Category Archives: writing craft

It only takes 30,000 years of culture to get this

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.

Cartoonist Tom Gauld

 

 

THE WELL-SAID WELL

Most my life I have been saving quotes. Today I offer a few that encourage me as a writer and a human being. Hope they speak to you, as well.

“Writers are like the cheese in the ‘Farmer and the Dell’ – standing there all alone but deciding to take a few notes.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird.

“You absorb these influences almost by osmosis and then how many years later – it’s been 22 years – they just come out. I think it’s beautiful. It’s like when there’s no rain in the desert for a long time and then it rains and these beautiful flowers pop up.” – k.d. lang speaking on NPR about the influence of Roy Orbison on her new songs. April 16, 2011

“Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of ‘spots of time,’ or moments that give life shape and meaning, ‘as if an artist had made them,’ in Maclean’s own words… His aim, he wrote, ‘was to study the topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.’” – from my sister, Susan Britton’s notes of a Norman Maclean interview

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir

Do you have some quotable quotes to add to the stack? Extra points for inspiration and humor.

 

 

 

PICTURE BOOK FODDER

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In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

      Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.

Imagery and the Election

THE NIGHT before the Big Election we slept at Inverness, a beach enclave north of San Francisco that is right smack on the major San Andreas faultline.

(Gotta love the hint and nudge of the objective correlative: earthquake possibilities and the election side by side.)

Election day bloomed sunny. News sources predicted that the earliest time Hillary Clinton would be declared winner was 5:30 PST, so we walked out across the dunes to Kehoe Beach to watch the sunset.

I noted details that might tell the day’s story: the miles-long empty beach, washed clean, as for the fresh start of the first woman president; the moon slashed by a jet trail, like a giant ballot mark, a celebratory green flash as the sun sunk into the Pacific.

beach1

When, in the wee hours of the morning, Donald Trump was declared the next president of the United States, I realized I had made a big mistake in choosing metaphors. I should have noted, instead, our long slog through mud and sand, the putrid corn chip smell along the marshland trail, the huge breakers five and six layers deep that pummeled the shore. And the signs along the beach: “Riptide Warning” and “Beware of Sneaker Waves.”

WE FLIPPED on the TV Wednesday and heard our president Barrack Obama remind us again how we are One America. He said Donald Trump had spoken to him of the same intent: for America to be whole again. Obama used the analogy of the presidency as a relay race, stressing the importance of the handoff of one administration to the next.

It has been hard to sleep. Each time the heater switches on, it sounds like a distant siren. A simile of danger. But, as Obama told us, life goes on. The sun comes up each morning.

THURSDAY we hiked on Point Reyes North Beach, the outermost western edge of continental America. The horizon was lost in thick fog. A young couple walked near the breakers. He had a baby on his back. She led a dog on a leash. They held hands. I need this hopeful image in the face of the unknown.

On the radio, political experts talk about how this election pitted those who want change at any cost against those who want the status quo. They say the election reveals a deep division in America.

Children’s books can play a role in addressing this gap. As children’s books become more diverse and better represent the vast variety of human experience, young readers will come to understand our great commonality as well as our differences. Understanding leads to empathy.

When we drive from Inverness back to San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge we pass through a tunnel on each side. One tunnel is named for World War II General Douglas MacArthur, the other for comedian Robin Williams. That’s a pretty big divide, right?

Yes, it’s a bridge we’ll be needing. A Golden Gate. Maybe children’s books will help build it.

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