Shadows and Reflections

Margaret’s post last week made me the think of shadows and reflections. The shadow of the creative leap is the terrifying fall. The reflection of being stubborn is persevering. We struggle to keep the light and dark in balance.
This week I will shadow her post, adding a few light reflections, digressions and pictures.

Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg

 

hand-shadow-puppets

 

shadow cartoon

 

In her book The Language of the Night Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay about The Shadow, by Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen’s story is about a man who becomes separated from his shadow and then overtaken by it.

Honor Appleton's 1932 illustration for Andersen's The Shadow

Honor Appleton’s 1932 illustration for Andersen’s The Shadow

LeGuin reads the story as an allegory about creativity: creativity comes from acceptance of and cooperation with the dark side of the soul. The shadow is dangerous without the soul, and the soul is weightless and empty without the shadow. The shadow is the guide to the journey of self knowledge and to the collective unconscious.

Edward Gorey is an artist who accessed his dark (and light) side with wit and style. He drew this shadow, and this non-reflecting bicycle.

gorey shadow

Gorey unreflecting bicycle

In this photograph is the shadow a prison or a release from prison?

I-phone ad

I-phone ad

Suzy Lee made a wonderful wordless picture book called Shadow where the shadows take on a life of their own.

shadow cover
suzy lee shadow1
suzy lee shadow2

suzy lee shadow3
Words as well as pictures can have shadows. The author and critic Gerald Vizenor said that shadows are the silence that inhabit heard stories. Talking about haiku, he said that the dissolved word is replaced with a shadow of the evoked sensation.  I end with this haiku by Ichihara Masanao from the Muki Sajiki.

ichihara masanao haiku

 

 

Persevere

Sorry. No pictures this time. Just a little story:

There was once this girl.

She had many strengths and quite a few weaknesses.
She was shy, emotional, stubborn. She could draw and she liked to make things.
It turned out her weaknesses were also her strengths and vice versa,
but she wouldn’t learn that until she was much, much older.

Not the end.

I recently had to put together a curriculum vitae, or CV, of my work. As a freelance illustrator I don’t have the need to do this very often. Thank heavens.

I have a problem. When I have to list everything I have done that someone might want to know about professionally, my head freezes up. It’s like when someone asks you what your favorite song is, and all you can think of is the tune you liked best in 7th grade.

If you are confident in yourself, with never any doubts about your abilities or self-worth, then you can stop reading at this point and go do something else today. I don’t want to bore you.

But if you have difficulty putting yourself forward because of what you haven’t done, then I counsel you to stop, and look instead at what you have accomplished.

If you think all of us who have published books, received awards and recognition, and generally produced some very cool work, don’t shake in our boots when we look at the next level of expectations we have set for ourselves, you are wrong. Every potential success is also a potential failure. And rejection hurts. Yes it does.

Take me, for example: I tend to focus on my failures; my inadequacies; the thing I want to do before I die, but haven’t managed yet. I don’t also see my accomplishments and what I am capable of. Sometimes I have to be reminded by someone who is not myself.

A number of years ago I went to a book-signing event for David Small and his wife and collaborator Sarah Stewart. I had published two children’s books of my own at that point, and was trying to figure out how to write my next book. I spoke with David and Sarah about the insecurity I felt about writing. Before she left, Sarah gave me a card on which she had written “persevere,” along with a sprig of rosemary from her garden.

I have kept that card with its now brittle, little sprig. It reminds me that stubbornness can be a good thing. When you grow up it can become determination. And being emotional can provide you with the empathy necessary to tell good stories and work well with others. Being shy, well, being shy won’t stop you from writing a blog or even giving a speech, and maybe it will keep you from boring others by going on and on about yourself. Maybe.

Unless you are in preschool and have yet to learn to tie your shoes, then you must have done something that took determination and effort. Think about it. What are you proud of having done, and why? Now remember those achievements. Put them into your CV notes before you forget again. When it is time to move forward to the next opportunity, hold your head up, even if you are nervous. Rejection hurts but you move on. You have faced down challenges before and done some impressive things. I am here to remind you.

And this too: Persevere.

