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.