multifaceted writer talk.

It was a time of long walks,

of pontoon rides,

of solitary paddles.

It was a time to sit alone and dream.

Lectures by some of the most exciting people in our field.

Gary Schmidt

M T Anderson

Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Julie Berry

Panel discussions that morphed into whole-group conversations.

Candace Fleming and M T Anderson

one-on-one consultations with an editor,

Liz Bicknell, Executive Editorial Director of Candlewick Press, and retreatant

or with an agent.

Faye Bender, agent with The Book Group, with retreatant

Readings

and campfires.

And finally sad farewells.

LoonSong, 2018, a retreat for children’s and young-adult writers.

So much to look forward to!

September 6th to the 10th, 2018.

Registration opens December 1st.

Faculty already on board, Susan Cooper, Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith.

www.loonsong.org

LoonSong Writer's Retreat

LoonSong, sponsored by Vermont College of Fine Arts

Photos by Jane Buchanan.