Tag Archives: Little Dog Lost

The Healing Power of Story

1-28groszIt was Isak Dinesen who said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” And I have found that truth to be one of the most basic of my existence . . . and my career.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have borne more sorrows than others. Every life holds sorrows, and I have had the good fortune of having a way to process and grow through mine that feeds me on many levels. The stories I spin teach me, encourage me, comfort me.

Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life, discussing the ways stories can help us to make sense of our lives, says if “we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us—we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.”

And fortunately, we don’t have to understand ourselves, through and through, before we sit down to write for our work to serve as an effective catalyst. Inevitably, our deepest truths will present themselves in the topics we are drawn to and in the resolutions our stories discover. I have always found that one of the best ways of knowing what I believe, what I am feeling, what I desire is to read my own stories.

If I’m reaching deeply to find my stories, not merely assembling them from the bits and scraps that make up my external world to try to impress some imagined audience, it isn’t possible for them to lie.

The constant work of my own stories has been to process and resolve a sense of abandonment. It took me many years to understand where that hidden fear came from, and even then understanding its origins requires some guessing. But drawing on the emotional power of that ancient fear has fueled stories from On My Honor to Little Dog, Lost. In fact, it has fueled so many stories that I have sometimes wondered, if I were finally to heal myself so deeply as to banish the fear entirely, whether I would have any stories left to tell.

I suspect the truth is, though, that healing doesn’t work that way. While I may feel less vulnerable in my daily life than I once did—at least in part because of finding resolution to that sense of abandonment through my stories—that childhood vulnerability will always excite my imagination.

It’s like my favorite color, a rich auburn. I knew that color drew me powerfully long before the day I happened to be unpacking a box of childhood toys and came across Tim, my beloved teddy bear. Guess what color he is. Of course, a rich auburn! That color was imprinted on my adult heart even though I hadn’t seen Tim—or thought about him—for many years. And discovering the well-worn bear in a box didn’t make my love of auburn go away. The only difference knowing makes is that I sometimes smile at myself when an autumn landscape of rusts and golds or a mop of flaming hair makes me catch my breath.

Tim

Tim

My dear old Tim continues to live inside me and to deliver comfort even though I’ve outgrown the stuffed toy.

And so I continue to mine the deep ache the theme of abandonment delivers for me and to nudge myself to move beyond it. There are, after all, other feelings to be experienced, other unresolved issues—even from my own history—to be mined.

Other healing to be accomplished.

What a blessing it is to live a career that both reaches outward to touch and heal others and inward to satisfy and heal myself.

Second Time Around . . . the Novel in Verse

little-dogThe first time I wrote a novel in verse, Little Dog, Lost, I felt as though I had just stepped onto the moon. After forty years of writing and publishing, I was doing something entirely new . . . for me. In fact, I was doing something I had disapproved of in times past. “Poetry novels,” I had been known to expound, with my nose pointed rather high, “are too often neither. They aren’t poetry and they don’t work as novels.”

It goes without saying that the world hasn’t been waiting for my approval in this matter. Since Karen Hesse’s groundbreaking Out of the Dust, verse—if not necessarily poetry—is a form that has been used for novels many, many times. My decision to try one myself wasn’t groundbreaking for anyone but me.

I discovered how much fun the form is to work with once I got past my first panic. I had at my disposal the compelling rhythms I use in writing a picture book, the satiny flow, the carefully orchestrated sound, the distinct taste of each word on my tongue. But I didn’t have to draw my story to a conclusion after four-hundred or so words. I could keep right on going!

And once I realized that, I was hooked. So hooked that I returned to the form last winter.

I entered the second verse novel, Peggotty, with much more confidence. It’s another animal story, this time about a calico cat who leaves home, not quite intentionally, in pursuit of a flying leaf. She has adventures—and babies—and eventually returns home, accompanied by more than her litter of kittens. I aimed it somewhat younger and, as a consequence, found myself writing in shorter lines. But beyond that, the experience of writing the two stories was much the same. And it was still fun.

This time, though, in the midst of my fun, I gradually grew more aware of what I was leaving out, the aspects of a novel that are less apt to happen on the page in verse, the aspects of verse novels in general that had prompted me to find them deficient before I decided to write one myself.

A single word . . . introspection. I have no difficulty inhabiting my characters in third person when I am writing standard prose. And I have always considered giving the reader an intimate experience of the protagonist one of the marks of strong fiction. But writing in third person in verse, I found language carrying me along far more than my characters’ psyches.

Now maybe that experience of distance from my characters came from my decision to tell my story through a narrator, someone I don’t usually allow into my stories. No doubt, it also came from the fact that I am exploring more than one character.  But a lot of it seemed to come from the way the language flows, pulling along the story, giving me little opportunity, it seemed, to dip inside.

It’s what I love about writing picture books, the way language is equal with story and character, the way I get to revel in language, not always having, first and foremost, to move the story. When I write stories in prose, language takes a back seat to character. In fact, language is limited by character, even in third person, because the entire story in a subtle way passes through the main character’s consciousness and therefore is imprinted by his or her language.  

