Author Archives: Bonny Becker

Every syllable spelled out a spark

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

Judy Blume was in town last week and I, along with a group of children’s writer buddies, went to hear her speak. She talked about her books, her writing process and a little about growing up in the 1950s, but one thing that stuck in my mind is what she said about reading.

“My parents gave me a great gift. The idea that reading is great. They were proud that I was a good reader.”

It had never hit to me quite so clearly that such an attitude was not universal. I grew up knowing that, of course, being a good reader was a good thing. Of course, you learned to read and to read well. I mean, yes, some kids struggled to read, but surely reading was a valued thing.

But then I remembered homes that oddly didn’t seem to have books in them.  Parents who I never saw reading. Families who didn’t go the library every week. Friends who marveled that our father read aloud to us every Sunday.

I think I was a bit like Harper Lee who said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

reading is sharing.1

Until Blume made her comment, it never occurred to me that to have people around you who valued reading wasn’t simply a given. Or to put it better, it hadn’t occurred to me that to have such people around you was a gift in itself.

Do you remember when you learned to read? I remember the exact moment.

I’m sitting in the first grade. It’s probably the second or third week of school and we’re learning the alphabet. On the wall is a picture of a clown holding balloons. He has a red balloon, a blue balloon, a green balloon and a yellow one. There are letters of the alphabet on the balloons. And suddenly I realize something amazing. The letters on the red balloon, R-E-D, meant “red.” They are the same thing—the color I’m seeing with my eyes and the letters are telling my brain the same thing.

It was a code and my mind raced with the realization. All the things in the room had a code that meant it—desk, pencil, teacher, floor. What an incredible thing.

“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark,” said Victor Hugo

Pawel Kuczynski

Pawel Kuczynski

After that, reading came quickly for me. Of course, I was motivated to learn this magic thing. You didn’t need an apple for someone to tell you: apple. You didn’t have to be in the same room or live in the same town or the same country or the same century for someone to tell you, “apple.” For someone to tell you anything.

As George R.R. Martin has one of his character’s say, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

And I wanted to live every life, real and imagined, that I could get my hands on. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking about what I could tell others with my magic code. I just wanted to know what was out there; what others knew; what they could tell me.

Later I began to dream about telling my own stories, casting my own spell with this magic code. But like Blume, I belatedly realize that it began with what I took for granted: being surrounded and supported by those who honored reading.

Kuniyoshi

Kuniyoshi

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Musing on the Muse

Illustration by Fred Callieri

Illustration by Fred Callieri

What’s your muse like?

Here’s Shakespeare on the subject: “O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

And here’s Stephen King: “My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all.”

I’m not sure what my muse is like. I think perhaps it’s a scholarly girl with big glasses reading in an easy chair, glancing up once in awhile to send me a smile.

Whoever or whatever your muse is, chances are you struggle like all creative people to tap into its powers. Sometimes the words and images flow, sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.

About four weeks ago, I wrote about our birthright as creative beings and the idea of inspiration. This week I wanted to talk a little bit about what science has to say about inspiration.

Science has renamed the muse our subconscious and discovered some interesting things about that “scruffy little mutt.” For one thing, our muse may not necessarily visit from above—a rare gift from the gods–but be built into us.

Take a look at these two images for a second.

donkey sunflower.009

According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, odds are good that as you look your brain is beginning to construct a narrative, a story, a reason why these two images go together.

And it isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could be related, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.

rhino teeth.010

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection. Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in as we work to make sense of what’s happening around us.

Our brains are putting together a causal link: this is happening because that happened and that happened because of that other thing. And isn’t that the essence of story–connecting one action and to another exploring actions and their consequences?

Another interesting thing about our brain is it often seems to know things before we do. I can remember writing stories where I’d put in what seemed an incidental detail—the white rose on the dresser—in the beginning of a story only to discover that this seemingly arbitrary detail was perfect for my ending. It’s an experience familiar to many writers.

It’s as if some part of our brain knows our story before we do.

And according to science your brain literally does know things before you consciously do. In a study where participants were asked to solve a puzzle, scientists could tell before the participants consciously knew it that they had solved the puzzle. How? They could see that the brain started to form alpha waves. Sometimes they could predict as much as eight seconds ahead of time that a person was going to have an insight.

Human head silhouette

There are two types of brain waves associated with subconscious creativity. Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity-that lies just below our conscious awareness – it is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness.

That deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. The theta wave state is also known as the twilight state something which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep, although theta waves are abundant in experienced meditators.

