Crazy Act of Faith

Riffing off Kathi’s “Tweenland” post…

Many years ago I had the astounding good luck of being invited to join a longstanding critique group that Eloise McGraw was in. One of the rules of the group: Always start with a positive comment. Usually we did, but one time, when Eloise read the first couple of chapters of The Striped Ships, we got so involved in critiquing that we–all of us–simply forgot to say what we liked about the book.

First of all, what gall. Who did we think we were, critiquing Eloise? But that’s what she wanted, so we just, you know, scrambled to find things we didn’t think were quite working. At the same time, though, I think we believed on some level that she wouldn’t really take us seriously. Why would Eloise McGraw pay serious attention to the likes of us?

Still, I felt kind of bad about not mentioning any of the many things I loved about the story. I sent Eloise a note in the mail. The next day, she called me. She was so relieved to get my note. She had been on the verge of ditching the story!

Ditch The Striped Ships? Because of something I said? I can’t even begin to tell you how terrifying that was.

I said to her, “But you’ve written so many novels. You know how to do it, right? I mean, I didn’t think you would ever doubt that you’d be able to pull it off.”

This is when she told me that each novel teaches you to write that book…but not necessarily the next one. That when you begin a novel, you don’t have the skill you need in order to pull it off. Each time you have to somehow find a way to teach yourself what you need to know.

I think this has been true of every book I’ve written. It feels like a crazy act of faith every time.

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What Do You Think You Are Doing?

Just after our own winter residency, I was a guest for several days in the VCFA Visual Arts residency. While there are too many wonderful things to say about that visit in this short blog piece, I find that I am often reminded of the visual artists’ statements that I read and the process papers I heard. The process papers usually dealt with the work done during that semester as well as planning for future projects. The artist statements, too, dealt with not only the media employed, but also the motivations and origins of the work produced. In the critiques, after the exhibit was viewed and discussed by other students and faculty, the artist had a chance to answer questions and to talk about the reasons, means, and objectives of their art. Often this involved consideration of what they’ve done in the past and what they hope to do in the future.

 

This got me thinking. I wondered if I could write an artist statement myself, perhaps one akin to a teaching philosophy statement. What could I say about my writing that would clearly state what I am trying to do both with my craft and with the content of my stories and poems? Could I write a statement that took into account where I’ve been in my writing life and where I would like to go—and where exactly I am right now? Could I investigate my motivation for writing in general and for each story in particular? Have I thought about the themes of the books I’ve written? Can I identify a thematic thread that runs from one writing project to another? What does that thematic thread say about me, about who I am, where I’ve been in my life’s journey, where I am headed, and whether that is my intended destination? Are the themes similar or varied?

 

When I speak to students about “the moral to the tale,” it’s usually to ask them to delete overt statements that come across as lessons meant for the edification of the child. I usually go on to say that we don’t have to impress preconceived ideas onto a story because if we are writing from the deepest parts of ourselves the themes of our lives will naturally come forth. But what about checking in on our deepest selves from time to time to make sure the themes that are flowing forth rather unsuspectingly are themes we espouse? How about checking in with our stories now and then to make sure that we aren’t inadvertently “saying” something we don’t intend? How about interrogating ourselves first to see where we are with the large issues of life and write with an awareness of them, allowing ourselves room to change and grow over time?

 

More than once in my life I’ve been asked to participate in generating a mission statement to guide a group’s course of action in the future. We decide what service we can provide and to whom, as well as what makes our group and this service unique and valuable for the target audience. I think this is a good place to start, writing one’s own mission statement, but I’d like to think that writers, especially those who write for young people, might take it further, more into the realm of the artist statement where we might consider not only our motivations for this work as well as our means of delivery, our craft, our techniques and skills. Every once in a while it might do us good to check in with that statement to see if our stories and our skills are living up to our goals and make adjustments accordingly, revising our statements over a life time of growth through language and story.

 

If you’d like to join me in this attempt, you might begin by writing a short paragraph that: 1) Describes your intentions as a writer, both in story and in craft; 2) States why you write, what drives you and what keeps you going; and 3) Sets forth what you intend to accomplish for your reader, your writing, and yourself.

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Just the Right Place

I’ve always admired the Dewey decimal system, and the organization it imposes on libraries large and small. During my years as a volunteer at my daughter’s school library, I never ceased to be amazed at all the tidy little numbers on the book spines that denoted just where those books should go.

