Tag Archives: writing

Feeling as Meaning

I have never been fond of the exercise that asks students to identify a story’s theme.  Most writers, I suspect, share my view.  In fact, I once heard a Newbery medalist tell about her grandson receiving such an assignment about her book. Having access to the source, he called to ask.

She thought for a moment, then said, “Well, I guess the theme is . . . ” and she spelled it out for him.

He called her again a few days later to report.  His teacher had given his answer a D.

I’ve seen some educator-produced materials designed to support On My Honor that explained the “theme” of my novel in ways I barely recognized.  And though most of my grandchildren read On My Honor as a class assignment, I’ve been glad none of them ever called to ask me to explain its theme.  I probably would have gotten a D on the assignment, too.

It’s not that stories don’t have meaning.  They do.  Always.  A story could be saying, “Isn’t life a lark?”  It might be, “Life is a dirty deal.”   Perhaps it’s “Crime doesn’t pay.”  Or maybe “Seems like we’re all in this mess together.”  A story reveals its writer in the most intimate way by holding up her world view.  Sometimes a story can reveal more of her world than the writer herself understands.

Stories—at least well-written, deeply conceived stories—are not intended to stamp a lesson in the middle of a reader’s forehead, no matter how young and stampable that reader might be.  What stories are meant to do, more than anything else, is to make us feel.

The meaning of a story, any story, emerges through the feelings the story engenders, and feelings are difficult to explicate on an exam.

On My Honor

So what do I want my readers to feel when they read On My Honor?  First, I want them to feel Tony’s sudden, unexpected death, the shock of it, the finality of it.

Then I want them to feel Joel’s misplaced guilt, the way he takes responsibility for Tony’s brash actions, the way he blames himself for daring Tony to swim to the sandbar.  (It’s curious that my readers, even my readers’ teachers, rarely seem to notice that the guilt is misplaced.  Joel made the dare because he was trying to prevent Tony from going on his own to climb the bluffs, something he assumed would have been even more dangerous than messing around in the river.)

I want them to feel the way Joel’s guilt becomes blame, becomes fury against his father.  I want them to feel the hopelessness of that blame, of that fury, whether directed inward or onto another.

And finally, I want them to feel the solidness of Joel’s father.  Like so many of us parents, Joel’s father has been trying so hard throughout the story to do the right thing that he has been  wavering and uncertain.  But when Joel needs him most, that man’s love is a rock.

“Will you stay?” [Joel] asked, reaching a hand out tentatively to touch his father’s knee.  “Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?”

“Of course,” his father said.

I want my readers to understand in their bones that love doesn’t have to be perfect to be wholly, solidly, reliably there.  And that it is love’s thereness that redeems.

When they feel that, it doesn’t matter whether they can wrap that feeling in words and call it theme or not.  They understand.

Where the Storyteller is Loyal

“. . . Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak.”

Credit: gracey | morguefile.com

Isak Dinesen

To Love the World

“I think our job is to love the world.”    Kate DiCamillo

Some days it takes courage to love this world of ours.  Some days it feels easier–simpler, anyway—to pretend this fragile planet, badly used in so many ways, isn’t owed anything so demanding as love.

And when I say “badly used,” I’m talking about more than greenhouse gases and plastic clogging our seas and a climate spinning out of control.

I’m talking about a world bristling with nuclear weapons.  I’m talking about leaders—especially those in my own country—who for the past fifty years and more have believed in such monstrosities, manufactured them, stockpiled them, brandished them, used them on a civilian population . . . leaders who clearly hunger to use them again.

I’m talking about laws in this “land of the free” created and interpreted and enforced to protect a tiny fraction of our citizenry, those who are rich, white, male, heterosexual.

I’m talking about the wealthiest nation in the world where every day food goes to waste by the ton while too many of its citizens go hungry.

I’m talking about  . . . but what is the point of more talk?

We know.  We all know.  And knowing seems to bring only despair, and despair does nothing to feed love.

Kate De Camillo, however, says “our job is to love the world” and Kate is a wise woman.

What does it mean, though, to love?  It is such an easy word to say, so friendly sounding, convenient, all encompassing.  But love takes thought and attention and lots and lots of hard work.  I know that from trying to live love every day within the confines of a family, within a community of friends.  I know, too, that love has very little to do with feeling and a great deal to do with doing.

Love is a verb, after all.  An active verb, any English teacher would be glad to point out.

So what does it mean to love the world?  This world.  The one we stand upon today.  The one descending into chaos all around us.

And how can my loving make the tiniest bit of difference?

I am a storyteller.  Only that.  The best of my energy and passion and talent turns itself into stories, stories meant to challenge and to heal.

