Tag Archives: writing

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.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Community, Connection, Creativity

The floweristas convene in a big workroom at the back of Orcas Center on the morning of the concert. Fresh from their gardens, they bring magenta hollyhocks, bright blue hydrangeas, fat white roses, squiggly branches and phlox. The workroom buzzes as they create huge arrangements to grace the sides of the stage and the lobby.

2015-08-14 11.22.21

Planning up to a year ahead, volunteers plant their gardens with an eye toward creating flower arrangements inspired by each of the concert programs. 

In the nearby kitchen, other volunteers plate cheeses and appetizers for the post-concert reception. Still others prepare the post-reception dinner for the performers. And in the lobby, volunteers settle ticket sales, having already set up an art show of local work.

It is all in anticipation of the 19th annual Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, and it truly takes a village.

We were there for the opening last month, in the island’s 200-seat community theatre. Framed by vats of hydrangeas, a trio named Time for Three – two violinists and a bassist – took the stage. They did not look like classical musicians, rather mid-thirties-aged hipsters dressed in dark t-shirts and torn jeans, like in their student days at Curtis Institute.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 7.48.44 PM

Time for Three: Nikki Chooi, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer

They took us by storm: with dazzling violin runs in exact duet, with bowing so fierce the horsehairs hung ragged on Nick Kendall’s bow. They offered up a whirlwind called Ecuador composed by bassist Ranaan Meyer, and a mash up of Purcell and Stairway to Heaven complete with guitar solo ripped from Kendall’s violin. Then, sweet and pure, violinist Nikki Chooi introduced the melody of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They passed it back and forth, layering the harmonies, as tears welled in my eyes.

Time for Three impressed not just by their virtuosity, but by their joy in the music. Could it get any better?

The next morning we were part of one of the festival’s three “hamlet” concerts. For these, the musicians travel to outlying communities on Orcas. My friend Betsy, a head flowerista, did the flowers for this one, and I got to assist. We helped set up early at the Olga Energetics Club in what is essentially a large living room, pushing the old couches to the walls and lining up mismatched chairs. A spot was saved for a neighbor who is unsteady on her feet, with extra space for her service dog.

Then the audience began to arrive. Each carried a covered dish, sweets and savories for the after-concert reception: veggie spreads, crab in pate choux, butter cookies. One neighbor provides champagne each year. Another brings her famous apple cake.

We filled up the straight chairs and the folding chairs. Three generations of the Friedmann family squeezed into a couch along the wall: Aloysia Friedmann, violist, the artistic director of the festival; Aloysia’s father Martin, a violinist who played with the Seattle Symphony for 25 years; her mother Laila Storch, oboeist, who taught at UW, and her daughter Sophie.

And the music started.

It had been stunning to hear Time for Three play in the theatre, but was even better in this simple room where we were 10 feet from the musicians. They played without amplification. Raw, pure stuff. Heaven should sound so good.

Then they had a little Q and A.

Someone asked, “What inspires you?”

Bassist Ranaan turned to the Friedmanns on the couch, then reached toward Laila Storch, matriarch of the family, who had studied oboe at Curtis at least 40 years before the trio members.

You inspire me,” he told her, “I see how music sustains a life.”

So what does all this have to do with creating picture books? Maybe it’s more about the general idea of creating. Maybe all those Orcas islanders: the ladies growing and arranging the flowers, the volunteers selling tickets and passing out programs and setting up chairs and bringing covered dishes; maybe those musicians, too, that Time for Three trio, putting their bright and brilliant music out into the fresh Orcas morning, maybe as they participate in the thing they are creating they get the same feeling I get when I work on a picture book. That feeling of how good it is to be alive.

It sustains me.

betsy,laura,flowers

With Betsy, my friend of 40-plus years. Betsy and and her husband John retired to Orcas ten years ago and invite us up each summer for the chamber music festival. 