Rosemary sprig

Shaw, pshaw

Thems that can do. Thems that can’st teach.

Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

 

 

 

That’s the folksy version I learned of that sentiment. (Apparently first penned by George Bernard Shaw.) There was a time when I thought it was true, especially observing those who taught creative writing. In my youthful certainty, I figured if they were good enough writers, they’d be out doing that, not stuck at the front of a classroom full of people eager to compete with them in the writing world.

But an old man once told me, “Life will humble you.” And while I’ve been not totally humbled, I have learned that most maxims have a grain of truth, not the whole saltshaker.

Many outstanding writers also teach and, in fact, enjoy passing on their hard-earned skills. Two of them will be teaching this summer at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts where I teach writing for children (which brings up another Shaw quote: The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it. But we’ll leave that for another day.

Gary Schmidt and Matt De la Peña will be guest faculty at NILA’s annual summer Residency. Up to six children’s writers will be allowed to attend the Residency without being students in the program itself. I want to let as many writers as possible know about this special chance to learn from these writers, up close and personal.

gary-schmidt

As many of you know, Schmidt is the author of two Newbery Honor books–Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars and was a National Book Award finalist for Okay for Now.  He teaches the writing of fiction, children’s literature, and medieval literature at Calvin College, and is a member of the MFA in Children’s Literature at Hamline University.

matt_de la pena

Peña is the New York Times Bestselling author of six critically-acclaimed young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoy, The Living and The Hunted) and two award-winning picture books (A Nations Hope and Last Stop on Market Street). He likes to say he entered college as a basketball player and left as a writer.

The NILA program is small. In total it’s limited to 50 students in four different genres: fiction, poetry, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s in a unique, intimate setting–the Captain Whidbey Inn on Whidbey Island, which is a few hours north of Seattle.

 

captain whidbey inn

Captain Whidbey Inn

 

mfa_roundtable

Students meeting for morning class.

 

 

 

We’ve had all kinds of guest faculty come in over the years ranging from the poet Tess Gallagher (widow of Raymond Carver) to Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan to children’s authors like Linda Urban and Newbery-honor winner Kirby Larson (in fact, Kirby helped found the NILA program.)

It’s a low-residency program. We meet once each semester in person on Whidbey Island for 10 days. And the rest of the semester is handled on-line. The summer session this year will be from August 2 to August 11.

One of the interesting things about the NILA program is although you specialize in one of the four genre tracks students take classes in other genre and during the Residencies hear from speakers in all the different genres. There’s a nice cross-fertilization that goes on with a system like that. (Nothing like learning a bit about poetry for a picture-book writer.)

Schmidt and Peña will be speaking on a range of subjects from getting out of the way of your readers and letting them experience the novel more directly to getting more out of your minor characters.

Along with Schmidt and Peña, there will be other visiting faculty in children’s/young adult and the other genres, as well as daily classes with full-time faculty (myself and poet, picture book writer and novel writer Carmen Bernier-Grand.)

You can learn more about them and the NILA Residency program at:

http://www.nila.edu/www_mfa/residency/

I hope I see some of you there this summer! And I’ll be blogging about what Matt and Gary have to say in August.

Which brings to me to one of my favorite Shaw quotes:

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

 

 

 

Lilacs! Roller Coasters! Mothers!

white lilacsThis coming Sunday is Mothers’ Day, and the white lilacs by my front porch are more than ready.  So am I.  I’ve always loved Mother’s Day, especially coming on the heels of Easter and May Day, when my sister and I passed out homemade baskets of flowers to all the neighbors. A triptych of floral holidays – what could be more perfect? Daffodils! Lilies-of-the-Valley! Forget-me-nots! Apple blossoms! Bluebells! Lilacs! Cards with crayoned hearts and tulips all over them, surrounding a stick-figure mom.

May Day Basket

Despite how much I loved being a daughter with an easy-to love mom, when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I burst out crying. Should I admit that publicly? I loved my husband, I wanted a family…shouldn’t I have been thrilled?

