Category Archives: Art and Life

The Teacher Appears When the Student is Ready

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, warts and all – in fact she did have a warty/mole thing on her left cheek – 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?

Parataxis, Hypotaxis and other fun ways to help your writing do what you want

Elana Arnold

Intention and Attention. Two grabby words that author Elana Arnold used to start a recent SCBWI talk on grammar and syntax—two very non-grabby words, even for those of us who love words and writing.

But Arnold encouraged those listening to pay attention anyway, as she explained things like parataxis, hypotaxis and other ways to help make your writing what you intend.

“Just centering these words (intention and attention) lights up our brains and gets us to notice things we might not otherwise notice and might get us to try things we might not otherwise think to try,” Arnold said.

Arnold covered a lot of ground in her talk, but parataxis and hypotaxis were new to me. I use them all the time but never knew they had specific names. 

So what are they?

Parataxis: a literary technique in writing or speaking that favors short simple sentences or phrases without conjunctions or use just coordinating conjunctions And what are those you might ask (as I did)? They are things  like and, but, or, as, for, so, yet to connect two parallel words or clauses or sentences.

It’s the para part of parataxis—the root of which means side by side. It suggests that each element mentioned is equally important. Nothing subordinates or goes beneath anything else. The two statements go side by side. Okay, some examples.

Elana used her own picture book An Ordinary Day.

It was an ordinary day in the neighborhood.

There was Mrs. LaFleur, overwatering her roses.

There were Kia and Joseph, attempting to catch lizards

There was Magnificant the Crow letting everyone know that she saw what they were doing and that she did not approve.

Across the street, two houses sat unusually quiet.

At almost the same time, a car pulled up to each.

From one car came a woman. She had a stethoscope draped around her neck and she carried a little bag. From the other car came a man. Like the woman he wore a stethoscope around his neck and he carried a little bag.

The book follows this pattern of simple, mostly declarative sentences as it eventually makes the case that this actually an extraordinary day in the neighborhood involving two equal mysteries.

According to Arnold, parataxis gives your writing some effects to pay attention to:

– It can add mystery because you’re not giving the reader information as to which thing is more important so it allows the reader to figure it out themselves.

– It can help your writing feel simple and straightforward, which is often a great tool when you’re writing about something that is not simple and not straightforward.

– It’s a great way to trim fat. It create a choppy staccato rhythm. So you can use it to give a character a distinctive way of speaking in contrast to a character who uses hypotaxis—which we’ll get to in a minute. 

Arnold says when she first wrote An Ordinary Day, she wasn’t thinking: Parataxis, I’m writing parataxis. But later, after her initial draft, she realized what she was doing and in rewrites handled this element more consciously creating an straightforward, but powerful children’s book about the two biggest mysteries in life: birth and death.

Okay, now for:

Hypotaxis: As all you smart people out there have already figured out, it’s kind of the opposite.

Hypotaxis is subordination of one clause to another within sentences or a passages. The technique uses subordinating conjunctions like: although, after, before, because, how, if, once, since, so that, until, unless, when.

Here’s a definition that I found on the MasterClass website: Hypotactic sentence construction uses subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns to connect a sentence’s main clause to its dependent elements. By explicitly defining a clear connection and order between the clauses through syntactic subordination, hypotactic sentences establish a hierarchy of importance, essentially ranking each clause in the sentence.

And here is an example of it’s use, also from MasterClass:

Among the innumerable practices by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a new composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre. This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability. Samuel Johnson

So what does Hypotaxis get you? It can help create a sense of interconnection and dependence. An if/then relationship that Arnold used in another soon-to-be-released picture book. The conjunction “because” used over and over in a “this is the house that Jack built” structure shows all the steps it took for a child to end up with wooden blocks he plays with.

Arnold was running out of time, so couldn’t go into this technique in depth, but I feel that it can buy you a more discerning voice. It can ask the reader to make fine distinctions and follow complex reasoning. It’s a good voice for figuring out how the world works and what one’s values are. And as you can see from the Samuel Johnson example, it’s a great tool for irony and cynicism. 

But it’s also a valuable tool for simpler writing. Many a picture book as been moved along by conjunctions like then, when, because, if…

I like how Arnold ended her talk. She noted that when she’s evaluating her writing “my very favorite question is does this satisfy me?