It’s these relaxed brain wave states that give us access to our unconscious thoughts and images. And there are ways to encourage them. For one thing, those alpha and theta waves like what Emily Dickenson calls it “reverie.”

You no longer need to feel guilty for staring off into space, doodling aimlessly or watching a fly crawl across the ceiling. Next time family or friends look at you accusingly as you sit there chewing on your pencil eraser with a dreamy look on your face, you can tell them it has been scientifically proven that you are working. Even Einstein agrees.

“Creativity is the residue of wasted time,” he said.

One last bit of science: it is still a bit speculative, but there’s a scientific theory that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant wave frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus.

Basically what that means is that your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heart beat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment.

So the creative muse likes rhythmic activities: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

Beautiful women in the hammock on the beach

As Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

The way I first heard it described years ago was “bed, bath and bus.” Do something mindless, repetitive and meditative. In other words, allow yourself to muse.

You are a creative being in a creative universe

marthagraham.2

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique… it is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. Martha Graham

Usually when I talk about writing and the writing life, I talk about the hard work: how many years it takes, how much practice and determination is required—probably because it took me quite awhile to not be discouraged by how hard it was.

But not all of it has to be hard. There is a part that comes naturally. The part that is your birthright as a human being–your creativity.

Graham talks about a vitality, a life force in us that translates into action. Don’t we all sense that force, that energy inside of us? There seems to be something that wants to express itself through us.

I wrote a chapter book, Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale, about a lizard who wants to be an artist. In there I call this force “the big thing inside.” I was trying to find a way to express the creative drive in terms a child could understand. In the way I understood it as a child. It felt like there was something bigger than me inside. Something that felt important for me to do or to say. I didn’t really know what to do with it—but it wanted expression.

It’s there in every one of us—that yearning to be bigger than ourselves, to do an indefinable “something.”

galaxy

I believe creativity is your birthright. You were born into a creative universe. And you were born to be creative in it. Look around you. Everywhere is the result of tens of thousands of years of human creativity. Tiny insights, giant leaps, a small refinement here, decades of labor there—and there is a house, a chair, the art on your walls, the paper of your books, a spoon, the phone, your medicine, your glass of water, a button… Even a pencil means over time figuring out wood, glues, metal, synthetic materials, ergonomics, graphic design—not to mention the basic reason it exists at all, language and its symbolic representation.

The source of human inspiration has been called many things: the muse, divine inspiration, being in the zone, getting into the flow, the creative spark, daemon, genius, hunch, revelation, vision.

Socrates said, “I decided it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”

Time after time in descriptions of great scientific discoveries, works of art, works of literature—you’ll hear about the idea that comes in a dream or vision or suddenly is just there.

The scientist Friedrich Kekule discovered the molecular structure of the chemical benzene when he dreamed about a snake coiled and biting its own tail. In an intuitive flash he realized that the molecular structure was a ring of carbon atoms.

benzene molecule

Many of Mozart’s compositions would simply play themselves in his head with full orchestration.

Author Michael Ondaatje says plots often come to him as “a glimpse of a small situation.” The English Patient started out as two images: one of a patient lying in bed talking to a nurse, and another of a thief stealing a photograph of himself. Every author I know has had the experience of an idea that seems to come out of nowhere.

The idea of a mouse who showed up and wouldn’t go away just popped into my head one day and became the basis for my book, A Visitor for Bear. I wasn’t thinking about mice or bears or brainstorming story ideas at the time. But there he was. Such moments feel like a gift from that force that Graham talks about.

But in our scientific age, we no longer look to the gods for this gift. We look to the human brain and we call the gift giver the subconscious. The good news is that it’s available to all of us, not just a select few. And there are ways to make its visions and messages more accessible.

I’ll talk more about your subconscious and how to make it more available to you in my next post in a few weeks.

 

 

Women and Reading

As a writer and lover of books, I collect images of books in art. I have perhaps 500 images and without a doubt the dominant image is of a woman reading–alone. There are whole books about it.

The New Yorker ran an  interesting article about the history of women reading a few years ago.  It’s a history of taboos and strictures, but ever growing literacy for women.

But I find myself drawn to these images aside from their political or social implications. The women in the art come from all walks of life. They are at different ages and stages:

Illustration by Caitlin Shearer.

