Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

A Fine Line

As some of you know, I like to collect images of books in art. See enough of these and patterns start to emerge. For a lazy August, I thought I’d put together some of the images I’ve found of animals and books.

I made some rules for myself. The animals had to be interacting with the books. In other words, although I have dozens and dozens of images of readers with cats, for example, those didn’t count.

Most of the artists seem to be exploring the idea of books a source of intelligence and enlightenment. I smile at the gears turning above this pigeon’s head (although maybe it’s simply an illustration for a story about a pigeon who lives in a clock tower.)

Illustration by Kusumi

Illustration by Kusumi

Owls and books are a popular connection for obvious reasons.

Illustration by Redmer Hoekstra

Illustration by Redmer Hoekstra

Illustration by Shahab Shamshirsaz

Illustration by Shahab Shamshirsaz

Illustration by Marc Potts

Illustration by Marc Potts

A few artists seem interested in other types of intelligence. Although I can’t tell if the illustrator Zhao Na is making fun of human pretensions, or if he’s remarking on how far a leap it is between climbing books and reading them.

Illustration by Zhao Na

Illustration by Zhao Na

Toni Demuro seems to be suggesting that there is a fine line here.

Illustration by Toni Demuro

Illustration by Toni Demuro

Mostly artists just seem to enjoy giving human-like reactions to books to animal surrogates.

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by Marc Summers

Illustration by Marc Summers

Illustration by Anita Jeram

Illustration by Anita Jeram

But my favorite image of animals and books is by illustrator Erin Stead, Caldecott-winning illustrator of A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

Illustration by Erin Stead

Illustration by Erin Stead

Made into a poster for Scholastic in 2013, there seem to be several layers here. Of course there’s the delightful difference in size and the odd juxtaposition of books and whales, kids and the Arctic.

But I also see a nod to what lies beneath for whales, icebergs  and the human mind. And the haunting suggestion/reminder that marine mammals just may be our closest intellectual equals on the planet but in a realm so different from us, we are failing to recognize it. If only we could read their books!

 

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least we remembered the dog.

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

• • • • •

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

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

perseid

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

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

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

“Did you happen to see some glasses?”

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

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

FullSizeRender

John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.

Splash

It’s been hot in Seattle this summer. Luckily we have lots of places to swim. You can head for  a river…

Chris Raschka - Fishing in the Air

Chris Raschka – Fishing in the Air

a pond…

Soviet Lithuanian illustration seen on the blog 50 Watts

Soviet Lithuanian illustration seen on the blog 50 Watts

a lake…

Beatrice Alemagna

Beatrice Alemagna

or the ocean…

Hokusai

Hokusai

Ivan Bilibin

Ivan Bilibin

Jump in!

Arthur Rackham

Arthur Rackham

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Who knows what you will find?

Linley Sambourne illustration for The Water Babies, 1888

Linley Sambourne illustration for The Water Babies, 1888

Claire Nivola, Life in the Ocean

Claire Nivola, Life in the Ocean

kimi

Kimi Ga Yo 1925

Edgar and Ingri Parin D'Aulaire - Ola

Edgar and Ingri Parin D’Aulaire – Ola

Edgar and Ingri Parin D'Aulaire - Ola

Edgar and Ingri Parin D’Aulaire – Ola

JiHyeon Lee - Pool

JiHyeon Lee – Pool

Sylvia Earle says that going 3000 feet down is like diving into a galaxy.

Clare Nivola biography of Sylvia Earle - Life in the Ocean

Clare Nivola biography of Sylvia Earle – Life in the Ocean

Or if you want to stay indoors you could read a book.

The Water Babies illustrated by Sambourne, 1888

The Water Babies illustrated by Sambourne, 1888

Always remember the wise words of Derek Zoolander – “Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty.” Splash!

New and Old

Moving to London has brought new challenges, which is in part why the move appealed to me.

But moving someplace new doesn’t mean you don’t seek out the familiar.

LPS view to canal

Last October I visited the London Print Studio on the recommendation of a friend. Perhaps it was the scent of burnt linseed oil, but I immediately felt at home.

The studio offers classes and studio work sessions for printmakers. It also has a gallery space and small shop.

I signed up for a screenprint workshop. It was good. I asked if they could use any volunteer workers (I figured I might as well make myself useful while I’m here). They said Yes.

I met with the LPS founder and director John Phillips and the operations manager Nadia Yahiaoui. They asked me to put together a print media display for their upcoming 40th anniversary exhibit, “Printopia – How and Why Artists Reproduce.

In addition to showcasing all of the techniques the studio provides equipment and materials for – letterpress printing, etching, screenprinting (or silkscreen) and stone lithography – John also asked me if I would like to produce a print to demonstrate each technique in the display.

