Tag Archives: author

Another Lesson

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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

Every now and then…

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Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.

                                                                          Leonardo Da Vinci

Going Home

Thomas Wolfe said it. You can’t go home again.

And yet, of course, you can.  It’s just that when you go back, home will have changed.  And, of course, you will have changed, too, so the place may not feel even remotely familiar.

I’ve just been back, though, back to Oglesby, the small town in north-central Illinois where I was born, where I spent my childhood.  A town I left more than sixty years ago.

In one way, of course, I’ve never left, as none of us ever truly leaves that patchwork quilt of early memories behind.  In another, the whole town seems to have happened to someone else.  Was that awkward, lonely girl really me?

Actually, I didn’t grow up in town.  I grew up on the edge of Oglesby next to the dusty, noisy cement mill where my dad was the chemist.  I loved everything about that place.  The trains chuffing and tooting and banging.  The bellowing mill whistle.  The smoke stack puffing out a constant column of white smoke, as beautiful, I thought, as any cloud in the sky.  The deep woods that took up where the mill and the yards surrounding our mill houses left off.

I felt safe in that remote world.  Much safer there than I ever did at the school in town where, surrounded by strangers, I started kindergarten at the tender age of four.

Through the years that followed, few of those strangers became anything like friends.  I was too much younger than my classmates, too shy, too occupied with the world inside my head, too socially oblivious.  I wasn’t set off only by the distance I lived from town, but by coming from a family of outsiders.  My parents had come to Oglesby from foreign places—California and Minnesota—and probably even more damning than that, they navigated social rules awkwardly, too.

I always knew myself to be separate, different, not part of the town.  And oh, how I longed to belong.

It took me many years after I left Oglesby to learn the skills that would give me entrance into a community, and even now I do the social dance only in the quietest ways, one partner at a time.  Sometimes what I have written precedes me into a new group, making a place for me.  And that’s pleasant if those I meet have actually read my work rather than responding to some false idea of publishing glamor.  What I have written represents my truest self.

So when the call came from an enthusiastic Oglesby attorney, wanting me to come back, wanting me, not as a silent visitor, but as myself, the woman I am now, the writer, the speaker, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Does anyone in Oglesby really want to hear me?

I agreed, finally, to a time that was months away, assuming, I suppose, if the date was distant enough it would never really come.

It did come, though.  My gracious daughter drove me to that familiar and yet oh-so-uncomfortable place.  I went with deep trepidation.  The acceptance I have garnered through the years in other communities falls away there.

We drove through the town.  So many of the old places gone.  The old school torn down, a new one in its place.  A new library, too.  The dress shop where I bought my teenage clothes, even my wedding dress, now empty.  Doherty’s Drug Store that I passed every day on my long walk home, empty as well.  (Mrs. Doherty used to give kids two scoops of ice cream for a nickel.  Mr. Doherty gave only one as the sign behind the soda counter said was right.)

Even the mill has gone silent.

I spoke at the school to the usual captive audience.  Nothing remarkable there except that I haven’t visited a school except for my grandchildren’s classrooms for twenty years.  I was interested to see that I could still do it.

Then in the evening I showed up at the library and was surprised to see the seats fill.

I was even more deeply surprised when, just before my presentation, two men came in carrying between them what appeared to be an enormous gift-wrapped picture.  Goodness! I thought.  Where will I put that?

But I needn’t have worried.  When I pulled back the wrapping, what I found wasn’t a picture to be taken home for my wall.  It was a highway sign to be posted at the entrance to the town.

 

I’m usually pretty good with words, but I was speechless!

So, you see, you can go home again.  It’s just that when you get there you may find home isn’t any place you have ever known.

Larger Hearts

Heart

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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?