Category Archives: Art and Life

Musing on the Muse

What’s your muse like?

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

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

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

I wrote this post over seven years ago and thought it was worth updating and posting again. Although I’m not sure my muse is this bespectacled girl anymore. Maybe more like an amorphous cloud with flashes of lightning?

Whoever or whatever your muse is, chances are you struggle like all creative people to tap into its powers. Sometimes the words and images flow, sometimes it’s like that Disney ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” where the pirates keep trying unsuccessfully to lure a mutt to bring them the jailer’s keys.

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

Take a look at these two images for a second.

donkey sunflower.009

According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, odds are good that as you look your brain is beginning to construct a narrative, a story, a reason why these two images go together. And it isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could be joined into a story, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.

rhino teeth.010

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection. Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in as we work to make sense of what’s happening around us. If we see a chimpanzee running past us in the jungle, it could be important for our survival to figure out what it’s running from. If we see a panther running by next–that’s one story. If we see a clown car next–that’s a lot less scary story (depending, of course, on how you feel about clowns).

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

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

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

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

Human head silhouette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful women in the hammock on the beach

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

The way I first heard it described years ago was “bed, bath and bus.” Do something mindless, repetitive and meditative. In other words, allow yourself to muse and maybe that mutt will bring you the keys.

Sniffing Around for a Story

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.

Rest in peace, sweet pup.

GOOD USE OF EXISTING MATERIAL

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.

MacGyver was a television series about an undercover government agent who preferred to fight crime with ingenious feats of engineering rather than lethal force.

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.

Kinda like Macgyver.

– LMK

A rose for Mary Poppins: thorns and All

Back in the day, growing up, devouring books and dreaming of writing one of my own someday, authors didn’t do school visits or post on social media. Certainly none lived next door to me. How could they be anything as mundane as a “neighbor”? As far as I knew, all authors were either A) dead or B) living amazing lives in a mysterious somewhere else. They certainly weren’t living in Wenatchee, Washington. No, they were wiser, funnier, more interesting and just all around more wonderful than other humans.

A couple months ago I went to California for my 50th college reunion and was reminded of the first time I met a real live author. Not only an author, but one of the more exalted among them for me–namely PL Travers,  author of the Mary Poppins books I’d loved as a child. I was so excited to learn that she would be visiting my dorm and having dinner with the students. Scripps was small, only about 400 students, and each dorm had sit-down dinners in small dining halls. I’m not sure how it came about but of the seven students at the table, I was seated right next to Ms. Travers. 

I couldn’t believe my luck and the second I sat down I turned to her and began to gush about how much I loved her books. I had a million questions that I was sure Travers would be eager to discuss with me. Sadly, she was not eager at all. In fact, she could barely muster a response. She was clearly not interested in discussing anything with any of the young women seated at the table. She ate beside us in rather forbidding silence and left as soon as she finished her meal.

I was crushed and rapidly revising my idea of how wonderful authors were. My one small consolation from that evening? As I finished my dinner, much more subdued than when I’d started it, I began to help the student server with clearing the table. And that’s when I realized that the heavy glass salt and pepper shakers was missing. No one could find them.

Had Ms. Travers taken it? Was it a magical sign of some sort, like the tokens the Banks children would discover after every Mary Poppins adventure, even as Poppins would deny they’d had any such escapade? Or (perhaps even more exciting to my then 21-year-old imagination) was the famous PL Travers a secret klepto? 

The vanished salt shaker somehow redeemed the evening for me. But it wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me to do a little research on Ms. Travers.

Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia, she changed her name Pamela Lyndon Travers later in life. Travers was her father’s first name and for some reason her friends called her Pamela. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times she used initials in her pen name because “so often very sentimental books are written by women, supposedly for children, and I didn’t want to be lumped together with those.”

Her frosty behavior to me was totally in keeping with her character (and, of course, the character of Mary Poppins). But it was substantially less child-friendly in real life. Never married, Travers was involved in various relationships including a liaison at 25 with a 57-year-old Irish playwright and various other affairs with both men and women. On her own at age 40 she decided to adopt a child and was offered twin baby boys, but she couldn’t decide between them. The children’s grandfather suggested that she take both: “They are only small.” But Travers took just one; never told the boy that he was adopted or had a twin brother. At 17, her son discovered the truth and according to various accounts Travers’ lie put an intense strain on their relationship. Both boys ended up alcoholics, as was Travers’ father—a failed banker (unlike the responsible, successful banker, Mr.Banks in the Poppins books.)

She had a mystical streak, studying Zen Buddhism, mythology and fairy tales. According to an article by Joseph Hone, the older brother of the boy Travers adopted and who later got to know Travers, “after she adopted Camillus, she occupied herself with her increasingly difficult ‘son’ while looking for answers to both their problems by immersing herself in arcane philosophies, fairytales, myths, legends, dodgy health cures and Jungian panaceas. She was encouraged by an assortment of usually charlatan gurus and sages, most notably the caviar-guzzling, Armagnac-tippling Russian mystic Gurdjieff, whom she consulted in his exotic Paris flat. He told her that she should have a daily enema and charged for the advice.”

Her last book, “What the Bee Knows” is a collection of essays included her reflections on astrology, crop circles, reincarnation and journalists who ask “stupid” questions. She might have added students and aspiring authors to that list.

These days Scripps is making more of the brief time Travers was there in 1970. After I told the Scripps librarian about my meeting with Travers, she shared the letter Travers wrote to the college president after her visit. I have to say she sounded a lot more pleasant than she was in real life (you can see how cantankerous she could be in this New York Times article).

I thought you’d enjoy seeing her letter, small typos and all. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Maybe it has to do with shared thorniness, but I also learned that Travers adored roses and one of her great wishes was to have a rose named after herself or Mary Poppins.

She asked only that her rose be “pink, fragrant, healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, happy, pleasant, easy to live with, adaptable, always in bloom, readily and willingly cut for the home, long lasting in the vase, prolific, long seasoned, bright, cheerful, and if possible, gentle, wise, and completely honest.”

A California rose breeder, Dr. Dennison Morey, granted her wish.  And the three rose breeds that resulted, are planted in the Scripps rose garden. However, so much time has passed since they were planted, the college is still trying to identify which ones they are.

If you’d be interested in learning more about PL Travers herself and how these roses came about check out these posts by Lina Slavova (clearly a huge Mary Poppin fan) from the Mary Poppins Effect blog: here and here.

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, 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.” ]

Enjoy the links, and breathe in spring.

—Julie Larios

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! 😉