I guess I was thrilled – kind of. But for me, it was the type of thrill you feel on a roller coaster, with that little voice in your head saying, “What are you doing?????” You get into that little car, the attendant brings the bar down so you don’t fall out, you know it’s going to be a scary ride, you know there’s going to be a long climb up and a terrifying dip down and screaming and laughing and several jerky rounding of corners. And you know that if you are unlucky or unblessed you could fly off the rails at any point – I don’t think it’s possible just to be thrilled by news like that, is it?  Besides, I was a wise-cracking, cynical, semi-hippie, barely past my hitchhiking days. Barefoot. Torn jeans. What kind of role model would I be? Oh, there were a million things to worry about, and I worried about them all.

Of course, I came to love being a mom, and I had fun and did pretty well….the proof is in the pudding, as they say. I have three great grown-up kids.

Josh with His Fiddle

Mike 2011

mary-1And my daughter is now a mother herself. Amazing.

Mother’s Day — such an undeniably justified holiday, no? It’s so basically the right thing to do, celebrating and honoring our mothers. What culture on the face of the planet doesn’t do that? For the Italians, it’s practically operatic.

This year my mother will turn 89; she’s been a mother since my older brother was born in 1945. That’s seventy years ago. A mother for seventy years…that’s a sobering thought, because motherhood isn’t easy. And my mother became a mom while my dad was still serving his tour of duty in WWII. When he came home she proceeded to give him two more kids, both girls, within four years, so she had three kids under five years old when she herself was not quite 23.

My mother is a creative, complicated, generous, hard-working woman with a bright mind and high standards. She was a classroom teacher and a school librarian/reading specialist for all the years we were growing up, and she read aloud to us until we were teenagers. And I read to my kids. And my daughter reads to my grandson.

Reading Time - Jackson and Mary 01-02-15

Last week here at Books Around the Table, Laura Kvasnosky shared thoughts about her new grandson, Emmett. Over the last few weeks, Laura’s daughter has begun experiencing what it feels like to be a mom – the sleep deprivation combined with the giddy joy. Laura talked about the books Emmett will grow up with. Reading aloud together at bedtime is a wonderful way to build memories – the quiet time at night when the busy day sloughs off and stories float out into the dark.

I vividly remember my mom reading The Wind in the Willows to us. This Sunday, May 10th, is not only Mother’s Day, it’s the 108th anniversary of Kenneth Grahame sending his son Alistair a birthday letter in which the characters of Rat, Mole and Toad are first imagined. Thanks, Mr. Grahame for that – you’ve been part of the pleasure of bedtime stories between mothers and kids now for more than a century.

messing_around_in_boats

This Mother’s Day, I’m taking my mom a bouquet of lilacs. Then we’re going out to lunch in Bow, Washington, and we’ll head down to Mount Vernon to see Julie Paschkis’s show at the Bitters Co. barn.

paschkis

A sunny day in the tulip fields of the Skagit Flats. Fun! It’s one way to say thanks to my mom for being a good mother. And for reading to us.  And for going on that roller coaster ride of motherhood, hanging on and having fun, even while terrified.

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone this Sunday! If you don’t live close to your mom, give her a call.

Mom - 2009

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

ALL ON BOARD

Recently our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, Emmett. I would include his photo here but our daughter hopes to keep his internet exposure to a minimum. Suffice it to say he is the most adorable baby ever.

For the past three weeks John and I have been in San Francisco to help out. It has been a special time and we know it. Everyday Emmett wakes up a little more to the world; his beautiful blue eyes look so intently at us. Already he smiles and responds to music.

One of our jobs was to set up new shelves in the nursery. That gave me a chance to look at the small library of board books that friends and relatives have sent to the baby. Seemed like a good excuse to check in with the board book world. I realize this sample is very non-scientific, but it does provide a nice introduction.

CLASSICS and REPURPOSED

patthebunnyI was glad to see Emmett has Pat the Bunny on his new shelf, first published in 1940 and recognized as one of the first books in this genre. He also has the classic Good Night Moon, repurposed from its initial issue as a picture book.

goodnightmoon

New to me are board books with roots in adult fiction. Emmett’s library includes babylit: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Sherlock Holmes, by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver.

huckfinnHuck is subtitled “A Camping Primer.”  The text plucks single words from its forebear, followed by a phrase from the original. For example “RIVER,” followed by “I’d go down the river about fifty mile and camp.”