But my question remains: what makes these novels verse? (I won’t even use the word poetry, because few, if any, qualify as poetry.) Is it just the broken lines?

If it is, we have nothing but chopped up prose. Surely there must be more, a certain intensity of focus, a heightening of feeling, a precision of language.

Every choice we make—first person or third, omniscient or standing in close to a single character, prose or verse—brings limitation as well as strengths to our work. The point is to understand and accept both.

So perhaps depth of characterization is necessarily lost in the attention to language and sound and flow, not to mention the concentration on short, intense bursts of feeling. But I’m still asking the question and probably will continue to ask it through the next verse novel I embark on: Is it possible to explore character as deeply in a verse novel as in prose? If it isn’t—and my experience of others’ work as well as my own is that it doesn’t usually happen—are the strengths of the form enough to be worth so deep a sacrifice?

Resonance: The Core of the Verse Novel

little-dogWhat would prompt a perfectly respectable writer of prose fiction to attempt a novel in verse?

Because verse can accomplish things prose cannot?

Because experimenting with new methods and styles is the best way to stay fresh in the midst of a long career?

Simply for the challenge?

Because, beyond the hard work of it, writing a story in verse is great fun?

For me it was all of the above.

Little Dog, Lost, published by Atheneum last spring, was my first novel in verse. I am currently working on my second, Patches. I made the initial leap for the most mundane of reasons. Writing in verse creates lots of attractive white space on the page.

That alone, all that white space, is a huge asset for developing readers. It makes the page look accessible, thus encouraging them to wade in, and delivers the lines in bite-sized chunks for easier deciphering. For a few years before beginning Little Dog, Lost, I had been writing young novellas, and I had grown tired of the necessary restrictions on sentence length that limited my style. I like writing for younger readers. I like the kinds of stories that work for them. But I longed to go back to writing with the stylistic flow of my older work. I also wanted to create a story that wasn’t age-specific, one that, by being easy to read and offering a captivating story, would appeal to a wide audience.

But simply breaking up prose lines to make them more readable doesn’t make a verse novel. I pulled up a copy of Little Dog, Lost recently and spread the words across the page just to see if making it look like prose would turn it into prose. The effect was … weird. Clearly when I write this way I am doing something different with language and even with my story. By striving toward poetry, I’m writing as I do for a picture book, every word weighed, the rhythm of every line tasted.

Something more is involved, though, and that something is harder to name.

The most important concept to understand in writing picture books is resonance. We are often told that picture book texts should be like an iceberg, ten percent above the surface, ninety percent below. Every word and phrase of a good picture books stands in for more, much more. The text allows us to feel what lies beneath the words. That’s resonance. And that’s exactly what a verse novel must have.

But is it possible to write a novel that way, relying on mostly unspoken meaning?

That is the key question. I used to resist reading novels in verse, let alone writing one. I found most of them thin. They rarely gave me what I most seek when I enter the world of story, a deep connection with a character. If I’m going to inhabit a story—as writer or reader—I want to enter it through a character, to become that character and have the story happen to me.

If a verse novel is written in a first-person stream of consciousness—as is often done in YA verse novels—then the reader can live richly inside the main character’s psyche and experience little loss. (Or the loss, if there is one, is apt to come from losing out on the energy of direct action.) If, however, the story is being told in a more traditional third-person perspective (or through a narrator’s voice, as I’m doing in both of my verse novels) with the presentation being more dramatic than internal, then resonance is the key.

And how is resonance achieved when you’re writing thousands of words instead of the few hundred of a picture book? Through the same painstaking effort a picture book text requires. Each line scanned, again and again, each word examined. Each scene weighed for its emotional impact. Each character encapsulated, presented in as few words as possible, but made as whole as possible in those few words.

And after doing all that, do we get the same results we would get writing a story in prose? No. There is much that is rather routinely played out writing in prose that will be left to the underwater part of a story in verse.

But when we make resonance work, our verse novels have the kind of impact the best picture books do.

If they really work, they may even do what picture books are most famous for, call their readers back again and again and again.

 

The Ending in the Beginning

indiana_blueThe ending lies in the beginning . . . always.

That’s true of stories, anyway, and it’s something I’ve known about them for a long time. In fact, when I first assemble a story I always have a few basic things in place: the story problem, the character who will struggle to resolve the problem, other characters who will assist or create more difficulty along the way, the incident that starts the story off and . . . the ending. I won’t necessarily know how my main character is going to resolve her problem, but I will understand, like a shiver that reaches to the soles of my feet, exactly what a resolution will feel like.

It’s the feeling that is key, and knowing that, feeling it, will also let me know what my story means, will reveal what English teachers refer to as my story’s theme. When I’m writing I never put that meaning into words, though. My story has to work by making the reader feel, not through handing out lessons. 

I have always been intrigued with writers who tell me that they sail into a story without knowing the ending. I’ve even heard some say, “If I knew the ending, I wouldn’t write the story.  I write in order to find out how it will turn out.” And though I would never argue with anyone else’s method of working—if it works for you, it works—I don’t understand how such a journey is possible.