Well sure. I am still fairly new to silkscreen, I haven’t made an etching since the early 80s, and I’ve never done stone litho. But hey, why not?

Fortunately, I had help from many, but especially from the LPS Print Studio Coordinator, Darren van der Merwe, who was kind and patient enough to give me an very quick intro to stone litho.

Darren

To start with, I had an excerpt from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris that John  planned to use for the letterpress demo. The piece is from the chapter, “This will destroy That. The Book will destroy the Edifice.”

Letterpress Hugo quote for demo

I decided to interpret (illustrate) this quote in the three remaining media, adapting the image to suit each technique.

I started with etching.This is the first state (proof stage) of the image done freehand on hard ground.

etching plate state 1

I then moved on to the stone lithography piece. This involves drawing on a slab of finely grained limestone mined from Jurassic Era deposits. A fresh stone has a surface Darren describes as “like velvet.” It instantly absorbs any grease you apply, including that from your skin. Wherever the grease is absorbed will show up on the final print. If you mess up, the stone has to be ground down. Grinding down a stone takes hours. I didn’t want to mess up. It was a bit intimidating.

After drawing on my stone for a while it occurred to me that I am not really a line-work person. I am much more comfortable working with form, which is probably why I mostly work in relief printing where I can cut out shapes and leave the line-work to my preliminary drawings. My litho image was looking very timid.

I went looking for Darren, who suggested I could move some of the line around with tusche and even remove some of what I had done with mineral spirits.

That’s when things got really messy but much more productive. I began rubbing out lines, cutting out stencils (shapes) and splattering tusche. I got so carried away I dissolved some of the gum arabic that Darren had laid down to mask out the border areas. It doesn’t resemble what I started out with, but I am relieved and pleased with the end result. It looks like I meant to do whatever it was I did.

litho stone for demo

I then proceeded to add aquatint to my etching plate. However, I misread the handy timing guide posted in the acid room. The sign showed progressive darknesses of aquatint with a guideline that read; 5″,  10″,  15″, etc.  I thought  ”  meant minutes, but it wasn’t till I had dunked my plate in the acid four times, for a total of sixteen minutes, did I realize that  ”  meant seconds. #@$%&

So I ended up with a very dark plate, but at least the print doesn’t look timid!

etching state 2

That left the silkscreen image, which I had no choice but to create digitally and send to Darren to transfer to the screen and print.

silkscreen for demo

silkscreen for LPS show

Darren printed everything for me as I had to leave town for two weeks in the middle of the exhibit preparations. I came back with barely enough time to build the displays before the opening.

John had purchased thin metal sheeting imagining it could be sandwiched between the printed images and a blank sheet of paper to create the effect of the prints “magically” lifting off the plates. I was skeptical. I tested it out. It worked beautifully.

letterpress etching demoslitho + silkscreen demos

I assembled the displays, and now I can add display-building to my list of new skills.

I had fun. I problem-solved. I got to work with a great group of art people. I created my first (and perhaps only) stone litho image. I made something useful. The LPS gained an extra pair of hands for a few weeks and I felt welcomed. I’m looking forward to the next challenge.

Brevity: Short and Sweet

image

A poetry group I belong to thought it might be a good idea to write one poem a day for April 2015 – National Poetry Month – so we gave it a try.  I managed to do it without missing a day, but doing so caused a few muscle cramps along the way. The unexpected result – at least for me – was that we produced some interesting poems on demand, and we all enjoyed it enough to do it again during the current month. Again, a few muscle cramps, but the process is feeling less strenuous now – any exercise feels better if you do it daily instead of sporadically. Of course, I’m not writing the same kind of poetry I usually write, the kind with what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, complications. Instead, I’m going for short, accepting the fact that a lot of what I produce will be chaff instead of wheat, and I’m learning a few things about the sweet joys of brevity.  The essence of a poem’s inspiration – similar to photography’s decisive moment – comes through with more clarity.  Brevity can feel clean and uncluttered.

For example, the other day I saw a good friend who went through my MFA program with me, and for the first time I met his daughter, who is now four. She was shy at first, but when she got more comfortable, she began to tell stories and giggle and chat and do what four-year old girls normally do – steal the limelight. The more my friend wanted to catch up with me, the more his daughter wanted to bring the light back to her own observations. She’s a natural sharer, and so is my grandson – both of them delightful and both of them with a lot to say.  At a certain point, she began to pat her dad’s cheeks and say, “Look, Daddy. Look, Daddy. Daddy, look!”  and I thought about my own kids, grown now and no longer in need of my attention that way – no one patting my cheeks, no one thrilled by my attention. And I thought of my husband, and how I used to watch him be a father, which I get to see only once in awhile now, since it’s just the two of us at home.