“If the answer is no, this is not yet satisfying to me, then, the question is, how can I move one notch closer to being satisfied by the syntax and then your whole job is to just get one tick closer to satisfying, and then the next time you go through it, just one tick more. ‘No’ is not a bad thing; that means that there’s room to play.”

Happy writing!

ELANA K. ARNOLD is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets. 

My Brain on Spring

My brain in winter mode –
Professor Richard Macksey’s home library in Baltimore, MD…
My brain in spring mode: Skagit Valley Daffodils (Edmund Lowe, photographer)

At the coming of spring, I go from mostly INSIDE myself (blanket, book, sofa, the smell of hot cocoa, and a mental image of the personal library. above) to mostly OUTSIDE myself (garden, seed packets, blue sky, the smell of fresh dirt.) Sweet peas (pretty) have been planted; raspberries (yumm) have been transplanted (fingers crossed); sugar snap peas (yumm again) are in; tulips, grape hyacinths and forsythia are blooming under pink cherry and white almond trees. Even my daphne bushes survived the big freezes (multiple) of Winter 2022.

As the weather warms and flowers bloom, I’m inclined to share more. So here are a few links, and my reasons (other than red tulips in bloom) for sharing them:

  1. I love the work of local photographer Edmund Lowe (see photo of the Skagit Valley daffodil fields, above.) When I look at his photos I not only see his world, I also hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. All art is a conjuring of the senses, isn’t it? No matter the medium (including writing!) we want to link our bodies to the story. Here is a link to his website.
  2. I want to share Julie Danielson’s examination of Corinna Luykens and her 2017 book, The Book of Mistakes. At Danielson’s blog “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.” Luykens makes an artist’s case for having fun and letting go of anxieties, specifically those that involve making mistakes with your work. An accidental smudge, a disproportionate head? Serendipitous mistakes, says Luykens, often take you exciting places. And if you’re interested in children’s literature in general, check out Danielson’s blog . It’s not to be missed.

3. Another sharable favorite: Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis. This is my kind of book, 100%. How did I manage to miss a careful reading of Carson Ellis in all my years with kids books? Her work is relatively new to me, and I’ve had a ball reading it (Home is the most popular, I think, but don’t miss In the Half Room.) Imagine being a fly on the wall when Du Iz Tak was pitched to its editor: “Well, it’s a story told completely in a made-up bug language. No, there’s isn’t a translation; no, there isn’t any explanation. It’s all just bug gibberish.” Of course, the read-aloud inflections and the illustrations provide clues about what these strange words mean. Many picture books stay soft and quiet, but this one makes you laugh out loud. Here’s a link to the Kirkus Review, which locates a deeper meaning. Personally, I’m satisfied with the wordplay.

4. From the Archives: a fascinating look at the life and work of Ursula LeGuin, by Julie Phillips, in the New Yorker a few days after Le Guin died. “An author’s business is lying,” she wrote for the introduction of The Left Hand of Darkness. Reade this article and see if you agree. If you already love Le Guin, I recommend her book of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.

 “As great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.” (U.LeGuin)

A bit of trivia: The photographer and all three of the authors mentioned in #1-4 live/lived in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon and Washington, west of the Cascade Range. Is it the fresh air we breathe here that keeps our imaginations stimulated? I say yes.

5. Do you know the work of Nicole Appel? Read about her and get a look at what she draws here.

6. Not from the Pacific Northwest but from a part of the world we all have our minds on: the Ukrainian illustrator Maria Prymachenko (several spellings but Wikipedia goes with this one.) Thanks to Jama Kim Rattigan, a Facebook friend, for the heads-up – Jama has been posting many pictures by Ukrainian artists. Below is a piece of Prymachenko’s art. She worked mainly in embroidery and ceramics.

I know we’re holding in our hearts all the people who are suffering in that part of the world right now. Please do what you can to help them – perhaps a donation to UNICEF, for the children?

[Update from Wikipedia; “The Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, where several works by Prymachenko were held, was burned during the ongoing 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the supposed loss of 25 of her works. However, according to a social media post by journalist Tanya Goncharova, local people were able to save some of Prymachenko’s works from the fire. According to an interview with Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter, Anastasiia Prymachenko, in The Times, ten of her works were saved by a local man who entered the museum whilst it was on fire.” ]

The Pleasure of a Book Group

 

Why We Swimkillers-of-the-flower-moon  hamnet 

The Wonder  Water Wood Wild Things  The Leavers

Akin  Fine Just the Way It Is Song of the Lark

  Little  Paper Palace

BOOKS WE READ THIS YEAR

As the end of this sometimes difficult/sometimes hopeful year approaches, I begin to feel a number of New Year’s Resolutions sneaking up on me. I capitalize “Resolutions” because those little buggers need the insistence and ferocity of a capital “R”; my track record with resolutions is not stellar. I often break them by January 2nd. But it’s a new year, so new goals, right?

