Author Archives: laurakvasnosky

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

This is a story about a search for the right word, and another search, too.

At our last critique meeting, I read my latest version of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. Bonny suggested I find a new word for “twinkle” in the sentence, “They watched as the stars twinkled on and a full moon peeked over the mountain.”

I have consulted friends and Google, too, of course: blinked, winked, flickered, appeared. What is the word for that moment when a star becomes visible? Maybe blossomed? (No, a friend pointed out, that mixes the plant world and the moon’s anthropomorphic action of peeking.)

I was thinking of this “twinkled” challenge Wednesday night. All summer I have looked forward to the Perseid Meteor Showers, billed as this year’s biggest star event. Wednesday night, August 12, was supposed to be the best for viewing. The new moon would set early and the skies would be very dark. We could expect 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Talk about twinkling.

I imagined John and me watching this all from a mountain meadow, far away from the Seattle’s city lights. We’d be ensconced in our butterfly chairs that fold out into chaise lounges. Refreshing drinks would rest in the special cup holders that are built into the chairs’ arms. Our sweet spaniel, Izzi, would rest at our feet. It might be romantic.

So Wednesday afternoon we headed for the Cascades. Just as we cleared the tangle of city traffic, we realized we’d forgotten the special chairs. And the cooler.

At least we remembered the dog.

More challenges were, literally, on the horizon. Low clouds hung along the hills and a haze of smoke blew in from forest fires. After all this effort, would we be able to see stars at all?

• • • • •

Smoky winds sliced through the sliding doors as we stepped out on the balcony of our room in Suncadia Lodge. A smoky haze persisted after sundown but we headed out to find a dark spot away from the Lodge. We chose a driveway apron to a vacant lot and lay down on hard new asphalt to stargaze. Right away, I realized I could see the stars better without my new glasses, so I stuck them in my coat pocket. Several meteors streaked across the sky, but I was sure we’d see even more if we could find a darker spot. I talked John into walking another half mile down the barely lit road and following a string of bistro lights through the forest to the parking lot.

The skies cleared a little as we drove around looking for a dark cul de sac in the unbuilt part of the resort. We found the perfect spot, the kind of place young lovers seek on a warm summer night. Only it was on Rocking Chair Lane. We positioned the car so it blocked the one small streetlight and spread the dog’s old sleeping bag on the still-warm pavement. I folded my coat into a pillow and we lay down with Izzi between us to look at the now fully twinkling skies.

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Despite the sky not being completely black, we counted 24 shooting stars over the next hour and a half. Then a local drove by to see what we were doing and we felt self-conscious lying out there in the deserted cul-de-sac on the dog’s old sleeping bag. We packed up. That’s when I realized my new glasses were missing.

Backtrack, Backtrack. Backtrack. Every place we’d been. We combed the dark roads and trails with our cell phone flashlights. No luck. We were bummed as we went to bed, the wind still whistling through the open sliding door. Then at 3 am an alarm on the room’s refrigerator started beeping. Which was annoying until we looked outside. All was calm. The night was perfectly black, the sky sugared with so many stars that it was hard to pick out the constellations. Those stars dazzled and danced. They sparkled and salsa-ed. They even twinkled.

The next morning before I got up, John went out with Izzi. He walked back to that first driveway apron and met a man working on the gate there.

“Did you happen to see some glasses?”

“As a matter of fact, I have them right here in my truck,” he said. “Lucky I didn’t drive over ‘em.”

Maybe now that I have my new glasses back I will see stars in a new way and find that right word. Or maybe twinkled is enough.

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John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.

WONDER AND WONDERING

We’re suffering here in Seattle – a record 15 days of temperatures over 80 degrees. I know this might be laughable to people in other, hotter, parts of the country, including our California cousins who don’t even break a sweat until it’s over 100.

In Sonora CA where I grew up, most summers had a week or even two over 110. We did not have air conditioning, so on those hot summer nights we’d pull rollaway beds out on the deck and sleep under the huge humming wheel of the Milky Way.

