Category Archives: Authors in real life

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.

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.