perfection

I wrote a draft of Calvin. I thought it was perfect. For about a day.

I rewrote Calvin. I thought it was perfect. This feeling lasted for three days.

I rewrote Calvin. This time it seemed perfect for a whole week, long enough for me to think it was ready for my editors’ eyes.

I sent my perfect manuscript to my publishers April 2014. I waited for them to write me and say it was perfect, that this would be the first book in the history of publishing that would skip the editorial process and go straight to copy editing.

Instead I got a four page letter saying everything that still needed work. Not just little things. Big things. As I read the letter I knew my editors were right. They were right on every point, in fact.

Over eight months, and several more editorial letters each the size of a packet letter, each one as right as the one before, the book slowly improved. Eight months after I thought it was already perfect, Margaret and Shelley finally said it was done. Not perfect, but done. A negotiated done.

I gained ten pounds birthing that book, as I often do with books and babies. I gain weight because I have to eat to medicate myself while I am enduring the discomforts of revision, while I am chopping out hundreds or even thousands of words, while I am recognizing over and over that perfection is not my destiny. I eat carrots at first, and then I progress (or regress) to crackers with cream cheese, and finally I hit rock bottom with cupcakes and chocolate and chips. I only crave things that start with C.

While I am eating and working, I try to think it will be worth it. This book will be for somebody. This book, this time, will matter. This book will be my first perfect book.

But then my mind is plagued by a recurring image: I am standing by the Grand Canyon, right at the edge, and in my chubby arms is a stack of all my imperfect books. One by one I throw them over the edge. One by one they fall into the silence, fall and fall and fall, and you can’t hear anything when they hit bottom. They don’t flutter or scream or cry out when they are thrown over the edge. They die meekly. Sometimes I fling the book and laugh. Sometimes I let it droop out of my hands and into the abyss, and I weep in a pretty, non-mucousy way.

Am I feeling sorry for myself?

Yes. Yes, I am. I spare you the trouble.

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In the Basement

First, let me say clearly and unequivocally that I’m not a hoarder. My house doesn’t look anything like the houses of those people on the reality TV show. It would not require a family intervention/professional counseling to help me clear a pathway from the front door to the back door. On the other hand, I’m not a neat freak. I simply keep things clean-ish and organized-ish in a non-OCD way.

That said, I have a problem getting rid of papers. This pretty much applies to ANYTHING made of paper that has writing on it. 99.9 % has some writing. But sometimes there’s no writing. I save plain paper that’s handmade. I save gift wrap, maybe the last tiny square of that gift wrap I got at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seeing it reminds me of a wonderful trip to NYC that I took with my sister, my mom, and my aunt. Bottom line: it’s both paper and memory.

More examples? Well….

Example #1: A two-inch pile of notes and old exams from the Geology 101 class I took in the early 1990’s (having finally decided, as I approached middle age, to finish my B.A.) I found Geology fascinating, loved every lecture,  took copious notes, worked my head off and got a perfect score on every exam for that class. It was such a thrill to be back in college that the papers I produced for my classes became endowed objects, full of magic. So yes, I have a 2-and-1/2-inch stack of notes from Geology 101… and more inches from the History of Photography class I took (alongside my college-age son), and the Physics of Music class I sat in on unofficially, and all my English Lit and Creative Writing classes, and hand-scribbled notes on the backs of programs from lectures delivered by special University guests like architect Rem Koolhas and poet Seamus Heaney. All those papers are in a box in the basement. I don’t read them, not even from time to time, but I know they’re there, glowing in the dark, saying “Knowledge! Scholarly effort! Success!”

Example #2: I have many many boxes full of articles torn out of magazines and newspapers. Strange news items are my specialty. If someone sees the face of Jesus in a grease spot in an auto repair shop in Hoboken, N.J., that is tear-out-and-save-worthy. Ditto an article about a baby born singing Christmas carols. Ditto one about the legend of an Italian fresco-painter who fell off scaffolding while painting the Virgin – locals swore the Virgin he was working on swept down and caught him in her arms, breaking his fall. No bones broken! A miracle. Yes, something like that I tear out and save. Ditto an article about how the Koch Brothers are buying the American elections out from under the American people. I tear out lots of political stuff when I’m mad. So – political stuff, weird stuff, news of scientific import (What? Birds have wrists??? Who knew?!), reviews of upcoming books I want to read (that way, when they come in at the library three months later, I can remember why I wanted to read them), lists of the best places to a) get a good view of San Francisco b) find a Reuben sandwich in NYC or cheesecake in Chicago c) say “butterfly” in 147 languages….Well, you get the drift. When I tear these things out, I mean to file them in The Right Folder in a file cabinet in my office, but more often than not they pile up on one side of my desk or on the dining room table, and I end up throwing them into a grocery bag and storing it all in a closet when friends come over (mustn’t give people the impression I’m a hoarder!) By the time friends have left, I’ve forgotten all about that bag full of papers, and only weeks later do I find it and decide I’ll sort the papers out “later.” Somehow they end up –  guess where – in the basement.

