Monthly Archives: September 2017

On the Go

Drago Jurac

I’ve just returned from a sea voyage. Travel refreshes.
What’s your favorite way to get away?
You could hop on a bike.

by William Steig

Or a bug.

by Hedwig Sporri-Dolder

Ride a swallow, a pale blue cat or black dog.

by Eleanor Vere Boyle

 

by Julie Paschkis

 

by Lisbeth Zwerger

 

Float in a boat

Ola by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire

 

or a balloon.

by Alice and Martin Provensen

Ride a truck, a car, or a train.

by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

French Advertising Card 1920

 

by William Pene du Bois

Or just head out on foot.

The Disorderly Girl 1860

by Arthur Rackham

by Yuri Vasnetsov

 

Enjoy the ride!

from A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, poems by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen

 

 

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Why Write for Children?

Why write for children instead of adults?

(I am thinking about this question because on October 8 I’m going to speak at WRITE ON THE SOUND, a weekend writing conference in Edmonds, WA. Most of the conference is focused on writing for adults.)

More exactly: Why create picture books for children instead of write for adults?

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Notice I had to rephrase my question. That’s because I need the pictures part – I love telling my stories with pictures as well as words. I love the dance of text and art; the possibilities and humor and resonance as these two ways of telling bring a story forward.

Most of all, I love the form: the 32-page structure. As surely as a sonnet or a villanelle is proscribed by demands of rhythm and rhyme, the 32-page structure shapes a picture book story’s telling. The page turns create a cadence, a pacing. And it all happens in less than, say, 700 words: a beginning that typically introduces a character and his or her dilemma, a middle full of rising tension as things get worse, then even worse, then worst of all before the end where the character figures a solution, hopefully one that is unexpected and yet expected, hopefully one that changes character and reader. The 32-page structure forces a writer to condense and clarify, to make every word earn its keep.

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Plus it seems the stories I want to tell are geared to a child reader. I’ve had my nose in a book since I learned to read — and it amuses me to create stories that would have amused the child I was.

Then there’s the fact that some of my favorite times as a parent were spent reading picture books with our kids. Picture books are read and reread. Sometimes they become part of a family’s way of looking at the world. They matter. (The books illustrating this blogpost are picture books that are part of our family’s history.)

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Plus I like what CS Lewis said about writing for children: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”

The more I understand about the craft of writing for children, the more satisfying it is to try to express my story ideas. After 26 years, the question for me is not why write for children instead of adults, but how to keep my work fresh and alive, and better tap into the original vision of each picture book project.

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On October 8, I will share my enthusiasm for the art and the craft of picture books with the adult writers at WRITE ON THE SOUND. I wonder what stories they might create, were they to bend their considerable writing skills to this 32-page wonder?

Now it’s your turn: Why write for children instead of adults?

Note: WRITE ON THE SOUND is already sold out.

 

 

 

 

Tittery Jitters

How many of you have felt both excitement and anxiety when starting a new project? Many, I predict.

I believe those feelings are really two sides of the same coin. In fact, the degree of excitement I feel is in direct correlation with the amount of anxiety I also experience. It is the irony of caring about the work I do.

So I am nervously happy, or perhaps ecstatically terrified, to tell you that I am starting the illustrations for a new picture book.

I will give you more details in the future, but for now I will only tell you that the story is by Julie Paschkis and it is titled Where Lily Isn’t.

Here are a few early studies I have done for one of the main characters.

Now I would like to hear whether I am correct that many of you feel the same combination of emotions when starting a new creative endeavor. Do you bite your nails, or do you confidently proceed without a tentative thought? Or are you somewhere in between . . . ?

The Top Four Lists of Writing Tips

 

Okay, I lied. These are great tips, but not necessarily the top four, but numbered lists are pretty irresistible. For some reason we love them—Top Six Beauty Tips, the Ten Best Eats in Portland, Eight New Looks for You, 13 Reasons Why.

Maybe we like the promise of something simple, definitive, brief—condensed wisdom. The other day I started browsing through a compilation of writing advice put together by the amazing Maria Popova, who writes the blog Brain Pickings. It’s a guide to 117 columns she’s written over the years on authors and their advice to other writers.

It’s well worth checking out all 117 essays for inspiration and entertainment, but I focused on the ones that promised to be simple lists, like Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

And then I rather randomly picked four that I liked because it was fun to see them all together. It’s interesting how practical most of the tips are. Writers, it seems, do not want to talk high-faluting artsy stuff when it comes to advice to other writers. Even Henry Miller’s list was surprising mundane, mostly counsel to himself bordering on “don’t forget to buy milk.”

I suspect as writers we know that we only hope to catch lightning in a bottle—it’s not something we have much control over. So the best we can offer is “here’s my bottle.”

