Tag Archives: writing

The Beauty of the Earth

Dawn

Photo by Remi Yuan on Unsplash

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Rachel Carson

Between Facts and Truth

Library door

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

I have always believed in story.  I believe in it still.

But I am learning something in these late days of my career.  Stories don’t have to be inventions.  They can come from the world of very solid facts.

I used to accept a distinction I remember Madeleine L’Engle making in her uniquely emphatic way.  Libraries, she liked to say, are divided between fact—and here she would wave a dismissive hand toward the shelves that held nonfiction—and truth.  Truth, of course, meant fiction.

There is no question but that fiction spins out the very solid truth of its author’s psyche.

There is no question, either, that I have used my fiction to reveal my own truth, a truth drawn from that place of perpetually unfulfilled longing that I have carried—that we all carry—from childhood.

I love imagining characters, giving them names and histories, investing them with a desire drawn from my own hidden desires.  I love following their struggle.  The resolution these creations of mine bring to the page goes far beyond any my own life has ever achieved.

The power of that resolution, both for myself and my readers, comes from the feelings story engenders.

Feelings transform us all.

In recent years, though, I have discovered something that belies Madeleine’s neat division.  Facts can also be vehicles for story.  And framed as story, facts can lead us to a deeply felt truth.

To make that discovery I have had to open doors into worlds I’ve seldom visited before.  Astronomy.  Quantum physics.  Botany.  Biology.

And beyond those doors I have found larger stories than I am accustomed to telling.  They are spun from the new facts I’ve been gathering, but even in terms of Madeleine’s divisions, they are profoundly true.

That is because facts told in the right cadence, gathered into the right form, shaped toward the right meaning can move us.  And feeling is all.

Thus my latest picture book, The Stuff of Stars, published by Candlewick in 2018.  Thus two new recently acquired picture books, We, the Curious Ones, which explores the tension between science and story over the centuries, and One Small Acorn, which tells the story of a single acorn within the story of a forest within the story of us.

What drew me to each of these topics wasn’t the facts, though those fascinated me, but the story inside the facts.

Facts are useful and necessary.  They can be enormously interesting, even astounding.  But they can easily be presented without heart and too often are.

Facts, however, that open a door to understanding ourselves and our place in the world can bring us to feelings that transform, just as fiction does.  Both sides of the library can speak truth.

We live today in a collapsing world.  Yet the wonders that stretch on every side, both the wonders of far-flung space and the wonders that lie beneath our toes, fill me with awe.

And I can think of no more profound truth than what we find when we open ourselves to awe.

None of the stories that grew, consciously or unconsciously, out of my childhood angst ever discovered awe.

For that I had to discover facts.

 

Amen!

Bee

Photo by Dmitry Grigoriev on Unsplash

In the name of the Bee –
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!

Emily Dickinson

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.

Learning from Plays and Films

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.

Hammer

Photo by Moritz Mentges on Unsplash

As a fiction writer, I have long turned to plays and films to learn about story.  I find them almost as important—and sometimes more transparent—than the novels I parse and absorb and enjoy.

Because the truth is that fiction is not so much an imitation of life as it is an imitation of other fiction.

No one learns to write stories once and for all.  Every story presents its own challenges.  And every challenge seems to require different answers.

So I am always, consciously and conscientiously, critiquing technique wherever I encounter story.  And the less perfect the technique, the easier it is to carry lessons back to my own work.

If a story is exquisitely put together it is difficult to examine the bones of craft that support it.  It’s the moments when the bones show through that supports my own understanding.

Certainly one of the reasons plays and films work better for me for that purpose than novels is that they are more spare and thus show their inner workings more readily.  Also, I’m less apt to learn from a novel’s bad example simply because it’s easier to put a novel down when the bones begin to show.

In any case, I have come to treasure plays and films for what they teach me.

Recently I watched Hidden Figures, a biographical drama about black female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the space race.  It was an easy film to watch.  Knowing the story was based on real women and their all-too-real experience with racism made it especially compelling.

But the film reminded me again and again of the difference between drama and melodrama, a vital distinction to carry back to my own work.

Drama rises out of character from within.  Melodrama is imposed from outside.

In drama, a character acts because of who she is.  She does exactly what she would truly do and can’t be forced to serve the story.  In melodrama, the train comes roaring toward any beautiful maiden who happens to be tied to the track.

Again and again, the film Hidden Figures converted the long, slow grind of racism into bursts of abrupt physical action.

For example.  A Black woman, a brilliant mathematician upon whom the project depends, is not just shut out of the White-men’s meeting. After she has delivered the information that will save the project, the door slams in her face.

Another.  No Negro restrooms are available when this same woman is moved to a different division where she is needed for more important work.  Thus she is repeatedly shown running full out, carrying all her work with her, notebooks flying out of her arms for extra effect, the camera sped up to enhance the effect, to a distant part of the work campus to use the facilities.  Always this marathon is performed in high heels.  Sometimes in drenching rain.

And when her supervisor finally understands why this brilliant mathematician is missing from her desk for so long each day, he doesn’t just change the rules about restrooms.  He takes a sledgehammer and knocks the “Negroes Only” sign off the wall while everyone stands by watching.

Yes, I know.  Films are, of necessity, visual.  Much can be told in a novel.  With words on the page a character’s thoughts can even carry us forward.  In a film all must be converted to action.  The question is, though, what kind of action?

A flicker of expression passing across a face is visual, too, and sometimes an expression can register more powerfully than a slammed door.

By the time the closing credits were rolling, I had noted a lot of over-the-top moments in which action obliterated nuance.

Moments that will stay with me, I hope, next time I’m tempted to send one of my characters dashing in high heels through drenching rain, notebooks filled with classified material flying in every direction.

Or the next time I forget who my characters are and reach for the strong moment, the obvious moment for the effect I am seeking.