Monthly Archives: August 2012

Tears

Many years ago, when I was married to my first husband, he punched me.

I learned something about writing from that punch.I learned about tears and cliches.

1. I learned that before tears come feelings of disbelief, shame, and the need to hush yourself so the children won’t be afraid. I learned that before tears comes the quiet in the soul that questions everything you thought you knew. I learned that before tears comes the instinct to survive, and when tears do come, perhaps years later, they don’t come pretty. They come ugly, with lots of snot and unattractive gutteral noises. Whenever I am tempted to cue the violins by allowing my character to indulge in tears, I stop to search my deepest imagination – what would this particular sorrow really feel like? What would my character really do? If my character must cry, I ask myself, what would that really look like? Surely not the delicate brimming of the eyes or the tasteful sobs you see on TV. Elie Wiesel once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” When we use cliches, we contribute to the silence.

2. Another thing I learned, with time, is that virtually everything bad that happens to us has the potential to enlarge the soul and the imagination and one’s capacity for compassion, making us better human beings and, therefore, better writers.

 

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Pencils

Several months ago when Tim’s hard drive crashed, taking with it pages of his writing,  my thoughts went to backing up my own computer more often, as well as to something else:  Pencils. 

 

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After all, the less complex the instrument, the fewer possibilities for malfunction.Admiring pencils put me in good company:

  • Thomas Edison had his pencils specially made by Eagle Pencil. Each pencil was three inches long, was thicker than standard pencils and had softer graphite than was normally available.
  • Vladimir Nabokov rewrote everything he had ever published, usually several times, by pencil.
  • John Steinbeck was an obsessive pencil user and is said to have used as many as 60 a day. His novel East of Eden took more than 300 pencils to write.
  • Vincent van Gogh only used Faber pencils as they were “superior to Carpenters pencils, a capital black and most agreeable”.
  • Johnny Carson regularly played with pencils at his Tonight Show desk. These pencils were specially made with erasers at both ends to avoid on-set accidents.
  • Roald Dahl only used pencils with yellow casing to write his books. He had 6 sharpened pencils ready at the beginning of each day and only when all 6 pencils became unusable did he resharpen them.

[So, here I am using Wikipedia to download info. for a piece that is in favor of pencils over computers.  I do see the irony.]

 

A little bit of history.  Before the modern lead pencil came the stylus, which can be thought of as its model.  Used originally in Mesopotamia, and originally made from bone, sticks, or reeds that had been plucked from marshes, under the physical pressure of a skilled hand, the stylus can accomplish this:


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In contrast to the computer’s ones and zeros which could instantly vanish, leaving nothing behind —  no trace, record or history — the solidity and chiseled permanence of inscribed clay gives reassurance.  It lasts.

 

 The stylus also gives physicality to the writing process, as does the pencil (vs the computer keyboard’s minimal fingertip effort).  We are slowed down, in an age of hurry, perhaps even discovering more psychological depth than with the quickness of the computer.  Through slowness we descend.

 

 Of course, there are more, far more, ways to go about the physical act of writing, each of which carries its own culture and psychology.  I love the idea of writing with a soft brush on ancient Chinese silk.  It sounds so smooth and watery.

 

Consider not only some of the implements for writing, but some of the materials upon which we have written:

Leaf.  Tortoise shell.  Bones from camels, goats, sheep.  Rock surface.  Bark.  Deerskin. Gold.  Mother-of-pearl.  Writing that strolls the shopping mall, tattooed on human skin.  The choices for writing material are varied and rich.

 

 As are the purposes of writing itself.  In Sumer, a chief original function was that of keeping business records, but I more quickly warm to this, the churinga:


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Using wood or stone, the Australian aborigines used the churinga to relate current people to their ancestors and to those mythical beings from Dream Time who were both human and animal.  These mythical Dream Time beings shaped the land as they moved across it.  They were, so to speak, writing the land, bringing the land into being.

 

We can think of writing and the land in other, but related, ways.  In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram says that the land is filled with “suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert.”  He goes on: “The swooping flight of  birds is a kind of cursive script written on the wind. . . .  Leaf-miner insects make strange hieroglyphic tabloids of the leaves.”  And this:  “These letters I print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow.”

 

In this movement backward I’ve been sketchily tracing — from a pencil putting graphite on paper, to stylus incising clay, to insect borer lacing patterns into a red maple leaf, to a lost wolf pressing quick prints across a snowy field as he searches for his family — writing is physical and very much in the world.

 

Although the computer inspired my thoughts about impermanence and the sudden loss of written ideas, even incised stone will fade.  The ephemerality of a leaf or of paw prints in snow couldn’t be more obvious. It all goes so fast.  

 

As for Tim, fortunately he retrieved his lost material.  But maybe Tim’s crash was also telling me about another lost material, the physical world, and that it was time to return to reading it.

 

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Because we need them…. GLAD BOOK TIDINGS

Just as publishing threatens to metamorphose into a world most of us won’t recognize in a decade or so, and book stores and libraries are closing in droves, bits of good book news, like green shoots, have forced themselves up through the gloom and doom. Yes, things are roiling, changing, but is the end really near? Are stories truly dead? Not if you consider that:

…A sixth-grade teacher just wrote me today to ask my help with a new fall project—his class is going to write their own novels! Yes, each and every one of them will attempt to plan and finish a complete book before the school year’s out.

…Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate of the UK for ten years, Professor of Creative Writing, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has just published a delicious sequel to Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island. It features Long John Silver’s daughter, and I can’t put it down!

…Harry Potter’s mum, J.K. Rowling, is coming to the US in October, when her only appearance will be at New York’s Lincoln Center, where more than a thousand people will pay rock-star prices to hear her interviewed by Anne Patchett—sounds more like a state of wonder than an industry in distress, no?

…Haruki Murikami, one of my favorite authors, has caught the attention of a different kind of book person – the oddsmakers. They’re giving 10 to 1 he’ll win this year’s Nobel Prize!

…NASA announced yesterday, which would have been Ray Bradbury’s 92nd birthday, that the Mars Probe’s landing site of Curiosity is now called Bradbury Landing, in honour of the science fiction author who died earlier this year.

…And last but most fun, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket ) recently performed (and immortalized on video) a musical tribute to librarians and books. “Without books, “ his song goes, “we wouldn’t know our elbow from our bum.” Words to read by!

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Putting Faces to Names

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My husband just got back from a big family reunion in Guadalajara, Mexico, where his extended family still lives. The photo above was given to us by my husband’s cousin Roasalba via her mother Nellie (the only one in the photograph still alive) – it shows his great-grandparents surrounded by the entire Larios family in the late 1920’s.

Yesterday I headed to my own family reunion – the Culver-Garletts Gathering in the tiny town of Bay View, Washington – so I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between history and memory, and about how nostalgia interacts with them and changes them. A storyteller is deeply enmeshed in this mix. 

Bay View Civic Hall is a small wooden building, one room with attached kitchen, at the corner of C Street and 4th. The waters of Padilla Bay border the west edge of town, and the great Samish River lazes through the Skagit Valley just to the southeast. This is tulip country, settled by the Dutch and by Scandanavians, and its greatest claim to fame is probably the huge Skagit Valley Tulip Festival each year. The snow geese and trumpeter swans come each winter like something right out of a fairy tale and dot the countryside. Bay View Cemetery is just up the road a ways from the Civic Hall – that’s the cemetery where Lyman Culver (1821-1901, my great-grandmother’s father-in-law… I think) is buried, It’s about just the right size for a cemetery – about 900 souls buried there over its 150+- year history. My great-grandmother’s mother and father are also buried there – Cynthia Alice Garletts (1858-1950) and Henry C. Garletts (1877-1928.) No – wait – that can’t be right – Alice was married to Henry, but this Henry C. was nineteen years her junior, so maybe that’s her son in the grave nearby…? But that would make him my great-grandmother’s brother. I don’t think she had a brother named Henry. Or maybe that’s the Henry that was called Pete. Hmmm.

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Lots of this gets muddy for me because two of the Garletts sisters (one was my great-grandmother Hester Irene Garletts, pictured above, the other was Myrtle) married two Culver brothers (one of them was Lyman’s son, Daniel – or was it his grandson?) Daniel, my great-grandfather, stands like a figure out of a Steinbeck novel in the photo below. I don’t mean to get sentimental about all this – my grandmother divorced him, and people’s opinions of him depend on which side of the Garletts-Culver hyphen you are on.  So I don’t feel sentimental when I look at that photo. But I wishI remembered this man.

