Tag Archives: author

On Finding a New Vision

Photo by Melchior Damu on Unsplash

When I’m teaching, I often talk about revision as re-vision, finding a new vision.  It sounds good, talking about it that way.

But the reality is that a new vision can be hard to come by.  And letting go of the old vision to make room for the new can be even harder.

In fact, letting go can sometimes be the most difficult part of writing . . . and the most creative part of it.

I have been working since shortly after I completed the text of my most recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars, on coming up with a companion book.  Mostly because the territory I researched in order to write it still compelled me.  Also, because reaching for the stars seems the most credible way of reaching for the hope so needed to write any kind of children’s book in this disheartening world.

First I came up with a text the editor said was “lovely.”  But she also said it was too much like The Stuff of Stars.  Even if I had wanted to take it to another editor for another opinion, I couldn’t, given the inevitable non-compete clause I had signed.  If it was too much like it was too much like to be out there from another publisher.

So with a great deal of sighing, I let that one go.

I thought and rethought and, in the meantime, I went on probing the stars, the origins of our universe, the fundamental nature of reality as scientists today can define it.  Through a friend, I came across a fascinating book by an Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, called Seven Brief Lessons and Physics.  I read and reread it.  And reread it again.  I can’t say still that I understand it, but it fascinates me.

And from that I began to reenter my idea of a companion book to The Stuff of Stars.

I worked and worked and worked on it.  Worked, first, to discover my core concept, to understand for myself what I wanted to say.

Worked, next, to frame what I had discovered into lyrical language, language that could carry my ideas through their musicality so that a child could listen and enjoy, even if understanding come later.

Worked, finally, to draw the whole into a pleasing shape and to balance that shape against the needs of the larger world.

And then, at last, I presented it to the one editor I wanted to have it.

The manuscript engages her.  It interests her.  Enough, even, for her to begin to think about illustrators.

But not in the form it exists.  Too much crammed into my text.  She suggests instead I use a long Afterword to explain what I want to explain.  The text itself she wants to be simpler, cleaner.

And she is probably right.  She’s an editor who is usually right.  Which doesn’t keep my heart from being attached, still, to the text precisely as I submitted it to her.

Attached and working at letting go.

Another sigh here.  A long one.

So this is where I remember giving that lecture on revision.  I remember the demonstration I used to give on letting go, my arm stretched out before me, my hand firmly closed, holding.  My hand opening slowly, releasing . . . releasing . . .  As though I were giving a baby bird the opportunity of flight.

My heart releasing, too.  Just a bit.

The most creative act of all.

Letting go.

But not an easy one.

Revising.  Re-visioning.

Does it get easier for having done it so many times before?  It doesn’t feel easy in the moment, but perhaps it is.

It feels a bit like setting out to swim across a wide, cold lake.  If I’ve done it a dozen times before, two dozen, a hundred, then I know, at least, that my strokes have accomplished the task in the past, that they will probably accomplish it again if I don’t lose heart.

So that’s what I’m working on first . . . my heart.

Once my heart has settled into the new approach to a story I truly want to tell, all the rest will follow.

A new vision.

Remembering Childhood

Marion 2nd Grade

Recently someone asked me, “Why is it that you have such detailed memories of your childhood?”  She commented that she did not.

I reached for an answer and came up with pure air.  Why do I remember?  Why doesn’t everyone?

Years ago, I had a student whose work was technically competent but quite lacking in emotional resonance.  One day during a manuscript consultation I said to her, “Tell me about your childhood.”  Her face began to glow.  “Oh,” she said.  “I had the most wonderful childhood!”

And that was precisely what was wrong with her work.

It’s not that you have to have had a uniquely difficult childhood to be able to write for children.  It is that nobody, nobody in the world has a wonderful childhood.  Exactly as nobody has a wonderful adulthood.  We all have days.  Some days are wonderful, to be sure.  Others are boring or challenging or downright painful.  But anyone who thinks she had a whole “wonderful childhood” has forgotten what that time was like.  And who can write successfully for children from such a place?