Example #3: Newspapers with Big Important Headlines: JFK Shot in Dallas!  Eleanor Roosevelt Dies! Men Land on the Moon! Nixon Resigns! Clinton Elected! Clinton Disgraced! Shuttle Explodes! O.J. Not Guilty! Twin Towers Fall! War in Afghanistan! War in Iraq! Obama Wins! I’ve even saved campus newspapers from Berkeley in the late 60’s: Students Occupy Sproul Hall! Gov. Reagan Calls Out National Guard! Tear Gas on Campus! Curfew Imposed! Police Take People’s Park! Draft Enters Lottery Phase – Exemptions Cancelled!)What can I do? I’ve always loved history and I’m fascinated by The Art of the Headline. Important newspapers, though, do not get tossed around – those go straight into old vintage suitcases I buy at thrift shops around town. And then they go down to the basement.

Sometimes I go look at all the boxes and suitcases full of papers down there. It’s  a little exciting, the mess – stacked willy-nilly, kind of a metaphor for my brain. I tell myself creative people do this. Save papers.

Other times I look at the boxes and think “This is scary.” Not out-of-control-hoarder scary. But probably enough-to-make-your-grown-children-worry-about-your-mental-health scary. Or enough to make them angry at you if you should die suddenly and leave it all to them to clear out.

The logical side of my brain tells me to just go down and toss the unsorted papers out. Be brutal, Julie, don’t even look through it all. You haven’t needed anything in that box for a long time. Into the 50-gallon recycle bin, all of it, for pick-up next Tuesday! And the Tuesday after that, full bin again. And a few more Tuesdays. Better yet, a trip to the dump.

The illogical side tells me that the story about the fresco painter and the angel would make a great poem – better not throw that little fascinating tidbit away. Multiply that by  100,000 other fascinating tidbits, all on pieces of paper. Mustn’t lose out on the chance to write the Best Book Ever Written and include that little-known fact about birds having wrists …or the one about how scientists think whale sounds might rhyme. Unbelievable. I have that here somewhere, give me a minute….

My kids remind me that most of this stuff is findable now on the Internet, and it’s true. I don’t tear out as much as I used to. Once in awhile now, when I find a great bit of trivia/great article/great essay/great review of a great book/ great New Yorker cartoon online, I email it to myself. Pretty soon, Google Mail will tell me I’ve accomplished the impossible: running out of space on Gmail. By the time my grandson is my age, technology will have eliminated the need for paper. And then all our basements will be clean and orderly. Why don’t I find that comforting?

To make myself feel less guilty, I’ve assigned myself the task of writing a poem a day from facts found in the hundreds and hundreds of articles I save. The other day I wrote one from an article torn out of The Smithsonian about an iceberg that had flipped upside down. The photographer who took a photo of it (beautiful thing!) said that its “underside was breathtaking.” Oh, when I read that, I knew I would save it. He said its underside was glassy and aqua green. He could see water flowing inside the upside-down iceberg, and the water looked “almost like an ant colony.” The world is a strange, strange place.The articles I tear out remind of that fact.

There, I said to myself when the poem was finished, I knew I should save that.

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Bath Spa and Lewis Carroll Sesquicentennial

2014-09-24 07.21.38

Photos courtesy of NG.

2014-09-23 08.01.36So we’ve been talking about the Bath Spa residency at VCFA–a week in Bath with a day trip to Oxford, a dream week for anyone excited about the history of children’s literature as seen through the eyes of writers. Not just that but part of that day in Oxford will be spent with none other than the distinguished Phillip Pullman himself! And that’s not all either Workshops and other offerings at the residency will be led by our very own Tim Wynne-Jones and Martine Leavitt. I know this prose is turning hyperbolic but I can’t help that.

What a treat, too, that this opening residency will take place in 2015,150 years after the first publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland! Yesterday would have been Lewis Carroll’s 182nd birthday. Look at all these Alice connections.

Did I say this is open to graduates as well as current students?

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Jubilation

By Tim Wynne-Jones

I have lately fixated on a band out of Austin called Balmorhea. There’s a sweet little video of their song “Jubi” that I found myself watching with a curious mixture of delight and shades of parental concern that surprised me and made me wonder.

