Earlier this week I caught a feature on NPR about how five rules from improv can make you funnier AND more confident. As I listened, I realized at least two of the five ideas could be especially helpful to writers when drafting new work. They create an atmosphere of discovery.
As you probably know, the foremost, much-heralded, rule of improv is: “Yes, and…”
Were we in an improv group, whatever a troupe member suggested would be folded immediately into our ever-developing bit. We’d listen carefully to each other’s input and go with the flow, working as a group to grow and develop the sketch on the spot in real time.
Which is something like what I experienced with my grandson when he was three. We were sailing down a “river” (his bedroom floor) on a “boat” (blow up raft) at “night.”
Me: Look at the stars!
E: Look at the moon!
Me: I love the crescent moon.
(We pause and look at the ceiling.)
E: It’s a full moon.
I realize that last line is not a “Yes, and..” But he was listening and responding to my input and it cracked me up.
The NPR story suggests that saying “Yes, and…” to life means making the effort to listen and understand what people are saying so you can build on it, thus building empathy and connection.
In writing, especially in drafting, “Yes, and…” means going down the bunny holes as your brain suggests them; really paying attention and embracing whatever your imagination brings to the table. Where would your story go if you let it get wild? Revision is the time for shaping and cutting. Let drafting be a time of expansion, discovery. “Yes, and…”
MAKE ROOM FOR PLAY
The other improv rule from the NPR story that particularly applies to crafting a story is: Make room for play. In improv this means generating lots of pretend characters and scenarios and letting loose.
How can this impact your real life? The story cites research that shows play reduces stress and contributes to overall well-being. “Tap into your inner child!” it suggests. “When we play, we create our own world and the space to imagine how the world might look…and the hope is that this feeling of agency, power and autonomy can translate to other parts of our lives.”
This could be a description of the process and benefits of creating a story. We get to conjure up the whole shebang, to play around with the world and the characters we are creating right down to the detail of the moon.
As I think about it more, maybe it was a full moon.
• • • • • • • •
Thanks to my sister Kate Harvey McGee for the beautiful colors she painted the moons featured above — from our books Island Lullaby (crescent moon) and Little Wolf’s First Howling (full moon).
The NPR story about improv and life can be heard here.
Today we have a guest blogpost from my friend of 40 years, Ann Dalton. She was a children’s librarian for Seattle Public library for 30 years, filling many roles, including working in the Children’s Center during the planning, building and the first 10 years in Seattle’s stunning new downtown library. As she writes, her work included “Lots & lots of story times, lots & lots of picture books, lots & lots of hugs, some tears—not usually mine.” Thank you, Ann, for sharing some of your latest favorite picture books. –LMK
I split my time between Seattle & Canmore, Alberta—20 minutes from Banff National Park in the Bow Valley & majestic Canadian Rockies. Whatever you’d call the opposite of snowbirds, that’s what Steve & I are. He lives to ice climb in the winter, & this is THE place on earth to be for that. We hike on frozen lakes, trudge up mountains, ride gondolas down mountains, XC ski (me-not so well, but the surroundings can’t be beat), entertain climbers who visit from near & far, practice my high school French..
Canmore has an amazing community center called Elevation Place. It’s hopping most hours of the day & evening & offers something for just about everyone in this small town, especially when temperatures plummet! It contains an Olympic-size swimming pool, climbing gym, art gallery, meeting rooms, fitness & wellness classes &, my favorite—the library.
I volunteer every Thursday afternoon shelving children’s materials. It’s a highlight of my week & where I do my best musing about what it means to belong to a community. Coincidentally, the books I’m sharing here have everything to do with belonging—or with longing or longing to be this or that. It’s the work of a lifetime, I know. These books were new to me & strike me as gems for exploring endless possibilities for belonging with young children.
De la Pena, Matt. Patchwork. Illus. by Corinna Luyken. 2022
Newberry winner Matt de la Pena is a revelation to me! This is the first book of his I’ve read, & it’s stunning in its bold & subtle messaging about expectation & possibility. A gender reveal can miss the mark for a boy, a dancer in pink may have her STEM skills underestimated, the class clown who can’t sit still may possess the empathy of a master teacher. Each of us is a patchwork of all we see & hear. We are not just one note, one color. Luyken’s illustrations beautifully amplify de la Pena’s text.
Eggers, Dave. Tomorrow Most Likely. Illus. by Lane Smith. 2019
I didn’t know Dave Eggers was writing picture books these days, but I did know he has a way with words. And a way with young people…& young people & words. Here the fun is in imagining what’s most likely to be seen, heard, & encountered tomorrow. From the mundane to the ridiculous in rhyme & Lane Smith’s illustrations, tomorrow never looked so silly–& appealing. We’ll all be there!
Howes, Katey. Be a Maker. Illus. by Elizabet Vukovic. 2019
A fun counterpoint to Eggers’s book about tomorrow, this one’s all about today. When you wake, what will you make, it asks? The possibilities are endless. In rhyming couplets & illustrations jam-packed with inspiration, we follow a young merry maker as she joins forces with a kindred spirit to contribute to a community playground. The entreaty to “Make a difference, shine a light. Make your town a team tonight.” is the stirring message here.
Maclear, Kyo. Story Boat. Illus. by Rashin Kheiriyeh. 2020
When is a cup or a blanket or an X drawn on cold, hard ground a home? It’s when children & families are on a desperate march to find safety somewhere away from where they’ve been–yesterday, last week, last year. I can’t imagine a more beautiful–or heartbreaking–picture book about child refugees than this. Hope is elusive, but a sense of belonging can be found in the familiar–a cup of something warm, a dream shared under a well-worn blanket, a song sung under the moon & stars. The illustrator dedicates her artwork to “all innocent Syrian children who have experienced horrible war & injustice at a young age.”
Singh, Rina. Grandmother School. Illus. by Ellen Rooney. 2020
This lively picture book by Indian-Canadian author, Singh, tells the true story of the Aajibaichi Shala, or Grandmother School, begun in 2016 in the Indian village of Phangane. A young girl shares her granny, Aaji’s, excitement for learning from morning till night—escorting her to the one-room bamboo hut where grannies in pink saris gather to learn to read & write, till the evening when they swap school stories & homework help. Aaji relishes her time learning & the new independence it affords her in the community. Her dear granddaughter celebrates each success with her.
Yang, James. A Boy Named Isamu: A Story of Isamu Noguchi. 2021
I thought the name was familiar. Noguchi’s sculpture, Black Sun, has been at home in Seattle’s Volunteer Park outside what’s now known as the Asian Art Museum since 1969. This spare story about the sculptor is as delicate as our hometown piece is dramatic. It imagines young Isamu preferring the company of nature to people, solitude to crowds. He’s drawn to the forest but also the nearby beach where he walks alone, carefully considering everything about the stones there. To Isamu (& the author-illustrator who admires him) to be alone in nature is not the same as feeling lonely. It’s a different & powerful kind of belonging.
Yang, Kao Kalia. A Map Into the World. Illus. by Seo Kim. 2019
This is a lovely collaboration between Hmong American writer, Yang & illustrator, Kim. As the seasons change, so does a young girl’s world. A meditation on all sorts of longing & belonging. There’s a new house; baby brothers she’s too small to tend & they’re too small to be fun; elderly neighbors—one of whom passes away during the snowy winter. It’s with the passage of time, a keen eye & a bucket of sidewalk chalk that she makes a friend of the lonely widower & eases the longing they’ve both felt.
Here at the beginning of a new year, I thought it might be fun to revisit my beginnings as a writer and share what I learned from those first attempts. It’s a story in three chapters.
Chapter one – The Music of Language, age 5
I am lying under the piano listening to my oldest sister practice when I find a silver letter opener on the rug. I am filled with an irresistible urge to scratch my name into the shellacked finish of the piano, but I know I will get in trouble if my mom finds it, so I carve ‘KATE,’ my two-year old sister’s name, instead.
LESSON LEARNED: Writing can be risky when your mom finds out.
