Tag Archives: memories

A Celebration That Lasts

The Stuff of StarsHaving a new book making its appearance in the world is always exciting, and The Stuff of Stars is creating more excitement than usual. Especially for me.

My most recent book had its birthday on September 5th and the days surrounding that have been thrilling. As of this writing, The Stuff of Stars, a picture book, has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal. (A starred review marks a book as one of the best of the season.) And, last I checked, it had a five-star rating at Amazon, and GoodReads had come in at 4.49.

One of the responses that satisfies me most, though, came in an email from an earth scientist who was thrilled with its accuracy.

I won’t say that I was surprised. I worked very hard, read very hard, thought very hard to achieve scientific accuracy, nonscientist that I am. When I take technical information and condense it to its absolute basics, the possibilities of skewing the information are nearly endless. Especially in so complex a field and one that is growing and changing every day.

I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief … before returning to the celebration.

All this celebration, though, is temporary. In a few months even I will forget the rush of these early days. The best thing about seeing my words—and Ekua Holmes’ magnificent art—appear in book form is knowing they are here to stay.

Ekua Holmes illustration from The Stuff of Stars

illustration from The Stuff of Stars, copyright Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press)

For a long while The Stuff of Stars will be touching lives.

All books touch for a moment. Some stay for a long time.

The good folks who manage my website, Winding Oak, have come up with a brilliant idea for a way this small book can go on making a difference. An idea I never would have thought of. And it’s perfect.

The Stuff of Stars is a celebration of birth, the birth of our universe, the birth of our planet, the birth of each child. Winding Oak has proposed that the book be used not just to welcome a new baby into the world but as a core part of that child’s yearly birthday celebration.

The book can be opened to its gorgeous swirling endpapers, part of Ekua’s design created from her own handmade paper, and the baby’s photo—perhaps even an ultrasound photo—or a photo of those who love the baby can be pasted inside the front cover to become a permanent part of the book.

The Stuff of Stars endpapers with photos

Considering affixing your photos to the endpapers for a lifetime of memories.

Then, when each birthday rolls around, someone can read the book to the child, a photo can be taken of the reading, and that can be pasted in, too!

Imagine the memories created by such repeated, quiet, exquisitely celebratory reading moments. Imagine the life-long memento the book will come to be!

When I think of my small effort becoming part of a child’s, a person’s life … well!

The warmth of that idea will stay with me for a long, long time.

To see more about using The Stuff of Stars as a part of a yearly celebration go to the resources on my website.

And start your own birthday tradition with a loved child.

A Wonderful Childhood

Sometimes I think that because it is so difficult to reconcile the wonder and horror of childhood, people make a choice to remember only one or the other.

—Richard Hoffman, “Backtalk: Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir”

child cryingMany years ago, I sat with a student discussing her work. I was having a hard time knowing how to help. Her stories weren’t badly written, but they didn’t move me. They didn’t even hold my interest very well. And I wasn’t sure what her next step should be. Finally, reaching for insight, I said, “Tell me about your childhood.”

Instantly, a smile lit up her face, a smile that could only be called beatific. “Oh,” she said, clasping her hands to accompany the smile, “I had the most wonderful childhood.”

“Ah,” I said, “that’s the problem with your writing.”

Because the truth is, no one has a wonderful childhood, not while living it anyway. They may remember childhood as wonderful, but that’s a whole different thing. What wonderful means is that they have simply forgotten the rest.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “I’ve had the most wonderful adulthood!”? Of course not, because our adult experience lies close at hand. So close that we have little chance to forget … or idealize. Childhood is as mixed a reality as our adult days, of course. How could it be otherwise? And as children we probably lived both the joy and the pain more fully since we were less well defended.

I don’t mean to suggest that to write for young people you have to have had more pain than most. But I do mean to say, and to say emphatically, that if you’re writing for kids you must be able to remember the pain. Because a childhood remembered without pain is merely sentimental, and sentimental is always false. No living child will recognize it. And no story that refuses to acknowledge both “the wonder and horror” can possibly come to life.

There are, I suspect, fewer folks these days who come to writing for young people with such a determinedly rosy-eyed view. If they have experienced contemporary juvenile literature at all—and what are they doing trying to produce it if they haven’t?—then they know it is hardly idyllic. A good thing since the world our children inhabit isn’t idyllic either.

My mother—never a writer except for letters to her family—wrote a memoir when she was elderly. She began this work in response to a memoir-writing class at the senior residence where she lived, and she took great pleasure in recording her past, especially her childhood on a farm in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota. I value the record she left, as do my cousins, though it isn’t scintillating reading. Its failure to be scintillating didn’t come from poor writing. My mother’s style was plain but pleasantly readable. Her writing lacked teeth, however, because it remained so determinedly positive.

