Tag Archives: motivation

In the End

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.

 

Baba Dioun

The Stuff of Opinion

I’ve never paid much attention to reviews of my books on Amazon.com or GoodReads, mostly because there is too much else flowing off the Internet that demands my attention.  I just keep trying, as most of us do, to keep the Internet’s largess from swallowing me whole.

I suppose I’ve chosen not to dip into those reviews also to avoid the frustration of reading what can sometimes seem ill-informed or badly written reflections on my books.  I try—don’t we all try?—not to be a snob, but I’ll admit that when a review is badly written or based on what I would judge to be a false premise, even if it’s a review in a professional publication, I can’t give it much weight, either for or against my book.

The Stuff of Stars

As of this writing, my new picture book, The Stuff of Stars, has received starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal, all publications that set the standards in my literary world.  And every one of these starred reviews was itself well written, which warmed my ever-so-slightly snobbish heart.

And as of this writing, it has also had numerous reviews on Amazon.com and GoodReads.  And this time I did peek.  Most of those reviews have been positive, well written and satisfying to this author.  But weighing in, too, are those who say things like “I’m not typically interested in poetry but I could see the appeal if you’re into that sort of thing.”

I respect the “I’m-not-into-poetry” writer, though I would say that the text of The Stuff of Stars is lyrical prose rather than poetry.  But we all have a right to our preferences.  I’m not usually interested in romance or mystery or science fiction, though I don’t choose to review those genres, either.

Of far more interest to me, though, are the reviewers who object to the content of my book because it doesn’t represent the reader’s own beliefs.  I knew, of course, that writing about the Big Bang would offend some, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone’s “beliefs” can stand against science.  Or why they must.

Ekua Holmes illustration from The Stuff of Stars

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

One reader gave The Stuff of Stars a four-star ranking despite saying, “I can appreciate this book even if it’s not my belief.”  Which is generosity, indeed.

Another gave it one star and said, “If all we are is stardust what is the point of life?”

And oh, how I would l love to have that conversation!

It reminds me of a comment I received back when The Stuff of Stars was still growing and changing, a comment from someone who is one of my most important touchstones while a picture book is in its manuscript phase.  She said emphatically, “Get all that death out of there!”

And I thought, but didn’t say, “No!”  (There is seldom any point in saying “no” to a helpful critic.  I just listen, then do what I see needs to be done.)

Because death is the point.  Life comes out of death.  Out of the deaths of stars.  Out of the deaths of our ancestors.  If death—and the incredible riches that grow out of death—were not the foundation of our universe, we would not, could not exist.

It’s not a message that suits this American death-denying culture, but as my own time grows shorter, it’s one I hold close.  And such contrary views make me long for more open conversation.

Does the scientific view of the origins of the universe preclude anyone’s idea of a creating God?  If it does, then perhaps that God is too small.

Does our culture’s deep abhorrence of death keep death from nurturing us, making our lives possible?   We are fortunate, because it does not.

What is of great interest to me is that if an idea is dressed in lyrical language and set against a backdrop of exquisite art and presented to very young children, it can sometimes rise above our deepest prejudices.

What a blessing that is!

 

Following My Own Advice

Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

The letter from my editor was polite, even encouraging.  She said something like, “Marion, this is going to be a very, very powerful read, but I find some things about it puzzling.”

And then she went on to explain her puzzlement, including saying that she didn’t know who my main character was, a young boy whom the story inhabited closely from the first page to the last.

It’s a novel, and it’s a novel I’d been working on for a long time.  Far too long.  At least that’s the way I was beginning to feel.  And though I had convinced myself that the manuscript was ready to be seen—I wouldn’t have submitted it otherwise—I had known the entire time I was working that something wasn’t quite right at the story’s core.

I began revising with the editor’s brief comments, reaching back in, finding a new place to stand in the story.  And then one day, having finished revising about five chapters, I looked ahead to the rest of the story and I could finally see what was wrong.  What had always been wrong from my first conception . . . with my character, with my story.

To resolve the problem that lay at the core of my novel, I needed to perform one simple but profound maneuver.  I needed to turn my central character, Ben, inside out!

Ben is reconnecting with his mother who abandoned him when he was three, and in my first conception of the story he is filled with resentment.  He doesn’t want to see her.  He’s there only because his parents said he had to be.  All he truly wants is for his life to go on as it has in the past, just him and his dad.

How many times have I said to developing writers, “Your character must want something?  Your main character’s desire is the energy that drives your story.”  And having said that dozens of times before writing classes, having said it hundreds of times in notes on manuscripts, I had failed to say it to myself.

What does Ben want?  When delivered to his mother, his only desire is a negative one, resistance.  And so the energy informing my story was anger, nothing else.  One of my early readers had even said, somewhat cautiously, “I wonder if this kid isn’t too angry?  It makes him hard to like.”

