Category Archives: the writing process

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

More Magic

If you played along with my post about drawing your way into a story by sketching animal characters, (http://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/magic-formula-how-to-write-illustrate-a-picture-book/), you have a couple of likely suspects ready and waiting in the wings for the action to begin. I bet your characters are already making suggestions and you have some ideas about where this story’s going.

lilac663

A character ready for center stage.

Next step is to focus on your characters’ “out-of-balanced-ness,” the aspect of the character(s) that the story will grapple with and depend upon. Norma Fox Mazer, who I was lucky to teach with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, called this out-of-balanced-ness the character’s “deprivation.” I like her term because it points to a need or void in the character that the story will address.

So think about it. What do your characters need? This could be anywhere on Maslow’s pyramid: basic needs like food, water, and sleep; safety needs; need to belong; need for esteem, and/or self actualization needs like morality, creativity and justice.  Be as specific as you can. Then craft a story situation that puts this deprivation front and center.

You already have clues in your character sketches. Keep drawing as you think about what your characters need. It helps to give them names and special objects. For instance in Zelda and Ivy, Zelda’s baton is important to both Zelda and the story. It becomes the symbol of power.

Z&I"2Let'splaycircus."447

“You can be the fabulous fox on the flying trapeze,” says Zelda. “I will announce your tricks.” From Zelda and Ivy.

You can summon more pieces of your story by drawing your characters in their surroundings, or by collecting photos of the place the story will take place. For instance, for Frank and Izzy Set Sail, I collected photos of Lake Magiore in Italy.

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F&I.lkmagiore665

From Frank and Izzy Set Sail.

At the same time, make notes about how they might talk to each other, keying in on points of contention and agreement. Can you put this in dialogue?

The machinations of story do not require you to know the whole when you begin. As you keep gathering images, and drawing, and writing snippets that you think might belong, eventually you realize you have enough on the page for the story to begin to speak.

Then all you have to do is listen. It really is kind of magic.

Magic Formula: How to Create a Picture Book

This time up, I considered writing an advice column about what to do when you’re waiting for an editor’s response. But then I decided it’s more interesting to look at the work itself: making books. Over my next few blogposts, I plan to lay out a process for creating a picture book, using examples from my published and as-yet unpublished work.

PART ONE: CHARACTER.  Let’s start with character. Good stories need intriguing characters, characters that sparkle with their very own inward and outward expressions of self: looks, mannerisms, substance, personality quirks and out-of-balanced-ness.

franksketches

Rough sketches for Frank of “Frank and Izzy Set Sail,” exploring gesture.

My characters are usually an amalgam of people I know, their traits exaggerated and edited for maximum dramatic impact. I am especially interested in duos, for the interaction and conflict possibilities. Also, I think it’s easier to draw animals than people.

ct27

Thumbnail sketch of Frank and Izzy.

So, Dear Reader, if you want to play along, start by drawing a favorite animal. You can anthropomorphize a little or a lot. Look through family movies and photos for lively gestures and expressions and try to transfer what you see to your animal. Notice how other illustrators do this. (Paul Schmid, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall to name a few.) Hilary Knight’s Eloise illustrations are great inspiration for childsize action gestures. Another strategy is to google photos of famous duos, (i.e. Lucy and Ethel, George and Gracie Burns, Sonny and Cher…), and try to capture their interaction in your characters.

lucy.ethelmice660

Rough sketches for future characters based on Ethel and Lucy.

I like to do these sketches on tracing paper. It’s easy to erase and rework. Once I have several pages, I hang them on the wall to consider. I think about proportions. Heads to bodies to legs and arms. Do this and pretty soon you’ll have a rough, generalized look for your characters.

Z&Iproportion

Rough sketches of Zelda and Ivy, finding proportions.

It’s impossible to draw pages of the same characters without starting to sense story bubbling up. Sometimes these ideas come out of “mistakes” in the drawing. For example, maybe the line you’ve drawn for a smile gives the character a devious look. Go with it. Think about what that character is up to. Your mind will start spinning story.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Pay attention. Note overheard conversations that sound like your characters. Keep track of situations that provoke an emotional response in your own life, the funny, scary, sad, annoying, angering stuff. Write down anything that seems made for these little characters you are brewing.

My next turn to blog here will be Feb. 7. Using these preliminary drawings and notes, we’ll move toward constructing the story.

On Oaxaca Time

La Catrina

La Catrina

Estoy escribiendo hoy desde Oaxaca….no, no, no, I mean I’m writing this from Oaxaca today. I can hear the grinding of the gears as my brain switches between Spanish and English. I can hear a little more grinding in the switch from Go-go-go-go-go to relax-relax-relax-relax. and even more grinding between the London bobby style of giving directions (“Two blocks down, Miss, on your right, blue door, black doorknocker, can’t be missed….”) and the Policia Municipal (“Si, si, Senora, the museum used to be here, it moved, maybe a block down, maybe four or five, but not too far, over that way, just down that direction, maybe on the other side of the park….” and it’s always nice to walk through the park even if you don’t find the museum.

Eventually – a few days into things – the gear-grinding stops and all is smooth. You are not quite you, but you like the you you have become. The logical left brain gets quieter, the right brain sings.  Colors intensify.

Hand-made Paper, Taller de Papel in San Agustin Etla

Hand-made Paper, Taller de Papel in San Agustin Etla

Tastes intensify….

Breakfast

Breakfast: Molote con Chorizo y Papa

…and the sense of smell intensifies. You can smell ripening guayavas somewhere. There, on the other side of the wall, a guayava tree.