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We’d count falling stars as we fell to sleep. Mom promised that if we could say “Money, money, money,” before a star burned out, we’d be millionaires. But this effort was quickly eclipsed by the sheer wonder of the night skies. Those skies taught me Wonder, one of my favorite emotions.

As Sara Teasdale put it: “…And children’s faces looking up,/ Holding wonder like a cup.” (from Barter)

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To escape the Seattle heat yesterday, we slipped into an air conditioned theatre to see INSIDE OUT, Pixar’s brilliant new film. It combines a hero’s journey with an animated construct of how the brain functions. The outer story: eleven-year old Riley has to leave her beloved Minnesota life, including her hockey team, to move to San Francisco with her mom and dad. The ingenious inner story: through animation we to see inside Riley’s mind where the console is run by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. We watch as these emotions govern her stream of consciousness and impact behavior. It is fascinating.

insideoutcharctrsWhy did the writers choose these five emotions from the vast possibilities? I expect they settled on Joy, Sadness, Fear, and Anger because these are the core emotions of many more subtle feelings. Disgust I think they chose for comic relief. She’s a green Mean Girl, voiced by Mindy Kaling, who peppers the dialogue with a cynical uppity point of view.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Wheel of Emotions from the Writers’ Circle? The writers of INSIDE OUT employed five of the six core emotions from this wheel, leaving out Surprise. It is interesting to see so many of the human emotions organized on this wheel — but they leave out wonder.

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Perhaps I’ll have to start a campaign. “WONDER — the emotion that sings, even on a hot sweaty day in Seattle.” I know. I know. I’ll need to come up with something snappier.

But this could be my first campaign vid: NASA’s images of the Andromeda galaxy taken by the Hubbell telescope last January. Watch it for an instant Wonder hit.

Or check out this photo of the new moon over San Francisco on the night of our grandson’s birth. To me it is just as wondrous — and speaks of wonders to come.

emmett'snewmoon

p.s. Wondering if the science behind INSIDE OUT is accurate? Click here. The short answer is yes.

LESS IS MORE

Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers, trained to soar upward until Boots clapped sharply and they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.

rollers

Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.

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I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.

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When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

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There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:

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TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

QUALITY WORDS

Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” A quality word.

Could Boredom Become a Guilty Pleasure?

We once went to a Guilty Pleasures holiday party. My husband wrapped up a pack of Q-Tips for the gift exchange. Another guy brought one of those Safeway roasted chickens in the tinfoil pack. My favorite was a pair of giant underpants that had four leg openings. The guy who unwrapped it said, “Guess I’ll be carpooling home tonight.”

My guilty pleasures are simple: relaxing in a hot bath while watching an episode of Friday Night Lights on my iPad, or listening to an audio book on my iPhone while gardening away a Saturday, or even just playing WordsWithFriends and checking email on my phone while waiting at a traffic signal.

I know it’s wasting time, but I didn’t realize there was a bigger cost to my technology-filled approach to downtime. That’s because I didn’t know about the correlation between boredom and creativity.

I learned about it Monday on NPR. In a segment called Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out, New Tech City’s Manoush Zomorodi reported on “studies that suggest we get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and let ourselves get bored.” In fact, one study showed that subjects who were assigned the most boring task – reading the phone book – came up with the most novel ideas.

Manoush spoke with cognitive neuro-scientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood who studies the relationship between mind wandering and creativity. “There is a close link between originality, creativity and novelty on the one hand and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are resting,” he said. In short, he said creativity is dependent on daydreams which are dependent on boredom, the default resting state of the brain.

When you turn to your phone to avoid boredom, you also miss out on the creativity that bubbles up from your resting brain. Further, Smallwood said, when we use cell phones to fill every moment of spare time, we don’t have a chance to “see and learn where we are in terms of our goals,” what scientists term “autobigraphical planning,” a form of positive, constructive daydreaming. Without sufficient autobiographical planning, people get stuck in a rut.