A boy sits punching his finger at a tablet, playing some frenetic video game and then, after only a few seconds, his mother takes it away. There’s no fuss; it’s just gone. He turns, looks over the back of the couch and – Voila! – there’s an outside! Which is when the music starts.
Soon he is through the gate and heading into the great Out There, where he startles a deer, watches an eagle soar, stumbles upon a ruin, complete with the jawbone of a cow, an abandoned and desiccated wasp’s nest and a rope to swing on.
He runs with the cattle beasts, then veers off into the wood — deeper, ever deeper, further and further from home. He crosses a chasm on a suspension bridge and eventually finds the ultimate escape: an untethered boat.
He takes off from shore with only a paddle out onto the wide open reaches of a lake or quarry, on and on, to a stream and shallows and finally a sandy spit where Balmorhea are playing the song that has accompanied his adventure.
It’s dusk, now; there’s a fire. The boy skips around the fire — around the band — and then, as night gathers, he makes his way back – his journey speeded up until he is home, at last. He walks in on his family, sitting at the table. Dinner is waiting. One is tempted to add, “And it was still hot.”
It’s a lovely idyll. What you hope for a kid: the realization of all that there is beyond the screen door — what there is beyond those other screens that pervade contemporary life, stealing away the very notion of vistas and mystery and pathways that are not merely the virtual manifestations of optimal, randomized algorithms. A world of piney-tree pathways. The boy goes out into Life, having been expelled (or rescued, depending on how you look at it) from the simulation of life that pervades the halfway world in which we live so much of our day.
The kid in me smiled with glee; the parent in me was immediately on high alert. Where is this going? Will he find his way home? He has no life jacket. He has no cell. Shouldn’t somebody call someone? Are there strangers out there…
You know the routine. Gack!
The song itself is so lovely you cannot really expect that anything bad is going to happen. And I know, from my own free-wheeling childhood, just how resourceful you learn to be when no one is watching out for you, dogging your every footstep. God, how I would have rebelled at play-dates! And yet, society has scared so many of us into this electronic cul de sac, where we load our kids down with the jiggery-pokery of the screen-age. Where do the greater dangers lurk?
The irony of what I’m saying will not be lost on any reader of this blog. I too spend most of my days in the traces of my MacBook, with no kind mother to come and turn it off.
But just now – well, an hour ago – I got on my snowshoes and went out into the woods behind my home and, with some good, healthy trepidation, struck off the beaten trail, out into the bush. Then I worked at finding my way home through land with no paths but those of deer and coyote. The sun, already westering, cast good strong shadows and it wasn’t hard to remember to keep it on my right, knowing that at this time of year and around this time of day, it would set at the end of my road. There was no band to greet me out there – their fingers would have grown numb in the cold. But the memory of Balmorhea’s jaunty tune thrummed in my head. I don’t know where the title comes from. I can only think it must have something to do with jubilation.

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(Hand)Writing

Remember childhood lessons on cursive writing?  Remember learning to create the big loopy tail for the lowercase “y” and where, exactly, to dot the “i” and “j”?  Are you a writer who drafts or revises by hand?  Or do you go straight to the keyboard?

Process is fascinating!  What goes on in the brain and body when we write by hand versus on the keyboard?  Do we access ideas/memories/sensations differently?  An article in the New York Times in June 2014 took a look at research into the writing of kids and adults. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html?_r=0  One study found that when kids “composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.”

One researcher reflected on the connection between mind and the movement involved in shaping letters:   “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.”

There’s a certain liveliness to handwriting, too, a spirit that inhabits the letter shapes.  It bristles or floats or wavers or spikes–often a reflection of the writer’s personality or mood.  One of my husband’s great joys is calligraphy.  He often creates whole pages of specific letters or words, delighting in the swivel of the “Z,” the plumpness of the “Q,” the cradle of white space in the “V.”

In the past few years, I’ve been saving a few Christmas cards with handwritten notes from older family members and friends.  In this age of the constant, static selfie, these notes seem not fixed but infused with breath, flowing across the page.  A form of embodiment, perhaps.

How about you?  Before you toss the holiday cards, might you look closely at and appreciate the idiosyncratic handwritten notes and signatures? What do you notice?  Might you try handwriting a few paragraphs of your new creative project?   And as you do so, you might slow down and take pleasure in shaping the letters, letting them build into sounds in your inner ear and sentences that sway or sweep across the page.

 

 

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NOTES FROM THE IDEA FARM

Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout “I belong in a story?”

Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is: “that belongs in a story.”

We writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.

We snap mental photographs that hold story. Like mine of my friend Margrit quilting in a circle of lamplight, an image that speaks her specific tenderness. Or Izzi’s evening vigil by the gate, her fur backlit by the sun, doggedly awaiting John’s return. Or the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown. There’s story there.

Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The squeaks and pops of the elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.

Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like that of three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”

grove

Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. That’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they serve a story. We savor little vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day. Or: “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” (According to my notes, this is something children’s author Eve Bunting’s dad said to her.) Or: What’s the worst thing that could happen?

All these glittery bits, some as brief as a word, offer inspiration. Like this list near the path at a coffee plantation in Hawaii which suggests an alphabet book about ways to move:

walkthisway

It is not unusual to meet a word that inspires a story – snarky, hunched, snick – or a word that fits into a work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.

Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.

Anecdotes can get me going, too. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.

Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.

wayorbeach013

I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged, cobwebby hall. Golden light streams through clerestory windows and falls on a particular item, suggesting it. I start to write. That bit seems to attract others and they begin to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.

When I work with material that has the supercharged quality – the “I belong in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be.

Those are the best days, right?

• • • • •

FAREWELL. In July 2000, I was a guest speaker at what was then Vermont College’s three-year old MFA program in writing for children. The following January I joined the faculty, and taught off and on for a total of nine semesters over the next 11 years. It is a first-rate organization, superbly captain-oh-captained first by Lousie Crowley, and now by Melissa Fisher. I loved working with fellow faculty members who lit up the days with lectures and workshops and lit up the nights in the faculty lounge. I loved being an advisor to my students from whom I learned so much. VCFA is a nurturing, supportive community and I will be forever grateful for its presence in my life. Let’s stay in touch.

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The Watermelon in the Room

How much difference does a watermelon make? There I was, watching the live stream of the National Book Awards last month, when Jackie Woodson’s beautiful and haunting memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming was chosen as this year’s winner in the Young People’s Literature category.

            Jackie, her face as radiant as the sun, gave her thanks. Such a moment! A hallelujah moment. A moment dashed by Daniel Handler’s foot, which he stuck directly into his mouth by trying to make a joke about Jackie being allergic to watermelon. “Think about that,” he said.

“WHAT!?!”

Of course, by now this is old news, and Handler compensated (somewhat) by tendering a series of apologies and also by making a major donation to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Jackie, too, in her ongoing graciousness wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, addressing the issue.

All of this to-do over a watermelon!

But it’s so much bigger than that, isn’t it? So much more. For Jackie and so many African Americans, a watermelon is representative of repression and racism and ridicule. Images of slaves and later share croppers bent over in the blazing heat of the deep South, harvesting the heaviest of all melons, cutting the rope-like vines and hoisting them into the back of a wagon or a pick up truck, isn’t the same at all as the image I grew up with.

For me, a watermelon signaled the beginning of summer, of family reunions, of bare feet and neighborhood baseball. It was a harbinger of long days and no homework, of firefly evenings and Coca-Cola chilled in big bucket of ice, a church key tied to the handle with a cotton string.

My grandmother was an expert at thumping watermelons. With her thumb, she tapped the hard green rind and listened for it to make just the right kind of echo before she purchased it. I never acquired this talent, and I sometimes wonder if she did it just to mystify my cousins and me.

A watermelon was for my grandfather to smack with the side of his fist and burst open with a resounding craaack! It was for seed-spitting and sticky fingers and juice so sweet it made us pucker at the first bite. It was for picnics and backyard barbecues and church luncheons. It was for me one of my earliest picture books: Watermelon Day.

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      And it makes me ask the question: what do we do with all of this? In so many ways, mine and Jackie’s lives were similar. Like her and her siblings, my sisters and I were often left in the care of grandparents. We both had fathers who loved us, but didn’t raise us, who were absent for long stretches. Both of our mothers moved us from one place to another, always seeking something better. Better jobs. Better housing. Better husbands. All of these shared samenesses. And yet, there is still the watermelon.

Right there.

In the room.

The thing is, neither of us can deny our own histories. I can’t change her experience and she can’t change mine. But when Mr. Handler made his remark, I understood at a deep level what had just happened. I grew up, after all, in the segregated American south of the 1950’s and 60’s. I have my racist ancestors, not all of whom are that long gone. If I’m being honest, I have to check my white privilege, knowing that there are absolutely ways of knowing that I can’t know, not fully anyways. I wish it were different. I wish that we were so far along in our shared history that Mr. Handler’s remark could actually be considered funny. He’s a funny guy. But we’re not there yet.

What I do know is that we can change, we must change, especially for our children, we have to change. And the only way I know to do that is to share our stories without making fun of them. For that, we need to make the room bigger, which is the work of We Need Diverse Books. It’s a start. Just like the scholarship that Barry Goldblatt has established in honor of Angela Johnson at VCFA is a start.

The thing is, I want to keep the watermelon in the room, not in spite of what it represents but because of what it represents. I want to eat a cold slice of it in honor of my cousins and our mystifying grandmother. And at the same time, I want to take a bite out of all the sorrow and antagonism that it holds for my black sisters, so that we don’t forget. And then, I want to plant some seeds from it, to grow a whole patch of new and old stories, some of which may be sour and hard to swallow, but some of which will be sweet and juicy. All those important stories. I want us together to grow stories that all of us can smack our fists against and crack open both truths and untruths, so that all girls, and boys too, no matter their color can be dreaming.

watermelons2

 

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