Category Archives: inspiration

So, How Does that Make You Feel?

It took me awhile to understand that creating an emotional experience for the reader is really what my job as a writer is about. And that this is what we all are after when we sit down with a book. Sure we want a good story with clever plots turns. We want language we can relish. We want an intellectual challenge or an exploration of a social issue or of a person or world different from our own.

But bottom line to all of that is the hope/expectation that this will take us on an emotional journey. Books that do this are the ones that we recommend to our friends, that our kids ask us to read over and over, that stay with us sometimes for a lifetime.

Recently I picked up The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. He makes the same point. Even better, he talks about how you, the writer, can create an emotional journey. Because, as he notes, not every published novel does that. “The sad truth,” he says, “is that television commercials can stir more feelings in thirty seconds than many manuscripts can do in a three hundred pages.”

So how can we best a Charmin ad? Maass offers some ideas and techniques that I thought would be fun to share over my next couple of blog posts.

I strongly agree with Maass’s first point: the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings.”

But what those feelings are won’t be universally agreed upon, as anyone who has been in a book club can tell you. Everyone is unique. So, Maass suggests that, “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?”

 Maass says there are three primary paths to creating an emotional response from the reader. Outer Mode: showing. Inner Mode: telling. And something he calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

So let’s talk about Outer Mode in this post.

Outer Mode is good old showing–showing what the character is feeling through their behavior, dialog and visible responses, rather than the character (or the narrator) telling us what they are feeling.

Most of us pretty much know about telling and showing. It’s the difference between “I was terrified” and “My heart beat a staccato rhythm that said run, run, run, but I couldn’t move. I could only scream.”

Of course, there are a lot of techniques involved in using show or tell well, but the most important trick here, says Maass, is not so much in knowing how to use show. But knowing when to use show. He says showing works best when the character’s feelings are highly painful, including highly painful or difficult for the reader.

I love the example he uses from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Quick’s main character, Pat Peoples, is mentally ill. He’s just been released from a mental health facility to the care of his mother, but he is convinced he will soon be reuniting with his estranged wife, Nikki.

When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.

I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I came home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures? I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me? I ask. Mom says she did not have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked. Nikki had given Mom the other non-wedding pictures of us, and well, we aren’t in touch with Nikki or her family right now because its apart time.

We know what’s going on even if Pat doesn’t. We don’t have to be inside Pat’s head to feel emotional about this scene. In fact, it might be too painful to be inside Pat’s poor demented head and his determined belief he and his wife are still a thing. Instead, the reader gets a different experience. Not only do we feel Pat’s sad blindness, we feel his mother’s desperate efforts to spare his feelings. And it’s all made more poignant by the fact that it’s funny in a horrible way.

A key ingredient in effective showing of emotion says Maass is “subtext.” When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but that we can sense. “It’s the unspoken emotional truth. When we discern it, it’s a surprise.”  And a pleasure.

Maass says there’s even a way to describe a character’s inner states without actually telling the emotion. It’s still “showing.” Here’s his example from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Now I Lay Me.”

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Without even knowing context (this character is a victim of wartime post traumatic stress disorder) we can feel his suffering. Maass says writing with a lot of subtext works especially well for the big feelings—death, deep fear, deep loss, love.

Maass offers a writer’s exercise if you want to bring effective showing into your work. Basically he suggests that you:

– Pick a moment in your story when your main character is moved, unsettled, disturbed. Maybe a moment of choice, of needing something badly, having learned something shocking, feeling overwhelmed. Now write down all the emotions you can think of for this moment—obvious and hidden.

– Now write how your character would behave, act. What’s the biggest, most explosive thing your character could do? What would be symbolic? “Go sideways, underneath or ahead,” Maass advises. “How can your protagonist show us a feeling we don’t expect…?”

– Add a detail in the setting that only your main character might notice or notice in a unique way. (I particularly like this technique. It’s very powerful. Not only can the detail be symbolic, but it replicates the odd disassociation we can feel in an emotionally powerful moment. The funeral is NOT the time to notice the dandruff on the corpse’s shoulders, but, of course, you do.)

– Finally, Maass says to delete all the emotions you wrote down in the beginning and let the actions and dialog do the work. Of the emotions you evoke, he asks, “Do they feel too big, dangerous, or over-the top? Use them anyway. Others will tell you if you’ve gone too far, but more likely, you haven’t gone far enough.” (The italics are mine, because this is what I have to battle time and time again! I have a fear of getting melodramatic, she said between lips trembling like the young leaves of the aspen.)

