I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)






7 responses to “LISTEN

  1. Listening closely is great advice. At least that’s what my wife tells me!

  2. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    Yep! I hear you, Laura! Creating something from nothing is such a mysterious process. Your instincts tell you when something isn’t quite right with a painting, or a story, and it would be an insult to the work, not to listen to those doubts. You can’t ignore your instincts! Your work, as it struggles to come to life, won’t leave you alone until it’s right.
    In my little studio, I painted this quote from Joan Miro on the wall:
    “A work is finished, when there is nothing left that annoys me.”

  3. Beautiful Little Wolf spread, Laura, I look forward to seeing, feeling, living in this world, er, book, when you and Kate finally ‘give birth.’
    I totally know what you’re saying here and you say it so eloquently. I’m being bossed around by some characters these days and know I’ll suffer a post partum of sorts when I push that final Send button.

  4. So happy to hear about your upcoming book!!

  5. Gretchen Hansen

    What a wonderfully happy way to begin the New Year, Laura: not only by announcing the 2017 exciting birth of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, but by sharing the attentiveness key to one’s own developing story, or song, as it begins to come to life on its own! It sends out clues to what it requires of us through the encounters with people, objects, nature around us, colors and feelings in our daily lives. Thank you for bringing us back to our focus on the magical element, the first breath of a story’s life. And thank you for gifting us with the intimate black and white scene where Little Wolf accompanies his mother on a walk through the enchanting woods.

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