Art by Caitlin Shearer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Thomas Hart Benton

Art by Thomas Hart Benton

 

 

 

 

 

 

       They are from different cultures:

Illustration by Jillian Ditner

Illustration by Jillian Ditner

 

Illustration by LaShun Beal

Art by LaShun Beal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They come from different stations in life:

Illustrator C. Cole Phillips

Art by C. Cole Phillips

Oil painting by Hillary Coddington Lewis

Art by Hillary Coddington Lewis

 

 

 

From a different knowing about life:

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Gwen John

Art by Gwen John

They are strong:

Art by Kenton Nelson

Art by Kenton Nelson

 

 

 

And they are trapped:

Art by AJ Frena

Art by AJ Frena

 

 

But they all share their engrossment, their engagement, their interiority. What are they reading? Where has the story taken them? What life experiences and what questions do they bring to the book? Will they find the answers?

The result is as unknowable and mysterious as the content of their books.

Art by Leonid Balaklav

Art by Leonid Balaklav

 

 

Image

Bookamania Chicago: Quite An Event

Sometimes in this business you get the royal treatment. Drivers picking you up at the airport, luxurious hotel stays, lines of fans.

The lobby of the Palmer Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Chicago.

The lobby of the Palmer Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Chicago.

A week ago I was in Chicago for the Chicago Public Library’s annual Bookamania. I’d never heard of Bookamania and didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to participate several months ago. Turns out it’s a fairly big deal. Funded by Target, nearly 6,000 people attended the one-day event last year. It’s held in the Chicago central library branch, the Harold Washington Library.

The Harold Washington Library Center

The “acroteria” on the roof feature owls.

Along with a dozen different performances and activities that filled the day, four authors and illustrators were invited to do presentations, sign books and meet with kids and their parents, including me, Kady MacDonald Denton (the illustrator of the Mouse and Bear books) the legendary Ashley Bryan and funny author/illustrator Dan Santat.

Mouse and Bear were everywhere. Kady donated artwork of Mouse and Bear which became the “face” of this year’s Bookamania—including posters, t-shirts, flyers and name badges.

One of the many, many volunteers who help make this event possible.

One of the many, many volunteers who help make this event possible.

The best part of the day, however, was getting to meet Kady, the illustrator of the Mouse and Bear books. We’d never met or talked in person. The author and illustrator rarely interact in the creation of a book. We usually communicate through the editor or the art director. But I’ve wanted to meet Kady for a long time.

She is at least half of the making of Mouse and Bear. One of the happiest moments in my life as an author was when I saw Kady’s early sketches for Mouse and Bear. I knew that Kady was the perfect artist for those two.

We didn’t get to chat as much as I would have liked even though we were there for four hours. We were busy pretty much non-stop signing our own books as well as mini-autograph and memory books the kids could fill out.

Kady signing autograph books.

Kady signing autograph books.

Among the activities for the day were arts and crafts focused around the featured authors. Here kids get to make a pencil featuring a bear’s head complete with googly eyes.

making bear pencilsIn town for less than 24 hours, I did manage to get in a quick visit to Millenium Park. It was a cold gray day in a city that feels somehow gritty and industrial despite its amazing architecture. So it was an unexpected lift to see this giant head by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa. It seems to float above the landscape.

The 39 foot head is made of marble and resin.

The 39 foot head is made of marble and resin.

The sculpture is scheduled to be up only until Dec. 2015. But if I were Chicago I’d make it permanent.

Seattle has its won Plensa head installed this summer.

46 foot tall "Echo" in the Olympic Sculpture Park

46 foot tall “Echo” in the Olympic Sculpture Park

All in all, a fast, but wonderful trip.

Getting Bear to the Library

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

The trouble with Bear is he’s a recluse.

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

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

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

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

In some ways sequels are easy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC_2506951_Page_16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0969

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

 

 

The Big Why

Christian Krohg  [Norwegian Realist Painter, 1852-1925]

Christian Krohg
[Norwegian Realist Painter, 1852-1925]

Why do you write? It’s a question asked of me recently and I was surprised by my answer.

It was asked by Linda Urban in a presentation she gave recently at the Whidbey Writer’s MFA program. Linda is the author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year.

Linda talked about finding your “big why?”

There are smaller whys. The reasons that underlies any individual story. Why are you writing it? Why does it matter?

And there’s a big why. Why do you write in the first place?

I was surprised to realize that there’s a link between the two for me. I’ve written all kinds of books from a picture book about the first ant in history to take a day off to a to a novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist to the stories of a grumpy bear and his friendship with an exuberant mouse.

I wouldn’t have thought they had much in common. But Linda’s question got me thinking about my work in progress—a new middle grade—and about what I most want kids to get from my work.