To me, setting off to write a story without knowing where it is going would be very much like starting a road trip without deciding whether my destination is going to be California or New York. If I were driving, I would end up circling endlessly somewhere in Indiana.

This is something I’ve known about my own writing for a long time. And yet it’s something, every now and then, I find myself having to discover again. And I’ve just bumped into this simple truth about the way I work once more.

And bumped hard.

This winter after breaking my elbow and finding myself unable to keyboard, I began writing by dictating through voice-recognition software. At the time, I was working on Blue-Eyed Wolf, a long-suffering young-adult novel, but after dictating a couple of new scenes I grew distrustful of the process. Writing through dictation seemed to be altering my style, not a good thing halfway through a long novel

And so I decided to take a leap—eyes practically closed—into a new verse novella similar to Little Dog, Lost, which I especially enjoyed writing. Verse seemed a medium more conducive to dictation. The story I landed in is about a calico cat, and, at least for now, it’s called Patches. (Often my titles come last.) And so I began writing, that is dictating, with an idea half formed. I did, however, have a general kind of ending in mind. It wasn’t the definitive moment of strong feeling I usually rely on, but at least I knew where everyone would be by the last scene.

I wrote the whole story or nearly the whole story. I discovered various interesting events as I proceeded, as I always do.  But when I got to the end I encountered a problem. The conclusion I’d been aiming toward was too vague. And when I stepped into the squishy territory of this vague ending, I discovered that I could go on and on and on, writing more and more events. But I absolutely could not draw what was supposed to be a small, simple story to a conclusion, because no conclusion I could imagine felt right, nothing I tried meant anything. 

A story doesn’t end because the characters have finally arrived at some defined place. You end your story when you’ve revealed your heart’s truth, especially to yourself. And if your heart’s truth—the reason you began writing to start with—is going to mean anything to us when we encounter it, the story must be aimed at that truth from the first lines. That’s what makes it truth when we get there, that we’ve known it all along.

As I write this, though, I still have a story without an ending. So . . . what’s to be done? Go back to the beginning, of course. Find out why I entered this story at all. And then set my compass again.

California, here I come. Or will it be New York?

All I know is I’ve got to get out of Indiana!

 

Cobbling Together an Income

dollar-signsBeing a working writer means just that … working. And it also means continually strategizing ways to cobble together an income. Especially if you have no back-up salary, your own or a partner’s, to count on for the groceries, the medical bills, the rent.

Here’s an example of what I mean. 

Last year I published three new books, a verse novel, Little Dog, Lost, and two picture books, Halloween Forest and Dinosaur Thunder. All received starred reviews. My writing life seemed to be in order. But I’ve long known that starred reviews and big sales are two different things. And so, one day, nearly 200 pages into Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel that I knew I wasn’t going to finish any time soon, it occurred to me that I’d nearly run out of new books in the pipeline. 

(Deciding to write a long novel when I can sell shorter, younger work is hardly practical. It may not even be wise.  Longer means, inevitably, more time committed, and more time committed doesn’t mean more income when the book is published.)

As I was considering all this, Holiday House came to me asking for a picture book to be paired with Halloween Forest. So, glad to be writing something that I knew an editor was actually looking for, I set the novel aside to try to find my own heart in her idea. In the process, I produced several picture-book manuscripts that pleased me but, for one reason or another, weren’t what was wanted. Returning to the same artist inevitably creates a different set of requirements for the text. I did finally come up with the right manuscript, Crinkle! Crackle! Crack! Curiously, it was the one I’d written first, but I’d tucked it away in the bowels of my computer because I’d decided it wasn’t right. (Which tells you that my own instincts aren’t always reliable.)

In the meantime, I have just received notice of an offer on one of the other manuscripts I especially love, The World is Singing.  So—deep breath—I now have more books in the pipeline.

At various times this past year, in response to ideas that niggled, I’ve also paused to work on other short pieces. One, You are the Love of Baby, has sold to Chronicle Books for their new personalized books. Another, Higgledy-Piggledy, is just starting its journey.

And then every few months I return to a commitment I made a couple of years ago to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their new Celebrating the Fifty States series. The books are brief, but each requires another pause. 

Finally, there is Patches, the young verse novella I began this winter when I found myself having to dictate because of my broken arm. I’m close to completing a first draft of that. 

All while Blue-Eyed Wolf waits.

It’s certainly a disjointed way to work. Though while I’ve been pursuing other projects, I’ve continued my research for Blue-Eyed Wolf and rethought important aspects of the story. Thus this very impractical project stays alive while I cobble together a living from my writing.

It doesn’t sound like “economic security,” does it?

It doesn’t even sound like the life I imagined for myself forty years ago when I waded into the cold water of my first novel. 

Am I complaining? Not at all. I feel blessed every time I sit down to write, whatever I’m writing. I never forget how fortunate I am to be paid to do the only work I’ve ever wanted to do.

But still, all of it is—and this is the bottom line—work. Good work. Good, good work, but still work.

And that’s the basis, more than anything else, for whatever success I’ve had in my career. I am a working writer.