Category Archives: the writing process

Getting Bear to the Library

Those who have followed the adventures of Mouse and Bear may have noticed that Bear has never left his cozy Tudor cottage. He’s barely set even a claw out that front door.

The trouble with Bear is he’s a recluse.

He likes his peace and quiet. He likes his privacy and he likes his cottage and pretty much sees no reason to leave it.

The dynamic is much the same in each book. Bear is a grouchy loner who is reluctantly drawn into life and its various celebrations by exuberant Mouse.

The latest book, A LIBRARY BOOK FOR BEAR is the fifth book in the Mouse and Bear series. The trouble with writing sequels about a character who’s a recluse is how to get your character out and about and into different adventures.

I wanted to talk a little in this blog about how I got Bear into the bigger world and about the challenge of writing sequels.

In some ways sequels are easy:

You know your characters and for a picture book it’s easy to follow a fairly similar story arc once you’ve set one up. The young reader is looking for the familiar and so is the editor. So it’s tempting to deliver the same story over and over with minor variations.

Writing each book is, in some ways, as simple as asking myself “what fresh hell can I create for Bear.”

Fortunately I’ve never had any trouble figuring out different ways to bug Bear. I grew up with five siblings, which pretty much makes one an expert on bugging people.

So I’ve had Bear have to deal with this mouse who won’t go away and with the horror of having a birthday party and with a first ever sleep-over with a guest who isn’t as quiet as Bear requires. Bear gets sick and has to deal with the much too cheerful ministrations of Mouse.

But how do you keep the familiar from turning into a formula? How do you keep it fresh, not only for your readers, but for yourself. I didn’t want Bear to simply be bugged and to respond the same way time after time. I hope to move his relationship with Mouse forward bit by bit through the series. And for Bear to change just a little.

So for this sequel I went through a number of scenarios—Mouse and Bear bake a pie together; Mouse and Bear go on a picnic and Bear can’t settle until he finds the perfect spot. Or they could go fishing. I wasn’t sure yet what would bug Bear about fishing but I know enough about fishing to know there’d be plenty of frustration.

But these all felt like I would cover pretty familiar territory. I did get Bear out of the house in a few of these ideas, but it was still just him and Mouse interacting. I wanted to turn things on their head a bit.

Then I remembered one of Bear’s main characteristics. In every story, he is inevitably driven to bellow out his frustration, rather like Donald Duck working up into one of his tantrums.

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And that inevitable process gave me an idea. What if Bear were in a situation where quiet was required. A church, some solemn occasion… I was half-tempted to try out Bear at a funeral. I would love to see him bellowing mid-funeral (ideally about some annoyance he had with the corpse.)

But really what better quiet place than a library? And a library would get Bear out of his house and interacting with at least a few other animals

There was a problem with that idea, however, because I love libraries and books. What could Bear possible be grouchy about?

I grew up in a household with hundreds and hundreds of books. There were bookshelves in virtually every room. One room was a library with shelves from floor to ceiling. Even with all of that, we went to the library once a week and I would walk out with books up to my chin.

Libraries have always had a special place in my life. I still remember being the school library aide when I was in the fourth grade. How I loved to turn the numbers on the rubber date stamp to the correct date and decisively stamp the checkout cards.

My mother was on the Wenatchee, WA library board. My siblings and I even created our own library at home taking all the kids books we had and numbering and labeling them and creating library check out card for each.

So how could Bear not be interested in the library!? Fortunately, Bear is so persnickety and stubborn that he was convinced he already had all the books he needed right at home: he had three about honeybees, three about kings and queens and one about pickles. Who could ask for more?

Of course, Mouse knew you could ask for a whole lot more. He just needs to convince Bear of that. Eventually he does (with the help of a friendly librarian and pickles) and Bear goes home with seven new books. And I’m sure with more visits to the library in his future.

I’m glad I got Bear to go to the library. The book is already in its third printing. (It came out in July.) It’s been reviewed in the Wall St. Journal and Huffington Post, along with the usual children’s book review sources.  It received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was selected as an autumn must-read by Scholastic’s Instructor Magazine.