I think children’s stories do have a different tone, purpose, motivation, “ground” than adult stories and therefore have hopeful endings and characters who are growing rather than living lives of quiet desperation.

young buddhist

For me the most profound purpose and role of stories for children is “encouragement”. In the most fundamental meaning of that word. To give courage. The courage to live and enjoy and accomplish.

Because as a child you are a stranger in a strange land. What is this place? Why am I here? Am I safe?   Where am I going?   Am I capable of being in this place? Are the people around me capable?   Is life fun? A curse? A blessing?

A child doesn’t know. We don’t know. Stories are our way of exploring those questions. They are a way to experience a thousand lives and possibilities in one life.

To me that is the endless fascination of story. Why do we tell them in the first place? Why do we have such an appetite for stories? T.v., radio, books, movies, conversation. We are forever telling and listening to stories. They obviously serve a basic need. Yes, they are entertainment and they should be, but what do we find “entertaining” about them? They entrance us because they address our most fundamental questions in an interesting way.

Even a concept picture book serves this purpose. Say a playful rhyming book about color. Part of what it’s accomplishing is telling a child, a reader that life is fun. Life is interesting. Look. See. Enjoy. Isn’t this a fascinating place?

That’s the “why” behind an ant taking a day off or a lizard being willing to dream big or a bear who learns to celebrate friendship, birthdays and sleep-overs.

Gregory Muenzen

Gregory Muenzen

Children’s stories don’t have to paint a perfect world—in fact if they are too unrealistic they fail because children recognize we are lying to them–but they should present a world that is worth living in. Why would we feed our children a diet of cynicism and despair? As we get older we can entertain grimmer possibilities, but not as children. I think that’s why parents instinctively shield their children from certain stories and I think as writers we generally recognize that we want to accomplish a certain tone in our stories. It’s not because we’re not sophisticated enough to see beyond bunnies and happy dancing flowers and wee little elves. Stories for children are generally positive and playful and hopeful and joyful, because we recognize that is our basic purpose. To bring back word from adulthood to children that life is okay. You can do it. Come on in.

For me, that’s my big “why.”

 

 

Once upon a time…

Time, time
Time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities

Paul Simon – A Hazy Shade Of Winter Lyrics

timetowrite1

I’m on Whidbey Island right now at the 10-day residency for the low-residency program I teach at–an MFA program in writing with a special track for children’s and young adult writers.

We’re a small program—only about 50 students. And that’s deliberate. The goal is to have small classes taught by working writers in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s funny but each residency will tend to have a theme for me. An idea or issue that comes up again and again.

This year it’s time. Time in our writing, time for our writing, the timing of our days.

This residency one of our speakers was Linda Urban, author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year. One of the things Linda talked about was the use of time in our stories. And offered some exercises to help us play with and understand something about how time is conveyed in writing.

For example, set the timer for two minutes and write a scene from a familiar fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) in first person, but either in past, present or future tense. At the two-minute bell without pausing start writing in a different tense.

It’s interesting to see how the pace, mood and sense of distance changes with the tenses. Future tense is oddly ominous. Past reassuring. Present urgent and unsettling.

Another exercise is to expand time. Set the timer for five minutes and take a moment in your story and write the whole time about that one moment.

This wasn’t an exercise of Linda’s but of a student who teaches writing to children, Amy Carlson. She has her students start with the moment they are in—this moment of putting pen to paper and asks them to write backward in time from there back to the moment they woke up. According to Amy, this sets different wheels in motion in our imaginations since our brains aren’t used to thinking backward in time. It’s an exercise to free up the imagination. (Amy says the walking backward can do the same thing—challenge and wake up our brains.)

Not just time in our writing, but time for our writing has come up again and again. Do you set your writing time up by words written, hours spent, specific task? For everyone it seems to be a little different.

One speaker suggested a goal of 500 words a day. I know writers who aim for five pages a day. Writers who sit down diligently for four or six or eight hours. Writers who write for 15 minutes a day.

This morning at breakfast, poet David Wagoner talked about the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope who wrote early in the morning for an hour and a half before he went to work. Trollope’s goal was to write 1,500 words in that time. Two hundred and fifty words every 15 minutes. At this rate he produced some 47 novels and numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. As he noted, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Even so, three hours a day total was apparently his maximum. “Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. ”

And from what I can tell most people, like Trollope, seem to have about two to three hours in them. So what do writers do with the rest of the time?

Mostly, we look around for our possibilities.