Category Archives: creativity

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.

Contemplation vs. Stimulation

All writers know what a tug-of-war the writing life is – you’re never quite sure whether to prioritize stimulation or contemplation. With the former, you experience the world; with the latter, you make sense of it. During the down time it gets real: cook meals, clean dishes.

I’ve been both off-the-grid (on an island near Martha’s Vineyard) and deep into the grid (NYC) for the last two weeks. The  island has rowboats, it has sheep in the meadow, it has dirt paths leading to beaches with bleached-white whale bones. It has no commercial enterprises. None. Meanwhile, on nearby Martha’s Vineyard, several dozen Venezuelan immigrants were being declared victims of a crime (perpetrated by Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis), so I guess “off-the-grid” is only true up to a point. But in general, the vibe on this particular island is non-vibe. Days spent in contemplation.

New York City, indisputably on-grid, has a 3-story (!!!) M&M souvenir shop, outside of which the question bubbles up: How many M&M souvenirs does any one person need? Key chains, magnets, t-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, wind-up dancing M&M’s, M&M flashlights, M&M phone covers, M&M sheets and pillow cases, M&M pajamas, M&M stadium blankets, M&M onesies. At this level, NYC is a 180-degree turn from the world of the island — it’s ALL commercial enterprise, 24/7.

On the other hand, NYC also has Broadway (both On- and Off- I saw Tom Stoddard’s new play Leopoldstadt and the musical Book of Mormon) and a public library guarded by Patience and Fortitude, two lions sculpted from pink Tennessee marble.  In the streets of the city, you hear many languages spoken by people from many countries. Though the island I was on near Martha’s Vineyard is calm and green, the chaos and energy and diversity of NYC appeal to me just as much. City days aren’t days of contemplation but days of stimulation. Is there anything quite like the thrill of a curtain rising in a majestic Broadway theater?

As I write this, I’m just north of Boston in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s a smallish blue-collar town. Lots of ponds around, lots of autumn trees currently flaming yellow, flaming orange, and flaming red. Lobster roll restaurants, with “lobster” pronounced “lahbstuh.” The big booming Atlantic Ocean rolling in nearby. Also nearby is Salem, famous for its witch hunts (the real hunts, not the political ones.) Both Lynn and Salem are getting ready for Halloween, putting skeletons on their porches, hanging spider webs rather than hanging “witches,” buying pumpkins to carve. There are no sheep in the meadow, no pink marble lions, no dancing M&M’s. But there are cardinals at the bird feeder and someone paddle-boarding across the pond. This is life at the normal level, the day-to-day level, the cook-and-clean level. And though Lynn is neither off-grid idyllic nor on-grid frenetic, that is, not the stuff of a writerly life, it’s where my daughter and her family live, so it’s perfect for now. I’ve contemplated, I’ve been stimulated. Time now to be with people I love.

Here are half-a-dozen links I think you, as readers and writers, will like:

  1. A video game based on Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What??? https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/you-can-now-play-emilyblaster-a-video-game-inspired-by-emily-dickinsons-poetry-180980305/
  2. “Voices thought lost to history…” An imaginative Irish storytelling site: https://www.virtualtreasury.ie/hidden-stories
  3. Bestselling authors describe how they organize their bookshelves. https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/28/book-organizing-authors/
  4. Ever find anything tucked into the pages of a library book? https://www.npr.org/2022/08/02/1114851706/library-notes-books-collection
  5. Are you in a reading slump? Here’s a solution: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/11/reading-slump-help/
  6. Have you ever bought a book based on the blurbs endorsing it? If yes, this might explain why: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/13/killer-crabs-and-bad-leprechauns-how-the-best-book-blurbs-excite-our-brains

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.

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! 😉

Bring out the toys and the dreams

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

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

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

Back to the toy box

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

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

Time travel

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

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

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

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

Keep a story box

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

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

Enter your world through its small details

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

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

Let’s escape…

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

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

Illustration by Iker Ayerstaran

Illustration by Tuylek

Illustration by Joost Swarte

Illustration by Caroline Magerl

Illustration by Javier Naverette

Photo by Hesham Alhumaid

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Achiki

Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli

Illustrator not known (anybody recognize?)