The New Tech City podcast is aimed at cell phones, perhaps the most harmful interrupter of boredom. Who is not familiar with what Smallwood calls the “easy, lazy junk food diet of the phone?” I’d include its hussy big sister, the iPad, so seductive with NetFlix and audio books and games. I realize I often scroll and swipe to fill the silence in the nooks and crannies of time that used to be prime for daydreaming. There was a time when it was pleasure enough to take a hot bath, or weed and spread compost, or drive along the coast without connecting to the internet. Was I more creative then?

Luckily, the folks at New Tech City are leading a program to help people decrease cellphone use and thus rediscover the art of spacing out. I am curious to see how it might impact my creative life, so I signed up.

And I made a resolution for 2015: Get bored more. I think I’ll start with a hot bath…

• • • • •

You might like to listen yourself: Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out. http://www.wnyc.org/story/bored-brilliant-project-part-1/

THESE THINGS MATTER

Ever come across a passage in a novel that you can’t wait to share with one friend or another? When I first read the following passage from Mink River by Brian Doyle, I immediately thought of Julie Larios. I was sure she would like it. She lives the flanneur life and has a poet’s attention to detail. I reached for the phone.

Then I remembered my turn at this blog was fast approaching. I put down the phone and started typing. I expect not just Julie, but most of our BooksAroundTheTable readers will eat it up. It’s the entire chapter 30 of Mink River, all in one paragraph and worth reading aloud:

30.

These things matter to me, Daniel, says the man with six days to live. They are sitting on the porch in the last light. These things matter to me, son. The way hawks huddle their shoulders angrily against hissing snow. Wrens whirring in the bare bones of bushes in winter. The way swallows and swifts veer and whirl and swim and slice and carve and curve and swerve. The way that frozen dew outlines every blade of grass. Salmonberries thimbleberries cloudberries snowberries elderberries gooseberries. My children learning to read. My wife’s voice velvet in my ear at night in the dark under the covers. Her hair in my nose as we slept curled like spoons. The sinuous pace of rivers and minks and cats. Rubber bands. Fresh bread with too much butter. My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. Toys. Exuberance. Mowing the lawn. Tiny wrenches and screwdrivers. Tears of sorrow, which are the salt sea of the heart. Sleep in every form from doze to bone-weary. Pay stubs. Trains. The shivering ache of a saxophone and the yearning of a soprano. Folding laundry hot from the dryer. A spotless kitchen floor. The sound of bagpipes. The way horses smell in spring. Red wines. Furnaces. Stone walls. Sweat. Postcards on which the sender has written so much that he or she can barely squeeze in a signature. Opera on the radio. Bathrobes, backrubs. Potatoes. Mink oil on boots. The bands at wedding receptions. Box-elder bugs. The postman’s grin. Linen table napkins. Tent flaps. The green sifting powdery snow of cedar pollen on my porch every year. Raccoons. The way a heron labors through the sky with such vast elderly dignity. The cheerful ears of dogs. Smoked fish and the smokehouses where fish are smoked. The way barbers sweep up circles of hair after a haircut. Handkerchiefs. Poems read aloud by poets. Cigar-scissors. Book marginalia written with the lightest possible pencil as if the reader is whispering to the writer. People who keep dead languages alive. Fresh-mown lawns. First-baseman’s mitts. Dishracks. My wife’s breasts. Lumber. Newspapers folded under arms. Hats. The way my children smelled after their baths when they were little. Sneakers. The way my father’s face shone right after he shaved. Pants that fit. Soap half gone. Weeds forcing their way through sidewalks. Worms. The sound of ice shaken in drinks. Nutcrackers. Boxing matches. Diapers. Rain in every form from mist to sluice. The sound of my daughters typing their papers for school. My wife’s eyes, as blue and green and grey as the sea. The sea, as blue and green and grey as her eyes. Her eyes. Her.