Chapter two – A Dramatic Arc, age 10
I pass a note down our row to Denny Minners, the cutest boy in the fifth grade. The note says: “I like you. Do you like me? Check one: yes or no.”
Mrs. Hague confiscates my note as it makes its way back up the row. She reads it to the class. I bury my head in my sweatered arms, breathing wet wool. Denny’s answer makes it worse. He has checked “no.”
LESSON LEARNED: It’s dangerous to put your heart on paper.
Chapter three – Writing Lab, ages 15-18
Every Wednesday after dinner my dad and I go over the weekly column I write for his newspaper. My column is called Campus Letter and it’s full of news from my high school, like the Junior Statesmen of America’s straw poll (Hubert Humphrey beat Nixon 2 to 1), or the theme for the Christmas Ball (Tinsel Time).
My dad and I sit at the kitchen counter next to the just-washed dishes. He holds his black copy pencil ready. I offer up my small sheaf of freshly-typed pages.
And the lessons begin: crafting a lead sentence, writing tight, choosing the right word, checking facts – lessons usually offered with humor and affection, but sometimes freighted with his impatience which makes me cry. Dad drives home the idea that how you tell a story is as important as what the story is about. For three years we work together Wednesday nights in the kitchen. I come to know myself as a writer and as his daughter. I come to know the satisfaction of expressing myself through writing.
LESSON LEARNED: Writing is hard, but an exacting teacher who believes in you makes all the difference.
Eventually I figured out I came to the wrong conclusions in the first two chapters. I realized it’s okay to write stuff that your mom doesn’t approve of, and that stories are, truly, better if you put your heart on the page. But Dad’s weekly lessons stayed true and developed my ability to write my observations and life experiences into story.
• • • • •
I’m a believer in Maya Angelou’s advice, “When you learn, teach.” School visits give me a chance to teach kids to write their life experiences into stories.
Like the time I visited Vernonia, in the coast range of Oregon. This town of 2,200 residents had been ravaged by a catastrophic flood. Businesses and schools and hundreds of homes had flooded, requiring National Guard troops to rescue more than 200 people as the Nehalem River crested above flood levels. Teachers at the elementary school hoped I might encourage students to write about their flood experiences, to help them deal with the trauma.
I workshopped with kids in the primary grades. I talked about writing as a way to think things through. I demonstrated how I use drawing to center and generate a story before writing the text. Then I led a brainstorming session, urging kids to float back in their memories, to find a story that evokes big emotion – fear, laughter, love, anger, awe; to find a story that raised its hand to be told that day.
Surprisingly, many of the stories that offered themselves were not flood-related. Other stories loomed bigger for some kids, so, of course, that’s what they wrote about. There was a story about catching a big fish, another titled “The First Time I Jumped on my Horse Named Emily,” and another “My Mom’s Wedding.”
My favorite was “How We Built a New Rec Room” written by a second grade boy who was one of seven kids – “My dad decided he didn’t really need all of the garage,” the story began. The boy wrote how each kid helped with a part of the project. He had helped his dad with the mudding. It ended with an illustration of the whole family sitting on the sofa in the new rec room.
I was proud of these young writers who were willing to go with the memories that bubbled up and shape them into stories.
At the end of that long day of making stories with the kids at Vernonia Elementary, I was walking down the hall when a voice chirped ‘Mrs. Kaskasnosky.” I turned to see this little kid running toward me, his lunchbox in one hand, his coat hooked by the hood onto his head and flying out behind. He reached for my hand and looked up into my face. “I love you,” he said.
That’s what happens when you bring the stories that matter to the page. Happy new year and new beginnings to you all!
While I am waiting for inspiration to strike and the next project to catch my attention, I find it helps to clean my studio. There, deep in a file drawer, I dug up these six illustrations: a sort of To Do List that aims to get your creative tail wagging.
It is often said that advice you give others is advice you need to hear. This is offered in that spirit.
I know BTC (Butt To Chair) is necessary, but regular hours at your desk are not the only hours that count.
Consider the impressionist painter Claude Monet. One day he was sitting in a green chair under a blossoming apple tree in his garden at Giverny. A neighbor came by and said, “Monsieur Monet, I see you are resting.”