 

 

My Head in the Clouds

cover cloud pixar release

The call was unexpected and exciting. Disney Hyperion wanted to know if I’d be interested in helping a Pixar artist develop a picture book. Art director Noah Klocek had been selected for the Pixar Artist Showcase, a Pixar program in partnership with Disney Hyperion press that gives some of Pixar’s very talented artists a chance to express themselves more personally on a project of their own.

The names Pixar and Disney certainly got my attention. But I was cautious. I had lots of questions—first and foremost was this a project I could relate to? I knew that Noah had already created several story lines for the book and had a specific character and world in mind. So what was that world like? Would it be appealing to me and a place where I could see creating a story?

Disney sent me some sample art. It was totally charming. I loved Gale and I loved those big older clouds. This was a reassuring, yet rather majestic place. A special place.

early sketch Gale

early sketch guardian cloudsMost importantly, it turned out Noah and Disney editor Kelsey Skea were willing to give me a completely free hand in creating the story. This was great and it was daunting.

All of my stories have come straight from me. Something hits me or bubbles up inside and the story has its foundation in something meaningful to me. I didn’t have that with Gale.

This was Noah’s world, his baby. He had been sketching Gale and her cloud world for years. I wanted to know what he hoped for in this story. And I was invited to visit Noah at Pixar headquarters. Flying down I made a point of studying the clouds below me—looking for Gale and seeing if inspiration hit. All I saw were puffy white things that always looked like you could walk on them, but you knew you’d fall like a rock if you tried.

The driver met me at the airport and I was ushered onto the rather secretive, iconic Pixar campus. I was treated royally from a private screening of several projects in the works to a tour of the headquarters’ building sprinkled with statues from Pixar classics.

BBLamp.YSLBBIncredibles.YSL

I liked Noah right away. He loves picture books and really gets how important they are and is passionate about creating high quality stories and art for kids. We talked about our families and about picture books and about creating stories and bounced some ideas around. For several drafts I worked with an idea of Noah’s about Gale learning how to float, but I couldn’t make that work.

My problem, I realized, is that I didn’t know what a cloud would want or need. To discover eternal life as rain, then water, then evaporated mist, then a cloud again? To become “real” like kids on the ground? What could a little cloud grow up to be? I needed something for Gale to want or need to seed the story.

I went back to Noah’s studies and sketches several times trying to tap into where this story was coming from for Noah. I’ve found, for me anyway, stories that work have something deep driving them. Something that the creator often doesn’t even know themselves. There’s something there that keeps us coming back again and again to an idea or image or story seed or scene.

But in the end, I had to come up with my own inspiration. So more looking at clouds. More pondering. More drafts trying to find my own story in this world–from Gale getting in trouble with her little brother to Gale trying to get the attention of a couple of earthbound kids to Gale wandering lonely as a cloud to find her true self.

In all, I created about five different story lines. The editor, Kelsey, was exacting and I appreciated that. I wanted a story worthy of Noah’s beautiful, warm, charming world. In the end, the solution seemed obvious.

Like any respectable cloud, Gale wanted to make different cloud shapes—real shapes like puffy cumulus clouds, a wispy stratus cloud, stormy cumulonimbus clouds. But like artists and authors everywhere, she ended up making up daydream clouds. Tugboats and castles and mighty whales. Clouds for the world to dream on.

gale on cloud

To see more about how Noah created the art for CLOUD COUNTRY check out these links:

The Making of Cloud Country, Part 1:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZJ-l2KsP_k

The Making of Cloud Country, Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQrUBrzOKfI

The Making of Cloud Country, Part 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qmTdPXcJcI

P.S. As is not uncommon in publishing, Disney Hyperion editor Samantha McFerrin took Kelsey Skea’s place when Kelsey joined Amazon’s Two Lions children’s imprint a few years ago. And Samantha helped guide CLOUD COUNTRY through its final stages. Thanks to both of them!

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

This is a story about a search for the right word, and another search, too.

At our last critique meeting, I read my latest version of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. Bonny suggested I find a new word for “twinkle” in the sentence, “They watched as the stars twinkled on and a full moon peeked over the mountain.”

I have consulted friends and Google, too, of course: blinked, winked, flickered, appeared. What is the word for that moment when a star becomes visible? Maybe blossomed? (No, a friend pointed out, that mixes the plant world and the moon’s anthropomorphic action of peeking.)

I was thinking of this “twinkled” challenge Wednesday night. All summer I have looked forward to the Perseid Meteor Showers, billed as this year’s biggest star event. Wednesday night, August 12, was supposed to be the best for viewing. The new moon would set early and the skies would be very dark. We could expect 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Talk about twinkling.

I imagined John and me watching this all from a mountain meadow, far away from the Seattle’s city lights. We’d be ensconced in our butterfly chairs that fold out into chaise lounges. Refreshing drinks would rest in the special cup holders that are built into the chairs’ arms. Our sweet spaniel, Izzi, would rest at our feet. It might be romantic.

So Wednesday afternoon we headed for the Cascades. Just as we cleared the tangle of city traffic, we realized we’d forgotten the special chairs. And the cooler.

At least we remembered the dog.

More challenges were, literally, on the horizon. Low clouds hung along the hills and a haze of smoke blew in from forest fires. After all this effort, would we be able to see stars at all?

• • • • •

Smoky winds sliced through the sliding doors as we stepped out on the balcony of our room in Suncadia Lodge. A smoky haze persisted after sundown but we headed out to find a dark spot away from the Lodge. We chose a driveway apron to a vacant lot and lay down on hard new asphalt to stargaze. Right away, I realized I could see the stars better without my new glasses, so I stuck them in my coat pocket. Several meteors streaked across the sky, but I was sure we’d see even more if we could find a darker spot. I talked John into walking another half mile down the barely lit road and following a string of bistro lights through the forest to the parking lot.

The skies cleared a little as we drove around looking for a dark cul de sac in the unbuilt part of the resort. We found the perfect spot, the kind of place young lovers seek on a warm summer night. Only it was on Rocking Chair Lane. We positioned the car so it blocked the one small streetlight and spread the dog’s old sleeping bag on the still-warm pavement. I folded my coat into a pillow and we lay down with Izzi between us to look at the now fully twinkling skies.

perseid

Despite the sky not being completely black, we counted 24 shooting stars over the next hour and a half. Then a local drove by to see what we were doing and we felt self-conscious lying out there in the deserted cul-de-sac on the dog’s old sleeping bag. We packed up. That’s when I realized my new glasses were missing.

Backtrack, Backtrack. Backtrack. Every place we’d been. We combed the dark roads and trails with our cell phone flashlights. No luck. We were bummed as we went to bed, the wind still whistling through the open sliding door. Then at 3 am an alarm on the room’s refrigerator started beeping. Which was annoying until we looked outside. All was calm. The night was perfectly black, the sky sugared with so many stars that it was hard to pick out the constellations. Those stars dazzled and danced. They sparkled and salsa-ed. They even twinkled.

The next morning before I got up, John went out with Izzi. He walked back to that first driveway apron and met a man working on the gate there.

“Did you happen to see some glasses?”

“As a matter of fact, I have them right here in my truck,” he said. “Lucky I didn’t drive over ‘em.”

Maybe now that I have my new glasses back I will see stars in a new way and find that right word. Or maybe twinkled is enough.

FullSizeRender

John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.

LESS IS MORE

Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers, trained to soar upward until Boots clapped sharply and they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.

rollers

Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.

californiamap

I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.

jackflying

When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

ernesthem

There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:

chickens026

TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”

Hope so bright

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it. I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.”
Sarah Manguso in “Ongoingness.”

I remember when I first started out writing. I deeply needed someone to tell me I had talent. That I would make it. I wanted to be that one in two hundred.

After all, I was trying to do something improbable and hopelessly romantic—be a writer. A “real” writer. One with published books. Good books that maybe made a difference. Or were, at least, read with appreciation. I wasn’t interested in scribbling away in my garret with no concern for worldly success. A successful artist—that’s what I wanted to be.

Now, I also teach writing. And, although, Sarah Manguso doesn’t spell out what kind of students she has, I’m betting she teaches aspiring authors, too. The thing about teaching writing is it’s hard to not feel a bit like a fraud. As Manguso knows, I know that many of my students won’t “become what they feel they must become.”

So are writing teachers fostering false hope?

We are fostering hope. But is it false?

I’ve come to have a somewhat Darwinian appreciation of the process. Many must try. A few will make it. Like tadpoles becoming frogs. Nature seems to need lots of raw material to draw the few from.

I’m one of those tadpoles, too. I didn’t become quite the frog I dreamed of. But unlike nature, it’s possible to become a partial frog and know you’ve achieved something.

Or here’s another way to look at it. The way that I think Manguso means: that there is value in the hope itself. It’s important and meaningful to have that in your life. To have a dream and go after it. I’m lucky no one told me that I’d make it or not make it.

I had to fall back on my own motivations and my own terms of success. And that’s really the only way it can be. How badly do you want it? How hard are you willing to try? How much of a chance can you take?

I don’t know many people who regret having tried. There is the fear that you will feel like a fool. You’ll have wasted your time. But I can’t think of anyone I know who feels that way. In an illustrated essay, reproduced on Brainpickings, Debbie Millman talks about facing the choice to try.

I could have it all

And she talks about deciding later in life to take the chance. To try. To hope. To not, as she puts it “determine what was impossible before it was even possible.”

At the least, I can help a student find out about the possible.

So these days, like Manguso, although I’ll do everything I can to help them, I don’t worry as much about whether or not my students will make it. I’m in awe of them trying. The guts it takes, the honing of their skills, the camaraderie they develop, the furthering of the art itself that they represent. I know that some will completely drop this dream. Some will become appreciators. Some will become patrons. Some will redefine success until it matches what they’ve achieved. Some will become successful only to find that they preferred the dream to the reality. Some will become what they feel they must become.

I don’t think any will lose for the trying.

 

 

 

DESIRE

Ah, Spring. Everywhere I look it’s the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Nature has sensed the void she’s said to abhor and is filling her incompleteness with trilliums and trout lilies, spidery maple leaves and daphne odora variegata. Bare branches fizzle with chartreuse fuzzies and soft blossoms.

blog2

It seems a feeling of incompleteness is part of the human condition, as well. And like Nature, we attempt to fill this void. We fall in love, create children’s books, play with a dog, watch a sunset. All these solutions work to some degree. Other times we try to fill the inner void with music or religion, or running, or drugs, alcohol, sex, or chocolate. Stories even. Yet the void persists.

The open palm of desire wants everything. It wants everything.
It wants soil as soft as summer and the strength to push like spring.

– Paul Simon, ‘Further to Fly’

I think it’s this incompleteness that beloved writer Norma Fox Mazer pointed to as a main character’s necessary “deprivation.” As sure as Velcro hooks grab Velcro fuzz, characters hook readers through their incompleteness. Because we feel a lack in ourselves, we have a ready place to hold a character’s longings and out-of-balancedness. “Deprivation” has many guises. For example, the children in Sarah Plain and Tall’s yearning for a mother, or Peter Rabbit’s need to get into the vegetable patch, or even Olivia’s out-sized dream to be the Queen of the Trampoline – all incompleteness and desire.

I’ve heard it said that 90% of children’s literature is about belonging or searching for home. Maybe that’s what our own incompleteness is about, too.