Many years ago I cast a book into the world that spoke against war, hoping to build a longing for peace in my readers.  My book’s title was Rain of Fire, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom gave Rain of Fire a nice award.

Rain of Fire – Marion Dane Bauer

And war did not stop.  It did not even pause

Again and again I hold the natural world up in my stories.  I write about the flora and the fauna and the arching blue sky with reverence, hoping to generate reverence in my readers.

And the flora and the fauna and the arching blue sky go on being abused without end.

I write about families, struggling to nurture, to survive.

And families go on struggling . . . to nurture, to survive.

Clearly my stories are not a fix for anything.  And yet they are the deepest gift that has been given into my hands.

They are my love for this chaotic world made manifest.

I write these stories with all the honesty, with all the passion, with all the intelligence I possess.  They are my strength and my determined hope.  They are the gift—very nearly the only gift—I have to give the children coming up behind me.

Are my stories enough?  Of course, not.  Nothing I do alone will ever be enough.  Yet each story lives out its life as a fragment of a larger love.

And only love, all our love gathered together, has any hope of saving this beleaguered world.

What is your gift?  What is the work of your love?

A Freudian Slip

It was one of those amusing Freudian slips.

Last week I posted a quote on this blog from Kelly Barnhill’s Newbery acceptance speech and dated the speech as having been delivered in 1987.  Kelly would have been fourteen years old in 1987.  I don’t know her though she lives in my community, but when the good folks at Winding Oak who manage my website caught my error, I looked her up.

The real year of Kelly’s speech was 2017.  How did I come by 1987?  That’s the year my novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor.

On My Honor

A couple of times a month two good friends and I gather for conversation.  Our topic, aging.  We are old ladies, though I’m farther along the old-lady spectrum than either of them.  We talk about our fears, our hopes, the deep changes we are experiencing.  We own up to what we are losing, celebrate the places where we are still learning, still growing.  We’ve decided that it’s perfectly all right to talk about our physical ailments, too, something we don’t usually put on display.  And at the end of our conversation we look at one another, take a deep breath, and say, “Thank you.  This was really useful!”

Credit jclk8888 | morguefile.com

The day before my thirty-year slip with the date of Kelly’s speech appeared on my website, we three had been talking about the young who are taking our places.  One of these friends is a retired psychology professor.  She said she still sees reference to her published articles, but she knows they will grow fewer.  “Once research is more than ten years old,” she said, and her words trailed into a shrug.  And yet she has moved on to new territory, a master gardener, a fabric artist.  Roles she had little time for when she was immersed in her career.

The other is a retired therapist.  She with some others founded an institute designed to bring psychology and spirituality under the same roof.  She talked about how all of her companions in that groundbreaking work have moved on in one way or another, and yet how satisfying it was to go back and see that what they founded still thrives.

And I am still a working writer, though my work leaves my desk at a much slower rate these days.  And I spoke about the way the field that has challenged and sustained me for more than forty years has evolved in my wake.  I suspect that many of my early novels would never be published today, not because they were bad novels but because the world wants something different now.  Even so I feel validated by these changing standards, not erased by them.  I was one of many who helped create a world that made it possible for these new standards, these new writers to grow.

Recently, I read Kelly’s Newbery award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.  (I listened to it, actually, a new kind of “reading” I have discovered as I make my way back and forth across the city in a succession of thirty-minute segments.  It seems that everyplace I go is thirty minutes away.)  And I was delighted by the grace of the writing and the wisdom of the writer.  By the world she created out of ancient elements while making her story wholly new.   By the skill of the narrator, too, in this audio rendition.

And I thought . . . how lucky I am to belong to a field that contains Kelly Barnhill and Katherine Paterson and Neil Gaiman and Kate DiCamillo and Kevin Henkes and Debby Dahl Edwardson and all the as yet unknown writers who will follow us as we tumble, one after another, into obscurity.  What a blessing to have been a part of all that good work.

If, for a brief moment, I conflated Kelly’s award with my own . . . so be it.  I’m glad to have flashed across the stage with her, if only in my own mind.  (If you go back to check on the mistake, you’ll find it corrected now.)

What matters isn’t that my day in the sun has passed or that even Kelly’s is passing.  What matters is that the work, our work, day by day by day, is good.  What matters is that we each lived our gifts, brought them singing into the world.  (This, not just for my fellow writers, but for my old-lady friends who did other good work as well.)

What matters is that, however minutely, our living and thus our song changed the world forever.

Books are Powerful

Credit: Andalusia | morguefile.com

Books are powerful.  For good or ill.  They can literally rewrite a person’s sense of themselves, and they can rewrite the world around us.

Kelly Barnhill

(from her 2017 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech)