Monthly Archives: May 2012

Gratitude and Goodbyes

It’s important to celebrate our progress–to experience the traditions and rituals of transitions from one stage of life to another. These traditions remind us to stop for a minute and treasure the moments we have…. –Patricia McGann, School Principal

These last few weeks have been a time of goodbyes. Millions of young people are graduating (including my daughter from 8th grade and nephew from high school). They are saying goodbye to old schools and routines and anticipating the next stage of life. In the children’s book world, we have had to say goodbye to several great lights: Maurice Sendak, Jean Craighead George, Ellen Levine, Leo Dillon. We are grateful for their beautiful art and writing and for their example of curiosity, constancy, and courage. Their lives enriched children’s literature and the lives of countless children.

The quote is from the principal at my daughter’s school, and it got me thinking about the importance of ritual in creative work. Showing up at the writing desk every day, setting aside time for revision, being alive to the transformation of our characters. We often live with these characters for weeks, months, even years. They dwell in our minds and hearts as we carefully craft and re-craft their worlds. And when the project is finished, how do we let them go? How do we say goodbye?

Before the advent of electronic submissions, I used to package a manuscript and walk it to the post office and then reward myself with a quiet hour or two. Maybe go for a walk, meet a friend, write in my journal. These days, it can be so tempting to just press “send” and whisk a manuscript to agent or editor and leap into the next project. But I find I need some psychic space between projects. I need a ritual, a moment of celebration. A time of gratitude to that project and a chance to say goodbye to those characters.

These times of goodbye seem to occur at different times for different writers. For some, the goodbye comes when they hold the finished book in their hands or send their proofed finals to their editor. For others (like me), the goodbye occurs when they send that manuscript off into the world for the first time.

When does the goodbye occur for you? And do you have any rituals that mark it?
~Mary Quattlebaum

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GETTING LOST

“I needed to be away from home and family, to wound myself, in order to realize where I came from; to leave in order to return.”      – Colum McCann, Seattle Arts and Lectures, May 2012

Last week I heard Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin) talk about ‘The Art of Getting Lost.’

Getting lost is something he does intentionally – most recently on a 1200 mile bike trip across America. But he’s worried that modern technology can make it hard to get lost. GPS keeps us oriented in space; texting, email, facebook etc. keep us constantly in contact with friends and family. We don’t get much practice being lost. “Will this need to hunker down, close curtains, always know where we are, where we’ve been, lead to a lockdown GPS on imagination?” he asked.

I started to think about creativity. One of the salient features of a creative person is an ability to hold disparate ideas simultaneously, to be comfortable with the mystery unsolved. Is this what McCann means by being lost?

Born in Ireland, McCann is now an American citizen, so he knows what he’s talking about when he says, “As readers we are emigrants. We leave the country of ourselves and are never sure where we’ll land.” I think it’s the same when we’re writing. We arrive as emigrants on the opening pages: discovering places, meeting new people and enduring that feeling of not quite knowing what’s going on. Stories ask us to stretch in all sorts of directions, to step inside the other.

So here’s to getting lost, both literally and literarily. “Don’t write what you know,” McCann advised, “Write toward what you want to know.”

–Laura Kvasnosky

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Go faster, she cried!

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A very well-known author told me the other day that the “new normal” is three novels a year.  She didn’t mean that the new normal is to read three novels a year.  No, no, it was to write three novels a year.

As a person who took fifty years to write her first novel, the idea of three in one year made my head spin.  This, from a woman whose motto is “write like your fingers are on fire.”  Let me be the first to say, that’s not at all what I meant.

Write fast, yes.  I especially write fast when I’m trying to get a story down.  Otherwise I tend to muck about over every sentence, toying with them until they’re “perfect”—whatever that means.  In that regard, writing fast allows me to get out of my own way.

Writing fast also gets me down the road, it gets me to write long and wide so that I have the rough material to wade into and work with.  (Okay, I admit it, sometimes I write myself right off the cliff.  It happens.)

But let me be the first to say that for me writing fast is not the same as writing good.  I think of all that fast writing as the dough.  Once it’s in the bowl, it needs to be poked and prodded and rolled and then left alone to rise.

I’m not saying this to knock those of you who have the ability to write three novels in a year.  WOW.  I’m in awe of you.  And I certainly understand the financial pressure to produce.   I also know that some of you speedy types are doing excellent work—speed doesn’t necessarily mean lesser work.  Not at all.

However, for me, one of the pleasures of writing a novel is the world that I get to inhabit, the world of the novel itself.  I rather like to wallow around in it.  I enjoy getting to know the characters, even the villains, and I love the fictional places—largely because they tend to be places I don’t normally knock about in: swamps and sandbars.  I’m not always ready to abandon that, even when my editor is tugging on my sleeve.

I don’t think I could write three novels in a year, even if I had to.  Maybe?  So far, I haven’t been pressed to go there, which makes me feel lucky.  But I guess I want to know how you do it—those of you who write so fast that your fingers must be smoking?  What does it take to get those novels written?  What is lost, if anything?  And what is gained?

Inquiring minds want to know…

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Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

            

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Maurice Sendak is gone. Many have talked about his greatness, his revolutionary work, his recognition of the interior lives of even very young children. Others have talked of his effect on their own lives, or how much it meant to them to share his books with children. The internet was full (thankfully) of posts about his psychological insight, links to his gloriously personal interviews, links to articles, and a rebroadcast of that heartbreaking last interview with Terry Gross (what an astonishing compliment he gave her! I would have broken down in tears if I had been Terry.). In fact, it was as if the whole world—or at least my small part of the world—mourned during that rainy Tuesday. And I wept all day long.

 Where the Wild Things Are is a perfect picture book. There aren’t many. Not only is it perfect, but it was revolutionary—and still is. It’s not too much to say this one book changed the world of children’s literature and even our idea of children. I have traveled to see Sendak’s original art and marveled over his genius, his line, his characters, and his imagination. Though printing and production have vastly improved, it is and always will be different and better to see the work itself, the texture of the paper, and to know that a real person created the art you see before you.

Maurice Sendak was one of my heroes. I met him twice, only long enough to shake his hand and tell him how much I admired him and his work, but I know people who knew him well, and he had many friends who loved him dearly. What was in Sendak’s work, though, made me feel deeply connected, and sometimes I felt as if I did know him.  Those Wild Things he claimed derived from his relatives? I had those relatives too.

What he loved he loved passionately, and he was not afraid of putting those passions on the page. He had great courage. He was honest. I can pay him no greater tribute than closing with his own words from that Terry Gross interview.

             “I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and Ilove them more.”

Thank you, Maurice Sendak.

Maurice_sendak_jennie

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Training Your Inner Critic — Uma Krishnaswami

Coe says, in her wonderful post:
The kind of self-talk that goes on during the fragile stage has so much power over the course of our writing.  Positive self-talk can be inspiring, keeping us motivated as we find our way with a new story. 
But negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It can stop us before we put a word on the page, keeping us in an endless cycle of wanting to write but holding ourselves back, time after time after time.

And that is so true–or at least it is when you’re at (or is it on?) that fragile stage.

I know all about fragile stages. I was the klutzy kid who, at 11, stepped on the only loose floorboard in a wooden stage during a dress rehearsal–and fell right through, perfectly in time to the high tumbling notes of Ariel’s song from The Tempest.

Oh, how I wish that I had possessed a smart, knowledgeable inner critic at the time! A voice of caution.

A voice that might have warned, “Hear that creak? Step away. Fast.” Instead I stayed and fidgeted.

Made the board creak louder and louder, until the fateful crash.

You may gather from this that I’m all for inner critics.

Coe’s right, of course. You can’t let the critic loose when you’re creating that first, fragile stage. That’s a structure you want to get across with quick, light steps, just barely managing to lay the planks down as you go. Pay no attention to the creaking. That’s normal.

It will be flimsy, of course. You want it to be. If you nailed it all down it would be secured way too soon. You want it changeable, with moveable parts many of which will need replacing.

But what comes next is the part of writing I love the most. Revision. Which is where I urge you, revive your inner critic. Tame him. Give her tools. Then put that critic to work.

When I have that first clumsy construction done, my inner critic and I can stroll around its edges, studying it, figuring out what fits, what doesn’t, and what was very definitely a misstep. I have to train my critic. She can’t go crashing all over that fragile stage. But I do need her to raise questions. Does that character belong? Do those two others need to be a single person? Does that motivation work? Is that premise too clever? Too neat? Too slight? What’s this really about? Whose story is it? Who should tell it and to whom?

Stageconstruction

Image source: http://www.anandtech.com/Gallery/Album/50

Only my inner critic would dare raise such questions.
My creative self certainly couldn’t do this work. She’s so tired from having flung floorboards around that she thinks she’s done.

So…sure, challenge your critic when the drafty winds are blowing through those loose boards. But crush? Drown? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Put her on a plane, maybe. Send him away on vacation while you play with the puzzle pieces. But when you have a working version, bring that critic back, rested, refreshed, and ready to ask the tough questions.

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The Fragile Stage

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My friend and I were writing together in a cute little Paris cafe the other day (which, of course, means we were doing a lot more talking and croissant eating than anything else!), and the conversation turned to our novels-in-progress and why we’re both feeling so slumpy about our writing lately.  We’re excited about our ideas, but we haven’t hit that stage in the writing process where we can see the path to the end.  We’re still trying to figure out where we’re going, if our choices will make sense on the page, and if anyone will even want to read these novels when they’re finished.  

I call this the “fragile stage.”

Oh, the fragile stage… when everything you write is so delicate, when your finger seems to hover over the DELETE key, when your own self-talk can make “That’s a good idea!” into “Ugh, that sucks” so fast your head doesn’t have time to spin.

The kind of self-talk that goes on during the fragile stage has so much power over the course of our writing.  Positive self-talk can be inspiring, keeping us motivated as we find our way with a new story.  

But negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It can stop us before we put a word on the page, keeping us in an endless cycle of wanting to write but holding ourselves back, time after time after time.

Think about what you tell yourself as you begin a creative project.  Do you ever hear your inner voice say anything like this?

— It’s not going to be good, so why bother?

— I know it won’t come out the way I see it in my head.

— I’ve tried writing this story a million times and it’s never worked.

— I should have started writing years ago; it’s too late now.

— I’m not good enough, and now everybody else will find out.

Without a doubt, a mind like this is not the optimal environment for creativity to flourish!  

For today, try to listen to your self-talk.  When you’re facing the blank page and the blinking cursor, listen to what you’re telling yourself.  And when you hear the inner critic start to speak up, analyze it, challenge it… crush it! 

As writers, we need to protect the fragile stage — even from ourselves!  All that internal chatter has the power to knock down an idea before it’s old enough to walk on its own.  It takes a lot of practice, but we need to find ways to drown out the voice of that inner critic while it’s still just a whisper.  

Because we have a lot of writing to do!

~Coe

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