In the future, I’ll talk about Maass’s ideas about Inner Mode and Other Mode and other techniques for evoking emotion. As Maass says, “I want to feel more as I read. Don’t you?…I don’t care about what you write, how you write it, your choices in publishing, or what you want out of your career. What I want is to feel deeply as I read your work.”

As a writer that’s exactly what I hope to do. Maass’s book is a good start.

 

 

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Creative Writing 101

My youngest daughter just finished her first year of a Creative Writing/English Literature degree at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She returned to Seattle this week and I was interested to hear what they teach about the craft of writing these days, so I invited her to take my spot writing this week’s post on Books Around The Table.

Introducing Clare Chodos-Irvine

I only have ¼ of a university degree, but after nine months of studying literature and attending writing workshops, this is what I’ve learned about writing:

  1. 90% of the time, avoid adverbs. I have a classmate who, throughout the five submissions I made over the course of a year, never failed to circle my unnecessary adverbs. I didn’t realize that I used so many until he pointed it out. More often than not, an image, sentence or metaphor is stronger without the use of an adverb. Usually, it stops you from repeating yourself. There’s no reason to say, “She ran quickly,” because if she was running, one would hope it would be quick.
  2. Classmates and teachers are there to help you. I’m lucky to have had professors in my first year who were constantly supportive. My classmates are all so talented, and having a group of people to bounce creative ideas off of is extremely helpful, even if you’re not a creative writing student.
  3. Pretty much anything can inspire you. I took a survey of British literature from the beginning of time until 1660, and although the course didn’t leave me a lot of time to read for pleasure, I was inspired by the alliteration in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the complicated rhyme scheme in Beowulf. I read things I would never have read otherwise, thanks to my teachers’ thoughtful planning of the course reading lists. A story I have been sitting on for three years went from a fantasy/romance piece to a feminist werewolf story thanks to Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” , and my fiction workshop classmates. I was inspired by my classmates constantly. They often found meaning in my writing that I hadn’t discovered myself. For example, they saw a woman chipping paint off her wall as an extended metaphor reflecting her decaying relationship. Being surrounded by a large group of creative individuals is electrifying because, for the first time in my life, the majority of the people I am around share my passion for writing.
  4. There is no such thing as children’s writing. If a children’s book or a YA novel is well written, anyone can enjoy it. This was emphasized frequently by my fiction professor, and is proven true by writers like Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) or Roald Dahl.
  5. Don’t get rid of anything. I discovered this year that some of my pieces that were unsuccessful as short stories work very well as poems. I disliked poetry until I turned sixteen. Even after I liked reading poetry, I didn’t think I should write poetry. My poems sounded too confessional. But when I rewrote some of my short stories as poems, they worked much better. Fiction can work as poetry, and vice versa.

Lastly, I learned that creativity takes work, and it hurts and it’s scary to put a piece of yourself out there. But as intimidating as writing is, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I am eager to learn as much as I can about the past, present and future of the craft. I can’t wait to earn the next ¾ of my degree.

 

How Well Do You Know Books in Art?

In my collection of images of books in art, there are a number of pieces by famous artists. Although, not always their best works, its fun to see how artists from Matisse to Magritte have portrayed the books in our lives.

Each artist is somehow unmistakably themselves (well, except one) despite a common theme. I bet you can guess most of them. Scroll to the bottom to see if you’re right. Enjoy!

 

 

In order from the top, we have Henri Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Renee Magritte, Thomas Hart Benton, El Greco (if you got that one, I’m impressed), Albrecht Durer, Arthur Rackham, Wayne Thiebaud (my favorite. All his paintings look edible to me) and, of course, Norman Rockwell. How’d you do?

 

For Love of the World

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” – E.B. White

Lately I have been digging into the final dummy revisions for SQUEAK, a picture book which will be published by Philomel in 2019. It is a chain-reaction story; a Rube Goldberg alarm clock that starts with the squeak of a small mouse and ends with the biggest bison’s bellow billowing out over mountains and meadows and waking everybody else.

Along the way I get to draw chipmunks, trout, elk, eagles, bears, wolves, and big horned sheep, as well. Also the landscape and the plants where they live.

You might recognize Little Wolf whose howling in SQUEAK wakes the big horn sheep.

I am illustrating SQUEAK with my sister Kate Harvey McGee. I wrote the story and will create a black and white gouache layer, like the wolves above, for the illustrations. She will provide the color, as she did for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. One of the benefits of this collaboration is we talk over possibilities. For instance, tree choice.

