Monthly Archives: July 2013

In Harmony with the Drought

A little while ago, in our critique group, after Ellen Howard read the third-to-last chapter of a new novel, some of us began speculating about how it might end. We were hoping that things would come out well for Ellen’s protagonist, eleven-year-old Hallie. Somebody suggested that Hallie might get back with her father; somebody else suggested that the nice parents of Hallie’s new best friend might adopt her. Ellen smiled and didn’t say much for a while, then she said, “I don’t think those endings would be very believable. Sometimes it’s the character who needs to change, and not the situation.”

Ellen’s wisdom never fails. I remembered something I had read in Tony Hillerman’s novel, Sacred Clowns. Jim Chee is explaining a Navajo term, hozho:

“The way he understood hozho was hard to put into words. ‘I’ll use an example. Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried out. No water. The Hopi, or the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought.’”

I love that.

I am reminded, too, of a conversation I once had with Katherine Paterson about The Great Gilly Hopkins. I told her how devastated I was when I found out that Gilly wouldn’t be allowed to stay with her foster mother, Trotter. I didn’t articulate very well how deeply the end of the novel had moved me, and I can’t remember Paterson’s exact words in reply, but I think the gist of it was that it was time for Gilly to move on to new challenges and that, though it wouldn’t be easy, she has more growing to do on her journey.

In our culture it seems so important to be “a winner.” Maybe in every culture, I don’t know. “Loser” is one of the worst things you can call somebody. But one of the realities of childhood is that kids have to accommodate themselves to having limited power. So instead of always patching up our fictional worlds to suit our child protagonists, we might consider a hozho ending—one in which we allow our characters to grow to the point where they can somehow put themselves in harmony with a world in which things don’t always go their way.


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VCFA July 2013: Summer of Love

As happens often in our residency lectures, this July several of us brought up the idea of love’s relationship to our work. We considered how love for our stories, our characters, ourselves as writers, and our readers are essential to what we do. My own lecture, on Pedagogy, wouldn’t seem to have a natural connection, but, of course, it did. I had chosen as examples of metaphor several quotes about love. Here’s a sampling:

Oh, love is a journey with water and stars,
with drowning air and storms of flour;
love is a clash of lightnings,
two bodies subdued by one honey.
(Pablo Neruda, Sonnet 12, translated by Stephen Tapscott, 1960/1986)

Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke.
(Lynda Barry)

Some say love, it is a river
that drowns the tender reed.
Some say love, it is a razor
that leaves your soul to bleed.
Some say love, it is a hunger,
an endless aching need.
I say love, it is a flower,
and you its only seed.
(Amanda McBroom, “The Rose,” 1979)

Teaching has become for me one of the outlets of my creativity and one of my ways of acting with love in the world outside of the written word. I love reading the stories that come from my students’ minds and hearts, hearing the voices that call to them, and watching them and their stories grow together, preparing to enter the conversation of literature in the world. I teach as a job, yes, but I do it for the love of stories and for their writers, the storytellers. I played Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose” before I started my lecture and used many quotes about love because love is a great motivator and I know that writers for children are motivated by love and intend to help build an honest experience for children and young adults through the action of their words in the world. It may be an easy metaphor, but it’s true for me: You, each one of you, are growing into your flowering and I say love is that flower and you the only seed.
My friends, my colleagues, my students-as-teachers and teachers-as-students, I say, go forth and flower.

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The Hero as Potato: The Shape of Story