 Sherlock is billed as “A Sounds Primer.” The illustrations are dark and a little scary. The text may raise goosling bumps on the baby: “Hounds howl, Thunder rumbles, Gates screech…Doorbells ring.”

hungrycaterpilMany of Emmett’s books were first published as children’s picture books. Some seem even better in this format, like Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar, whose die-cut holes of the caterpillar munching through the pages will hold up much better in cardboard than they do paper.

areyoumymomOthers, like P.D. Eastman’s classic early reader, Are You My Mother? make me think, what’s the hurry? It is such a perfect book for learning to read. Though maybe reading it as an infant will make it more accessible later?

littlebluetruckThe Little Blue Truck, with rhyming text by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, is a board book that first appeared as a picture book. With 15 spreads, it has the most pages of the books on Emmett’s shelf but when his attention span expands, it will be a great introduction to the basic shape of a story. The LBT says hello to lots of animals, (fun animal sounds followed by “Beep, Beep”), then meets a big challenge which is resolved with help of the animals, especially the littlest frog.

CONCEPT BOOKS

prbBoard books do a good job introducing concepts to our tiniest readers. As Emmett devours his little library, he will learn about colors, animals and numbers, in Pink, Red, Blue, What are You? and One, Two, Three, Play with Me. These were my very first published books and I can’t wait to share them with my own little grandson.

sleepylittlealphaHe also was given The Sleepy Little Alphabet, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, in which a reluctant group of 26 lower case letters are finally tucked into bed by their capital letter parents. Last spread: “Who’s that snoring Z z z’s?”

123peasAnd Keith Baker’s wonderful 1 – 2 – 3 peas, which is animated by a cast of 100 peas in the most amusing ways.

HELLO WORLD

Then there is the bunch of books that will introduce Emmett to his world. This includes the board book that was my daughter’s favorite when she was a baby, All Together, as well as the inimitable Lucy Cousins’ Garden Animals, Country Animals and Farm Animals. I am intrigued by one that is illustrated with photos of babies, Global Babies, put out by the Global Fund for Children.

globalbabies

INTERACTIVE BOARD BOOKS

goodnightconstructI’m especially looking forward to sharing Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. While I read Emmett the simple text, he will be prompted by icons to push one of five buttons that provide the sounds of the big machines settling down to sleep. No wonder it’s been on the New York Times best selling list for over 80 weeks.

peekazooAnd I know we’ll have a great time peeking our way through Nina Laden’s Peek-a Zoo, and lifting the flaps in Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo.

presshereThe low tech of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has lots of simple appeal. As the title suggests, each spread invites the reader to “press here,” the result being a turn of the page to find what the pressing caused. This, too, has sat for months on the New York Times best selling list. Seems we like that return to the wonder of the page turn.

STAND OUT SERIESES

oxenburyThese books from Helen Oxenbury are especially suited for reading to babies. They each have four spreads, their format is larger, (8 x 8”), and the illustrations of babies are big and bold. Emmett’s two-year old friend Darwin noted: Dear Emmett, My favorite part is the ‘All Fall Down’.” And (on Tickle, Tickle) “Dear Emmett, This one is funny.” Nice to have recommendations from the toddler set.

yummyyukyLeslie Patricelli made her name as author/illustrator with her first board books in 2003. Emmett’s going to love BIG Little, Quiet LOUD, and Yummy YUCKY and the funny big-headed baby who stars in each book.

moobaalaLast but not least are titles by the amazing Sandra Boynton, queen of the humorous, rhyming board book: Snuggle Puppy and Belly Button Book! I will be sure to read him my favorite of hers, Moo, Baa, La la la, as well. Each Boynton book is full of love and good funny rhymes.

••••

I was forty when I turned toward becoming a children’s book creator. My kids were about grown, the oldest heading off to college.