Illustration by Remy Coutarel

Purchase in haste, repent at leisure. Shopping during quarantine

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

Several were grounded in good intentions:

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

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

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

Disclaimer: item never looked like this in my home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

See this unopened box?

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

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

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

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

For example, this lock picking kit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Sticks and Stones

The young man was bumping like a pinball through the crowded sidewalk on Greenwood Ave—the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, OK.  Suddenly he was hit by two bullets. One hit his shoulder; one traveled around his skull and landed near his nose, a few centimeters from his brain.

To operate presented terrible odds–50/50 odds of survival and even if he lived, he might end up insane at best. He decided to leave the bullet there and lived the rest of his life with it. The man was the father of children’s illustrator Floyd Cooper, shot by a white man in the long-hidden 1921 race massacre in Tulsa.

Cooper told this story as part of a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators panel featuring ten best-selling, award-winning (from Newberys to Caldecotts)  children’s writers and illustrators of color. In five-minute segments, each creators shared their experiences with racism and racist assumptions, and how that informs their work.

It wasn’t a lecture; it was a sharing of coming to the creative life from many different places.

Author Crystal Allen began her career in middle-grades as any serious writer would with research into the kind of books she wanted to write–African American middle-grade books. But she couldn’t find any on the shelves of her local bookstore. When she asked about it, she was told she wouldn’t find anything on those shelves. Instead she followed the store clerk for “what felt like six days” to the African American section.

In a small dusty room, the clerk pointed to a spindle with a smattering of middle-grade books. The clerk left and Allen says she followed right behind. Later, she was told by an instructor that the reason she couldn’t find any African American middle grades is that publishers wouldn’t publish them. They aren’t marketable she was told.

“Hopefully, you brought something else you can work on,” the instructor said. Allen left that workshop, too.

She wondered if she’d heard the voice of truth.

As a college student, illustrator Rafael Lopez lived on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, but traveled to the U.S. for his classes. He would get up at 3:30 to 4:00 every morning, in order to cross the busy border in time to get to his 8:30 class. Usually he’d arrive 5 to 10 minutes late.

One morning as he entered the classroom, his professor announced, “There he is. Mr. L-o-p-e-z.” The prof said his last name slowly. “Late as usual.”

“That really stung,” Lopez said. “He didn’t know my story, but he judged.”

In the beginning of what he hoped would be a career in advertising, he was offered a job that would have meant creating a demeaning stereotype of Latino “peasants”. The man who wanted to hire him thought his idea for the ad was wonderfully clever and funny. Desperate for money, Lopez considered it, but ultimately turned the job down.

Lisa Yee, third-generation Chinese, was accustomed to living in a very diverse community in West Hollywood. But driving across country to a job a Florida, she found herself the only Asian American around. Most people were very nice, she said, complimenting her on her English, especially her accent.

Yee was more amused, than offended. But one day as she and a friend wended their way along winding roads through small towns, she was intrigued to see that there was some sort of festival or parade happening in the town ahead of them. How interesting it looked. And everyone was dressed in white, a kind of cool costume parade! Then suddenly she realized she as looking at a Klan rally. Still, intrigued, she urged her friend to drive closer.

It was like a movie as she looked out her car window at the crowd. Then suddenly people were turning to look at her and the terror kicked in. She ducked down and told her friend “Get out of here!” It didn’t feel like entertainment any more.

These are just a few of the stories the creators shared. Each had different experiences of being “other.” And yet each also described how they found a haven–a welcoming place, a valid space–in the world of children’s books. And each told how such experiences drive them to make sure their cultures and characters and stories are out in the world.

So maybe no more thin spindles in dusty rooms for diverse books?

You can watch a video of the full panel here.

And check out these other panelists.

Panel organizer, Pat Cummings

Lamar Giles

Meg Medina

Linda Sue Park

Christian Robinson

Shadra Strickland