• • • • • •

That’s it. A list of what matters to this man who has six days to live. I love it for its specificity – Book marginalia written with the lightest possible pencil as if the reader is whispering to the writer. – and for its cadences – Red wines. Furnaces, Stone walls, Sweat. I love it because it is both universal – The way a heron labors through the sky with such a vast elderly dignity. – and personal – My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. It spans the natural world and the manmade world, the pedestrian and extraordinary, quotidian and eternal. I love the accumulation of it. How all the images and items add up to yearning. And the voice. It is a look over life, sifting through seasons for what matters. It is necessarily nostalgic but not schmaltzy.

What a wondrous list!

Though I hope I have more than six days to live, I thought I should get started on a list of things that matter to me: My husband singing in the kitchen. The way garlic sprouts poke through leaf mulch. The smell of oak duff on a California hillside. Moonlight. Ukulele. Good pruners. Pears…

Hey Julie Larios – what would be on your list of what matters? Anyone else want to play?

ANOTHER LINE OR TWO ABOUT LINES

Last week Julie Paschkis wrote here about lines – the lines that make up illustrations.

I’d like to add to the lines conversation – only I want to talk about lines that relate to text. It was a subject of discussion when I talked to Jolie Stekly’s UW-extension class in Writing for Children this week. We talked about lines that describe the plot of a story. Graphic plotlines.

SELFIE

PICTURE BOOK  — To start, here’s a simple graph that uses a line to indicate the rising dramatic tension in a picture book.sharkfinThink of it as a sharkfin. Tension rises continuously to a climax followed by a quick denouement/resolution.

carrot seedA classic example of this is Ruth Krauss’ The Carrot Seed, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. A little boy plants a seed. Tension mounts as his various family members tell him it won’t grow. He persists. He weeds and waters. Family members again say it won’t grow. He weeds, waters, waits. Then the climax: “a carrot came up,” and the resolution “just as the little boy had known it would.”

NOVEL — For a basic novel graph, you can’t beat the Cascades profile.

PGcascades

Here are the three acts, beginning/middle/end, each with its own rising tension and climax, all building together to the biggest climax and the resolution. I first learned about this profile from Barthe deClements who is a fellow Northwesterner, thus the Cascades Mountains get naming rights.

MORE ABOUT STORY STRUCTURE — Norma Fox Mazer gave a memorable lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts about how “a novel’s structure is the glass that holds the wine.” (Now there’s a good line.) Like Barthe, she talked about the structure of the novel as a three act play, explaining each act has its own beginning, middle and end. Each act has its role to play. The opening act must introduce character, setting and conflict; the middle is the place for rising struggle and confrontation, and the end turns on the climax and resolution.

Norma recommended creating a story ladder as you begin revising a novel. This is a scene-by-scene list of essential actions, emotions and characters as the story progresses.

Working on my present middle grade novel project, I decided to combine Norma’s story ladder with Barthe’s Cascade graph. I wrote a short description for each scene on a strip of paper. Then I rated each scene for dramatic tension. (The note beside my computer reads: It is not a scene if it does not have conflict.)

Next, I laid them out on our dining room table, letting each strip poke up in a little mountain range at heights that related to how much dramatic juice each scene held.tablemtn

It was helpful-ish. I began to see where the three acts of this project were located. And that long flat place in the middle – a sort of valley in the jagged mountain range of chapter strips – clearly needs attention.

A FEW OTHER LINES — One of the best known graphic depictions of plot is the circle that describes the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell wrote about this plot sequence that is often found in myths and fairy tales. It’s a circle with many proscribed story elements along the way.

HEROJOURNEY

There are other, more simple, depictions of plot as well.

In the world of early readers, you sometimes encounter the umbrella profile – each chapter has it’s own rising conflict, climax and resolution. Sometimes there’s an overarching plotline that rises across the whole work to the biggest climax in the last story/chapter.

umbrella

Of course, all plots don’t run chronologically. One fairly common one works sort of like a fly fishermans’ cast. The story opens with a compelling scene that is in fact close to the chronological end of the story, then the author suspends that plot line and circles back in time to fill in back story, bringing the reader back to that compelling scene, picking up that suspended plot line and following through to the climax and resolution. Kathi Appelt’s Keeper follows this profile, as does Bruce Colville’s Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Catcher.

flyfisher

Then there are plots with two characters whose storylines each have rising tension as they find their way to be together, a fir tree profile. My favorite example of this is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, an adult book.

firtree

In the wings profile, the story begins with the characters together, then each circles out on his/her own adventures and they meet again, each changed, at the end, like in The Prince and the Pauper.

wings

Shark fin, Cascades, Hero’s Circle, Umbrella, Flyfisherman, Fir Tree, Wings — all of these graphic depictions of plot supply helpful visuals when you are considering how to shape your story.  That’s my finish line.

