Tag Archives: motivation

Moral Courage

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.

 

Robert F. Kennedy

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!

Creative Energy

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

It’s a topic I come back to many times, because it represents a core truth for me.

I can write only what feeds me, what gives me energy.

I watched many eager writers through a strenuous, two-year MFA program, and I was reminded again and again that one of the most important doors our students could learn to open was the one to their own best writing energy.

Sometimes what waits to be discovered is form, the particular form that speaks to each writer.  Not that any of us should be limited to one genre if our interest reaches wider, but there is usually a right place to start, novel or picture book or easy reader, nonfiction or verse.

Often what waits to be discovered, too, is a particular topic.  Many first novels are autobiographical because we all have issues rising out of childhood aching for resolution.  And what better way to resolve them than to create a person more capable of sorting them out than we ever were?

But after that start, after the first manuscript or two or three that mines the big stuff, how do we keep going?  For my part, I have learned to watch for anything that sizzles.  I don’t pick up an idea because it’s cute.  (That goes without saying.  Anyone who has read my work knows I have little interest in or skill for “cute.”)  I don’t take on a topic merely because I think it’s something I can sell.  I don’t even try out an idea because I believe it is important.

I immerse myself in a new project because it comes knocking on my brain with a certain electricity attached.

I am currently in a period of waiting for editorial notes on my latest novel.  While I wait I keep my hands—and my eyes—off the novel I’ve just sold so as to be able to approach it fresh when those notes come.  And so as not to go off in directions the editor won’t be expecting.

But I’m not just waiting.  I am slipping every day deeper and deeper into a pool of ideas.  Trying out my next project.

Some of the ideas I’ve tried out have let me know that they aren’t ready.  One, an early reader I started and abandoned years ago, came tumbling out of my computer and clicked this time.

But then I was back to the pool, searching for electricity.

One thing I found floating around was a young-adult novel I worked on a few years ago.  I had nearly 200 pages of a first draft and months and months of meticulous research when I ran out of energy and put it aside.

Very firmly aside.  When my agent, who had read those first pages, wondered why I didn’t return to it I had a half-a-dozen very solid reasons.

Recently, though, I found myself reading a YA novel in verse with an electric current running down my spine.  “What if?” I said to myself for the first time. “What if I tackled that abandoned novel again in verse?  Would that make a difference?  Would working in small pieces and different voices give the story more energy?  Would the different approach demanded by verse enable me to drop out some of the detail that overwhelmed me in my first draft?

And suddenly, character after character, verse after verse began to bloom in my mind.

Because that’s the way it works.  At least it’s the way it works for me.  When an idea is right it acts like a magnet gathering iron filings.  Everything . . . everything flies to the idea, enlarges it, energizes it.

The notes on the novel I’ve just sold will come, and I’ll find my way back inside that other energy that inspired a very different story and bring it to fulfillment.

In the meantime, though, in the meantime, I wake with my brain sizzling!

This . . . this is what I most need to say, to do, to be!

What greater privilege is there than being able to live and work where my deepest energy compels me?

The Quiz

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I have a cousin who stands firmly on the other side of the political divide from the one I occupy.  Recently she sent me a quiz she had designed to demonstrate the facts about climate, facts that were drawn from reputable sources but that were clearly chosen to demonstrate that our concern about human-caused climate change is misplaced.

What interested me weren’t the facts she offered, but the power of my emotional response to her quiz.

The conversation that followed prompted me to search out an interview I remembered Krista Tippett doing with Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist/economist who won a Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that we are not always logical and rational in our economic lives.

Here is one of the things he said in the interview:

When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs much too seriously.

And that’s the topic that I find compelling, not what do I or my cousin believe, about politics, about religion, about the state of our world, about anything at all, but why each of us chooses to believe what we do.  What is the emotional foundation for my gut-clench in response to my cousin’s quiz?

When I saw what she had sent, I wanted to turn away.  I know my cousin, I knew where the facts she intended to reveal meant to take me, and I knew I wasn’t going to go there.  I also know how easily facts—I have a hard time not putting quotes around the word—can be shaped to prove opposing points.

It’s an interesting dilemma because I love my cousin, and the different ground we stand on doesn’t diminish that love in the smallest way.  But I definitely did not want to engage in measuring her reality against mine.

She has explained to me how she came to be a conservative, that as a young social worker in Chicago she saw the government tear down tenements that had been vital communities and build concrete sewers to house people instead.  Communities of color were destroyed because of the “superior” knowledge of white bureaucrats.

And while I didn’t witness that destruction as closely as she did, I was aware of it, too, and saw it as a serious mistake, however well intentioned.  Knowing it was a mistake, though, did not prompt me to rethink my view of government as it did her.

Why am I willing to witness such governmental blunders and still continue to vote for people I hope will provide government-driven solutions for complex societal needs?

Partly, of course, on a rational level, because I can also point to the great successes of government programs from GI loans to Medicare to Social Security.  But there is another reason that is even more powerful.  And more basic.

My father emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930’s seriously wounded, as so many did, and surviving that terrible time only convinced him of the responsibility of government toward its citizens.  It was a topic he brought up often at the kitchen table.

I resisted my dad in many ways, but still I listened.  His political views came to be part of my very bones.

On the other hand, my brother, who grew up listening to the same lectures at the same table, is a conservative.  I can only assume his views grew from his need to stand apart from that complex and often infuriating man, something that, as a daughter, I could do more easily in other ways.

If emotions do rule—and I’m convinced they do—do we have any hope of reaching across the chasm that divides our country and our world?

I wonder if the answer doesn’t lie less in trading facts than in listening deeply to the feelings of those who see the world differently, asking why they believe what they do, asking what lies beneath that choice.  Asking the question of ourselves, too.

And at the beginning of any conversation, setting aside the assumption that we, alone, are in possession of the truth.

I so wish we could embrace both sides, not so much that we could compromise as that we could recognize that our different views may each hold a fundamental truth.  At the very least, a truth of the heart.

Another Lesson

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

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