“No, no,” answered Monet, “I am working.”
The next day when the neighbor walked by, Monet had set up his easel and was painting away. The neighbor said, “Monsieur Monet, I see you are working.”
“You are wrong, my friend,” said Monet. “Now I am resting.”
I envy Monet this overlap of work and rest. But I expect it was easier to achieve 120 years ago when the only interruption was an occasional neighbor walking by. These days, distractions are innumerable. So here’s my advice to myself: park it AND unplug. Whether you sit on a green chair in a beautiful garden or a worn chair in a Seattle studio, turn off the phone and email and texts etc. and give the work the time it deserves. BTC. There is no substitute. BTC means you show up daily, stay on task, and follow where your mind leads.
I love that there is a word for this in German: sitzfleisch, and also in Yiddish: yechas.
Does anyone keep a writer’s notebook anymore? I have a shelf full of past years’ notebooks, but these days I capture ideas in the NOTES section of my phone. Though I no longer keep a daily journal, I am still dedicated to recording story bits as they appear. Experiences, observations, memories; if it rings your story bell, write it down. Which reminds me of writer Brenda Guiberson’s advice to pay attention to the little hairs on the back of your neck. When they stand up, you have story material. Tell Siri to put it in NOTES.
Julie Larios once taught a class in the art of the flaneur. It was great practice in tuning in. She encouraged us to collect anything that engenders a writing response: photos, memories, questions, confusions, reactions to reading, stories held in objects, candy wrappers, newspaper clippings, feelings, fast-written lists. It’s all fodder, the puzzle pieces that may assemble as a story.
Humans are story people, readers as well as writers. Think back to the books you loved and figure out why they mattered to you. Then weave those qualities into your own work. For instance, my favorite childhood book was Betty McDonald’s Nancy and Plum about two orphaned sisters. I like to think some of the push and pull of sisterhood as well as the abiding sisterly love that is in Nancy and Plum shows up in my Zelda and Ivy series. It can be helpful to look back at old photographs and home movies to help remember the child you were.
I think it was Peter Sagal on NPR who said he chose his activities for their anecdotal value, planning ahead so he’d have interesting stuff to talk about. Why not? Research and adventures feed the story mill. Plus they can be entertaining and intriguing and often humorous. Full of story potential.
Give up on conformity. Don’t limit your imagination with the fear of acceptability. Receive with gratitude anything your imagination serves up: be it beautiful, ugly, absurd, outrageous or excessive. You can always revise later.
Lots of mistakes. Think of the Wright brothers and all their failed experimenting. Let yourself fail so that you can fly. You’ve probably heard the story retold in Art and Fear about the ceramics teacher who divided his students into two groups at the beginning of the semester. Students in the ‘quality’ group each needed to produce one perfect pot to get an ‘A’. Those in the ‘quantity’ group were graded by the weight of all the pieces they created, (i.e. 50 pounds = an ‘A’). Turned out (hah!) the students who made the most pieces also created the most successful ones, meaning they produced more schlock as well as more brilliant work.
WE SAID GOOD-BYE to our sweet Izabella on September 14. For sixteen and a half years she shared our lives, including hanging out with me while I worked. My students once gave me a pad of post-its printed: “Laura Kvasnosky…writing to the tune of dog snores,” which was often true. She helped create books in many ways: providing support and comfort and inspiration, and posing as a wolf for illustrations in Little Wolf’s First Howling. We are so grateful for all the time we had with her.
In our family we give extra points for Good Use of Existing Materials. Mostly this is simplified MacGyvering, done on the fly, like substituting a paper towel when the coffee filters run out, or opening a wine bottle with a screw and a hammer when you can’t find the corkscrew.
Pajama bottoms that double as capris, an old sweater sleeve reborn as a winter hat, certainly duct tape and bungie cords put to inventive use: all qualify for GUOEM points.
This post itself should earn me some points. It’s a topic I first explored ten years ago on the now-defunct blog of the Vermont College Children’s Writing MFA program faculty. So meta.