I knew what I was feeling would be a good opportunity for a poem – not an expansive poem but a zen moment kind of a poem – a small observation meant to capture a large and bittersweet longing, kind of like the image of the small goldfish in the large bowl which I put at the top of this post – something small floating in an expansive space. My poem for the day was this:

She Was Thinking All Night

…about the things she missed most, like
the way a little girl says daddy look
look daddy and then the way a daddy
turns and looks

Twenty-five words. It captures what I was thinking about for the rest of the night, after my friend and I said goodbye. For all I know, it will be too long before I see him again. If so, his daughter will be more independent and need his attention less. We’ll probably catch up more, but I won’t get that moment when she pats his cheeks and says “Look, Daddy.” Moments, poems, observations, feelings – there’s a lot out there that comes and goes quickly. For those of us who, in their writing, tend to go on a bit, and then a bit more, I recommend brevity on occasion.

——————————-

Kimberly Moran is the host for this week’s Poetry Friday. Head over there to see what other people have posted.

WONDER AND WONDERING

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

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

milkyway1

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

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

milkyway2

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

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

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

emo.big.wheel

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

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

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

emmett'snewmoon

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

The Pursuit of Happiness

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!

Paschkis choose peace

In 2000 I made this card and sold it to benefit the American Friends Service Committee. It was inspired by my desire for peace, and by the Peaceable Kingdom paintings of Edward Hicks. I also made a series of cards celebrating the bill of rights which I sold to benefit the ACLU. When I painted them I read the constitution and the bill of rights and I was surprised at how unfamiliar the words were to me.  So today I offer you those images and words in honor of flag and country.

Paschkis pursuit of happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment

The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.

The Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by the law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witness against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

These images came to the attention of Patti VanTuyl at the National Endowment for the Humanities and over the next few years I painted some posters for an NEH program called the We the People Bookshelf.

In 2008 the NEH bookshelf celebrated the idea that all men are created equal. I took that to mean men and women, black and white, apples and oranges.

paschkis created equal

In 2009 the theme was A More Perfect Union. The NEH sought to promote reflection on the idea of the United States as a union. In what ways is America a One as well as a Many? I used cake as a metaphor. All of the states as of 1861 are part of the cake.

The United Cake of America

The United Cake of America

I hope you have a good Fourth of July celebration. I hope you take some time to ponder what America is and what about it you want to celebrate, or to work to change. And I hope you have delicious food tomorrow. Here’s to the Red, White and Blueberries!

Paschkis red white and blueberries

Yoko Tanaka – Emotion In Detail

Y Tanaka holding ME 2

Looking carefully at one of Yoko Tanaka’s images rewards you with details that on a quick perusal you could easily miss. They are feather-light, with the delicacy of a dragonfly’s wing.

Yoko Tanaka Magician's Elephant 2 detail

I met Yoko through Rotem Moscovich, an editor at Hyperion Publishing who saw her in New York last Fall and thoughtfully introduced us to each other over e-mail. Yoko has lived in London since 2011 and Rotem knew that I had recently relocated here.

I have enjoyed talking with Yoko and learning a bit about her process and approach to imagery. She was kind enough to consent to my featuring her on this blog, and invited me to her studio.

yoko04_2

There is an ethereal, dreamlike quality to Yoko’s illustrations. Monochromatic in tone, the elements emerge out of shadows as if lit by the moon. Since her paintings are often dark with a limited, earthy palette, she says she receives many jobs whose stories deal with “winter, snow, night, death, witches and magic, and children with problem parents.” She is excited that her next picture book project has “100% happy components.”

Yoko Tanaka with Magician's Elephant Chap 1

There is a sadness in many of the pieces, but there is humor as well. Each face tells a story. There are no abbreviations when it comes to elements that convey emotion. Emotion is a word Yoko uses frequently when talking about her work. It is the element she strives to communicate visually. She succeeds.

Yoko Tanaka Magicians Elephant Chap 1 detail

It surprised me to learn that Yoko first studied Law in Japan, her native country, before moving to California in 2000 to study design. She was then accepted to Art Center College in Pasadena where she changed direction to study painting, intending to become a gallery artist. Her first painting was of a large coffee cup.

She enjoys painting on a bigger scale, but that isn’t practical for reproduction, and her current studio space is small. Her illustration work is done to size or slightly larger (which is tiny for the amount of detail she includes).

It was literary agent Steve Malk who first encouraged her to pursue illustration rather than gallery work. She has been working with Steve since 2005. One of the first book contracts Steve brought to her was to illustrate Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant for Candlewick Press in 2008.

Y Tanaka-ME cover_04

yoko03

Four months is Yoko’s ideal amount of time for a children’s book project; one month to sketch and three months to paint. She doesn’t like projects to go on much longer than that. One project at a time is better for her than overlapping jobs.

yoko02

Yoko says that ideas don’t come to her while she is sitting at her drawing table. Driving a car is where she prefers to do her thinking – in quiet isolation, following a well-known route. In London, she walks instead.

