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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.

The Waiting Game

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.

Waiting

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

My solution for enduring the wait for an editor’s or agent’s response is to go on working.

On a different manuscript, of course.

It’s the best way I know to survive.

It’s also the only way to be productive.  Not to mention the fact that, if I don’t have the solid grip of work holding me into the world, I’m apt to step out of my morning bed into freefall.  Moving on to another project gives my day substance.

I’m fortunate to do incredibly little waiting for responses from my agent.  He is breathtakingly fast.  Thinking of the many friends I’ve heard complain about agents who disappear for months at a time, I told him when I signed with him that I get pissy when I don’t get responses to emails.

His speed suggests he has taken my potential pissyness too much to heart.

But I’m not complaining, you understand.

Editors are another matter entirely.

We all know ours is never the only manuscript on an editor’s desk.  And after many years of living through this process I’m beginning to get glimpses of the kinds of waiting games editors themselves must play.

Waiting for the next sales meeting where they can present the manuscripts they want to take on.  Waiting for permission from their publisher to move forward.  Waiting for a response from their design team.  Waiting to see how this project will align with the rest of their list.

Weighing how much risk they dare take on if this manuscript doesn’t fit some clearly definable category.  (Remember.  We writers aren’t the only one impacted by a book that fails to fly.)

Still . . . can an editor’s waiting ever be quite as excruciating as ours?  They may be overworked and underpaid, but at least they are salaried.  With benefits!  We work without health insurance or a pension plan or even any hope for recompense until a manuscript is sold.

(In response to the inevitable question I often got in schools, “How much money do you make?” I used to explain the royalty system.  The reality, ten percent—or five for picture books—and less for paperbacks, book clubs, etc. used to shock even the adults in the room.

But I would also tell the kids that if their parents worked as I do, they would go to their jobs every day for weeks or months or even years before finally being able to ask their employer, “Would you like to pay me for what I’ve done?”

Knowing the answer might be no.)

All of which is a long lead-in to say that I’m doing a lot of waiting these days.

I can’t fault my editor.  She read the picture book manuscript I’ve been working on intensively for the last six months within thirty minutes of my sending it and said, “Amazing!”

You can’t get better than that.

But then she said she would be back to me, probably within the week with a solid offer, after the book designers had had a chance at it.

The week stretched into a month.

Then more.

To remind myself how much she loved my manuscript I went back from time to time to reread her email, landing on that word every time.  “Amazing!”  But I couldn’t keep a niggle out of my brain.  “What if the book designers can’t find a form for this strange beast?”

It wasn’t a spurious question.  My latest picture-book manuscript, believe it or not, is drawn from my own fascination and struggle with quantum physics.  Not exactly your usual topic for the very young.  Not exactly my usual topic either.

And beyond the strangeness of topic, there is the fact that picture books are such technical creatures.

Usually I write with those technicalities in mind, making sure that I am setting up thirteen or thirteen-and-a-half page turns with potential for active, changing illustrations.  But this manuscript not only was long, I struggled so fiercely to comprehend and compress my material, so intensely to make it relevant to my young audience, so ardently to hone my language toward the lyrical that all the while I worked I barely gave either illustrations or page turns a thought.  I began to wonder whether it could be divided into viable illustrations, however many pages it inhabited.

So I couldn’t help but worry, just a bit.  It doesn’t matter how much an editor loves something.  If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

I did what I always do in these situations, I turned to new work.  For contrast, I chose a project that will be straightforward and won’t take much time.  (I’m also moving back into an abandoned young-adult novel, but that requires a lot more groundwork before I can begin to write again.)

I proposed an early-reader nonfiction series to a publisher I have worked with often, a series my previous research provides the background for.  And good news!  The editors are enthusiastic!

But they have to wait for their publisher’s approval.

Of course.

Which leaves me writing this blog.

The waiting game will always be part of every writer’s experience.  But if we keep on writing while we dangle, we can survive.

Loss and Possibility

Photo by Konstantin Dyadyun on Unsplash

It’s a conversation I’ve heard many times.  What a terrible thing it is to be losing the physical book, words printed on paper!  What a terrible thing it is that people don’t write letters any more, words printed on paper!

And always I listen and think, “Yes, yes, of course.  It’s always hard to lose the familiar.  If we are, indeed, losing it, which hasn’t been proven yet.”  And then I think, “But . . .”

Part of my “but” comes simply out of my determination not to think and act like the old lady I am.  Just because something is new, just because it is different, surely doesn’t mean it is bad.  Does it?  I mean, oldsters like me have been condemning the young for their reckless ways since the beginning of time.  And how much change has that prevented?

(Maybe more than we know, but ultimately change keeps happening.)

When it comes to books, certainly I love physical books the way other oldsters do, the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of the paper, the way my books look on the shelf.  I would be sad if one of my publishers decided to bring out my next book only in an electronic format.  Having a physical object to hold proves that this product of my mind now actually exists in the world.

And yet the vast majority of my own book purchases are electronic.  Why?

Partly, I’ll admit, because electronic purchases are so easy.  I can read a review or have a book referred by a friend and, zap! . . . it’s in my hands.  Instant gratification!  And I can even order it up as a sample before making a final decision about the purchase.

Partly because I’ve simply run out of space for more books on the shelf.  Along with another advantage for having a library that doesn’t require space.  I love being able to carry one small tablet or even my phone with me wherever I go and have whatever I’m reading or will soon want to read at hand.

Partly because electronic books are easy to read.  I don’t have to have the correct light.  My electronic books make their own light.  And I can have whatever size type I prefer.

Partly because it’s so easy to highlight passages I want to remember and then to return to them.

Partly, I’ll admit, because that’s the way the world is going, and in this respect at least, I don’t want to be left behind.

And is any of that bad?  Or are some of us just so committed to the way things used to be that we can’t let the good in just because it is a new and different good?  Or even if we let it in, we feel obligated to complain about it.

I feel the same about the constant complaints I hear about people not writing “letters” any longer.

When my grandchildren want to communicate with me they usually text.  When my friends and I are making plans, we rarely pick up a phone.  We email.  I wonder if there has ever been a time when people used writing more.

Yes, of course, texts and emails can be hurried and slipshod.  But I’d guess in the days before the telephone when mail was delivered multiple times a day and penned notes were used for all kinds of daily communication, few of those notes were literary gems.

Most of my emails, I know, are as carefully thought through as any letter I ever wrote during my letter-writing days.  Better for the fact that I can so easily go back and revise before I hit send.

So I can’t help but wonder if our nostalgia isn’t misplaced.

I used to know a number of writers who wrote their first drafts by hand.  They said that in order to create they needed the feel of the pen, the slide of the hand against paper.  And I’m sure they did.

It happens that I never needed that.  I have some kind of motor deficiency that makes writing by hand difficult for me.  In fact, if all the keyboards—typewriter or computer—were to disappear off the face of the earth, my career would be over.

Yet I understand that other people’s creativity might demand a different sensory experience than fingers tapping keys.

The interesting thing, though, is that for many years now I haven’t heard a fellow writer say that she writes her first draft by hand.  Probably some still do, but I’m pretty sure their number is diminishing.

The world changes.  Some changes bring loss.  But even in the midst of loss, many bring great possibility.

Even when those losses touch our own most tender places.

Nothing wrong with lamenting the loss, but opening to possibilities is so much more fun.

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!