Partly what attracted me was a desire to have my work be part of that circle of reading to a child again: to sit in the big chair in the lamplight, the kids fresh from their baths, their heads damp against my chest; the quiet of the neighborhood settling around us, the warmth of their small selves as we open the cover of a book and enter a story together.

This little shelf is where the newly-expanded family will begin reading together. They’ll share board books that offer snippets of story, or the simple naming of things in our world, or concepts like colors and numbers, and – always – warm humor.

We overheard Emmett’s parents reading to him in the nursery as we left last night. I love that our wee grandson already knows the circle of love with his parents and a book.

Color Full

Recently I found a tube of Cobalt Blue gouache and I swooned.
Paschkis parrotsI painted several blue paintings.
Paschkis Everything-is-connected

Painting is always a matter of choosing one color to go next to another, and lately I’ve been carried away by the sheer pleasure of doing that.

Paschkis small possibilities and parrots

 

 

Sometimes when I look at other people’s paintings I can feel the artist swooning from the pleasure of the colors. (Angel by Paul Klee).

klee angel899

This image by Borghese di Pietro Borghese was painted in 1448, and the pink still astounds.                                                                                                     .

Borghese

 

In Melissa Sweet’s illustration from Firefly July each shade of pink adds to the ones around it . The greens are gifts to the pinks and vice versa.                          .

melissa sweet moonlight

 

Georgia O’Keeffe experienced synesthesia. She heard colors. This is a collage illustration from Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez. Rachel said that O’Keeffe walked through the hills, humming the colors she saw.                                     .

Through Georgia's Eyes paschkis

Do you hear the reds in Margaret Chodos’s illustration for Buzz by Janet Wong?
chodos irvine buzz
The little red triangle says AHA to the orange and yellow/green in this paintingby Douglas Florian.                                                                                               .

florian
Radio Lab has a podcast all about COLOR, rich in information. One fact: butterflies (and pigeons and lampreys) have pentachromacy and can see many more colors than people .                                                                                                  .

paschkis butterflies see
In addition to the physical capacity to see a color (rods and cones etc.) your brain and your eye also need practice and coordination. When you learn a new language it takes time for your brain to learn the sounds that it hears. The same is true with visual perceptions. If you have never seen the color blue you will not be able to see it even if you have the physical ability to do so. Here is a landscape without blue, by Paul Klee- just lush oranges, reds and greens.

klee with the eagle
In Seattle right now there are blossoming trees, bushes and flowers everywhere- a profusion of color, light and shadow. Are humans hardwired for these colors and contrasts to give us joy? These cherry blossoms are from Maira Kalman.

mairakalman

This painting by Klee (below) is called Blossoming.                                                   .

klee blossoming

The podcast used a choir to illustrate the harmony and depth of colors. The bass note of  dark colors brings out the soprano yellow and white. Bright boats and buildings sparkle in the alto fog in this illustration by Melissa Sweet.                     .melissa sweet fog

Pink and green add harmony to the red and blue duet in this bouquet by Joe Max Emminger.

joe max emminger bouquet

And finally here is a swooping, swooning, humming landscape from Matisse.

matisse acanthes

I hope you have a color full week.

p.s. I am having a show at the Bitters Co. Barn in Mt. Vernon, WA , opening on May 9th. Please come by if you are in the area.

The Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood entry

Last Wednesday, I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green area.

This is not a simply a children’s museum, though many thousands of children visit here each year.  This museum houses the British “national collection of childhood-related objects and artifacts.” The extensive array ranges from the 1600s to modern times.

As you enter the exhibit area, the signage includes this quote from Plato:

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

So, Plato isn’t just talking about children here? He was implying that adults should be observed playing too? Those Greeks.

It would be a hardened and steely adult who would not feel the pull towards play when viewing this collection. No matter what age you are, you will see items that remind you of toys and games you played with as a child, and the rest will make you envious of the children who played with them before they became museum pieces.

Isn’t that writers and illustrators of children’s books are supposed to be able to do –  access the emotions and wonderment of being a child? This museum would be a worthwhile field trip for any of us.

Troll Dolls-Denmark(Troll dolls are what I played with as a child. I spent many hours making clothes for them and styling their luxurious hair.)

