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
I started working on designing and building the costumes.
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! 😉
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.
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.
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, 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?
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?
Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?
It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.
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. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:
And then this.
Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.
And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?
Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?
Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.
The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.
Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?
T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:
Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.
But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.
It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:
I never saw an abominable snowman I’m hoping not to see one, I’m also hoping if I do that it will be a wee one.
But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.
It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:
“How To Treat Elves”
by Morris Bishop
I met an elf man in the woods, The wee-est little elf! Sitting under a mushroom tall– ‘Twas taller than himself!
“How do you do, little elf,” I said, “And what do you do all day?” “I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he, “‘N scuttle about and play;”
“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when A katydid I see, ‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!
“I hide behind my mushroom stalk When Mister Mole comes froo, ‘N only jus’ to fwighten him I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’
“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing Up in the air so high, ‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing ‘Upsy-daisy-die!’
“‘N then I play with the baby chicks, I call them, chick chick chick! ‘N what do you think of that?” said he. I said, “It makes me sick.
“It gives me sharp and shooting pains To listen to such drool.” I lifted up my foot, and squashed The God damn little fool.
Lately, for some reason I’ve been thinking about how much you need to know to understand a simple cartoon. Here’s the cartoon.
Cartoonist Amy Hwang
I have it pinned to my refrigerator door because I love to nap, so that’s the first reference point for me. But what else do you need to know to “get” this cartoon? I mean I figure a Martian wouldn’t begin to know what to make of this.
We earthlings need to know that a cat (or any creature) lying in a bed with other similar creatures of different sizes gathered around it is typically a death bed scene. Here you get a further hint out of the fact that this a hospital bed, which we know because of a mutually understood visual shorthand.
You need to know that at death, people sometimes express their thoughts on life including their big regrets. You need to know that those regrets are usually about rather grand things—I regret not loving more. I regret not appreciating every day. It’s a doorway into the deep wisdom of someone at the end of their life.
You need to know that napping is considered a pretty negligent use of one’s time. You need to know that cats nap a lot, so much in fact that it is improbable that any cat could nap more. How much napping does any cat need? And so the grand is turned into the banal, and yet, it’s touchingly real, too.
Finally, at a very basic level, you need to have learned how to decipher lines and shades on a flat surface as images. Not to mention that you need to know our current conventions in clothing and size for indicting age and gender; that the creature with an open mouth is the one speaking in a cartoon. Oh, and you need to be able to read.
For a lot of you, you’ll know something more. You’ll recognize this as a New Yorker cartoon. You’re unconsciously picking up on conventions that are telling you that.
That’s a lot piled up into appreciating this. I love that. I love how layered our awareness is and how so many layers can be captured so simply and so perfectly in this ephemeral bit of humor.
That’s what I love about writing, too. One of the best descriptions of I ever heard about poetry was from a professor at San Francisco State University who taught a class on Shakespeare. I don’t remember his name (I never do) but he said something to the effect that a poem is words compressed into a seed that only blossoms in the mind.
And that description blossomed in my own mind. I “got” it. I got what is so powerful about poetry; what’s so special about it. Why you experience it differently from other art forms. All writing blossoms in the mind to some degree, but poetry is the ultimate compression and gives it that deep, internal “oh” that you don’t quite get from other writing.
Cartoons especially single panel cartoon can also be wonderfully compressed, too. But they rely so much on current, temporary associations that they rarely (never?) achieve the timelessness of poetry. Just try reading old New Yorker cartoons.
Want to play? What all is compressed into this cartoon? What do you need to know? Is it so specific to writing that it’s more of an in-joke? I’m betting that our current “meta” approach to art makes this much more universally accessible than that.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.