We were hiking on the Oregon coast and came by this lovely Sitka spruce. It had the perfect opening at the bottom for a small mouse nest – and great checkered bark. But the big cast of animals in SQUEAK requires the ecosystem of a place like Yellowstone. That sent me scampering through the internet to see if there is a similar spruce in the Rockies – Yes! The Englemann spruce. I gathered screen grabs of the pine cones and needles, branching habit, etc. of this particular tree. And photos of the inside of stumps, too, for the final spread.

e spruce

For LITTLE WOLF, Kate captured the colors of the hours from evening to night, painting moonlight. But SQUEAK takes place just before the sun comes up, the whole story happens in about 15 minutes. She is experimenting with possible palettes, auditioning various pinks and oranges to suggest the pre-dawn.

To find the images and the colors to illustrate this story we tune into the beauty and wonder of the natural world: from the thick brown shag of a bear’s coat to the silver scales of trout, from grass-choked meadows to conifers hugging the bottom of rocky cliffs.

We were raised in Sonora, CA, in the Sierra foothills, and spent many happy days hiking the Emigrant Wilderness, about an hour up Highway 108. On backpack trips into the high country, we sometimes woke in the chilly pre-dawn when a few stars still lit the sky. We lay awake long enough to note the beautiful mountains, meadows and towering trees all around. Then, like the small mouse in SQUEAK, we snuggled down with our friends and went back to sleep.

How satisfying to have a project that recalls that place and lets us speak our love for the natural world.

Why Hadn’t I Done This Before?

I attended Western Washington University’s Children’s Literature Conference for the first time a few weekends ago. And I’m rather chagrined that I’d never attended this 15-year-old event before.

The conference is a gathering of some of the top creators in children’s literature right here in my own backyard—or close enough, anyway. It started relatively small 15 years ago and now it draws a sell-out crowd of over 600 teachers, students, writers, illustrators and children’s lit aficionados to Bellingham, WA.

This year’s speakers were Sophie Blackall, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Kevin Henkes. I won’t even try to list all their awards and accomplishments—but the poster for the event will give you some idea. I think you’ll recognize the books, even you don’t always recognize the name.

I have this thing. Whenever I hear a speaker, I end up kind of wanting to be them. Or, at least, thinking maybe I should talk that way. Maybe that’s how I should present myself. Although, the most heartening thing about it all is that everyone presents themselves differently (scholarly, anecdotally, ad lib, prepared, humorous, philosophically), but if they do it with honesty and care, it works.

Sophie Blackall

Author/illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the things she loves, including six books that were important in her life and she used these as a springboard to anecdotes about herself and her writing. I was intrigued by her fun, idiosyncratic selection: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard , The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey , The Principle of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman , Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The nicest touch of all? She gave her copy of each book to six members of the audience who shared the titles of books that had been important to them.

The give-away seemed to fit into Blackall’s overall approach to life and work. She’s generous. She’s a giver. Check out this project she’s starting for other writers and artists: https://www.milkwoodfarm.org/

Poet and writer of young adult novels, Benajmin Alire Sáenz gave an almost stream-of-consciousness incantation of a talk. Sáenz, who starts his own day with a “word of the day,” repeated the phrase “the word of the day is” throughout his talk. Each time invoking a new word and new idea. “The word of the day is” became something of a catchphrase for the rest of the day.

For Sáenz, in general, the word of the day would have to be “words of the day” including Latino, gay, philosopher, survivor, award-winner, role model and maybe even life-saver. On his Twitter feed are comments like this:

i’m a gay transgender man and i can’t even begin to tell you how grateful i am for this story; it saved my life. thank you so much.

8:02 PM – 8 Mar 2018

And photos like this:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz and a fan

The word of the day for author Pam Muñoz Ryan was clearly serendipity, in particular when it came her latest book Echo. Researching a story that was going to be about segregation Ryan ran across a photo of a classroom of children each holding a harmonica. When she asked about it she was told it was a 1931 photo of the school’s harmonica band, something that apparently was common at the time.

Harmonica bands! What was not to like? Ryan reasoned. As Ryan followed that trail, her story changed completely, turning quite unexpectedly into a tale about a magical harmonica and how it connected three different children in three different times and places but all somewhat connected to WWII and Nazi Germany.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam seems to be one of those people who can turn the every-day events of their lives into stories. Funny stories. Like the time she joined band, decided to play violin, broke said violin, tried to super glue it back together, got ejected from band, but ended up in chorus, then was asked to write an article about being in chorus, which led to her doing more writing, which led to her, of course, becoming a famous author. Isn’t joining band in the 4th grade how everyone’s life stitches together?

Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes word of the day was “waiting.” A common theme in his work and his life. He waits, he said, for ideas. Then he has to wait to see if the idea proves good and solid. His characters wait, like the characters in his book Waiting. And this feels apt, he says because children themselves are always waiting.