My beloved Aunt Norma belongs in the Good Use of Existing Material Hall of Fame. She was a recycler before recycling was a thing; a model of economy and ingenuity. Consider her reuse of milk cartons, for instance. Like many, she used empty milk cartons as containers to freeze soup. But she also cut them lengthwise to hold chicken breasts which she defrosted on the floor in the front of the refrigerator to take advantage of the warm fan there. On her kitchen counter, flattened milk cartons found new life as cutting boards. In her storeroom, she organized stuff into more milk cartons.
Even her Fourth of July party featured old milk cartons. It included a Milk Carton Regatta, motored and non-motored classes, racing across her swimming pool. No milk carton went to waste at Aunt Norma’s.
In my experience, Good Use of Existing Material applies to making picture books, too. The six Zelda and Ivy books are rooted in my childhood as the middle child of five – sibling rivalry is my God-given existing material. More recently, Ocean Lullaby grew from a beach singalong with a grandson on my lap, when I looked out and wondered how the sea-animal families settle down at night. Even on vacation, existing material is waiting to be shaped into stories.
Your own particular existing material is your take on it all – what grabs your attention, what makes you laugh and shiver and cry. The task is to identify the materials we have to work with – including the metaphors, the details and even the individual words – and then to use them ingeniously, with the snick of a key in the lock, to create the story.
I expect Marie Kondo would not approve, but on a high shelf in my studio I am saving an old booklet: Poems for a Favorite Friend. It’s a collection of pieces that I wrote during my eighth-grade year and then presented as a gift to my beloved seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Woodford.
Mrs. Woodford saved my gift for forty years. It was returned to me after her death. It touches my heart that she kept it so long, but maybe I am making too much of it. This was in the pre-Kondo era and teachers are known to be notorious packrats. Plus, on close inspection, it seems the construction paper cover was never creased open as one might do to read the contents.
But in any case, the collection offers a look into my early writing self. Like my poem SNOWFLAKES, which includes these haunting lines:
People murdering, kids a’flirtering
And snowflakes still fall.
Were I Mrs. Woodford, I would have laughed out loud. Such heavy subject matter for a kid — plus she was death on what she called “desperation rhyme,” a term she may have coined with me in mind. But what I knew from her was nothing but respect.
Which I could have returned unreservedly except for her habit of tucking her Kleenex into her bra.
Mrs. Woodford created that necessary safety zone where writing – no matter how ridiculous – flourished. But she didn’t stop there. She loved to travel and her enthusiasm spilled over as we studied ancient civilizations. We chalked huge murals of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We memorized short pieces of poetry, which we recited together after the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song every morning.
We learned poems by heart that have nourished me ever since. To this day I cannot walk into the woods without intoning: This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks bearded with moss and in garments green stand like druids of eld, (from Longfellow’s Evangeline); or, in times of indecision, I find myself whispering these words from Hamlet: This above all to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
I was sitting in Mrs. Woodford’s class, watching the even loops of her handwriting slant their way across the blackboard, when we found out President Kennedy had been shot. The news came over the loudspeaker from the principal’s office. We looked to Mrs. Woodford for how to respond, how to make sense of this event. I remember that tears filled her eyes (which would undoubtedly lead her to reach into her bra for a Kleenex). She asked us to observe a minute of silence in face of this enormous tragedy. Then we sang God Bless America. The comfort of the right music at the right time. She taught us that, too.
I suppose it should be noted that Mrs. Woodford was not perfect. She overlooked it when John Klaverweiden sprayed air freshener to disperse the cooties every time Susan Edwards walked past his desk. She shamed Eddie Filiberti into crying in front of the class when she felt he was too braggy about a good grade.
But maybe that’s partly why I remember her with affection. She was a living, breathing, fallible human being, and for some reason, I knew she was on my side. She believed in me in a way that helped me believe in myself and, as it turned out, most importantly, my writing.
Research suggests that it only takes one encouraging teacher to make a writer. So I am wondering: what writing teacher made a difference for you?
Last March we returned from a week’s vacation to find our dishwasher had been leaking while we were gone. The adjacent kitchen floor was buckled, but the worst damage was in the basement below, in our storage room. Boxes of books were ruined. And worst of all, the drip had completely soaked through an apple box labeled “LUNY CLUB ARCHIVES.”