KURT VONNEGUT

Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

JOHN STEINBECK

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

MARGARET ATWOOD

Margaret Atwood

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

I was thinking, as I wrote this, that I might comment on some of the advice—maybe something from my own experience or somesuch. But as I looked over the lists, I realized the other thing that maybe we like about lists–they don’t offer a lot of context. Instead, you, the reader, bring the context. You fill in the blanks with your own experience and decide if it rings true for you or not.

I’d love to know: did any of these tips strike you?

 

 

 

Tick-Tock, School Clock

BATT - School Clock

Is there any tick of the clock more predictably sobering each year than the one which moves us from August 31st to September 1st? From the August of hot days, U-Pick berries, lake docks, family picnics, sand castles, country fairs, campfires, s’mores, and sitting around doing absolutely nothing, to the September of school hallways, bells, classrooms, rows of desks, blackboards, textbooks, math problems, vocabulary lists, lunch lines, tests, rules…? Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved school when I was a kid. But I felt the solemnity of the calendar page turning from the last month of summer to the first month of autumn. It seemed like a moment of radical transformation: you go to bed wild and free and wake up…changed…that is, you go from this:

BATT - Kids Picnic

to this:

BATT - Michigan -

from this:

Batt - Kids Beach 1

to this:

BATT - Serious Students - Michigan

 from this:

BATT- Marshmallows

and this:

BATT - S'Mores

to this:

BATT - school lunch

and this:

BATT - School Lunch 2

from this:

BATT - Water Slide

to this:

Batt - Child at Desk

and from this:

BATT - Ferris Wheel

to  –  aaaaacccckkkkkk! – it makes me shudder –  this:

BATT - School Clock

I was a happy kid, loved school. I was a good reader, interested, eager to please, well-behaved, teachers liked me, I liked learning things, and I loved school supplies: pencils, erasers, notebooks, Peechee folders, lined paper, glue, staplers, binders, loved it all. Loved getting new saddle shoes every year. Loved looking forward to school picture day. My school pictures looked almost exactly like the one below – lots of stripes, lots of plaids, boys in rolled dungarees, girls with sweet collars or their dresses and barrettes in their hair (and by the way, this teacher had thirty-six students in her class – they look to be first- or second-graders – that is WAY too many students for one primary teacher – I hope she survived the school year):

BATT - River Oaks 1951

I didn’t like chalk, math, or cafeteria food, and I would have preferred wearing dungarees, too, but that’s about it for the negative side of all things academic. Despite being quite happy in the classroom, I loved recess best, and my memories of the playground – jump rope, hopscotch, tether ball, jacks, tag  – are vivid.

My mom was a teacher. My dad was a teacher. My aunt was a teacher. My husband was a teacher. My sister became a teacher. I ended up teaching for several years. And, as I say, I loved school. So why can I still remember staring at a clock exactly like the one pictured above, seeing the minute hand move backward for one second, then jerk ahead to the next minute? I’ve got that double-tick of the clock imprinted on my muscles and bones and brain. The hands on that clock moved SO S-L-O-W-L-Y. When the bell rang for recess, I was out the door running like a banshee, screaming with delight all the way to the playground.

I salute all of the wonderful teachers now who are, without doubt, much like the teachers I knew and loved when I was in elementary school – Miss Nelson, Mrs. Frizzi, Mr. Threewit, Mr. Bloyd. Teachers still hang wonderful bulletin boards with bright pictures, just like this:

BATT - Bulletin Board

They keep their classrooms cheerful and organized, and they manage to create quiet little nooks and crannies for some of their quieter little people:

BATT - Bulletin Board 2

They read to their students, they encourage the kids who struggle, they correct endless papers, they wake their students up to the wonders of the world, they do work that is vitally important in terms of producing good citizens for a democracy, kids who learn to listen, kids who learn to ask the right questions.  Good teachers open metaphorical doors, the hardest kind to open.

And every September, teachers deal with a classroom full of kids whose families have just turned the page of the calendar from August to September. These teachers still have – and the kids in their classrooms still have  – sunburns that have not faded. The scent of hot dogs and s’mores cooked over a campfire linger somewhere just outside the doors next to the attendance office. Even the principal dreams about his August paddle board lessons while he tells students to slow down, no running in the hallways.

I wish all the teachers reading this a wonderful, satisfying, bump-free school year, full of unexpected pleasures. When you’re reading the list of class rules, just remember that many of your students are still thinking about what it felt like to somersault off the dock down at the lake into the icy cold water. They are still going from this:

BATT - Camping

to this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and from this:

BATT - Dock

to this:

BATT - kids-school-bus

It takes awhile to get into the groove of school. Sitting at a desk can be hard after running through sprinklers for three months. It’s even hard for the kids who love school. And for their teachers.

But you all know that. So chin-up, have some fun, take your students outside once in awhile, let them run around and go crazy. You run around and go crazy once in awhile, too, whether in front of the students or once you’re home.

Tick-tock until next summer.

 


[Visit The Drift Record to see my post for Poetry Friday: “Sentimental Education” by Mary Ruefle.]