It will be on the cover of American Booksellers Children’s book holiday catalog. Some 275,000 copies will be printed and distributed to independent bookstores nationwide.

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What’s next for Mouse and Bear? Having gotten Bear into the frying pan, I’m putting him into the fire next time with A HALLOWEEN FOR BEAR. Imagine how much he’s going to love having all kinds of animals come to his house demanding candy!

 

 

On Angels and Hankies and the Plague

IMG_1194Noticing cobblestones – the wonderful patterns, a few stones missing….

When I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to begin their semester with me by telling me where their attention had come to rest recently. This usually produced blank stares, and I had to further explain: I was asking them to tell me what turned their heads, what had they been looking at and noticing recently, what pulled at them so hard that they couldn’t walk past it, what bit of information had come in randomly which they couldn’t let go of, what compelled them to pause and wonder, what made them investigate further.

IMG_1548Began noticing clouds, began looking up photos of terrifying clouds.

I didn’t want anything philosophical, at least not at the surface level, and I didn’t want to hear about anything they were using for a current creative project. I just wanted to hear about physical objects or facts about the real world – where their “attention came to rest” that had little to do with anything else they were involved with. This would help me as a teacher, not only to see how well they could articulate their quirks and idiosyncrasies (and tangentially, to see if they could handle prose) but to open up a conversation about obsessions – my having come to the conclusion early on that artists are, in general, obsessive about unusual things.

IMG_0878  Began to collect old photos of long-gone orchards.

Cherry Orchard, San JoseSigh. Another ghost orchard.

I also thought that once students noticed what they were noticing, they would begin to see patterns emerge, and patterns could tell them a lot about who they were as artists in the world.

IMG_1038Patterns everywhere, even in stacks of firewood…

If my students remained confused, I offered examples of my own: I once bought an old postcard of handkerchiefs in a store window. I found the postcard at a Paper Ephemera fair and couldn’t put it down. A whole storefront window full of handkerchiefs on display: so unusual, so marvelous! Even thinking of it now fills me with pleasure. That was something I could not just “walk past” – I bought that postcard.

Another example: the Plague.

Black DeathThe Plague – I couldn’t get enough of it. The more gruesome, the better.

I developed a fascination with the Black Death  – how it spread across Europe in the 14th century. I had a whole stack of books checked out of the library. I looked up primary documents from the time, I researched art work – simple woodcuts sometimes, or complicated images of it in religious iconography and architectural decoration. My obsession with it was feverish – I needed to learn more about something horrible and mysterious, something that I had only a marginal interest in until it suddenly grabbed hold of me and would not let go.

IMG_1127Shiny jars and lids turned my head…

That kind of thing – that was what I was asking students about. Once explained, the writing exercise took off – most students provided me with fine descriptions of all kinds of unusual things, and they were glad to be reflecting on the question. But for some students – quite a few more than I anticipated – even the explanation and the examples were not enough.

IMG_1164as did a small man on a large vase…

It seemed impossible to me that they were not stopped in their tracks by anything – that their unique perspective on gazing (from which place “voice” comes) never made them catch their breath and STOP. So I looked for a more plausible explanation: was it possible that they were unaware of what caught and held them – were they not paying attention to what they paid attention to?

IMG_1185and the twenty days of the Zapotec calendar: crocodile, lightning, shredded meat, deer, water, knot, monkey, loofah, heart, cornstalk, eye, thunder, humid, drip, lord…plus a few question marks.

I think that’s dangerous territory for someone who wants to write – a lack of attention to your own physical responses to the things of this world, and an inability to list (inarticulate as that list might prove to be) what you’ve been noticing.

IMG_1229Couldn’t get enough of this camel, either. Especially those lips. Looked up “camel” in the encyclopedia.  Lots to know.

The photos I’m inserting into this post are of things that caught and held my attention this year. I might not be able to articulate the “why” behind my fascination – sometimes it seems to be a simple aesthetic response, sometimes my gaze turns to an object at an instinctive level, sometimes it’s quite clearly intellectual. But I do like to try to ponder the puzzle of what caught me in the first place.