I had heard her comment, understood the truth in it, but I couldn’t imagine any way of presenting my story without that overwhelming anger.  So I kept working, committed to my original conception.  When my discomfort with the manuscript rose too high, I decided, as we writers are prone to do, that what was wrong with my story was me!  I’m getting too old.  I’m running out of energy.  Maybe even, running out of brain cells.

(There’s almost nothing that can’t be blamed on old in this maturity-denying society.)

It took my editor’s puzzlement and a new round of revisions to come back up against that truth.  When I arrived at it, at the understanding that my character was starting from the wrong place to carry my readers with me, I found myself holding months—no let’s be honest, years—of work in my hands and knowing it hadn’t yet come to anything worth reading.  And it was very possible it never would.

Sometimes that kind of darkness is just darkness.  Sometimes it’s the setting that allows the glimmer in a new idea to come through.

“What if,” I said to myself, “this boy, instead of being sullenly angry, is naively hopeful.  What if he is the one who engineers this meeting, confident he can get his mother to come home?  What if?”

“That would mean starting over from page 1,” said another voice, also mine.  “That would mean passing every single line of the story through this new lens.”  It was a discouraged voice.  A tired one.  Let’s face it, an old voice.

“Well, why don’t you try?” the more hopeful voice said again.  “Isn’t that what you would say to another writer?  Try it?  What do you have to lose?”

Why is it so much easier to teach others what I know than it is to apply my wisdom to my own work?

Which is the same as asking, Why is it so hard to follow my own advice?

Just in case you’re wondering, I am doing that now.

And guess what.  It’s working!

Autogenics

In my last blog, I talked about positive expectation, about keeping a friendly relationship with my brain so that it will keep working for me.  What I didn’t talk about is the technique I’ve learned for doing just that.

It works, and it’s so simple that I’m turning into a crusader, eager to share it.

The technique is called autogenics.  The concept has been around since the mid-twentieth century, and the core idea that makes it work is integral to many different kinds of psychotherapy.  But autogenics doesn’t require the assistance of a therapist.  It involves nothing more than talking to our brains.

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

This is my version:

I begin each morning with a body scan, sitting in meditation, breathing gently but deeply.  Or lately, with cool mornings that are destined to turn into hot days, I skip the sitting meditation and do a meditative walk instead, still taking note of my breathing.

These are the phrases I use for my body scan—you would create your own—reciting them silently and reciting each phrase five or six times:

My mind is awake and alert.

My body is rested and ready for the day.

My eyes are eager to see.

My nose savors the world.

My ears delight in hearing.

My jaw is relaxed, my tongue is soft.

My throat is open.

My shoulders are warm.

My arms are strong.

My hands are skilled.

My heart is joyful.

My lungs treasure the air.

My tummy awaits goodness.

My gut nurtures my soul.

My legs love to move.

My feet stand on the earth.

I am here.

I am here.

I am here.

After doing the body scan for a time and finding it both relaxing and energizing, I tried one morning when I was despairing over the manuscript I was engaged in to add in phrases about my work.

I began simply.  Nothing specific to the problems I was struggling with, just a general affirmation.

My writing is my gift to the world

My writing is my gift to myself.

To my amazement, that day my work went smoothly.  And while those affirmations are certainly no guarantee of perfection, they keep my energy high.

What a powerful tool!

I am told that the brain does not recognize negatives, so if we tell ourselves, “I have no pain,” our brains will register only “I have” and “pain.”  But it’s easy enough to avoid negatives.  In fact, it’s good practice for other purposes, too.

I’ve found the results refreshing and encouraging, so much so that I wish I’d been taught this simple practice with the alphabet.  What matters, though is that I know it now and that it works.

These days I’m adding another element to my morning routine.  Valuing my writing can be easier, I’ve discovered, than valuing my days when no writing is accomplished.  I have long weighed my days importance according to the words I have assembled and brought to the page.  But who will I be, what worth will be left for my days when I can no longer write . . . or choose not to?

I would never weigh the worth of any other life that way.  Why my own?

And so I’m adding another dimension to the meditative conversation I have with my brain each morning.  Gratitude.  Simple and profound gratitude.

Gratitude for my body expressed through the scan.

Gratitude for the world that greets me each day.

Gratitude for the gift of my life, the gift of each breath.

And I find that nothing alters a day—and all that day embraces—more than gathering that gratitude into words.

And repeating,

repeating,

repeating,

repeating

them.

 

Try it.  It’s such an easy practice, one that fits smoothly into a life.

And it makes a difference!

The Universe

Photo by Mark Basarab on Unsplash

It’s very likely that the universe is really a kind of a question, rather than the answer to anything.

Kevin Kelly