Viewing the collection as an illustrator, it was fascinating to see the progression of imagery through time and across cultures.

Game of Goose-Italy-1750The Game of Goose, Italian, 1750.

Cloth toy owlSoft toy owl, designed by Kristin Baybars for Ostrobogulous, England, 1964.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the Optical Toys section. Some of these toys use special visual effects – tricks of the eye – to make two-dimensional pictures appear to be three-dimensional. Others make pictures move, or appear to move.

Below are various views of a teleorama from Germany, circa 1800-1820.  teleorama 1-Germanyteleorama 2-Germany teleorama-GermanyI think making a teleorama of sorts could be a fun project to do with children. If I could figure out the telegraphing part.

P1020361 P1020363Magic lantern slides, 1890 – 1900. Made in Germany by Gebrüder Bing & Planck.

P1020368 P1020367Kaleidoscopic lantern slides, 1850-80. Using a double rackwork mechanism, these slides show a changing pattern of colors by turning a handle.

Le Phenakistiscope discs detail Le Phenakistiscope discDisks for a Phenakistiscope from the late 1800s.

viewing Praxinoscope 1880By looking through slits into a mirror while spinning the disk of a Praxinoscope, the pictures appear to move.

These and other such moving-picture toys led to the invention of modern moving-picture technologies,

Movie Makerwhich then led to the invention of toys like the Movie Maker, 1960-1970, made by the Arnold Arnold Toy Company, USA;

Star Wars slide setthe Star Wars Slide Projector set;

Early computer gameand, eventually, computer games.

And then there were the toys that really do move, like the amazing automata of the French company Roullet et Decamps, 1870-1880.

cat emerges from the hat, sticking out its tongye to the sound of a music boxThis cat emerges from the hat, while sticking out its tongue to the sound of a music box.

Rabbit in a cabbage, French 1870-1880, Roylet et DecampsThis rabbit rises out of his cabbage while wiggling his ears and munching.

plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunesThis French monkey musician, 1870-80, plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunes. This wasn’t a toy for children. Adults got to play with this one.

cuckoo on wheelsThough far less elaborate in mechanism or decoration, this hand-carved and hand-painted wooden cuckoo on wheels is also beautiful. Pressing down on the bird’s tail makes the white-leather bellows create bird-like noises. A traditional toy from Germany, circa 1900.

Lajkonik horsemanThis ‘Lajkonik’ horseman is from Poland, 1958. When pulled along, a wire swings the horseman’s club.

Russian musical bearA clockwork Russian bear plays music on it’s balalaika.

wind-up toy monkeyA Chinese wind-up monkey, circa 1970.

Clockwork bugJapanese clockwork bug that jumps around when wound, circa 1950-70.

1940-ishMarx Company, New YorkTin Plate novelty toy1940s tin plate merrymakers. The Marx Company, New York.

animatronics 2 animatronics 1Lots of robotics. Even some robots.

Of course, an exhibit of toys that move must include toy cars.

Hillman Minx car The Hillman Minx battery operated car, made in the 1960s in England by the Tri-ang company.
Pedal carThe Royal Prince pedal car, also by Tri-ang, England, 1930.

Chevrolet blanc et noirThe sleek Blanche et Noir, made in France by Vilac, 1989.

And other vehicles with wheels.

wire motorcycle-Africa wire bicycle 3 wire bicycle 2-AfricaThese bikes were made in Africa from scrap wire, 1980 – 1983.

Puppets are moving toys that have taken to the stage.

PuppetsYellow Dwarf theatre, 1868The Yellow Dwarf theatre, 1868; a theatre made for one family and designed to perform one play, The Yellow Dwarf. The story comes from fairy tales published in France in 1697 by the Clountess D’Aulnoy.

St George and the Dragon puppet-1920-30A Saint George and the Dragon puppet, circa 1920-30.

paper puppetsA shadow puppet theatre, 1850s.

1963-70, EnglandAnd finally, one more toy that moves, as if by magic. England, 1963 – 70.