What a ramble. But it’s spring and the garden calls. And if I may paraphrase what Rene Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire, the garden completes me. At least for awhile.

p.s. Here’s the Dylan Thomas poem referred to above:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Women and Reading

As a writer and lover of books, I collect images of books in art. I have perhaps 500 images and without a doubt the dominant image is of a woman reading–alone. There are whole books about it.

The New Yorker ran an  interesting article about the history of women reading a few years ago.  It’s a history of taboos and strictures, but ever growing literacy for women.

But I find myself drawn to these images aside from their political or social implications. The women in the art come from all walks of life. They are at different ages and stages:

Illustration by Caitlin Shearer.

Art by Caitlin Shearer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Thomas Hart Benton

Art by Thomas Hart Benton

 

 

 

 

 

 

       They are from different cultures:

Illustration by Jillian Ditner

Illustration by Jillian Ditner

 

Illustration by LaShun Beal

Art by LaShun Beal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They come from different stations in life:

Illustrator C. Cole Phillips

Art by C. Cole Phillips

Oil painting by Hillary Coddington Lewis

Art by Hillary Coddington Lewis

 

 

 

From a different knowing about life:

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Gwen John

Art by Gwen John

They are strong:

Art by Kenton Nelson

Art by Kenton Nelson

 

 

 

And they are trapped:

Art by AJ Frena

Art by AJ Frena

 

 

But they all share their engrossment, their engagement, their interiority. What are they reading? Where has the story taken them? What life experiences and what questions do they bring to the book? Will they find the answers?

The result is as unknowable and mysterious as the content of their books.

Art by Leonid Balaklav

Art by Leonid Balaklav

 

 

Once upon a time…

Time, time
Time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities

Paul Simon – A Hazy Shade Of Winter Lyrics

timetowrite1

I’m on Whidbey Island right now at the 10-day residency for the low-residency program I teach at–an MFA program in writing with a special track for children’s and young adult writers.

We’re a small program—only about 50 students. And that’s deliberate. The goal is to have small classes taught by working writers in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s funny but each residency will tend to have a theme for me. An idea or issue that comes up again and again.

This year it’s time. Time in our writing, time for our writing, the timing of our days.

This residency one of our speakers was Linda Urban, author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year. One of the things Linda talked about was the use of time in our stories. And offered some exercises to help us play with and understand something about how time is conveyed in writing.

For example, set the timer for two minutes and write a scene from a familiar fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) in first person, but either in past, present or future tense. At the two-minute bell without pausing start writing in a different tense.

It’s interesting to see how the pace, mood and sense of distance changes with the tenses. Future tense is oddly ominous. Past reassuring. Present urgent and unsettling.

Another exercise is to expand time. Set the timer for five minutes and take a moment in your story and write the whole time about that one moment.

This wasn’t an exercise of Linda’s but of a student who teaches writing to children, Amy Carlson. She has her students start with the moment they are in—this moment of putting pen to paper and asks them to write backward in time from there back to the moment they woke up. According to Amy, this sets different wheels in motion in our imaginations since our brains aren’t used to thinking backward in time. It’s an exercise to free up the imagination. (Amy says the walking backward can do the same thing—challenge and wake up our brains.)

Not just time in our writing, but time for our writing has come up again and again. Do you set your writing time up by words written, hours spent, specific task? For everyone it seems to be a little different.

One speaker suggested a goal of 500 words a day. I know writers who aim for five pages a day. Writers who sit down diligently for four or six or eight hours. Writers who write for 15 minutes a day.

This morning at breakfast, poet David Wagoner talked about the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope who wrote early in the morning for an hour and a half before he went to work. Trollope’s goal was to write 1,500 words in that time. Two hundred and fifty words every 15 minutes. At this rate he produced some 47 novels and numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. As he noted, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Even so, three hours a day total was apparently his maximum. “Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. ”

And from what I can tell most people, like Trollope, seem to have about two to three hours in them. So what do writers do with the rest of the time?

Mostly, we look around for our possibilities.