IMG_1343Looked up “fireflies,” too.

If you haven’t been noticing what you notice, try taking a simple digital camera with you (or use the camera on your phone)  whenever you go out, and make a record of anything that turns your head and makes you pause.

IMG_1582Patterns, even in popsicles.

Reflect on it, think through what the fascination is. With those handkerchiefs, so beautifully displayed in that vintage photo, the effect was one of tremendous grace, similar to the effect on me recently of an organ played in the great cathedral of Mexico City.  Angels sang, and up the song rose, up into the domed ceiling, echoing around, filling me up.

IMG_1898What is it about watercolor paint tins? So messy. So gorgeous.

That sounds absurd. Or maybe not. Maybe someday that window full of hankies will make their way into a poem. For now, I’m only grateful for getting swept off my feet by that photo. Linen hankies – a whole huge window full. Angels sang.

Window Display - HankiesAbraham & Straus Department Store, Brooklyn, circa 1895.

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It’s Poetry Friday again, and I have some thoughts about wandering and coming home (as a follow-up to my post here on August 29th about a planned trip to Oaxaca) plus a favorite poem by Nelson Bentley, over at The Drift Record today.  To head over there, click here.

AUDIENCE RESEARCH by Wise Owl

When it comes to knowing your audience, nothing beats spending some time with kids.

Recently I had just such a chance. Our triplet grandnephews came over for a night at “Camp Runamok.” They enter fifth grade this week. That’s the age of the protagonist in my middle grade novel-in-progress, so I have more than a great aunt’s interest in kids of their age. My writer self was not disappointed. They are fascinating: their expressions, their songs, games, ideas, interactions. But what hit me most of all is their relationship to story.

dusty

We made up camp names, had a treasure hunt, got started building rockets, set up a four-man tent on our scrap of lawn, ate pizza, played “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater” many times on the piano, watched the movie Frozen, lit a campfire on the gravel driveway, sang, ate s’mores. I noted that ten-year old boys laugh a lot about bodily functions — as expected — but are also quite entertained by word play. These three are sportsy guys, so between planned activities there was lots of broom ball and jump rope and general messing around. We considered looking up how to throw a lasso on You Tube. We discussed the possibilities of the Mariners getting a Wild Card berth.

But what struck me most was how important stories are to them. They had seen Frozen once before, but wanted us to see it, so that’s the vid they chose. They knew it in detail, even down to reciting some of the lines. We sang along wholeheartedly, “Do you want to build a snowman?” and “Let it go, let it go.” They seemed quite satisfied with the conclusion, with how true love changes the world.

Bedding down in the tent – three boys, one dog and me – we got out the iPad to listen to their favorite scary story. This, too, they knew in detail from one previous hearing. The Axe Murderer. They loved being scared by it. They talked about some of their favorite books: Avi’s The Orphan City, Gary Paulson’s Harris and Me, James Patterson’s The Treasure Hunters, Cal Ripkin Junior’s series.

The boys’ deep response to stories points to a big responsibility. When we write for children, we hope to create stories that matter to them, that become part of how they see the world, that connect.

As the boys slept soundly, I savored the peace that was in our tent. And I wondered how to reckon such sweetness with news of beheadings, ebola virus, police violence, Russian invasions, sea star wasting syndrome, etc. etc.

I didn’t have an answer. But I do know stories can be a refuge. So I started telling myself a story about three boys and a dog camping in a tent under Seattle skies…

Writing with All Six Senses

photoEscudo_Tianguis_de_Tlacolula_Tlacolula_Header

In just a few days my husband and I leave home once again for Oaxaca, having visited just last year and decided it’s the kind of place we want to spend more time. Slow time, slow food, slow reading, slow walking…time to slow down in general. Oaxaca has many plazas with many benches – great places for slow listening (to very fast music, sometimes) and quiet watching. Last year we had just over a week at a nice B&B, and we experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations; this time around, we’re renting an apartment of our own (with kitchen!) and staying for a month, outside the real tourist season in order to get a better feel for what the town is like for the locals. When we go to the market now and see all that delicious fresh fruit, bread, vegetables – we can buy what we want and cook it up back at the apartment. Time to give different moles a try.