A particular creative quirk of his that struck me: he likes to have a title from the very beginning of writing. It helps him know and remember what the book is about. What I liked about Henkes’ presentation was his awareness of and respect for the creative process and for his readers.

It showed in his talk and it shows up in his work. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was one of the texts I pored over when I was trying to figure out how to write picture books. The only bad part: it gave me the notion that picture books could be over 1,000 words. Well, if they’re by Kevin Henkes, maybe.

Keep your eyes open for the 2019 WWU Children’s Literature Conference with an equally impressive line-up of speakers: Barbara O’Connor, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, and Jerry Pinkney.

Another major children’s lit event that WWU is hosting this year is the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on April 28, 2018. This free, annual event features an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children’s literature, of any country, who prepares and presents paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. This year’s speaker is Naomi Shihab Nye who has received four Pushcart Prizes, was a National Book Award finalist, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors.

SEEING WITH FRESH EYES

Earlier this week it snowed in Seattle. We woke to clear blue skies and an outdoor world blanketed with an inch or two of bright white powder. My daily walk down the driveway to get the newspaper became one of discovery: the yellow witchhazel fluffs each wore a snow hat, same for the rhody leaves.

Animal tracks on the pavement led into the woods. Who knew this was a bunny crossing?

bunnytracksI was seeing my old familiar walk with fresh eyes. So exhilarating.

Seeing with fresh eyes is one reason I love hanging out with my almost-three-year old grandson. The world is new to him. On a walk around an ordinary San Francisco city block he discovers seedpods and leaves and various ornamental details. He pays attention to everything. When the MUNI tram goes by, he notices the paint scheme (he particularly loves the polka dot MUNI). He watches the sidewalk, too, and points out letters he recognizes on the public works cement vaults signage. He finds other lines in the cement that are perfect to jump between.

I understand that our adult brains, in the interest of efficiency, stop noticing familiar details. I have walked down our driveway at least 1,000 times. I guess it makes sense to tune out. But what wonders await when I tune in.

This week my sister Kate Harvey McGee was visiting so we could work on our book, SQUEAK, which is slated to come out from Philomel in 2019. I create the black and white part of our illustrations, first painting in gouache resist, then scanning, and reworking in Photoshop.

8-9mouseK I send my files to Kate for coloring. Kate works in Photoshop, too.

Kate lives near Philomath, Oregon, and we usually work through email. So it was fun to sit in the same room and kibitz, and to be able to print out our efforts and take a look together.

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Something about printing out triggers the fresh eyes thing. We hung the print on the wall and kept returning to look at it over the next few days. Pretty soon we were adding post-its: “rounder mouse butt,” “shadow plant” etc etc.

Kate and her partner Scott were also in Seattle because we had a family event to celebrate – our niece Maia is now engaged to Chris. So we were all thinking about how it is to fall in love. It’s related, isn’t it, to seeing with fresh eyes?

chrisandmaia

Remember when you first met the person you love most deeply – and that wonder of discovering him or her?

I wish Mai and Chris all the best – and for the rest of us, here’s to seeing all the world with fresh eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books and bad weather

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Books and bad weather just seem to go together. It’s so enticing to settle in with a book in hand and snow, wind and rain at the window.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti

It can be a moment of solitude…

Illustration by Samantha Dodge

or a moment that unites us.

Illustration by Vincent Mahe

Illustration by Adrian Tomine

Sometimes you can create your own shelter.

Illustration by Iker Ayestaran

Illustration by Michelle Riche

In my collection of images of books in art, reading in a time of cold and dark is almost always a warm, safe moment.

Illustration by Sasha Ivoylova

But not always.

Illustration by AJ Frena

But let’s not end on this chilling note. Here’s the perfect image for cozy holiday reading.

Illustration by Raija Nokkal

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Season’s readings!

What I Learned from the 2017 Caldecott Winners’ Portland Panel

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Marian Creamer of Children’s Literature Alive introducing the panel. L to r: Marian in front, Brendan Wenzel, Javaka Steptoe, Carson Ellis, Gregory Christie, Vera Brogsol and moderator Steven Engelfried.

There they were – all five recipients of the 2017 Caldecott awards – seated for a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon. Usually a given year’s Caldecott winners appear together only at their ALA awards ceremony. But shortly after these winners were announced last January, my friend, Portland librarian Marian Creamer, who served on the awards committee, realized all five of the 2017 recipients had a connection to Portland. So she hatched a plan to gather them for a wonderful few days of events in her corner of the world.

