Tag Archives: author

Larger Hearts

Heart

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Two weeks ago I posed a question that Karen Cushman had brought to her fellow children’s writers a couple of years ago.  How, in these confusing, troubling times, do you keep writing?

I may have responded to Karen at the time, but if I did, what I wrote is lost somewhere in the bowels of my computer.  What I found instead was a start at a response that seems to have dribbled into nothing after a few sentences.  So I set out to weigh the question again.  See Confusing and Troubling Times.

And I asked my readers to give me your answers to Karen’s question.

I received only three responses.  I suspect that this kind of request leaves many of us dribbling into nothing after a few sentences, but here are the ones I received.  Each is important.

Janet Fox said “I’m trying to write books that will reach deep inside to bring the beauty of the individual, trying to succeed against all odds, to the page. And to leave readers with hope, always.”

I agree.  That is the key, always, to begin with the beauty of the individual, every individual’s struggle, and to end with hope . . . for ourselves as well as for our readers.

Nancy Bo Flood said:  “Thank you for describing clearly how hard [it is] to hold onto affirmation about anything during these times. Even our own writing world is enmeshed with firing criticism and scorn rather than thoughtful comments and insights — or encouragement that yes, we can be better human beings. Yes, we can open windows, cross bridges, go around walls, welcome a stranger. Despair is the opposite of hope. Human history is repeating itself – the struggle between kindness and cruelty continues. I think of the Greek god each day pushing the boulder up the steep hill toward light. The darkness of night pushes the boulder back down. Morning means taking up the struggle again.

“And so we do. One kind word. One book. One poem. Crossing the street to assist, to include. If the birds are foolish and brave enough to sing, so must I.”

Nancy’s point about the vitriol that has come to be too constant a presence in our own small world of children’s literature is one I resonate with.  I certainly don’t long for a return to a “bunny nibble bunny” world in which all the bad words were kept discretely beneath the surface, but I do wish we could dial down the instant judgments, too often about books the ones judging have not even read, and the profound righteousness that seems to be infecting our conversation these days.  There is so much out there in the world that is soul destroying.  Am I naïve to wish those of us who write for the young could hold ourselves to a higher standard?

Nancy’s point about the necessity of starting again each morning pushing that boulder up a hill toward the light also strikes a deep chord for me.  How helpful it is to be reminded that I am not pushing alone.

And Deb Miller said:  “I for one of many will be watching and waiting for your book on Peace. Building love and empathy in the hearts of our children through story is probably the most powerful thing any of us can do. I keep at it because I have to think that someday some child will read my story (if it ever finds its way into the world, that is :-), and work out a more empathetic solution to whatever problem her world presents to her.

“Meantime, like you, I try to stay globally informed through reliable news sources, always fighting against the tendency for helpless despair by remembering the wisdom of Tolstoy’s Three Questions: What is the most important time? Now. What is the most important thing to do? What you see needs to be done. And who is the most important one? The one you are with. (simplified paraphrasing, of course)

“In my bookish life, that translates to acting locally— when I can, doing what I can, and for whom. And continuing to type away at my now ten year old manuscript that I have to believe will foster a measure of love and empathy in the hearts of at least a few children someday!”

A dream we all can carry, especially those who create books for children or create connections between children and books.

Because information frees us and stories enlarge our hearts, and in this perilous time more than anything else we need solid information and larger hearts.

“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?

Home

I’ve never felt so old!

Of course, I’ve never been so old, but then everyone can say that, even a six-year-old.  We are always, on any day, the oldest we have ever been.

The difference, I suppose, is that today I know I’m old.  I know it in my bones.  And I understand in a way I never have before what knowing something in my bones means.

The reason for this surge of new understanding?  I’ve just moved.

Age precipitated the move.  For most of the last decade I have been renting a lovely, two-story house with a tuck-under garage which made it a three-story house when I carried groceries or laundry up from the basement.

I’ve never had a problem with stairs.  I saw stairs as good exercise built into my day.  My partner’s and my bedrooms and my study were all on the second floor and the laundry room was in the basement along with the garage, so I was happily up and down those stairs many times every day.

Or at least I was happy until some stress in my lumbar spine began to cause occasional leg weakness.  When I found myself holding both banisters and pulling myself up the stairs very slowly, I began to reconsider.

We looked at senior residences, but I didn’t feel ready.  Yes, I know I’m eighty. I should be ready, but I’m not.  Even though I began my career in the corner of a bedroom, I couldn’t imagine giving up my study, and senior residences with two bedrooms and a usable study are almost impossible to find.  Besides, giving up a house is giving up having my own private patch of the outdoors on the other side of my door.  And that patch of outdoors feeds my soul.

So we began looking.  We began more than a year ago actually with a very patient realtor.  But we couldn’t get on the same page and nothing that we saw was quite . . . it.  Until, finally, it was.  The house we’d dreamed came onto the market in the afternoon.  We let our realtor know we wanted to see it now.  We spent twenty minutes walking through.  Then we leapt.

And we’ve been landing ever since.

We got the house, the loan, the movers.  We got the boxes and the tape and the enormous rolls of bubble wrap.

And we started packing.

And sorting.  I spent two days sorting through the files in my study, more than forty years worth of professional files and personal ones, too, such as a forgotten treasure-trove of letters surrounding my son’s death.  Then I spent more days sorting and culling books.

And packing.

And sorting.

And packing.

Until the day came when everything went onto a truck except for us and Sadie, our one-eyed sheltie.

It all came off the truck and we were here!

And we were so, so tired.

And I, at least, suddenly knew myself to be old.  Very, very old.

But today, at last, my study is up and working.  No pictures on the walls yet, but I sit here at my familiar keyboard with three yellow tulips in a purple vase at my side and a new yard yet to be explored stretching beyond my window.  And I am so glad to be 80 and looking ahead to the all-on-one-floor future, however long or short it may be.

And I am glad, once more, to gather words and see them appear on the screen before me.  This is it, my heart says.  I am home.

And I am.

I am.

Grit and Magic

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

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

Novel-Writing

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

My favorite thing to remember about novel-writing is an observation I saw taped to a friend’s wall in her office in graduate school: “Nobody asked you to write that novel”. Therefore novel-writing is a choice–you can always stop, always keep going. You are free to do whatever you want. Most novelists come to writing novels because they have been avid readers. Almost all novels, because they are capacious and hard to contain, are imperfect. Normally, “perfect” and “ambitious” cannot co-exist in the same novel. Therefore, most readers have plenty of opinions about how even a wonderful, beloved, and thrilling novel might be made just a little better. And so we try it. And we discover that it is both harder and easier than it looks.

Jane Smiley