A friend asked me whether I would be doing any writing while in Oaxaca, and I wasn’t sure what to answer – yes, no, maybe? One thing I do know: I’m going to open myself, Diane Ackerman-style, to all the sensory input I can – sights, smells, textures, sounds and tastes (especially tastes – yes!)

Sights – the colors in the markets: flowers, fruit, vegetables, bread…

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fruit market

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 and the spectacular sky, whether stormy or bright…like this view from Monte Alban…

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 Smells – a cup of hot champurrado, especially sipped from a clay or greenware cup made in Atzompa (close your eyes and think steaming milk, corn flour, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, anise seed, plus the wet ceramic smell of the cup) and the ripe guavas in the markets(so sweet and pervasive, it can make you giddy)…

Oaxacas hot-chocolate

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Textures – the soft cotton weavings, the hard rock walls, the delicate petals of a squash blossom…

huipiles

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Tastes – so many! Moles of every color (coloradito, negro, verde, chichilo, amarillo  – here’s a recipe from Rick Bayless), tlayudas, tamales, jugos, pan dulce, pipian, and tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes…

7-moles-8 

MexicoMainlandOaxacaFoodMoles

tlayudajugos

 Sounds – birds in the trees, danzon music at the Zocalo every Wednesday

Watch this wonderful video of a midnight concert in Tlacochahuaya

and this video of the amazing organ in the church there)….

organ

Seems to me that writing which is not grounded in the senses is writing that becomes slack, abstract and dull. So I’ll let my five senses push me to write in Oaxaca. Plus one more: the sense of wonder. Can’t write without that.

Maybe I’ll be able to put those six senses together on a metate and work them, work them, work them…into a story.

metate

 

Editing

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“Boldly and bluntly simplify the subject so as to reveal its true essence.”
– Kiyoshi Saito, (1907-1971)

I have spent the last three months preparing to move from Seattle – where my husband and I have lived since 1986 – to London, England. I fly out at the end of the month. These last few weeks have been a lesson in letting go.

I have been going through everything we own to clear the house for incoming renters. I have picked up every object, pondered it, and decided whether to ship, store, or discard it.

This has gotten me thinking about the process of editing.

Editing your life is like editing your own personal narrative. I am an accumulator by nature, but not a collector, nor a hoarder. The difference is that I enjoy getting rid of stuff, if only to clear the clutter to let the better bits shine.

When I am writing I follow the same process. I have less confidence in my words than my imagery, so I don’t mind keeping my words to a minimum. If I can prove to myself that every word has a reason to be there, I feel I have created the cleanest, least cluttered prose possible. It’s less risky that way. Clear the knick-knacks off your literary shelf.

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.15.36 PM

In my artwork I am constantly editing and revising. I strive to follow the words quoted above. Kiyoshi Saito is a contemporary Japanese woodblock artist and a master of selective visual editing in his imagery. Choosing what details to include and what to leave out reveals the aspects most elemental to an idea.

Get rid of the lesser bits. Pack them away or let them go. Only set your choicest pieces out for display.

My next post will be written from the UK. Just think of me as the Books Around The Table foreign correspondent for the foreseeable future. I look forward to exploring new territory and sending back the best bits to share with all of you!

And now, back to packing!

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Maplewood Elementary Fourth Grade Writing Club

In April, I wrote here about my plans to lead a writing club for fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. For a month, 16 or so kids gave up their Monday and Tuesday lunch recesses to participate.

The results were impressive. I was astounded at what these kids could create in a half hour session. I loved their open willingness to dive in and write.

One of the exercises we tried was sent by Terry Pierce, UCLA-ext. writing teacher: author Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry Jam Workshop. We turned it into a three-parter. I will use the work of Maplewood student Damaris I. — with her permission and her parents’ permission — to illustrate our experience.

We began by painting to music. My friend, pianist Julan Chu, suggested Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Perfect! Mussorgsky wrote this composition in 1874, after viewing the retrospective art show of a deceased friend. It offers yet another layer of cross-arts jam.

