Monthly Archives: October 2012

Library Love

What! It’s my turn to post again? Already?? Four weeks go by like nothing these days.

I am not a person who is comfortable (read, confident) as a writer. I always feel like I am sitting in someone else’s chair. It takes tremendous will and discipline for me to settle into the task, especially when there are so many other things I would rather do (like, say, the laundry). I find it wise to just remove myself from the distractions of home and studio.

I know some writers like plunking themselves down in the middle of some bustling social hotspot to write, but I don’t know how they do it. I’ve tried coffee shops and cafes, but I usually can’t handle the playlist and/or I keep eavesdropping on other people’s conversations (I mean really, do you think he’s worth the effort?…). On top of that, I feel slightly guilty spending hours sitting there having purchased one measly cup of tea.

I prefer to go to my neighborhood library.

My branch

My library isn’t silent, but it is quiet. There are the sounds of pages turning, toddlers “reading” books to their parents, people (like me) tapping away on their laptops, and the occasional hum of check-out receipts being printed. A few afternoons when I’ve been there a rosy-cheeked elderly gentleman has come in, placed his cane on the table, sat in one of the oak reading chairs with his newspaper, and gone to sleep. Neither he nor I have had to buy anything to claim a seat, and best of all, nobody bugs us. We all understand that we are gathered here to respect and immerse ourselves in the written word without fear of intrusion. It’s like a church without a pulpit, and more than one book.

All libraries are wonderful places to hang out in, but I must say my branch is particularly pleasant. A Carnegie library originally built in 1910, it has high ceilings with tall windows rounding the perimeter and a skylight in the middle. It feels downright holy sometimes.

The venerable check-out counter

The view

It also has a display case in the entryway that has become a showplace for children’s favorite collections and accumulations. My daughters both staged exhibitions in this case many years ago – my eldest her rock collection and my youngest a massive array of button pins. I always check the case first thing when I come in. Today Ashly is showing off her plastic horses.

Ashly’s herd

I love my local library. I have spent many comfortable, un-distracted hours in this space, and I know I couldn’t have gotten this post out today without it!

Be Alive, Horse….

“A stitch in time saves nine….”

I guess my fascination with proverbs began when I lived in Mexico and had  what I felt was a good command of the language but no familiarity at all with a whole new set of “dichos” – that is, wise little “sayings” and colloquialisms that people learn in their own native languages from a very early age. “Nothing borrowed, nothing owed,” for example – a fine proverb in the land of Puritans. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and “A stitch in time saves nine” – two cautionary proverbs that advocate for the Practical Life.  “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” appeals to me more, since it allows for a little wiggle room and more adventurous territory.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The point is, I get the gist and purpose of these proverbs I grew up with. But proverbs from another culture sometimes seem to be out of whack – disarmingly so. Since I love words in general, and love the strange way they convey meaning when the object of their attention is indirect (aka poetry), I also love proverbs in other languages, some of which – when I lived in a country where the language slowed me down just enough to pay attention – seemed entirely mysterious to me in terms of  meaning, but charming in terms of the images conjured. My favorite proverb ever – in any language – comes from the Yiddish tradition: A person should want to live, if only out of curiosity (how much nicer than “Curiosity killed the cat.”)

“A person should want to live, if only out of curiosity..”

If you are an aspiring writer, I encourage you to explore translated proverbs. They open you up, as all translation can, to new perspectives.  I dream of returning to Italy someday and speaking Italian well enough to use ANY of the following proverbs:

“Campa cavallo, che l’erba cresce.” [Be alive, horse, because grass grows.]
“Fatti maschi, parole femmine.” [Facts are male, words are female.]
“A buon intenditor poche parole.” [Few words to the good listener.]
“Traduttore, traditore.” [Translator, traitor.]
“Tra il dire e il fare, c’è di mezzo il mare.” [Between doing and saying lies the sea.]
“Se non è vero, è ben trovato.” [If it's not true, it's a good story.]
“La morte mi troverà vivo.” [Death will find me alive.]

Be alive horse, because grass grows.

Begin Again

I am in a stuck place lately. The bottom of the well. Fortunately, there’s a lot of stuff down here with me. Perhaps I can fashion a rope and pull myself up.

I sift through clippings, cards and photos saved over the years and feel around for the stories that I saw in them.

Examples from the idea file.

I look at the photo of my family that I keep above my computer. Any more stories there?

The McGee Family, c. 1957.

I think about the letterforms themselves: A,B,C… The tall strokes, the curves. Letterforms are reason enough to write. Kind of amazing how a whole language emerges from just 26 letters.

My own font, Doozy, invented for ‘Zelda and Ivy.’

I think about words, too. Do any of you make wordlists? Like these reduplicates: Abracadabra, Artsy fartsy, Aye aye, Beep beep, Beriberi, Bingle bangle, Blah blah, Bon bon, Boo hoo, Bye bye, Can can, Chitchat (chitter-chatter), Chop chop, Clickety clack, Dilly dally, Ding dong, Dum dum, Doo doo, Fiddle faddle , Flim flam, Flip flop, etc. I know they belong in a story. Maybe an ABC book?

Outside, night has come and a storm gathers. The wind whips the pines against the house. My little dog sleeps beside me. But stories are waking. It’s cozy here in the well.

¡Viva Neruda!

                                                                                                                                                                Several years ago I showed this image of a boater in a sea of words to Reka Simonsen, my editor at Holt. She sent me a wonderful manuscript – a biography of Pablo Neruda written by Monica Brown -and asked if I would like to illustrate it in this “wordy” style.This fall our book, Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People won an Orbis Pictus Honor Award and an Américas Award. I am in Washington, DC to receive the Américas award in a ceremony at the Library of Congress on October 5th. It is a huge honor and a thrill to be here.

Whenever I am given a manuscript to illustrate I see it as a door to go through. This book led me to Neruda’s poetry and to Chile. My husband and I visited Chile in 2009 and went to Neruda’s three homes.  Here is a  street in Valparaiso.

Because of this book I signed up for a Spanish class and I have continued studying Spanish since then. I still have a long way to go! For each illustration I harvested words from Neruda’s poems and memoirs. I wrote lists of words in English and Spanish that related to the subject of that page.

Then I painted the word flow taking words from my lists that rhymed and chimed. The words bounce off of each other with their sounds and their meanings. I considered the way that each word related to the words around it on all sides and I considered the way that the words cumulatively reinforced the meaning of Monica’s text.  

                                                                                                                                                                  Here is a picture of Neruda celebrating life at his House of Flowers in Spain.

If you would like to see the celebration at the Library of Congress you will soon be able to look at a webcast. Webcasts from other years are posted at the website of CLASP (Consortium of Latin American Studies).  ¡Viva Neruda!

Postscript:
Here are photos. One is of Margarita Engle (left), me (center) and Monica Brown(right). The other is of John Cole giving us a tour of the Library of Congress.