When she gets an idea, it comes to her fully formed, in 3-D, sometimes even with sounds and smells. She then sketches it with pencil and paper as quickly as possible. Revisions are relatively few. She will use Photoshop to add color and value for preliminaries to show clients, but her finished work is usually done in acrylic paints on illustration board.

Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_01 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_02 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_03 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_04

Yoko recently completed a cover for a new edition of The Magician’s Elephant as part of Candlewick’s reissue of five of DiCamillo’s books in their Fall/Winter 2015 catalog. The publisher wanted a brighter palette with the animal in the center of the composition, in keeping with the rest of the paperback collection.

Y Tanaka-ME new cover

Yoko also showed me the art she created for the first edition of Tiny Pencil, an art-zine “devoted to the lead arts.” These illustrations are done in graphite, not her usual medium. She used stencils and chamois cloth to create the gradations of value. The images have a ghost-like quality that is both poignant and spooky.

Y Tanaka holding Tiny Pencil 1

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 1 detail

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2 detail

I am grateful to Yoko for taking the time to welcome me to her studio, and for sharing her ideas and process, as well as her time. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future, perhaps on a gallery wall as well as in books.

Y Tanaka balcony arrangement

 

 

 

A Puzzle

sarah-ruhl-100-essays-i-didnt-have-time-to-writeI’ve been reading an interesting book by playwright Sarah Ruhl titled 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas, and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Children and Theater. Great title. And great little essays, with subject matter ranging all over, as you can tell from the subtitle. In the book, Ruhl examines paintings, participles, interruptions, Andy Goldsworthy, writing as reform school, smallness, Ovid, Italo Calvino, satyrs, secrets, neologisms, privacy, bad poetry, rhyme on stage – and that’s only in Part One of a four-part, six-page Table of Contents. If you’re picturing a book better suited for flower-pressing, picture again – the book is only 218-pages long, with essays coming in at 1-3 pages.

In the first essay of the book, Ruhl says something that stopped me in my tracks: “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, in not an intrusion.”

I certainly prefer that take on things to the often-quoted line from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: ““A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Examining those two opposing views – “life” intruding on creativity vs. “life” sustaining creativity – would have made a great essay assignment for my students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. “Think this through and tell me what conclusions you come to” I would have suggested. I suspect most students would have agreed with Woolf.

RozChast2Implied in Woolf’s quotation is the idea that 1) writers must have money and 2) the room must have a door and the door must be lockable (figuratively if not literally) against “intrusions.” Is that what we long for as writers? Or do we simply use the absence of such a room as an excuse for not writing?

Of course, the best student essay would have told me that the truth lies somewhere in the middle (oh, that was interesting, typing the phrase “the truth lies”!) and that I skewed the assignment to get interesting results; in reality, the two views are not really diametrically opposed.  As in many areas of activity, balance makes more sense or – at the least – has more appeal, is more calming and leaves us less exhausted. Our “room” as artists probably should be neither all locked against the outside world nor all porous.

What I’m trying to sort out is the question of attitudes and how an attitude can affect creativity. One attitude implies that creativity owes its life to interruptions, since what’s interrupting is life (from which all creativity springs…?) The other attitude asks, “How can I sustain my creativity if I’m constantly interrupted?” The New Yorker this week had an interesting article about a writers’ “space,” whether that space is a dedicated room of one’s own, a counter at Starbucks, or the kitchen table. [Searching the New Yorker’s archives for past articles about writing spaces, I found this brilliant report by Ben McGrath about a project called Flux Factory where architects designed three rooms for three writers to live in for 30 days.]

Reading Ruhl’s book, I lean towards letting life intrude. I know many things intrude on my creative life. I’ve not only come to terms with that, I kind of like it that way. In fact, the longer I live, the more I like it that way, and the result is I write less. But look at how Ruhl smiles in that author photo. She looks supremely satisfied. Amused. Energized. And I’ve always been worried about portraits of Virginia Woolf:

iwoolfa001p1

Virginia Woolf

Obviously, not a good way to judge happiness – by a photo. Bipolarity was Woolf’s demon. And Ruhl’s youthful good health could be reason enough for the smile. But I do wonder. Meanwhile, I let family, friends, good books, walks, laundry, washing dishes, random moments of daydreaming intrude all they like. Should I circle the wagons and develop some kind of writer’s space? Come to think of it, a circle of wagons is pretty porous. Well then, should I find a door with a lock on it at this late date? Maybe I should focus on writing 1-3 page essays – absolutely do-able. Or maybe I should answer the question at hand: Which is it, intrusion or sustenance, this thing called life? Intrusion and sustenance? It’s a puzzle.

LESS IS MORE

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

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

rollers

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

californiamap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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