We set up all my paint palettes and laid out brushes on the library tables. The kids listened carefully to the music and responded with paintings.

DI.painting

Damaris’ painting, created to Mussorgsky’s music.

At our next meeting, we spread out the paintings and the kids walked around the tables, post-its in hand. They gave each other words suggested by the paintings.

DI.words

Damaris was given these words: splatter (to which she rhymed matter), colorful, explosion, mixed, whispy, wocky, very green, grassy, wonderland, big and new, magic, magic spell, wet, mystical, mystery, misty, green mist

The third part was to turn those words into a poem or prose piece of writing.

DI.poem

Damaris wrote: “A green mist rose from a magic spell. The land would be mixed the forest could tell. Then a explosion arose, and everything was misty. The sky turned gray, and the trees became whispy. Everything was a mystery, with tons of spatter, and nothing knew what could be the matter. When the mist cleared, the woods were wet. Everything changed, a whole new set. The forest was grassy, mystical too, a great wonderland, big and new.

The writing was amazing, as you can see: pieces of writing that began as a painting exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky’s music that inspired our student paintings that inspired words, then poems. Round and round the arts we go.

Next time I feel like there is not enough time to sit down and dig into writing, I will think back to those lunch recess meetings of the Maplewood Fourth Grade Writing club and get started.

I want to add a shout out to Mr. B., aka librarian Paul Borchert, who also gave up his lunch recesses and helped in every way to make our writing club so wonderful. More thanks to Terry and Jill and Julan and Damaris — and to Betsy Britton and Grabrielle Catton who carried on for Paul and me the day we were both unable to teach.

Here’s a link to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXy50exHjes&feature=kp

And here are the writing exercise instructions:

Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry-Jam Workshop:
Suggested grades: 2 – 5
Time required: 1 hour
Supplies needed: Boom box with selected music, 11” x 17” white paper, crayons, pencils, Post-it notes, scotch tape
1. Briefly discuss the power of art, music and poetry to evoke emotion.
2. Pass out 11” x 17” piece of white paper and crayons to each student.
3. Have students listen to music for several minutes and then draw whatever the music makes them feel. (I play about 4-5 minutes of music)
4. Pass out a pad of Post-it notes and a pencil to each student and have them form a line to walk around the room and look at each picture.
5. At each picture, the students write the first word that comes to their minds on the sticky paper. They leave that word with the picture. Instruct the students not to write words like “cool” or “fun,” but to write nouns, verbs or strong adjectives.
6. The students then return to their pictures to find 20+ words written by their fellow students.
7. With their words and pictures in front of them, and the music playing once again, students create a poem from the words they have been given. (Once their poems are finished, have each student tape their Post-it-notes poem to the back of their picture. Otherwise the notes tend fall off.)
8. Ask the students to read their poems aloud. At the end of the hour, each student has created a poem that reflects the music they encountered, the art this music evoked from them and the words their art evoked in others.

On Delight, Despair and…Musical Chairs

cat_musical_chairs

Two things happened this week which made me pause amid the busy-ness of every day life (painting a bedroom, reorganizing the linen cupboard.)  The first was my grandson’s birthday. He is  seven wonderful years old – a whirlwind, a dreamer,a talker  – and his imagination never stops. He’s learning to play the piano and recently performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the one-handed  version on piano) by heart in front of a live audience of adoring parents and grandparents at a pizza parlor in Eugene, Oregon. We’ll have a little family party in Seattle for him this weekend when he comes up with his parents, and we have two presents this time around that he’ll get with the usual books and art supplies and stickers – one is a Superman robot with helicopter blades attached to his head (he flies up and down – not forward, not backward, apparently – and spins via remote control – not fancy, but fancy enough for a seven-year-old) and another is the same thing only the figure is Batman. Great stuff, if I do say so. I mean, who wouldn’t want helicopter blades that could make them levitate? Of such imaginings, delight is made.