Ironically, though, I suspect that part of the reason I remember my childhood so vividly is because my mother was one of those “wonderful childhood” folks.  She spoke often of her own childhood on a Midwestern farm and always with deep reverence, so deep a reverence that I learned reverence, too.

My mother had such a strong need to remember her own childhood as perfect that she tried to make mine that way, too.  As a consequence she lied away every inconvenient truth.  And two passions pulled me into the career of my adult life, a profound reverence for childhood and an equally powerful need to tell children the truth.

I remember clearly the first time I ever wrote from that childhood place.  I was in college and, while I ordinarily occupied myself with more “productive” activities, things that might actually garner course credits, I sat down to my typewriter one quiet afternoon and tapped out a paragraph intended for no eyes but my own.  In a few words I described standing barefoot on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off into the cool tickle of the grass.  Only that.  But that paragraph emerged onto the page with lights flashing. “Important!  Important!” those lights said.  “Pay attention!  This matters!”

I did pay attention, because while the paragraph itself soon went the way of all scrap paper, the silken feel of the words, their heft and substance, stayed with me.  My mother’s reverence for childhood made those words shine.

It was many years later before I sat down to write about childhood again, and this time, carrying my other flag, I wrote about sexual abuse.  I had suffered such abuse as an adolescent at the hands of my family physician, but having distanced myself from that memory, I wrote instead out of a passionate defense of foster children, whom I had come to know too often suffered such abuse.

I wrote about sexual abuse so long before the “me-too” movement that no one quite knew what to do with the story that emerged.  Nonetheless, James Cross Giblin, perhaps the bravest editor in the children’s book industry at the time, brought Foster Child into the world.

Clearly, my mother’s deeply held reverence for the days of her childhood impacted me profoundly.  The ways she tried so hard to “protect” me did, too.  Does my ability to remember rise out of a curious mixture of reverence and defiance?

Perhaps.

Or maybe the answer is the same as the one I once received from my partner in response to a very different question.  When I first met her I was astonished to learn that she comes from a family of four daughters, all of them lesbian.  “How do you get statistics like that in one family?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied with a casual shrug.  “I guess we’re just lucky.”

And that’s me.  Lucky to have retained the textures of my childhood, the quiet, unpressured days; the grinding powerlessness; the longing for what I couldn’t even name; the humiliations; the soaring joys.

And lucky to have found good use for all I have carried with me from those days!

Creative Energy

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

It’s a topic I come back to many times, because it represents a core truth for me.

I can write only what feeds me, what gives me energy.

I watched many eager writers through a strenuous, two-year MFA program, and I was reminded again and again that one of the most important doors our students could learn to open was the one to their own best writing energy.

Sometimes what waits to be discovered is form, the particular form that speaks to each writer.  Not that any of us should be limited to one genre if our interest reaches wider, but there is usually a right place to start, novel or picture book or easy reader, nonfiction or verse.

Often what waits to be discovered, too, is a particular topic.  Many first novels are autobiographical because we all have issues rising out of childhood aching for resolution.  And what better way to resolve them than to create a person more capable of sorting them out than we ever were?

But after that start, after the first manuscript or two or three that mines the big stuff, how do we keep going?  For my part, I have learned to watch for anything that sizzles.  I don’t pick up an idea because it’s cute.  (That goes without saying.  Anyone who has read my work knows I have little interest in or skill for “cute.”)  I don’t take on a topic merely because I think it’s something I can sell.  I don’t even try out an idea because I believe it is important.

I immerse myself in a new project because it comes knocking on my brain with a certain electricity attached.

I am currently in a period of waiting for editorial notes on my latest novel.  While I wait I keep my hands—and my eyes—off the novel I’ve just sold so as to be able to approach it fresh when those notes come.  And so as not to go off in directions the editor won’t be expecting.

But I’m not just waiting.  I am slipping every day deeper and deeper into a pool of ideas.  Trying out my next project.

Some of the ideas I’ve tried out have let me know that they aren’t ready.  One, an early reader I started and abandoned years ago, came tumbling out of my computer and clicked this time.