If anyone growing up in that family ever had a moment of disappointment, of pain, of—God forbid—anger (and I’m sure my mother’s God did forbid anger) it never reached the page. “And a good time was had by all.” That was the way she ended her recital of every luncheon she hosted as a young bride, along with a detailed record of the menu. And that’s the way I think of the whole of the memoir: “A good time was had by all.”

The sweetness, after a time, sets my teeth on edge. I want more. Much more. We all do when we enter the world of story.

It was Flannery O’Connor who said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

But that’s true only if we remember it whole.

The Problem with Memoir

wavesI have mentioned several times in the past months that I am working on a memoir in verse. I’ve even announced a title and then, when I returned to talking about the memoir again, found myself announcing a different one. So I’ll start these musings with an announcement of yet another title: When Even Grief Lives Far Away: a Memoir.

We’ll see whether this one holds.

The problem with writing a memoir is that I have to arrive at some kind of insight, some meaning gleaned from the substance of my life. Without that I have no hook to hang my words on, no door to invite my readers through. And while I hadn’t thought about having to find my life’s meaning as a problem—in fact I hadn’t even thought about having to do that at all when I began this project—the truth is that the search for meaning, trying to find my story’s hook, has turned out to be the hardest part.

My life is interesting to me simply because it’s the only life I’ve ever lived, but that is no reason for it to interest anyone else except, perhaps, my descendants and a few close friends. And even for them, interest is mild at best. In the small world of children’s literature some know my books and thus my name, but few know me. I am not a celebrity; no one is hungry to gobble up the minutia of my life … for which I am grateful beyond any telling of it.

And yet here I am, exploring the most intimate details of my days in writing! What is that about?

My answer is that I come to the memoir out of the same impulse I approach writing fiction, with a fervent desire to make art out of life … out of my life. And making art is making meaning. Always. However, for all my years of meaning-making through art, I stumbled into this project without realizing that’s what it was about.

What I have discovered is that meaning is much easier to make in a created story than in a life. When I devise a fictional story a small problem-filled moment captures my heart and sets me writing. It captures me precisely because that problem, that moment, has meaning for me. So all I have to do is follow the problem I’ve set up until I can play out its meaning. And of course, I am limited as to how much I can tell, so the very process of selection means I choose only those events that will bring us to meaning.

Memoir requires selection, too. Of course. I’m not writing, after all, about my trips to the bathroom. In fact, I’m not writing about great chunks of my life, my twenty-eight-year marriage, for one rather blatant example. I entered this work knowing I would not write in any penetrating way about anyone living who could feel invaded by my words, my once husband, my daughter, a former or current partner. But even after eliminating my bathroom habits or the urge to say intimate things about those who are still living and reading, I found myself with no inner guide, no single meaningful idea to decide which moments to select. Discovering the significance that can turn life into art is, apparently, something that must happen along the way. At least that’s true if I’m not to limit my exploration by imposing an artificial structure in order to calm myself.

Some writers work this same way when they are creating fiction. They start out, they tell me, with no idea where their story is going to go. I’ve never understood how anyone could begin a journey without a destination firmly in mind and have always assumed that the unconscious of such writers must know even if they do not. But I’ve never worked this way myself, so the assumption I’ve made about others is what I have to trust now, that somehow my unconscious knows the point of my existence, the point of this piece I’m writing.

For now I have a frame. The frame is my son, his life, his death. And thus the title. But Peter doesn’t form the substance of the memoir. Inevitably, his life and his death shaped me in profound ways, and in the memoir I will return to him from time to time. Verses specifically about his life and death will form the beginning and the end. It will be only when I come to sort the rest of what I have written, however, that I will know whether the frame I have set can hold it all, whether having arrived at a time “when even grief lives far away,” is, indeed, the point.

Often as I work I find myself longing for the limitation—and the protective scrim—of fiction. A fictional character is so much more transparent to me than I am to myself. Of course. I’ve created that character’s very substance! The life I present in a story is also severely limited, just a few events that point us to the place I want to go. And while the characters I create take the truth of their beings from this person I am, they also have the great virtue when they go out into the world of not being me. So whatever they reveal, they can’t embarrass me!

I hadn’t thought about any of this when I began writing the memoir. The truth is I waded into it with the innocence of a child dabbling at the edge of a great sea. And the deeper I wade, the more I discover … about myself, about this new kind of creation.

But then that is, after all, the point of art, all art, isn’t it? Discovery.