What I like so much about all the toys that move, or seem to move, or move with us, is the ingenuity and inventiveness involved on the part of the creator. The artists and craftspeople that invented these toys knew how to access their childlike imaginations to fill our hearts with wonder, which is something children, and adults, will always be drawn to.

Maybe creativity is really just another form of play. If so, it’s something I never want to grow out of.

Cloth Clown

Hope so bright

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it. I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.”
Sarah Manguso in “Ongoingness.”

I remember when I first started out writing. I deeply needed someone to tell me I had talent. That I would make it. I wanted to be that one in two hundred.

After all, I was trying to do something improbable and hopelessly romantic—be a writer. A “real” writer. One with published books. Good books that maybe made a difference. Or were, at least, read with appreciation. I wasn’t interested in scribbling away in my garret with no concern for worldly success. A successful artist—that’s what I wanted to be.

Now, I also teach writing. And, although, Sarah Manguso doesn’t spell out what kind of students she has, I’m betting she teaches aspiring authors, too. The thing about teaching writing is it’s hard to not feel a bit like a fraud. As Manguso knows, I know that many of my students won’t “become what they feel they must become.”

So are writing teachers fostering false hope?

We are fostering hope. But is it false?

I’ve come to have a somewhat Darwinian appreciation of the process. Many must try. A few will make it. Like tadpoles becoming frogs. Nature seems to need lots of raw material to draw the few from.

I’m one of those tadpoles, too. I didn’t become quite the frog I dreamed of. But unlike nature, it’s possible to become a partial frog and know you’ve achieved something.

Or here’s another way to look at it. The way that I think Manguso means: that there is value in the hope itself. It’s important and meaningful to have that in your life. To have a dream and go after it. I’m lucky no one told me that I’d make it or not make it.

I had to fall back on my own motivations and my own terms of success. And that’s really the only way it can be. How badly do you want it? How hard are you willing to try? How much of a chance can you take?

I don’t know many people who regret having tried. There is the fear that you will feel like a fool. You’ll have wasted your time. But I can’t think of anyone I know who feels that way. In an illustrated essay, reproduced on Brainpickings, Debbie Millman talks about facing the choice to try.

I could have it all

And she talks about deciding later in life to take the chance. To try. To hope. To not, as she puts it “determine what was impossible before it was even possible.”

At the least, I can help a student find out about the possible.

So these days, like Manguso, although I’ll do everything I can to help them, I don’t worry as much about whether or not my students will make it. I’m in awe of them trying. The guts it takes, the honing of their skills, the camaraderie they develop, the furthering of the art itself that they represent. I know that some will completely drop this dream. Some will become appreciators. Some will become patrons. Some will redefine success until it matches what they’ve achieved. Some will become successful only to find that they preferred the dream to the reality. Some will become what they feel they must become.

I don’t think any will lose for the trying.

 

 

 

Strange and Wonderful Connections

Atget_-_Avenue_des_Gobelins

Eugene Atget – Window, Paris

A writer in Russia recently got in touch with me via the email address she found at my personal blog, The Drift Record, to ask a favor. She needed a poem sent to her, one I was not actually familiar with, though I had written about the author of the poem, Nelson Bentley, in one of my previous blog posts.  The Russian writer had been unable to find a copy of the book which the poem she wanted appeared in, but she knew I had a copy because the poem I had written about – “Zero Tide” – is in the same book. She asked if I would be willing to send her the poem “Atget’s Lens”?

What a thrill, to get a request like that from someone I didn’t know in a part of the world I’ve never been to. Such an unexpected, lovely connection! I had met Nelson Bentley decades earlier when he taught at the University of Washington – he let me sit in on a few of his classes while I was deciding whether or not to finish my B.A. in Creative Writing. He was a kind and popular professor, a colleague of Theodore Roethke, and much loved. His death not long after that, at the relatively young age of 72, meant I never got to study with him, but I admired his work. So I found the book – Sea Lion Caves – and typed “Atget’s Lens” out and sent it on across the miles to be translated by this new Russian acquaintance.