Some of the goals are about my relationship with my body. I’m 72 and this relationship, like any relationship that lasts decades, includes fondness, irritation, misunderstandings, boredom, and laughter.  Bodies are strange things, no? Frankly, I’ve always been better friends with – and kinder to – my brain. Brains can also wear out, of course – that thought scares me more than mortality.

I don’t want my brain wearing out, and I hear it’s good for brain health to keep the brain active. One resolution I feel coming on is this: READ MORE BOOKS. Not that I haven’t been reading in bits and pieces, but as some of my blog posts suggest, my attention has been brief and scattered. Articles here and there. Headlines, Commentary. Opinions. Reviews. Interviews. Cartoon captions. An essay about the joys of Rome or a googled article about how electrical circuits work. Fluttering and jumping. Snippets and bits.

But I’ve been lazy and undisciplined about books. What’s that about? Pandemic fatigue? I don’t have the answer(s) yet. Might not ever figure it out, but I’m going to try to get the joy back. I remember reading several books a month – even big, generational narratives –  and loving them when I was younger. Would I read One Hundred Years of Solitude now? Probably not, and what a loss that would be. Lately, if a book is long and challenging, and I’m reading it on my own, I abandon it.

Here is my working theory: I need to talk about books with people. Especially novels, which I find, pro forma, challenging. Non-fiction, easy: the real world is intriguing. But fiction? I need to talk about fiction. That way, I can see characters and authorial strategies from a different point of view. If I’ve disliked a novel and someone else has liked it, why would that be? Have I missed something? Have I read carelessly? Have I neglected a good story because I’m too hooked on style? Too hooked on reality, too suspicious of the imagination?

Luckily, I have a group of friends I talk with about books.  Over the last year, the books we’ve chosen have honestly been the only books I’ve read cover to cover. Maybe my resolution to read more books is actually a resolution to pay attention to other books the way I pay attention to the ones I read and discuss with friends.

We’ve been meeting monthly for ten years – Zooming, for the last year and a half. Books we’ve discussed have ranged from classics to recently published books, from old favorites and small gems to big bestsellers. We’ve never established parameters about the way the books would be chosen, haven’t made rules about the way we would talk about them. We simply decided that each person, in turn, would pick out a book that the group would read. Some of the book choices have surprised us – we ended up not enthusiastic about some we thought we would love, and we absolutely loved a few we initially were unsure of (Hannah Kirshner’s Water, Wood and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town – who expected that to become one of our favorites this year?)

Over the last ten years, we’ve read between eight and ten books per year. We’ve turned mixed reactions over and around in our discussions. I’ve come to think of our conversations the same way i think about going to museum exhibits – enjoying them most when I’m with someone who likes a piece that I’ve approached with disinterest. Those familiar questions come out:  Have I missed something? Have I looked at the exhibit carelessly? Have I too often privileged style over substance? Is there something I can learn from this? The person I’m with (often my sister, who studied art in college) invariably knows a few more details than I do about technique, about effect, about effort, about the life of the artist. I listen and become interested. I find new footing. I grow. So it is with my book club.  Without fail, someone adds an observation that gives me a new perspective.

In 2021, we read eleven books. I’ve put their covers up at the beginning of this post. Loved some, disliked others, was bored by some, couldn’t put others down. Looked forward each time to hearing what friends thought of of a story, and why they thought what they thought. I heard people mention things about the book I hadn’t thought about. Loved re-viewing the book after their comments. A new member is joining us this month, and I look forward to getting to know her through books. 

As for the resolution I feel coming on: If I read eleven books this last year, can I put aside the snippets and bits long enough to double that number, or triple it? Can I re-engage with longer reading? Re-engage with novels? Re-connect with more people to get a discussion going? Maybe the bottom line in that resolution is “reconnect with more people.” I moved to a new town not too long ago and barely got settled in – I’m slow when it comes to settling in – before the pandemic began and new friendships went on hold. Maybe it’s time for me to join the local library’s book club.  Make new book friends, keep the wonderful old book friends. And give another old friend, my brain, more of a workout.

Heritance: The Film

(updated December 23, 2021 with the film link)

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, although I am still a participating member of our Books Around The Table group. I needed a blogging break. But I have been busy with various other projects, and I am excited to tell you about one of those projects here.

Though not related to children’s books, it still deals with narrative. The big difference is that this time the story is told through movement and costume, rather than pictures and words.

I have posted before about my textile work on our blog here and here. When I was first experimenting with garments as a form of storytelling, one of the first test garments I made was this:

There is an engineering challenge to sewing conjoined garments. I like to make my mistakes on a prototype if I can (although I still make lots of wrong turns in the final piece as well).

That experimental piece led to these, among others:

But I kept looking at that first test piece and imagining how dancers might use it to show the transference of love, knowledge, and life experience from one person to another, like the relationship between a mother and daughter – or how I feel as both daughter, and mother. Memento mori…

Could a dance piece be part of my garment work? Could there be live performances to coincide with an art show?

I met with dance artist Erica Badgeley to talk about the idea. I asked her for a budget estimate to choreograph and produce a short dance piece (five to ten minutes) for a few live performances, set to music by cellist Gretchen Yanover. Then I applied for an Artist’s Project grant through 4Culture in hopes of getting funds to pay the artists involved, buy supplies, and perhaps rent an exhibit space. The grant deadline was March 4th, 2020.

I got the grant.

But in the meantime, COVID-19 had happened. By the time I was notified, we were in full pandemic mode. The plan to have live performances had to be scrapped for the foreseeable future. Could we videotape the dance and show that virtually instead?

I didn’t know then that Erica had been studying how to create dance films. She was excited about this new direction. So, rather than looking for exhibit options, we looked for a videographer and filming location.

Erica began choreographing. We met in my backyard, outdoors, masked, socially distanced…

Lucie Baker was brought in to dance the duet with Erica

(that’s the original test garment in the foreground)

I started working on designing and building the costumes.

Devin Muñoz agreed to be our videographer.

(Devin filming during rehearsal at Open Flight Studio)

We filmed the final footage at the Bitters Co. barn in the Skagit Valley, where the work that came out of that first experimental garment was shown in 2019. Full circle, in more ways than one.

Erica then took on the formidable task of compiling and editing the hours of video footage provided by Devin.

A year-and-a-half later, the 16-minute film, ‘Heritance,’ is complete! Here is the trailer:

And you can see it soon!

We are hosting two free online film release events:

Thursday, December 9th at 8pm PST, and Sunday, December 12th at 11:00am PST.

Sign up here for one or both events! Erica and I will talk a bit about our work on the project, we will screen the video, and then open up for Q & A.

(Erica Badgeley and Lucie Baker, resting in character between takes)

By George, she’s got it (and you can, too)

The longer I’ve been a writer, the more I’ve come to trust my intuition. I wish I’d had more faith in it sooner or, rather, understood earlier what a powerful compass it is. It’s funny because it’s something I’ve always used in critiquing the work of others. I can tell quickly if the story of a student has gone off the mark because I’ll feel it. It’s not an intellectual knowing. It’s the reader in me who simply wants to stay interested in a story.

Recently I attended a Zoom seminar by best-selling mystery writer Elizabeth George, best known for her Detective Inspector Lynley novels. I’ve heard George speak a few times and you’d be hard pressed to find a writer who is more exacting about her writing process than George. She maintains lengthy files on major characters, their biographies, their behavior, motivations, important scenes and developments not just for one book but for the course of the still-growing series. With some twenty Detective Inspector Lynley novels, keeping track of who said what to whom fourteen books back is a challenge. (George’s self-described tendency toward OCD has to be helpful.)

She is equally exacting when it comes to editing her work. Unlike most writers she doesn’t belong to a writing group, instead she’s figured out her own precise process. 

George’s manuscripts undergo three readings before she sends them to her agent. The first read is what she calls the Fast Read.

George prints out her manuscripts then sits down with a hard copy (often 700 pages or more) and a pad of Post-It notes. Even if it takes all day she tries, if possible, to read the new mss. in one long sitting, looking for things like:

– repetition of words, expressions, moments, actions, settings (she doesn’t want to forget that the same two characters have had a conversation at that same little coffee shop described in the same way four times now)

– accurate chronology

– things she forgot to put in

– unnecessary characters or themes

– inadequacy of themes or characterizations

She writes notes to herself on the Post-Its , not on the manuscript. She’s very specific about that, although I didn’t get a chance to find out why. Then it’s time for the Slow Read. She’s looking for the same things, but now she rereads the mss. over the course of several days. And now she also looks for:

 – things to cut

– she takes each POV character and pulls out all the scenes with that character looking for consistency of attitude, voice, arc, eye color, etc.

She asks herself:

– Have I proved my premise?

– Have I fully illustrated my theme?

– Have I touched reader’s emotions?

– Are there characters in conflict?

– Would human relations really be like this?

– Does the character grow, change or learn something?

Then she puts the book back together and asks some more questions of herself:

– Does story start in right place?

– Are events and scenes causally related?

– Is the climax exciting? Is there a “bang in the bang”?

– Is there a resolution?

– Is there justice in the end? Psychological, judicial or physical justice?

– Are characters fully revealed at the end?

– Any anticlimaxes? In other words, has she failed to deliver on story promises?

– Used the right POVS?

– Used the right voice for each POV?

– Avoided obvious, unnecessary dialog such as hello, come on in, how’re you? etc.

Then she writes herself an editorial letter, telling herself what needs to be fixed, what clunks, what works, what she needs more of, less of. The kind of detailed letter a good editor might send you.

Finally, she starts rewriting, but, no, it’s still not done. She now sends the revised manuscript out for a third read, what she calls the Cold Read. According to George, the important thing to look for in this reader is someone who has not seen the story in any of its versions, and someone you are sure has no axe to grind. For George it’s been the same reader for some 33 year–a friend she taught with when she was a high school English teacher.

George, naturally, has a specific approach to the Cold Read, too. She provides her reader with an open set of questions and a sealed envelope, not to be opened until the reader has finished the book.

For the set of questions, she asks her reader to mark up the hard copy of the mss. with symbols. She keeps it simple—for example, jot down B when bored, ! when you think you know who the killer is, P if something feels wrong or inadequate about the setting (P is for place). 

Then the reader opens the mystery envelope and here George asks questions more specific to that particular manuscript, such as are there too many scenes in Havers’ point of view? Did I prove my point?

Now she writes what she hopes is her third and (final?) draft. Whew!

But the truly interesting thing for me in all of this was to learn that George, despite her exacting process, when all is said and done, relies on plain old gut feeling.

“I listen to my body.”

In particular, she’s notices a feeling of dread. She may not know yet what it is, but that feeling tells her something is wrong and she jots that moment down. I call that moment of dread, “a niggle”. It’s a tiny twinge inside that’s saying something is wrong here, something isn’t working, something is tripping me up. I hadn’t put a word to how that often feels, but “dread” is right.

Why “dread”? Well, for me, it’s the dread of needing to rewrite and not knowing how to fix it. I don’t want to do it! If I’d known how to do it right I would have done that in the first place! The more experience I’ve had, the less I truly dread this. I have more confidence in my ability to eventually figure it out (really the ability of my subconscious to figure it out) or, if it comes to it, to know when to give up.

I call on my intuition more quickly than George. I often rewrite as I work, but it’s because I’m having that same feeling of things not working. When I dread plunging back into that scene, when it bores even me–the creator, when it won’t take me naturally to the next scene—it’s time to stop and rethink. 

I’ve come to realize more and more, it all comes down to what your gut (or maybe that headache or that niggling worry) is telling you. Don’t be afraid of it, any more than you’re afraid when you read a library book and realize you’re bored or confused or annoyed. All you have to do is note it, come back to it and make it better. (Hey, that’s all! 😉

THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:

I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.

I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?

“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”

She glances my way.

“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.

That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.

“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.

“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”

Now the boys behind us are listening, too.

“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.

But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.

“And then I woke up,” I say.

“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.

“Yes.”

She doesn’t play with me at recess.

I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.

I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)

To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.

But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.

Contributed by Laura Kvasnosky, no lie.

Bring out the toys and the dreams

Maybe it’s burnout from the quarantine or the accumulation of years of working or maybe I’m just extra aware these days, but so many people around me are wishing that they could get back to play and to joy, not only in their lives, but in their work.

Back in March for Books Around the Table, I wrote about some of the ideas that children’s author Laurel Snyder shared about how she brought play back into her work. Check it out here.

Here’s a grab bag of some of Snyder’s other suggestions

Back to the toy box

Remember those dolls you loved as a kid? Or the stuffed animals or the Legos or the GI Joe doll? If you’re reading this, you’re probably a storyteller and that’s what your toys were all about. Stories. Adventures. Created worlds. According to Snyder, maybe it’s time to bring them back into your life.

Snyder’s particular love as a child was paper dolls to the point where she made her own. She also loved all kinds of other dolls from the chubby cheeks of Madame Alexander dolls to Barbie’s sculpted cheekbones. In her grown-up office, she has a doll house where she routinely creates different scenarios. I couldn’t quite determine if the scenarios always related to a book she was working on or if the dolls were having a life of their own in that house. Either way, childhoods toys can bring back pure play into the art of storytelling.

Time travel

Remember how it felt to be called to the front of the class to give a report? Or when your best friend was suddenly with someone else at recess? Or the first time someone you actually knew actually died? 

Some people can readily put themselves back into their childhoods. Some of us think we can, but maybe we’ve forgotten the real intensity of what we felt or the questions and worries that flooded our minds. 

One way to get back the feelings of childhood is to put yourself back there. You can dream yourself back there through thoughtful remembering. But even better, how about getting down on the ground and back into a childhood perspective? What comes back if you sit under the dining room table? What happens to time if you lie on the grass and study that scrambling ant all the way back to the nest? What’s it like to sit on your kitchen floor and stare up at that glass on the counter? What would it feel like to reach for it with the very tips of your fingers?

Once in awhile I get back to my hometown of Wenatchee and drive by the house I grew up in. I’m lucky. My neighborhood was declared an historic district and there is an effort to preserve the houses there, so it looks much the same as it did when I was a child. So much comes flooding back on those visits. How long has it been since your visited a place from your childhood or looked at those old report cards or took out that crumbling prom corsage?

Keep a story box

JK Rowling did this for her first Harry Potter book. She kept a box (eventually a pretty big box) full of writing—random thoughts, inspirations, scenes, details on scraps of paper. It included hundreds of ideas about the world she was creating–the look of a character, the rules of magic,  major plot turns, interesting names. This is what she turned to when she started work on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

For your story box, Snyder suggests mementos. A stone from the beach that your character lives on or an oddity that simply, for now, just intrigues you or a button that might go on the great-aunt’s dress. The idea is another way to get at what it is you’re trying to do with your story, through the fun of simply collecting interesting things.

Enter your world through its small details

I loved this bit of advice from Snyder. We can spend a lot of our time picturing the castle, the mountain pass, the monsters and the maps of our world, but maybe we can enter it even more fully through the knickknack on the Queen’s bedside table. 

The details are so much fun to dream about. They don’t require quite the same effort as setting up a tricky plot turn. E.B. White devoted entire lovely paragraphs to the details of Charlotte’s world. I just have to believe it was his love of that sleeping barn and the smells and the sounds that really informed the entire story of Charlotte’s Web from the wonderful characters of Templeton or the geese to Wilbur’s love of slops and leisure to the general sense of love and affection that infused the entire tone and voice of the book. I bet it all began with the smell of manure and hay, and the warmth of that patch of sunlight on the broad back of a pig.

Let’s escape…

The last two weeks have been doozies (since I was born in 1906, I get to say that… jk which is a newer bit of slang). Anyway, I’m not feeling like being very serious right now. So let’s escape. In my collection of images about books and reading there are lots of repeating motifs and themes–books and cats, reading and cafes, books and beds, books and birds, reading and women, etc.–but probably the overwhelming theme is escape into another world, into self, into peace.

So this week let’s go. Let’s run away together.

Illustration by Iker Ayerstaran

Illustration by Tuylek

Illustration by Joost Swarte

Illustration by Caroline Magerl

Illustration by Javier Naverette

Photo by Hesham Alhumaid

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Achiki

Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli

Illustrator not known (anybody recognize?)

Illustration by Remy Coutarel

Purchase in haste, repent at leisure. Shopping during quarantine

So, I bought a few things during the quarantine this spring. Items that seemed to make great sense at the time, but now, I’m not so sure…

Several were grounded in good intentions:

I know! I’ll make agua fresca like they do in Mexico! You see the jugs and jars and pitchers of water and sugar mixed with fruits, flowers or seeds everywhere. Such a good idea. So much better than the sodas we drink in the U.S.

I’ll drink more water and, somehow vaguely in my mind, was a picture of how pleasant it would be at get-togethers in my home to use this handsome water dispenser. Never mind that nobody was getting together for anything anymore.