AUTUMN DUET: 1979 SONORA / 2014 SEATTLE

In 1991, the singer Natalie Cole created the album Unforgettable: With Love. You have probably heard of it, since eventually it sold over five million copies. The title track featured her singing a duet via electronic elaboration with her father, Nat King Cole, who died in 1965.

In a similar spirit of collaboration, I wrote today’s blog with my dad, Harvey McGee. It’s based on Dad’s account of autumn in the California foothill town of Sonora, where he was editor and publisher of the Union Democrat from 1959 until his death in 1998. His part appeared October 2, 1979, as his Sierra Lookout column. My part – an account of early autumn 2014 in Seattle – is in italics.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWEET, mossy smell of summer no longer drifts up from the creek in the late afternoon.

Twice now, the ravines have been flooded briefly with the sharp scents turned loose by moisture on brown grass. But it was only light rain, and the fields still crunch underfoot.

We’ll have to wait longer for the deep, heavy aroma that rises when the year’s buildup of twigs, pods, eaves and seeds is brewed by a soaking downpour.

Meanwhile, the light scents will do, especially when mixed with crisp mornings, soft yellow afternoons and blazing sunsets.

foxlogoTHE SWEET, piney smell of sunsoaked Douglas fir no longer flavors my late afternoon walks.

Twice now, rain has pounded our metal roof with downpours worthy of Hawaiian monsoons, releasing the heavy scent that rises when the summer’s buildup of twigs, pods, dry grasses and seeds is brewed by a drenching shower.

 (I love that there’s a word for this aroma: “petrichor,” the scent of rain on dry earth, a word constructed from the Greek, petros, meaning ‘stone,’ and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. Even in Seattle, a rain elicits this lovely fragrance at summer’s end.)

The sun slants low at the end of day, flooding the garden with golden light.

(I just learned today that the Japanese have a word for sunlight shining through leaves of a tree: komorebi. This time of year the angle of light in the Northwest is prime for komorebi.)

autumn light

logo guy2.fhTHE MOSQUITO that whined in the bedroom all summer as soon as the lights went out has now gone. He’s been replaced by a buzzing, hopping creature that disappears when the lights go on.

And the weekend traffic lined up at the stoplight has changed again. Summer’s stream of family-loaded station wagons has trickled away, and now the lineup is dominated by pickup-campers, their cabs filled mostly with men and rifle racks.

foxlogoTHE DISTANT whine of power washers and weed-whackers yields to the hum of leaf blowers.

Streets fill with yellow school buses again. We hope the traffic snarls caused by summer road repairs will soon be over.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWIMSUITS draped on the back porch railing have been dry for weeks, and I can drop onto the nearby lounge chair without first removing a soggy mound of towels.

The ivy bed is reviving, now that the dog has stopped sleeping away his afternoons there. All that lush poison oak has retreated down its long stems in preparation to burst forth with even greater viciousness next spring.

foxlogoTHE GARDEN has its last hurrah. We harvest beans and tomatoes and plant kale, lettuce, spinach and garlic for winter crops while the dog snoozes under the camellia.

logo guy2.fhTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and straining log trucks.

All that remains of the grandchildren’s vacation visits is an occasional plastic block, left for painful discovery by a barefoot grandparent.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

foxlogoTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and planes flying overhead.

The grandnephews are back in school. All that remains of our Camp Runamok campfire is the charred spot on the driveway gravel.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

 (I think I’ll give Natalie and Nat King Cole the last word: It’s Unforgettable.)