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.

 

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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?

 

Questions and Parrots

Parrot 1

In last week’s New York Times Book Review, author Ernest Cline was asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?” He answered, “Apes don’t ask questions, even if they know sign language.”

Well, that sent my head spinning. I posted it on my Facebook page, and I asked this question (of myself and of my friends): Is the ability to ask questions and to wonder about things specifically human? Or is it the singular ability to articulate/voice that wonder which we lay claim to?

Matt Smith, a talented writer I got to know and work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, sent me a link to a page in Birdology by Sy Montgomery in which we learn about a parrot named Alex and the woman who taught him to speak (better said, taught him some English vocabulary and concepts.) Alex had been taught colors, taught how to count, he recognized letters of the alphabet and numerals, and it seemed he could even add numbers. But the goal was not just to teach him words and numbers but to understand his thought process, to “show us something of how he saw the world.”

Parrot 2

Alex, it seems, could ask questions. When shown his reflection in a mirror for the first time, he asked, “What’s that?” He was told, “That’s you. You’re a parrot.” He asked what color he was and was told he was gray. When he noticed someone working at a desk next to him, he asked whether that person would like some food – a banana, a nut, and when told no he asked “Well, what do you want?”

He also invented words, among them “cork nut” for an almond, because of the nut’s porous shell, and “rock corn” when he encountered dried corn kernels as opposed to the moist kernels of fresh corn. He understood how language worked. He pursued information.

Inquisitiveness, the ability to question – that is, the ability not just to be curious but to seek answers, to be curious not just internally (wondering silently) but externally (asking) or, at the very least, the desire to know more, learn more, understand more – maybe it isn’t exclusively human. Again, my head spins. Setting my head spinning is a goal I embrace, a condition I enjoy.

I also embrace the act of asking questions and seeking answers.

As should any writer.

Or any parrot.

Parrot 3

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.

Kalinka and Grakkle

It’s a book! It’s a beast!
It’s a book about a bird and a beast!

My new book Kalinka and Grakkle is a story about two neighbors: a tidy bird (Kalinka) and a messy beast (Grakkle). Kalinka thinks of herself as kind and helpful, but she is deluded. She goes into Grakkle’s house and offers him misguided and unwanted help. All he can say is GRAKK! He snaps.

kalinka grakk 18-19But eventually they find equilibrium in their friendship.

I hope you will get the book and read it, at your local library, or at Secret Garden Books in Seattle (you can order signed copies here), or at your local bookstore.

Even a simple book has a lot of backstory. Here is bit more about how Kalinka and Grakkle came to be.
Years ago I did a painting of a girl and a beast.


I wanted to paint more beasts, so I wrote a book about Beastly Behavior – a guide to bad manners. I tried many versions of the story, but it never quite worked.


My agent, Linda Pratt, suggested that I rewrite Goldilocks. I never understood why Goldilocks felt entitled to the bears’ porridge, chairs, and beds. Goldilocks became Goldibird – a small insufferable bird, and the bears became beasts. I painted these illustrations for Goldibird and the Three Beasts.


We sent it out and it was rejected – there were too many Goldilocks are in the world already.

Goldibird insisted on staying in the story, but I changed her name.
I rewrote the story as Kalinka and Grakkle. This time it worked! Peachtree Publishers accepted it for publication. But they weren’t crazy about the Goldibird art samples. So I drew many new Grakkles and Kalinkas.

We settled on how Grakkle and Kalinka would look. Next I worked on his house.


Peachtree thought this room was claustrophobic. Grakk!
So I repainted, and this is the version we used. Aah – more room to breathe.

Kalinka and Grakkle is about unwanted advice and help. I strive to balance my own thoughts with the advice of others – I want to stay open to good suggestions but also to retain my own core. Conversely I struggle to realize when I am over-generous with my opinions. I see some Kalinka and some Grakkle in myself!

Eventually Kalinka and Grakkle snuggle up for a nice nap. My advice: snuggle up with this book and enjoy it.

P.S. I will be at Secret Garden Books, 2214 NW Market St. in Seattle on May 12th  from 6-8 PM for the Ballard Art Walk. I will bring a lot of the original paintings from Kalinka and Grakkle.

P.S. I will be traveling next week. I appreciate your comments on the blog, but I won’t be able to reply immediately.

Easter Egg Hunt!

From Wikipedia:

An Easter egg is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or secret feature of a work (often found in a computer program, video game, or DVD/Blu-ray Disc menu screen). The name is used to evoke the idea of a traditional Easter egg hunt.

I had never heard the term before last week, when Books Around The Table met for our monthly lunch and critique meeting.

I was showing the images I have done so far for Where Lily Isn’t and pointed out a not-so-hidden classic dog book reference (can you find it?) when Bonny Becker brought up the term.