But I confess to subscribing to a much more idiosyncratic means of shelving at home. How do you organize your books? In addition to arranging by broad categories (picture books, children’s poetry, poetry for adults, middle-grade novels, favorite books from childhood, picture-book biographies, gardening, etc.), I like to organize by merit, friendship, project, and level of temptation. For example, the picture-book biographies about women precede those about men because, well, women deserve pride of place after having been denied top billing for so long. Poetry books by Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and May Swenson can be found side by side since they were friends or strong influences on one another. Project books are stuffed into the bottom shelves with related folders, clippings, objects, print-outs, etc. And all novels by Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer must be kept on the top shelf, behind two rows of other books. I must hide them from myself! If I so much as glimpse a cover, I tend to open the book, read just one passage–and then end up not just reading the whole thing but precipitating a reading jag of all the books by that author. Alas, for now, I must put that indulgence aside.

So where do your books go, exactly, and why that particular place? And many thanks to Sarah Ellis and Susan Fletcher for the conversation that jumpstarted this post.

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Tweenland

So, I’m in that place I call Tweenland, and I’m not talking about that genre of children’s literature that is broadly written for kids in their “tweens.” Nope, rather I’m in that place between projects, somewhere on the other side of Donesville but not quite near enough to Drafthaven.

Drafthaven is the realm where all of my inadequacies rise to the surface. My friend and fellow author, Jeanette Ingold, once told me that every time she starts a new novel, she feels as though she has to learn all over again how to write one. This, from a woman who has written several highly-acclaimed novels, a craftswoman of the highest sort. It’s hard for me to imagine that Jeanette, with all her acumen, has to relearn anything. But Jeanette is also canny, and she wouldn’t say that just to provide comfort.

No, I think what she meant for me to see was that each and every story has its own sensibility and its own requirements, not only of the research and the prose style and all those other things, but it also has its own requirements of the author herself.

The Underneath, for example required me to to figure out how to finish, to see a project all the way through to the end. Keeper required me to be honest about the difference between anger and heartbreak, and to choose the latter over the former. True Blue Scouts needed for me to remember joy, joy in the writing, joy in the story, joy all around. When I think of each of those books, I can see that I had to learn about all of those things, and more, in the process of bringing each book to the page.

But Tweenland is so cozy. I like it here. It’s a great place to be lazy and catch up on reading and watch sitcoms and stare. Staring is good. But it’s also like that place in Pinnochio where its all fun all the time . . . that is, until it’s not fun. Eventually, it gets boring. I’ve got to get out of here!

But I keep getting stuck by the question: what is it that I need to learn in order to start the book I want to write? It’s hard because until I actually put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, there is no way of knowing. I’m caught in my own circular argument. Like Jeanette said, I’ll have to learn how to write this new book, and I’ll have to do it as I go. And it might make me feel really, really dumb, and I might not make it all the way to the end, and what if I get stuck, and what if it doesn’t make sense and what if nobody likes it and then nobody likes me? Ack!

Tweenland is better!
There’s chocolate.
Sudoku puzzles.
Cats who don’t care whether I ever write another word or not!
Double ack!

What I do know, for certain, is that the project that is waiting for me has something to teach me, and that until I begin I won’t know what that is. In fact, I may not know until after I’m finished. That is highly likely. What I also know, but hate to admit, is that staying in Tweenland is a trap. If I get too comfortable here, I’m likely to stay forever. And then what? Will the world be lesser without one more Kathi Appelt book? Of course not. But will I be lesser?

Again, I don’t know. And that’s one of the wonders of creating a story—encountering all of the “I don’t knows,” maybe especially the one that is meant only for the author herself.

Drafthaven calls, with all its crazy sinkholes and roadblocks. I need to go there. Yep. It’s time to put my boat in the water and leave Tweenland, at least for the time being. And what do you know? There’s a boat right there for you too. Grab a paddle. I’ll meet you on the other side. I bet Jeanette will be there too.

              

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Dear People,

Remember letters? Epistles? In my entirely forgotten youth, people wrote them to each other. They used pencil or pen (fountain pens! Inkblots! Ruined items!) and  paper. Later they used typewriters. Sometimes, thinking they were being ever so cool, they wrote to their camp friends on birchbark or on toilet paper. My friend Howie always signed his missives with a drawing of a banjo, just like Pete Seeger. My father signed his with a round, smiling face (Oh, my father’s letters are another story entirely).  People wrote back. Mailboxes contained personal mail.

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If you read my letter about the Beatles concert, you might be able to intuit what some of my own letters were like. Long, rambling, sometimes hilarious, sometimes not, and always filled with typos. Or worse: written in indecipherable longhand. People:  to correct a typo one had to use something called Wite-Out (why no ‘h’?), or even little slips of paper. Carbons? Uncorrectable.  It was time-consuming. Typewriters were not even electric! Fingers hurt! I kid you not.

No more, no more.