Nelson Bentley

Nelson Bentley in his office at the University of Washington

Atget - abbott_portrait

Portrait of Eugene Atget by Berenice Abbott

“Atget’s Lens” is a complicated poem that I hadn’t remembered, but after finding it again and typing it out, I was startled by how lovely it is, how beautifully Bentley handled the formal restrictions, and by how difficult it would be to translate, due to its compressed syntax.

Not only was I drawn to the poem, I was drawn to its subject. Atget was a French photographer who pioneered the new field of documentary photography in the early years of the 20th century. I have several postcards of his work, which focused primarily on street scenes in a Paris that Atget felt was slipping from view.  His work was not well received while he was alive; it was only after his death, when the New York photographer Berenice Abbott championed it, that the value of his photographic documentation of a bygone Paris was recognized.

Eugène_Atget,_Street_Musicians,_1898–99

Eugene Atget – Street Musicians

Atget lived and worked at the turn of the century; half a century later, an English professor in Seattle wrote a poem about him;  decades after that, I wrote about that professor; and a year after that, a Russian writer wrote to me about the professor. From Atget to Bentley to me to Russia – like depot stops on a strange and wonderful train ride.

Atget - Church of St. Gervais

Eugene Atget – Church of St. Gervais

So if you’re feeling a little burnt out on blog posts, as we all do at times, I’m writing this to encourage you to keep it up. Someone might get in touch with you years from now and say “I just read you blog post, and I’m wondering if you could do me a favor….” And you’ll become another stop on a journey that connects one artist to another and another.  Meanwhile, here is the poem I sent across the sea. In it, Bentley mentions many of the subjects of Atget’s photographs. Hope you enjoy it:

Atget’s Lens

Final turning of a place to poem,
A lone vision to a textured home,
And look to book;
Who’d think to find you in a photograph,
Perfectly quiet in the arrested chaff :
A love that took?

A lettered wagon tired in early light,
A snarling knocker that will never bite,
Transformed tokens,
Answer for an old brown grateful Paris
That entered intact the rare, knowing iris
Of Atget’s lens.

A peddler sedate on steep-slanted bricks,
Trees waving in twenty great gold clocks,
Dummies proud stance :
All waited for James’ pen or Atget’s mounts.
It’s the selection of which love counts,
The surest glance.

City and heart sings this humble realm,
An ardor that clears away the film.
Order is all;
Its constant surprise is where it will appear,
Implying the search that makes an atmosphere
Or a total.

– Nelson Bentley

Atget - Door Knocker

Eugene Atget – Door Knocker

Atget - Street Peddler

Eugene Atget – Street Peddler

DESIRE

Ah, Spring. Everywhere I look it’s the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Nature has sensed the void she’s said to abhor and is filling her incompleteness with trilliums and trout lilies, spidery maple leaves and daphne odora variegata. Bare branches fizzle with chartreuse fuzzies and soft blossoms.

blog2

It seems a feeling of incompleteness is part of the human condition, as well. And like Nature, we attempt to fill this void. We fall in love, create children’s books, play with a dog, watch a sunset. All these solutions work to some degree. Other times we try to fill the inner void with music or religion, or running, or drugs, alcohol, sex, or chocolate. Stories even. Yet the void persists.

The open palm of desire wants everything. It wants everything.
It wants soil as soft as summer and the strength to push like spring.

– Paul Simon, ‘Further to Fly’

I think it’s this incompleteness that beloved writer Norma Fox Mazer pointed to as a main character’s necessary “deprivation.” As sure as Velcro hooks grab Velcro fuzz, characters hook readers through their incompleteness. Because we feel a lack in ourselves, we have a ready place to hold a character’s longings and out-of-balancedness. “Deprivation” has many guises. For example, the children in Sarah Plain and Tall’s yearning for a mother, or Peter Rabbit’s need to get into the vegetable patch, or even Olivia’s out-sized dream to be the Queen of the Trampoline – all incompleteness and desire.

I’ve heard it said that 90% of children’s literature is about belonging or searching for home. Maybe that’s what our own incompleteness is about, too.

What a ramble. But it’s spring and the garden calls. And if I may paraphrase what Rene Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire, the garden completes me. At least for awhile.

p.s. Here’s the Dylan Thomas poem referred to above:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.