Here are some remarks from these illustrious illustrators that stuck with me.

zandJpic

Javaka Steptoe with Faubion PK-8 student.

First off, Javaka Steptoe whose book, Radiant Child, the Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was given the top Caldecott medal. His illustrations were created in the style of Basquiat’s work: painted and collaged onto found wooden panels with repetition of iconic Basquiat images in Basquiat-bright colors.

Javaka said he begins his projects by looking for the story behind the story. For this book, it was the mother/son connection that spoke to him, “the basis of Basquiat’s humanity.” In the first stages of any book project, Javaka advises, “Let it be ugly: throw it up on a page, put it all out there, then scale it back.” His goal is to find “a balance of flavors.”

As he works through successive drafts, Javaka finds “better words and flow out of the chaos and jumbledness.” He concluded, “Put the work in – and also realize you have to give it up eventually. You gotta let it go.”

Javaka first visited Portland 17 years ago and “looks for any excuse to return.”

Next up, the four Caldecott honors.

 

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Vera Brogsol scored Caldecott honor recognition with her first picture book, Leave Me Alone, the tale of a grandma who yearns for a place where she can knit in peace and quiet. Born in Russia in 1984, Vera came to the US at age five and worked many years in animation. Like the babushka in her book, she relishes time alone and the opportunity to work on her own projects.

Vera emphasizes she works slowly. “Projects become a part of you, like a limb.” She looks for projects that will challenge her, to help her grow and understand herself.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 2.57.16 PMVera’s fellow Portlander, Carson Ellis, author of Du Iz Tak, is flat out inventive. This is a book written in a language spoken by insect characters; a language made clear by repetition and context. The illustrations move the story along with delightful surprises at each page turn. Carson is the mother of two young kids and wife of indie musician Colin Maloy of the Decemberists. She keeps a slush pile of pieces that she revisits to see if any of it “can go anywhere. Everything I do is over-complicated and I have to simplify.” She circles back to the slush pile to see if any ideas are ready to “flesh out properly.”

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Gregory Christie and me.

Greg Christie spent three months painting in the Portland arts environment, in the time before he opened a bookstore/gallery in Atlanta. His book, Freedom in Congo Square, recounts a chapter of slave history in New Orleans. The rhyming text by Carole Boston Weatherford, tells of the slaves working day by day, leading to a Sunday gathering for dancing and music in the city’s Freedom Square.

“Anywhere you go in the US, New Orleans is unique,” Greg said. “Its unique urban energy was forged in African American culture.” Greg has illustrated over 60 children’s books and lots of album covers as well. He used a combination of collage and acrylic gouache on this one. He paints his final art over a loose sketch. “I like to give myself room to keep energy in the painting.”

His reason for creating children’s books? “I do these books because I want there to be books I wish I had as a child.”

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Brendan Wenzel is based in Brooklyn, NY, but his book, They All Saw A Cat, came out of his experience of living three years in SE Asia. The illustrations reveal the ways that various creatures (flea, snake, mouse, skunk etc.) see a cat, as well as how the cat sees itself. Brendan says he was aiming to “create a sense of healing through understanding our different perspectives.” That is exactly what these illustrations do. Also, this book has my favorite first line, “A cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, paws and ears.”

Brendan worked with Michael Curry, Portland’s creator of large puppets, i.e. Lion King, for four months.

The Caldecott 2017 panel was introduced by students from Grant High school and Riverdale Elementary and moderated by Steven Engelfried, Library Services Manager, Wilsonville Public Library. In the following days, the five visited Faubion PK-8 school in NE Portland and worked with students on art and writing projects.

I met Marian Creamer – who dreamed this up and made it happen – about 20 years ago when she was a school librarian at Riverdale Elementary and I a visiting author. Though she is retired from her school library, she continues to work tirelessly to bring kids and books together.

Marian was struck by something she gleaned from these five Caldecott winning books as a whole: “A multiplicity of viewpoints can coexist, and differences of perspectives are evident without preaching. Children are the best judges of discerning what is true and relative.”

Yes!

Marian’s non-profit organization, Children’s Literature Alive, sponsored the Portland events. If you would like to join me in supporting Marian’s work, leave a note in the comments and I will send you her contact information.

 

What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

Write-or-wrong-o-meter

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.

 

 

If the Chair Fits…

(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)

There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.

I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.

Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.

1.winsor, side,sleigh

The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.

For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.

Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.

Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.

4.corner,chip, gill

As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.

2.un-id

For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.

victorian

Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.

L to R: Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1907; Timothy Gandt armchair for Stickley, 1901; Greene and Greene chair, 1907.

Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.