So I wish I had written an epistolary novel way back then. One with ephemera included.  When done well, I adore reading them. Don’t they  seem the perfect vehicle for self-obsessed adolescents? Different from first-person, even when there’s only one writer. Why? Off the top of my head: they can create an illusion of being less polished, less “I’m telling you a story now,” less shaped—all by design, of course. When the letters are lively and have a unique voice, they’re unbeatable.

Some examples I’ve read:

84, Charing Cross Road—one of the very best. Feeling Sorry for Celia. Dracula. Griffin and Sabine. The Jolly Postman. Letters From A Desperate Dog. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Daddy–Long-Legs. Flowers for Algernon. The Guernsey Literary etc. Sorcery and Cecelia. Letters from Rifka. The Company You Keep (emails). Love, Stargirl. The Color Purple. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Frankenstein. Anne of Windy Poplars.Thank you, Miss Doover. Letters From Father Christmas. And lots I’m not thinking of.

These novels still need a narrative arc and a reason for existing. Why are these characters writing to each other? Or why is one character writing to everyone else? Is the form still possible, or are emails and text message novels all we can hope for now? Oh, pooey. What’s the reason any contemporary two people would be writing long letters? That could even set a plot in motion. Historical fiction. Time travel.  Or a newly-discovered cache. And etc.

Do you have a favorite? Have you tried one yourself? How might you structure one for today’s readers?

Next time, maybe: something from my father’s letters, if I can find them.

Love from Leda

PS: I’d love to hear from you!

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From a Joint Discussion, Belonging to Everyone: Diversity in Children’s and YA Literature

writingwithabrokentusk:

Here’s a post I wrote on my newly migrated WordPress version of Writing With a Broken Tusk. It came from the recent discussions on CCBC-NET in which several VCFA alums played an active part.

Originally posted on Uma Krishnaswami:

Thank you to CCBC-Net for hosting a month-long discussion on diversity. It was heated at times; it touched nerves. It also gave us the chance to discuss two amazing new titles by Native American writers: If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, and How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle.  

In the end, CCBC member Sarah Hamburg brought it all together by developing a list of personal and professional actions in the cause of diversity on the bookshelf. Asked if the list could be forwarded broadly, Sarah said: “It comes from a joint discussion. It belongs to everyone.” That seems a good way to send this list on its way. Here it is, reposted by permission of Sarah Hamburg and with thanks to CCBC-Net. 

  • Many of the ideas focused on personal activism: actively buying books representing a diverse range of voices; committing to…

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In The Cloud

I’m an out and proud fountain-pen-and-notebook-aholic. I might have written about these addictions a few (hundred) times, like here and here. I love inking up my pens, opening a pretty notebook, and journaling for days. In fact, I’ve been keeping handwritten journals forever, well, since I was in middle school anyway.

But recently, I made a big change and, so far, I’m really liking it. I switched from keeping a physical journal to using a digital one. There are many choices out there for digital journaling, something for all kinds of computers, tablets, and phones, but the one I’m using is called Day One. (There’s a version for Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and yes, I have them all!)


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So why switch to a digital journal?

One reason I made the change is, when I kept a handwritten journal, I always felt there was no reason to open the journal unless I had something to write about, something important-ish. And the prettier (and more expensive) the journal, the more pressure I felt to make each entry meaningful. Last year, I bought a journal in Paris that is so adorable, I’ve NEVER written a word in it.


With a digital journal I never feel that way. Hey, it’s just words on a screen; there’s no need to be fancy. And if I ramble on and don’t make any sense, I can just delete the words and rewrite it. No need to worry about marring my beautiful journal!

Another thing I like is that digital journals seem to encourage quick entries. Of course, there’s no limit to what you can write, but with a digital journal it’s nice to just pop open the app on your phone and write a twitter-length entry, just a line or two about what’s on your mind. I also really like how easy it is to attach photos to your post. These make the journal entry beautiful to look at, and I’m sure in a few years, when I look back over this journal, I’ll be glad to see all those pictures, too.


Digital journals also let you tag entries to help you find them later, save your location and weather information, and if you’re the kind of person who likes to share entries with other people (do people really do this?), you can export your journal as a PDF, which looks great, especially with all the pictures.


Does this mean I no longer use my fountain pens and notebooks? You would have to pry them from my cold, dead hands!  I just don’t journal with them anymore. Now, when I want to do my so-called deep, introspective writing (ha ha), I reach for one of my devices instead.
  And I can say without a doubt, I’ve written way more entries now than before. It’s just so easy. And so beautiful.


There are so many people who want to keep a journal but never seem to find the time to get started. If that’s you, try keeping a digital journal instead. They’re fun, as easy as posting something on Instagram or Twitter, and totally private (and password protected.)


Keeping a journal is so important, especially for writers. If you’ve been hesitant about taking the leap into the world of journaling, try one of the digital journals out there. You might find it more fun than you thought it would be.

~Coe~

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