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Yesterday’s gathering didn’t really help me straighten out who’s who.  My brother put together a lovely display of photographs, and I tried to put faces to names – that usually makes things easier by making people feel real, something a writer tries to do by naming and painting a picture with words. But the problem is, these people are history to me, not memory. As soon as I saw a photo of someone I actually knew (for example, Hester Irene’s daughter, Mary Alice, who was my grandmother) then memories rushed in, and the person felt real.

This was the first gathering of the descendants of the Culver-Garletts union, though there have been many Pioneer Picnics in Bay View which were not specific to a particular family.  Relatives came to our reunion that I’d never met, and I saw photos I’d never seen before, and there was an abundance of fried chicken, lemonade and multiple versions of macaroni/tabouli/jicama/potato salad – Italian/Levantine Arab/Mexican/German cuisine – we’ve gone global. One of my sons, Josh – interested in genealogy – attended. My cousin’s daughter went, too, so we had a sprinkling of Gen-X-ers from our side of the family tree. [Gen-X – I wonder what Lyman would have thought of cell phones and blogs and iPads??] To take history back even farther, many of us are related to Nicholas Vance Sheffer, (1825-1910), a certified pioneer of Washington State who came out by wagon train to the Oregon territories. Or was that his father? They shared a name, and I get confused. For Christmas not too long ago my mother – now 86 and sharing lots of memories I’ve never heard before –  presented my brother, sister and me and all of our children with Pioneer Certificates issued by the State of Washington during its Centennial Year. My mother’s side of the family has been in this part of the world for seven generations – eight if you count my grandson. For the kids and for me, there is history in those pioneer certificates, but no memory. So I try to show them family photos, like the one below of  the Culver side of the family gathered many years ago in Olalla, Kitsap County, Washington.

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The reunion in Mexico gathered together about 80 people; yesterday only about 30 family members came to Bay View. We hoped there would be some lawn outside so we could play bocce, an old Italian game using heavy silver balls tossed like horseshoes. Bocce balls came over with Italian immigrants, along with the immigrants’ memories of (and nostalgia for) home.  As I write this, I realize how many countries and tradtitions come into play whenever a large American family gathers together in this new millennium. Imagine at the turn of the 20th century, with so many new immigrants to America, how the longing for home – the origin of the word “nostalgia” – must have permeated everything.

As writers, we try to turn history into story, pulling from both memory and imagination to put faces to names. I loved historical fiction as a kid – because those stories felt possible, felt as if the writer’s imagination had fused history and memory and made them a single engine rather than two machines on more-or-less parallel tracks. Fantasy didn’t have that kind of heat for me. Of course, history is one thing – at its purest (though is it ever pure?) history is “Just the facts, Ma’am”, and memory is a single perspective on those facts. Toss in nostalgia (originally considered a physical disease) and you’re in dangerous territory – facts and memories get distorted by wistfulness, and suddenly all the lines blur. When nostalgia seeps into fiction – especially into stories for kids – it can be suffocating if not handled carefully, since nostalgia is usually an artifact of age, and few kids (at least the picture book crowd I write for) suffer from it.

History (those irrefutable “born” and “died” dates underneath the pictures of so many of my ancestors) tapped at the windows of the Bay View Civic Hall yesterday, and memories floated around waiting for someone to pluck them out of the air. Combine the tapping and the floating with nostalgia about red barns and snow geese and the Old Country, and it was quite a day for a writer. Below is a picture of my little side of the clan. I remember the day it was taken, on the beach near Gig Harbor. Neighbors came and gave us some of the oysters they had gathered that day. My cousin Randy paddled in by kayak. We toasted marshmallows…maybe I can write a story about it. Maybe my grandson will share this photo with his great-grandchilden. Maybe they will look at us and wish they had known us..

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The Sandbox

My first book came out in 1988, which is a long time ago no matter how you slice it. The world of children’s and YA literature was very different then. To me, it felt like a sleepy backwater of the publishing industry, a place where writers didn’t get the money or the attention of the “grownup” lit departments. Nor the respect. At parties, people often asked me when I was going to graduate from kiddy lit and start writing real books. Now they ask when I’m going to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games.