The second thing that happened was a posting on Facebook by my good friend Leda Schubert that quoted Tomi Ungerer (“A talent without despair is hardly useful”) and asked for comments. I replied that I might revise that to read, “hardly interesting,” believing as I do that quite a lot of fascinating art comes from melancholy, dissatisfaction, darkness (think Maurice Sendak.) Within hours, a different person replied by saying, “Sorry but, blah blah blah. What is your comment? I am not interested in talent or despair.

Not interested in talent? Not interested in despair? Whoa. That threw me for a loop.  You can be interested in happiness, that’s fine with me – who isn’t? But to the exclusion of sorrow? And why not interested in talent? I suspect that the comment was not meant to be as flip as it sounded.

I also suspect sometimes that I have a dark edge that bumps up against the sweet world of children’s books and their authors –  a very kind and happy bunch of people, I’ve learned. I like their influence on me, and I thank them for keeping me slightly more balanced than I used to be when I was just writing poetry for adults (no shortage of despair in some of that.) But I do wonder from time to time about the energy it takes to approach the world “without a cry, without a prayer, / with no betrayal of despair” as Tennessee Williams put it. It exhausts me, the idea of trying to do that. Is that what the commenter on Leda’s post meant when he said he’s “not interested in despair.” Maybe he thinks it’s exhausting, and doesn’t want to go there. Or does he just not want anyone to mention it? Or was he just kidding, and I missed the humor of it?

Seems to me that not being interested in sorrow would eliminate about 51% (maybe more – 99%? –  let’s just say a great deal) of all the music, visual art, dance, film, theater and literature that is produced out of discomfort, melancholy, grief, or any of  the million small heartaches that move us to create – a longing for home, a dream gone up in smoke, missing someone, running out of hope. Those things happen in life, and to express disinterest feels very odd to me. “All you have to do,” I replied again on Leda’s Facebook page, “is listen to a sad fiddle tune or a good Rhythm and Blues song to know how interesting despair can be and how intricately it is linked to creativity.”

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "Children's Games."

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s  “Children’s Games.”

The intersection of the Happy Birthday moment and the Not Interested in Talent or Despair moment came yesterday when I read a poem  by Josephine Jacobsen, a Canadian poet whose work I’m looking into for one of my Undersung essays over at Numero Cinq. She wrote the following poem about children playing musical chairs at a birthday party. It has delight, it has sorrow – neither one eclipses the other. The two together deepen each other, don’t they?

Seems to me that the lesson to remember is this, so basic that it’s got to be true:  Don’t worry about those two crayons in the Crayola box – Delight and Despair. Use them liberally. Both – light and dark – make your work interesting.

Hope you all enjoy Jacobsen’s poem as I did – the terza rima form seems perfect for something that looks at a children’s game. It has a nursery rhyme feel to it, but packs a punch.  I bet both melancholy and delight played a role in her writing it.  We see the children running, we hear their eager cries, we worry about that dark slope, and we know that “somewhere hidden” there is “the shape of bliss.”

The Birthday Party  by Josephine Jacobsen

The sounds are the sea, breaking out of sight,
and down the green slope the children’s voices
that celebrate the fact of being eight.

One too few chairs are for desperate forces:
when the music hushes, the children drop
into their arms, except for one caught by choices.

In a circle gallops the shrinking crop
to leave a single sitter in hubris
when the adult finger tells them: stop.

There is a treasure, somewhere easy to miss.
In the blooms? by the pineapple-palms’ bark?
somewhere, hidden, the shape of bliss.

Onto the pitted sand comes highwater mark.
Waves older than eight begin a retreat;
they will come, the children gone, the slope dark.

One of the gifts was a year, complete.
There will be others: those not eight
will come to be eight, bar a dire defeat.

On the green grass there is a delicate
change; there is a change in the sun
though certainly it is not truly late,

and still caught up in the scary fun,
like a muddle of flowers blown around.
For treasure, for triumph, the children run

and the wind carries the steady pound,
and salty weight that falls, and dies,
and falls. The wind carries the sound

of the children’s light high clear cries.

Musical-Chairs-300x225

By the way, today is Poetry Friday.  Head over to Violet Nesdoly’s blog to see her round-up of what people around the KidLitOSphere have posted.