The Luny Club is a 16-year old chapter book project based on my dad’s childhood gang. As I spread out the pages to dry on our patio, my interest was reignited by photos of the original gang in their fort, 1934 calendars, print-outs from microfiche of old Oakland Tribunes, notes from interviews with the two living (since deceased) Luny Club members, print-outs of versions of the manuscript, notes from generous and careful critiquers, sketches from Marcia Paschkis of playclothes of the era, multiple lists and charts that track episodes and scenes and emotions and characters through the plot — in short, hundreds of soaking wet pages.
As I restacked the dried-out index cards and crinkly pages, I felt again the spell that this project had cast all those years ago. Could I try to shape it again? Luckily, among the pages were notes about how to write a novel. The ideas on the page titled LYNN RAE PERKINS spoke to me, so I will recount them here. Lynn is the Newbery award-winning author of Criss Cross as well as author/illustrator of many picture and chapter books. I am not sure where or when I heard her lecture, but thanks to Lynn for these ideas.
Tell in one sentence what the story is about.
Tell in five sentences what the story is about.
Find the parts you know work and put them next to each other.
See the sparks.
Make a list of episodes – what will happen and when.
Consider each episode as it relates to the premise and the concept.
Be aware of possibilities for humor – comedic timing.
The first draft is like arranging furniture or blocking a play.
After waiting all those years in the basement, I think this material is ready for reimagining. With Lynn’s ideas to guide me, I am trying synthesize my Luny Club archives into a (new) first draft. On days when rain keeps me out of the garden, I work with the text: locating episodes that I think work and putting them side by side, looking for the sparks; trying out new sequences and arrangements. It is an enormous puzzle. On sunny days outside, as I weed, mulch and plant my way into Spring, I mull the story through.
Like the garden, I hope it will thrive after a good watering.
If you have tried-and true-strategies for revision, I would love to hear them.
I am a big fan of Dolly Parton. And not just because of the video she made while getting her Covid shot to the tune of her song Jolene, lyrics reworked to “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine…” Under her fancified outer self beats a heart that’s true.
In 1995 she launched a formidable effort to raise literacy in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up: The Imagination Library. Since its inception, this book-gifting program has mailed monthly high-quality books to children from birth to age five, no matter their family’s income.
The program grew quickly and now serves children in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Ireland. As of January 2022, 174 million books had been gifted. Wow.
The books are chosen by committee and purchased in wholesale agreement with Penguin Random house. My sister Kate and I were lucky to have our book SQUEAK! included in the Imagination Library. And this year the Dollywood people created an English/Spanish edition of ISLAND LULLABY for distribution.
As you probably know, Dolly’s main gig is not literacy. She is a memorable performer and remarkable composer, known for having written Jolene and And I Will Always Love You on the same day. A ten-time Grammy winner, Dolly says, “I take myself more serious as a songwriter than anything else. I always say I’ve written about 3,000 songs and three good ones, but I just love the joy of writing.”
Now Dolly writes books, too. Monday, March 7, she and author James Patterson co-released Run, Rose, Run, a novel about navigating the music industry in Nashville. The previous Friday she had released her latest studio album with the same title.
I think it was on an American Idol show where she was the guest coach that I heard her advise a contestant, “Figure out who you are and do it on purpose.” That has sure worked for Dolly.
Here we are in a new year. I wonder if you, like me, are using this quiet Covid time to generate new writing projects?
The EMOTION door is one way into a new story. Many of my favorite picture books are powered by emotion – i.e. Where the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, The Rabbit Listened. A whole reason to read is to feel the emotion of the story. Why not cross the border to childhood and mine your own emotional geography for stories from your deepest sense of who you are, your particular take on the world?
For instance, the Zelda and Ivy series comes from my experience as the middle of five children. I earned my black belt in sibling rivalry. Those childhood incidents have provided material for six books about the fox sisters. Mostly I go for stuff that makes me laugh, but those long ago happenings evoke all five of the major emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and peevishness.