I was pretty good for about three weeks trying to find just the right blend of lemon or lime or cucumber for my water. Doesn’t this look refreshing?

Disclaimer: item never looked like this in my home.

Here is my actual dispenser, looking as it has looked for about three months now.

My daughter kindly tries not to smirk when she sees it still here on my counter. I haven’t given up, it will rise again!

Then there was the idea to do intermittent fasting to lose weight. My regimen called for no food for 16 hours (which will kick your body into fat-burning ketosis) then an 8 hour window for all the eating you can cram in. It’s simple: stop food at 8 in the evening and then nothing but water or black coffee until noon the next day.

But I really like to start my day with a latte. But its cream and sugar will kick me out of ketosis. But I can’t start my day without something. What to do?

Butter coffee! A blend of coffee, grass-fed butter—a lot of people use ghee—and coconut oil which “produces a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top” that doesn’t involve the type of carbs that stop ketosis.

Is it truly a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top?  I have no idea. As you can see from this unopened jar of ghee, I haven’t managed either the intermittent fasting or the butter coffee. It turns out it’s fairly complicated to fix butter coffee. It’s been easier to just stay fat.

See this unopened box?

It’s an altar. A meditation altar. Someday, any day now, it will be adorned with things that represent the four elements and a fifth component: spirit.

Incense or feathers or a photo of clouds for air. Some pretty rocks and minerals for earth. Candles for fire. A chalice or maybe a tiny little fountain to represent water. For spirit: a picture of a loved one or a spiritual master or a copy of an inspiring quote or a Hubble deep field image.

The possibilities for imagination, beauty and inspiration are endless. Any day now I will have an altar perfectly set up to gather dust just as this box has for the last three months.

Several of my quarantine purchases were more sensible, supporting vital research for my mystery novel in progress.

For example, this lock picking kit.

Yes, it’s surprising easy to pick locks—at least in principle. It takes only a few simple tools and techniques, but, of course, in practice it’s quite hard as you have to develop just the right feel for it. I have managed to get the padlock open several times, but that’s the only lock I’ve had success with. I messed around with various locks around my house for awhile until it dawned on me that maybe all my scraping and poking wasn’t doing my locks any good.

I watched numerous videos by lock picking masters. Then I watched one by the supposed masters of breaking in and mostly they didn’t bother with picking a lock  at all, it was usually easier to simply remove the door.

Here’s my most expensive purchase of the quarantine. Creepy, right?

It’s a fake baby bump. One of the characters in my novel is pregnant but it’s been 30 years since I was pregnant and I’ve forgotten a lot of the little details of hauling what amounts to at least a 20 pound backpack in front of you.

But before I got around to putting it on for research, I had a brilliant idea for a gag. A small family get-together was in the works (yes, all Covid precautions in place). We hadn’t seen each other in person for nearly four months. My plan was to put on my “bump,” walk into the gathering without saying a word, and then casually mention that I’d put on a bit of weight during the lock-down.

It was mostly aimed at seeing how my brother would react. I mean, here I was looking fat as hell and I sure was past baby carrying age. How many people have fake baby bumps lying around. At the least, it would flummox said brother for one delicious minute, wouldn’t it? Heh, heh. But, sadly, on the day of the party, it suddenly felt too mean. I renounced my prank. Sigh.

So the first time I’ve actually worn my baby bump was a day ago when I put it on for this photo. Is it uncomfortable, hot, heavy, bulky, clumsy? Yes. Being pregnant did indeed come rushing back.

Now I come to my pièce de résistance. My  most unlikely-to-be used purchase of the season. One gloomy day in April, maybe six weeks, into quarantine. This suddenly seemed like a great idea:

What is it? It’s a puzzle isn’t it? But, of course, it’s an acupressure mat and neck pillow set.  Yes, it’s bristling with “acupressure points,” otherwise known as a bed of nails. (Life time guarantee! And lightweight design makes it convenient for travel!)

Does it provide back and neck pain relief, headache and stress relief? Does it relax your body and mind? Does it improve circulation?

I couldn’t say for sure. I tried it for the first and only time this morning. But it’s actually not that uncomfortable. I haven’t progressed to the stage where I lie on it on a hardwood floor, yet. But I can nap on it as I consider all the good intentions I’ve purchased and failed to accomplish during quarantine.

 

P.S. anyone looking for a very slightly used baby bump?