And by the way again, if you didn’t have time to check out the link to Ode to Joy above, take time to do it now. It’s the Flash Mob in Spain version – all delight. ———————————————————–

WRITING RECESS

Next week I get to start a series of Writing Workshops with a group of fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. The kids are giving up their lunch recesses to take part. I hope they end up writing like they play out on the playground – with fun and abandon.writex2677

This week, I am gathering ideas for writing games, exercises and prompts. Here are some possibilities:

1. ROUND ROBIN WRITING. This emphasizes the basic form of any story: beginning, middle, end. Using a prompt, (I think I’ll go with “I used to live in a palace…”), kids have six minutes to write a beginning to a story. Then we trade papers and take six more minutes to write middles that fit the beginnings received. Then shift again and on to endings. We finish up by reading our creations, an important part of all writing shenanigans.

2. PICTURE THIS. I have a pile of photos that evoke story. Each kid can choose one as a starting place and see where the story goes. writex4679

3 and 4. COULD WE LIVE HERE? Two sessions. First session, as a group we will create a setting, voting as necessary to narrow things down. Then we’ll brainstorm a list of characters who might live in this place.

In the second session, each kid chooses one of these characters to write into a story in that place.  This is a suggestion from Cassie Cross who teaches at Bellevue College. I wonder if it will work as well with fourth graders as college students?

writex16765. MAPMAKING. Each student maps a place that is special to him or her – neighborhood, house, room, school playground, backyard, grandma’s house – and labels it with stories that happened there, or could happen there.

6. YEAR BY YEAR.  I will ask the kids to think of their childhoods year by year and write a memorable event for each year, noting that memories juicy with emotion hold the most story. Then we’ll choose memories as story jumping-off places. I am curious to see what these ten-year olds remember about their childhoods.

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7. BEGIN WITH MUSIC. Five-minute timed writings to music. For instance, I’ll play a Bach cello concerto for five minutes and the kids can write the story that is suggested. Then I’ll play a penny whistle jig and they’ll start a new story. I remember using this exercise with the wonderful Lillie Rainwater’s fourth/fifth graders at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle. Ms. Rainwater advised the kids to think of leaping into a story like jumping into double Dutch twirling ropes. Catch the rhythm of the music, she told them, and jump in with words.

That takes us back to the playground. And recess!

Thanks to Paul Borchert, librarian at Maplewood, for helping this Writing Workshop idea come to fruition. And thanks to any of our BATT Blog readers who add to this list of writing prompts, games and exercises in the comments.

Note: photos to illustrate this post are from those I will use for exercise two.

This Is Your Brain on Folk Music

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Poster_72dpi_RGBInside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the talented Coen Brothers, is finally out on DVD – I’ve been dying to see it, but it came and went quickly to theaters in Seattle, and I missed it. As a writer, I’m always interested in seeing what other creative people’s take is on creativity and the creative life in general. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it films (as is most of the Coen Brothers’ work) with quite a few people disappointed by it.  I loved it. I thought about it long into the night, and the next day found myself singing songs from the folk music scene of the early 60’s. Those were the years I began to get interested in poetry, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg and Kenneth Patchen. I subscribed as a teenager to the Village Voice (worlds away from my own non-Village home in San Jose, California – but hey, we had our own little coffee house called Freight and Salvage.) I took guitar lessons from Marty Ziegler, I listened to Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers. In the movie, when a young clean-cut duo gets up to sing “The Last Thing on My Mind,”  I could sing every single word of it. What is it about memory – our brains on music – that allows us to call up song lyrics (and the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sights of the moments that surround them) so easily when we can’t even remember where we put our keys or our reading glasses? Here’s a wonderful rendition of it with Liam Clancy and Tom Paxton.

And many years later, those evenings spent singing folk songs with other faculty members of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, up in the faculty lounge late at night during our residencies, with Leda Schubert on guitar and my fellow Books-Around-the-Table friend Laura Kvasnosky sometimes there on ukulele – those moments were golden.

But my reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t all about nostalgia.