It’s a matter of feeling your way back to where the good stuff is waiting and reconnecting with experiences that provoked big emotions; experiences you found funny or scary or exasperating or intriguing or hurtful as hell.
Here are three exercises I have found useful:
1. Emotional event inventory: Look at the first ten years of your life in two or three year chunks. What significant events occurred in each chunk? Note events that hold emotion: times of great loss, disappointments, times of wonder, deep satisfactions, things that made you laugh. List objects, people, places you loved or hated or found scary or funny. Even if you are not an illustrator, it is helpful to draw this stuff, or at least describe it carefully in words, so you retrieve a mental picture – picture books are a visual medium. Then add the audio. Put the event on scene – write it in first person present tense, using dialogue and narration. Don’t be encumbered by the facts. Lie, embellish and shape your story into the best story it can be.
2. Gather evidence from family archives: Revisit home movies and photos, diaries and any other artifacts from your childhood that bring up emotion.
3. Research Your Own Life: Visit the old neighborhoods, talk to the kids you grew up with. Comb old newspapers and magazines from the places and times in which you were a child. This probably comes from my journalism background, but often research will present stories and backstories. Scratch around. It’s waiting to be discovered. You can tell something belongs in a story if it raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, as friend and fellow Seattle writer Brenda Guiberson taught me years ago. Pay attention. Some stuff is charged for some people. Who knows why? It¹s that emotional charge that will carry your story and connect to readers.
Of course, ideas are found in the present, too. In fact, think it is the synergy of experiences and observations across a lifetime that gives a story juice. Crafting a story is a way to make sense of it all: to savor and honor some memories, and to provide closure and put to rest others.
We’re back in the grey tunnel of winter here in Seattle, a tunnel made even darker by the gloom of 20 months of Life Under Covid. When it all gets too heavy, I turn to the GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS file I keep on my phone: a list that proves sometimes the world works the way it should. Let’s take a moment to celebrate these individuals who make a difference. Might lift your spirits, too.
The dad and his son in early Spring ushering a mother duck and her eight ducklings across several city blocks — stopping traffic as needed — to get them all safely to Green Lake.
The grandpa and grandson walking to school one Fall day, holding hands plus each one with a grandpa-sized glove on their outside hand – so all four hands were warm.
The woman dropping off a bag of beautiful handknit hats at the local fabric store that was putting together donations for people without houses.
The grey-haired lady at the post office mailing 185 postcards to Georgia voters before the November 2019 election.
From a pre-Covid school visit: A little girl bent over in a wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. As she rolled along with a line of kids, she was the one to say to me. “I hope you have a nice day at our school.”
From a visit to Emerald City Smoothie with my triplet grandnephews: When it was our turn at the register, we were slow getting our order organized. Instead of getting annoyed, the guy behind us reached forward with his credit card and treated us.
And kudos to these kind people I read about:
The chain of 900 drive-thru customers at the Dairy Queen in Brainerd, Minnesota, last winter who each purchased the meal for the car behind them. The chain went on over two and a half days, finally ending when one customer said he didn’t have enough money to pay for the order behind him, which cost more than his, at a point that the restaurant was out of carry-over funds left by other customers.
The family that created a stick library for dogs. Every neighborhood should have one.
The Southwest Airlines gate steward who returned a Buzz Lightyear doll to a young passenger, after photographing the doll’s adventures in the airport.
“The Don Quixote of Brooklyn” who tilts at plastic bags. This former middle school teacher, now traveling poet, created the Snatcherlator, a 20’ extendable pole that aids his efforts. His quest? To remove garbage from the branches of trees throughout the city.
And the Canadian vet who came to the rescue of an Army wife who was driving her two kids and two dogs and a cat 4,000 miles from Georgia to Alaska to reunite with her husband when she was met with whiteout conditions in British Columbia with 1,000 miles still to go. Kudos to the bigger group of vets in Alaska who paid for his ticket back home, as well.
Not to mention MacKenzie Scott’s $6 billion in gifts. Gotta respect someone who takes the old adage to heart: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
I welcome more items to my GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS list. Please add your stories in the comments.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.