M Chodos-Irvine-Where Lily Isn't pg 10 final

I’ve put Easter Eggs into my illustrations before. In my first picture book – BUZZ, by Janet Wong – I included my eldest daughter’s birthday on one spread,

BUZZ car page

And both my daughters appear in the parade led by the main character at the end of Apple Pie 4th of July, also by Wong.

M Chodos-Irvine Apple Pie 4th of July final spread

On a more somber note, many years ago I heard Maurice Sendak talk about his work for Dear Mili, a lesser known Grimm story about a young child’s journey during wartime. Sendak’s imagery for this book is full of visual clues of his thoughts and influences (perhaps Easter Egg isn’t an appropriate term in this case), including images of Jewish children in Nazi Europe during the Holocaust, the face of Mozart, references to Van Gogh, and many more that I can no longer remember. It is a masterwork, IMHO.

M Sendak- Dear Mili spread 2M Sendak- Dear Mili spread 1

I believe Easter Eggs are common in picture books. Do you know of any? Have you hidden them in your own work? Do tell! It’s the perfect time of year for an Easter Egg hunt!

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.

IMG_2616

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kerlan

Last week I learned about the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. How could I not have known about it before?

by Raúl Colón

The Kerlan Collection is an amazing, world class collection of children’s literature. They have more than 100,000 children’s books, as well as manuscripts, galleys, dummies and original art. It is a book orchard, laden with tasty images and fruitful information.

by Jesse Hartland

If you can’t get to Minnesota this week, you can still explore a lot of their on-line resources. I saw work by old favorites, and discovered new artists.
Here is a link to an article exploring the many ways that picture book art has been made. You can learn about color separations. You can see examples of illustrations that were created with drawing, printing, scratchboard, paint and collage.

by Leonard Everett Fisher

by Marisabina Russo

by Melissa Sweet

Another part features Melissa Sweet explaining how she illustrated Balloons Over Broadway. There are sections on how she developed the ideas: her research, meandering and techniques. There are curriculum ideas. Reading about Sweet’s process enriches the experience of looking at this buoyant book. Here is a link.


A third section compares versions of Little Red Riding Hood. I found this particularly interesting because of the books by Paul Fleischman that I have illustrated which combine multiple versions of fairy tales. Here is a link to the Red Riding Hood exploration.

Ames 1901

Platt- Munk 1924

Benji Montresor 1989

I had never heard of the artist Edgard Tijtgat before seeing his version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Tijtgat 1918

I found it so haunting and beautiful that I hunted down other images by him on the World Wide Web. (I wandered away from the Kerlan for this digression.)

 

I am grateful to the Kerlan for amassing such a collection and for sharing it with the world. I liked learning more about people I already admired such as Melissa Sweet, and discovering new artists, like Edgard Tijtgat. I am honored that I might be included in the Kerlan collection in the future.
Check out the Kerlan here! Who knows where your discoveries might take you.

Sendak

Always Coming Home

When I learned that Ursula K. LeGuin had died, it came as a shock. I knew she was getting older, but she still seemed invincible to me. I am fortunate to have been one of the many people whom Ursula Le Guin brought into her creative universe. She was very generous in her collaborations. I worked on several book projects with her, and kept in touch over the years. I will miss her.

In the summer of 1982 when I was 20 years-old, I got a call from Todd Barton, the then music director for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and a former teacher of mine at the University of Oregon, asking if I would be interested in working on a project with Ursula Le Guin and him.

Ursula K. Le Guin. I knew that name. I had read one and a half books of the Earthsea Trilogy in high school, but had to give the set back to my friend so never finished the rest. I figured that I should memorize the author’s name so I could find them and finish them some day.

The reason Todd Barton called a 20-year-old college junior was because he knew I had an interest in scientific illustration (I was pursuing a double major in art and anthropology) and had seen a fair amount of my student work. Ursula had written Always Coming Home, an archaeological study of a culture that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now” and was looking for someone to illustrate it. She wanted someone young and not yet “jaded” about work. Todd was going to create the music. The book would come in a boxed set with a cassette tape.

I said yes.

I worked on the book for a year and a half, taking time off from school to complete it. I created 101 illustrations, mostly in pen and ink, but including a few woodcuts.

While I was working on the illustrations for the book, I spent a few weeks with Ursula and her family at her childhood summer house in Sonoma County – the setting for Always Coming Home. I went there to observe, study and draw reference on site for the illustrations.

One day while walking with Ursula on the grassy hills surrounding the house, she bent over and picked up a leaf and showed it to me. The leaf had a beautifully convoluted pattern etched into it by some sort of leaf borer. That was the moment that I realized that she saw much more than I did in the world around me. It isn’t enough to see things when you look for them. You need to look for things to see.

So I want to give Ursula credit for changing my life. Not in the obvious way – by being the first person to hire me to illustrate anything – but on a more personal and fundamental level.

To be open. To notice. To gather. To find.

That is the gift I needed most at the time, and I have carried it throughout my life.

And I still have that leaf.