The film deserves attention from anyone involved in the arts because it examines creativity, talent, personality, ethics, integrity, commercialism, perseverance – and how all those elements get harnessed or go wandering off in an artist’s life. [If you have trouble with spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. Me, I never mind knowing in advance what's coming - it helps me watch the scenes more carefully....]

There’s a scene in the movie where Llewyn has a chance, finally, to audition for Al Grossman (played beautifully by F. Murray Abraham, who did such a fantastic job in another movie which examines artistic talent, Amadeus.) Grossman was the manager in the 60’s of the famous music venue Gate of Horn in Chicago, and he represented most of the big folksingers of the decade – Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens, and – later – Janis Joplin.

The audition is Llewyn’s big chance, yet he chooses an obscure traditional ballad, a difficult song to perform, and Grossman responds by saying he doesn’t see much money in it. He gives Llewyn mixed advice, some good (look for a partner who can add depth with  harmonies) and some offensive (cut the beard into a goatee, clean up) and Llewyn simply walks away.

Llewyn's Audition with Al Grossman

Llewyn’s Audition with Al Grossman

It’s almost like the musician gives the manager a test by singing this ballad in its pure, traditional form – and Grossman fails the test. At least that’s how I saw it play out. Historically, of course, it was Dave Van Ronk (the real-life folksinger Llewyn is based on) who failed Grossman’s test and then drifted back into the small Gaslight Cafe scene of Greenwich Village rather than use the Gate of Horn and Grossman’s mentorship as a springboard for national success.

Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t garner the usual prizes or attention that Coen Brothers’ films usually do (think O Brother, Where Art Thou – which the wonderful T-Bone Burnett, a big part of Inside Llewyn Davis, also helped conceive.)  I’ve been trying to sort out why, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the hero of the tale is so complicated – it’s hard to understand him. Does he self-destruct over and over again, or is it just a hard, mean world for a struggling artist? He’s not always nice – in fact, he’s often unappealing: sarcastic, smug, dismissive, judgmental, irresponsible. He takes advantage of people, rotates through their apartments eating their food, using their couches to crash, sees himself as a person who does not compromise, is not interested in the real lives of other people. He’s all about himself and his music – and you never quite know if he lost his musical partner to suicide because of troubles the partner had or because of how little joy or support Llewyn was capable of. Nevertheless, one of the crew says (in the Special Features section – watch that, it’s fascinating, especially T-Bone Burnett talking about jamming for the movie) that she thinks everyone in the movie is a phony except Llewyn. I didn’t feel that way at all – I guess it’s all about perspective. But in a certain way, as a writer, I empathized with Llewyn’s attempts to stay true to his talent. Besides, he’s just so sad. Even a person who does it to himself deserves some sympathy, no?

So please, rent the movie, watch it and come to your own conclusions. Talented artists are not always easy people to get along with, and Llewyn is not a nice-guy hero. The same was true about Mozart in Amadeus, of course – Salieri, his less talented colleague, watches as the miserably adolescent Mozart giggles his way to fame and fortune. Llewyn has his own failings – and he’s no Mozart-level genius. So…is the film saying that a lack of talent does him in, or a too-highly-honed sense of integrity, or just plain bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or his own disaffections or….? What are the Coen Brothers telling us about artistic endeavors? I’m not sure yet. If you’ve seen the film, help me figure it out – add a comment below. Why do some artists make it and others don’t? What, as an artist, do you owe to your own talent? Is the world a hospitable or hostile place for artists? And is Llewyn actually a talented artist or an Almost-but-not-quite? Or is he despicable, as many viewers claim?  What does the world owe him? What does he owe the world? As writers, we can think about that a bit.

llewynAnd what do you think the cat is all about?

Gosh, I love a movie – or a book or a song or a painting or any work of art – that leaves you thinking.

While we think about the answers to those questions, let’s go put on a few of our old records (still have a phonograph?) and be amazed by our musical memory. How many you can sing along to from Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag,” Ian and Sylvia, Peter Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez? Hey, how about Dave Van Ronk’s incomparable “Dink’s Song,” which you’ll recognize as Llewyn’s signature piece. Lovely song.

CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

moose

mousse

George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear
desk

On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?