What we did have more of, back then, was the freedom that comes when the world isn’t paying a lot of attention. You could write a YA mystery, then a picture book, then a quiet literary middle-grade novel, and nobody would say boo. Possibly that wouldn’t have been a smart career move even then, but nobody in publishing ever told me not to do it. My agent told me, “Write the book you want to write.” My editor told me, “Write the book you want to write.” And when I described what I wanted to write, my editor invariably said, “That sounds wonderful.”

Let me hasten to add that my fabulous current editor not only let me write the book I wanted to write, a historical/fantasy hybrid called Falcon in the Glass, but she also gave me a contract and an advance. But I know that this kind of freedom is becoming rarer in publishing.

Back in the day, most children’s and YA publishers accepted unsolicited submissions.Few universities studied children’s books, and there were no MFA programs in writing children’s literature. At a writers’ conference, a prominent editor told us that it was a waste of time for authors to try to market their published books. Let the publisher take care of it, she said. Write your next book, she said. Write the book you want to write.

I don’t want to wax unduly nostalgic. Money and respect–what’s not to like? People in universities have written articles about my books, and I teach in a great MFA program. And pleasing our fans and taking a more active role in promoting our books only make sense.

But sometimes I miss the feeling of just dinking around in my sandbox, oblivious to the world. Pursuing whatever might catch my fancy. Not worrying about trends and promotion budgets and who’s on top this week. Just playing–writing for the joy of it.

Is this possible at all anymore?

There’s no going back, but I think we can still capture some of the lost magic of the sandbox. I think we have to, because that’s where true and original stories begin. I’ll give over the rest of this post to Joseph Campbell in his interview with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth.

Create a sacred place, Campbell says. “You must have a room, or a certain hour a day or so, where you do not know what was in the newspapers that morning…[Find] a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are, and what you might be. This is a place of creative incubation…Get a phonograph and put on the records–the music–you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects. I mean the one you like, or the book you want to read. Get it done and have a place in which to do it.”

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Changing, One Word at a Time

When I began to study writing, I entered a short story workshop where we critiqued each other’s work in much the same way we do at VCFA. One of my first teachers prefaced her remarks about my story by saying,  “A story should be capable of changing the world or saving a life.” Changing the world? Saving a life? I was shocked. How could a story do that? How could MY story do that? I prepared myself for the worst, but then she added: “And this story is such a story.” I was relieved, flattered, thrilled—but I didn’t believe her. Not then. I do believe her now.

            Simply through the act of making story, I have seen my own world change and the life I’ve saved may have been my own. I cannot vouch for how the words have entered my readers and changed them or their worlds; I can only say how this study of writing, the act of writing and revising, and eventually the teaching of writing have all worked together to change my life. Because of this experience and my way of thinking about it, I talk all the time about the power of our words and the way our words can change us, how we, through the acts of imagining and revising, become the persons capable of writing the stories we are meant to write. Our writers’ journeys lead us to places, experiences, emotions, and to people we’ve never encountered before. This isn’t an easy journey and it’s good to have an understanding teacher with high expectations along with you.

            By the way, I just want to say that stories that change and save don’t have to be all intense and serious; humor, adventure, even silliness can make a difference in an individual young person’s life and, as a result, in the world of that individual; they just have to be true. Of course, by ‘true’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘factual’. No matter what age you write for or what genre you write, your choices change you and your world, and maybe, like me, they might save your life.

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Advice from a photographer on getting lost

Craft books are full of advice on how to do it. Writers try all kinds of new ways to do it. Hemmingway was infamous for getting drunk to do it, reportedly saying, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

Most of us struggle with it. How to find your way inside what you are writing, rather than standing outside of it. And oh, the joy of that translucent space when you find yourself, one foot in the real world, one foot in your imaginary or researched world.

I just came across this great quote by Dorothea Lange, who made the well-known Migrant Mother photo which became the icon of the Great Depression. “I’m trying to get lost again,” she said, speaking to an interviewer about taking her camera out into the field.

I didn’t know photographers needed to get lost inside their work like we do. But that’s exactly how Dorothea Lange took Migrant Mother. She was at the end of a month-long trip photographing in California. She saw a small, handmade sign: Pea Picker’s Camp. She drove past. But she’d photographed the pea picker’s camps the year before. She knew the destitution, the difficult conditions. Miles later she swung around, drove back to the camp, took six shots of Florence Thompson and her children, then packed up her camera and headed home again.

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I especially like this image. The photo is on the original gray cardboard it was pasted onto decades ago at the Library of Congress.

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