But then I was back to the pool, searching for electricity.

One thing I found floating around was a young-adult novel I worked on a few years ago.  I had nearly 200 pages of a first draft and months and months of meticulous research when I ran out of energy and put it aside.

Very firmly aside.  When my agent, who had read those first pages, wondered why I didn’t return to it I had a half-a-dozen very solid reasons.

Recently, though, I found myself reading a YA novel in verse with an electric current running down my spine.  “What if?” I said to myself for the first time. “What if I tackled that abandoned novel again in verse?  Would that make a difference?  Would working in small pieces and different voices give the story more energy?  Would the different approach demanded by verse enable me to drop out some of the detail that overwhelmed me in my first draft?

And suddenly, character after character, verse after verse began to bloom in my mind.

Because that’s the way it works.  At least it’s the way it works for me.  When an idea is right it acts like a magnet gathering iron filings.  Everything . . . everything flies to the idea, enlarges it, energizes it.

The notes on the novel I’ve just sold will come, and I’ll find my way back inside that other energy that inspired a very different story and bring it to fulfillment.

In the meantime, though, in the meantime, I wake with my brain sizzling!

This . . . this is what I most need to say, to do, to be!

What greater privilege is there than being able to live and work where my deepest energy compels me?

On Being an Old Lady

Birthday chocolates

Photo by Monique Carrati on Unsplash

I try hard not to be an old lady!

By which I mean, I work at staying open to the changing world around me, making it a point to view the world with interest even in the midst of amazement.  I take care to refrain from criticizing change just because it is . . . well, change.  Just because the world has come to be so different from the one I grew up in.

My daughter, my daughter-in-law, my grandchildren, younger friends, all keep guiding me gently through multiple bewilderments.  Especially my daughter.  Especially the bewilderments that come with social media.

I am on social media primarily because my presence there reminds my readers that I’m not dead, that I’m still producing those rather old-fashioned things call books.  Truth be told, though, one of the marks of my old-ladyness is that other people do my posting for me, a service I am grateful for.

But occasionally I do post something myself, especially birthday greetings.  It’s one of the pleasures of social media to be reminded of birthdays and to be able to send my greetings so simply.  I’ve even learned how to pull up a pretty background to accompany my Happy Birthdays.  And the first time I managed to do that, I can tell you I was proud!

Standing so far outside today’s popular culture has its hazards, though, and every now and then those hazards catch up with me.  Recently, when I sat down at my computer, Facebook reminded me that it was my son-in-law’s birthday.  Of course!  I thought.  And I fired off a Happy Birthday.  Then I went looking for a background to highlight my message to someone I care about.

I found one.  The world in which the images float is brown, but not an unattractive brown.  And perhaps, I noted, brown is more fitting for a man—in a very traditional way—than the usual pastels.  The floating images against this backdrop are brown, too.  They look like a cross between Hershey’s kisses and the curly top of a soft-serve ice cream cone.

Perfect! I said to myself.  Everybody loves chocolate!

And I clicked my greeting into life and went on about my morning.

Until my daughter called.  “Did you know,” she said, “that you sent poop emojis to Terry for his birthday?”

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

No.  Of course, I didn’t know.

And then, to add insult to injury, I had to ask her to take time out of her busy morning to walk me through the process of deleting my well-intended message!

Sometimes old-ladyness is just what it is, no matter how hard I try.

And how grateful I am to have a daughter to watch over and rescue me!

Another Lesson

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

Another lesson I’ve learned along the way is that there are no truly original ideas. There are no truly original plots. As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes said three thousand or so years ago: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Except you. Except me. Every individual is new and unique, so we may be stuck with the same old plots, but because a new person is telling the story, bringing his or her singular life to bear on the story, it is fresh and new. So the only excuse I have for daring to write is that no one else in the world would be able to tell the stories that only I can tell. And an aside to those of you wishing to write — that is your excuse as well. The raw material for our unique stories is our unique lives and perspective on life.

 

Katherine Paterson