There, on the other side of the wall....

There, on the other side of the wall….

A green parrot hangs in a cage from a tree inside a cloister built in the 16th century. He looks at you sideways, his bright red eyes rimmed all the way around with yellow. “Hasta luego!” he says when you walk away.

 Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching….every sense intensified…this is what writers and artists need from time to time.  Walking, listening, seeing, slowing down.

It’s an important time in Oaxaca – the three-day spread that surrounds the Day of the Dead, and I’m headed over to the cemetery as soon as the sun goes down.  There are tubas and trumpets and drums; there are people who have become skeletons; there is dancing in the streets.  There are marigold-covered altars to the dead inside many courtyards.  There are images everywhere of La Catrina, the young lady skeleton with wide hat and parasol. Everywhere, Los Muertos  - the Dead.  And I am feeling quite alive.

Curiosity Kills the Cat, but Not the Writer….

Woodpecker - Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

Woodpecker – Paper Sculpture by Diana Beltran Herrera

I love getting newsletters from Smithsonian magazine emailed to me once a week – they send links to their articles and I usually find a thing or two (or three or four or more) to think about and explore further.  I subscribe to the print magazine, too;  it’s the one I reach for first when the mail brings me lots of heady reading. I have a thick folder in my file cabinet that’s just for articles I’ve torn out from their pages. This week, it was the beautiful birds of paper sculptor Diana Beltran Herrera (see link below.) I sent the link on to my sister, who also likes such things and whose intellectual curiosity and capacity for wonder inspire me. It seems to me that the bottom line for all artists is curiosity, no?  If you want to be a better writer, try being more curious about the world and the way it works.

Here, then, are links to some recent Smithsonian articles (and there are links within those articles – you can get lost inside it all.)  I hope they set you wandering and wondering…and writing!  Just click on the description:

1. Paper robins, woodpeckers, cardinals, kingfishers…

Robin in flight...

Robin in flight…

2. An insect with “mechanical” gears…

3.  …and a mechanical insect! (this one is from the archives)

Man-made beetle...

Man-made beetle…

4. A “sonic bloom” at the Seattle Center

Sonic-Bloom-Dan-Corson

5. Making music with the Brooklyn Bridge …

6. Shooting frozen flowers? (Who would even think of it? Eerie and beautiful…)

Frozen Flower, Shot

Frozen Flower, Shot

7. Repairing memories and changing memories…

"Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it."

“Each time a memory is recalled, the brain rebuilds it.”

8. There’s an exhibition of Brian Skerry’s photography up at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. right now. Here’s a slideshow of his work. 

This is how you photograph a whale...

This is how you photograph a whale…

(By the way, it doesn’t take much to support our wonderful national museum – just $19 and you automatically get a subscription to the magazine.  Click here to visit their website and become a member.)

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The word is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson

A Big Loss, a Big Story

A forest fire is raging through the high country just west of Yosemite in Tuolumne county. As of this morning, 105,620 acres have burned. The six-day old fire tripled yesterday and is only two-percent contained. More than 2,000 firefighters are on the scene, battling in the treacherously steep canyons of the Clavey and Tuolumne rivers. fire

My first job as a reporter included the fire beat at the Union Democrat in Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne county. It was a busy beat. The county is 85-percent state and federal forests and we grew up to the summer drone of fire-retardant-carrying airplanes and the acrid smoke of far-off flames.

As I follow news reports of this latest blaze, dubbed the Yosemite Rim fire, I hear names of places I know well: Groveland, Big Oak Flat, the Clavey and Tuolumne River canyons, Hetch Hetchy, Jawbone, Cherry Lake. I remember the summer I was 15 and my cousin Jerry Draper, neighbor Andy Crook and I hiked across the top of the Sierra from the Crooks’ ranch near Groveland to Kennedy Meadows: granite peak upon granite peak, lush quiet forests, meadows buzzing with mosquitos. My heart aches for all that beautiful country going up in smoke.

hikers

Were I on the fire beat at the Union Democrat today, most likely I’d be holed up in Groveland, on the edge of the fire. Maybe I’d interview the Crooks. Were they able to get their cattle out? Summers they’d have been grazing them up near Jawbone. Or I might call my nephew in Tuolumne to see if his ranching neighbors are heeding the recommendation to evacuate livestock in the case the fire moves their direction. For sure I’d call Sally Scott, a past managing editor of the UD, to find out particulars about past big fires, including that one, maybe in the 80s, also near Big Oak Flat. The one where the Dad drove his Jeep to the firelines each day to deliver the newspaper, so that people in the area of the fire could get updated fire news. These days cell phones make this kind of effort unnecessary, but I always thought he was a kind of a hero for those daily drives.

Did you notice what happened there? When I put on my virtual reporter’s hat, I was able to go from heartache at the loss of this beautiful, beautiful high country – every bit of it as beautiful as Yosemite itself – to the exercise of gathering the story. All these years of writing has programed my reaction to overwhelming emotion: get the story, dig for more information, shape it into a vessel. Writing objectifies. Making a story provides emotional distance, helps carry the pain, gives you something to do, at least, though there is no understanding such a huge loss.

“We got a monster on our hands,” Lee Bentley of the U.S. Forest Service told CBS News. “This fire is making its own weather. It’s going every which direction. This is one of the worse I’ve ever been on. I’ve been doing [it] for quite a few years.”

My prayers go out to the firefighters and the people of Tuolumne county.