July 18, 2013

By Tim Wynne-Jones

Years ago I saw in an encyclopedic book on the art of creating mystery and suspense the visual representation of building drama in a thriller. It was a simple illustration of the top edge of a closed book with slips of paper, like so many bookmarks, standing at differing heights indicating the places where significant crises took place in the narrative. It made a pleasing little jagged hill. And although the heights to which each marker rose could only have been arbitrarily decided, it was plain enough to see that there were more markers, grouped closer together, as the story raced towards its climax. So when I decided to give a lecture on plot at Vermont College, in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program, back in January of this year, I thought it might be interesting to analyze one masterfully structured book to see if I could come up with some equally graphic representation of where the narrative arc took significant leaps and dives. I hoped to learn something about this pattern of actions that we call plot.
I used Ken Oppel’s novel, Half Brother, as my model. Ken typically writes a darn good adventure story and I wanted to see how he used his mastery of drama in a more straightforward novel, that is, apparently, his favorite. I mapped out moments of change in the profluence of the story along an x-axis representing the chapters, and a y-axis corresponding to the intensity of the drama. The idea was to determine, among other things, whether the plot points fell in moments of action and/or dialogue, that is to say scenes, as opposed to passages of summary.
Why? I mean, what was the point? Because no writer would ever be likely to map out a book in such a way, before the fact, as an aid to writing a novel, unless the aim was to create a pattern that could be reproduced again and again in formulaic fashion. Well, I did it because it was kind of fun, and instructive in the same way, I suppose, that opening up a cadaver and mucking about inside is instructive.
I was interested enough in this anatomical research to propose a generative plot workshop for the summer residency at VCFA, where each participant applied these means, as unscientific as they may be, to look at a novel they felt worthy of closer examination. Today is the last of the six workshops and it has resulted in some interesting debate. For instance, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, defies any kind of linear plotting; whereas Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, looks just like the range of mountain peaks you’d expect. Both books are wonderful in their own ways; that’s not the point. And perhaps the discrepancy in their structure puts pay to any presumed idea of the shape of a book. The student who took on Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, created a graph that looked like a heart attack, rising high about the axis and sinking far below as Ender battled his way through his strenuous regime of training, leading to his triumph over the enemy… and himself. The beauty of this latter diagram was to see that the action resolved not at some high point of dramatic tension but much nearer to the norm, as if Ender was a patient saved, or a young man finding balance.

The outcome of this interesting little workshop, I think, will not be in finding any definitive idea as to how plot works but rather in asking different kinds of questions about the concept. And in that regard, I decided to end the exploration for now looking at Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful piece, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which can be found in her collection of essays called Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1990. She posits, there, an idea that wisely and amusingly flies in the face of the action-packed, hero-oriented “arc” we inevitably characterize as the path of a narrative. She writes, with great wit, about the hero’s story, the proper shape of which is the path of the arrow or spear and talks about how conflict is at the heart of such stories. And she replies to this paradigm with a different one: the novel as sack. She says: “the novel is a medicine bundle holding things in a particular, powerful relationship to one another and to us (169).” When we talk about plot we talk about a pattern of actions. Le Guin also talks about a pattern of actions but not necessarily one that must scale the heroic peaks in the all too well known trajectory. She says of her sack theory: “The hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in the bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato (169).” It’s a funny, bracing challenge to our staid and steadfast and shaky – or in need of shaking up — idea about the shape of story.


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Crafting Creative Moments During Too-Busy Times

We’ve all experienced those days (weeks, months) when responsibilities and crises and joys and grief dominate our lives and drain our creative energy. During these times, we may not only lack the time to write but also the will or desire. We’re overwhelmed, and writing may feel like just one more thing on the to-do list.

How might you re-charge your creative self? Right now, I’m at summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Those familiar with the program know how exciting it can be to see old friends and meet new ones while attending to the wealth of lectures, workshops, readings, and meetings that fill the schedule. I asked some fellow faculty members how they refresh their creative selves both during this ultra-busy time and in general.

Rita Williams-Garcia mentioned her rejuvenating “knitting meditation.” Says Rita: “While I knit I let go of forcing solutions. Sometimes the place I am in in my knitting suggests patterns and creative solutions. Knitting sets up my mind to be predisposed to seeing solutions in my creative work.”

Coe Booth, Garrett Freymann-Weyr, Amanda Jenkins, and Betsy Partridge are trying to gather and work on creative projects for an hour several times during residency.   “I put down 800 words today,” says Coe. “They may not be great words, but they still help my story to move forward.”

If she has 15 minutes here or 20 minutes there, Betsy tries to duck into the campus library to research and read for a current project on the Vietnam War Memorial.  “That way I can keep my project in mind and the momentum going till I can find more time for it,” she says.

Bonnie Christesen listens to classical music, especially Brahms, and Tim Wynne-Jones walks early in the morning to a nearby waterfall and listens to music. He protects this quiet time. These moments are important, he says. They are the “opposite of talking.”

Sharon Darrow loves the rushing brook near her home. She likes to take occasional breaks from writing and family responsibilities and walk there and listen during the day. She tries to replicate this experience at residency by visiting the fountain close to College Hall and listening for 3 to 5 minutes.

During ultra-busy times, I find it helpful to be mindful. One of my favorite rejuvenating activities is walking. As I amble, I try to attend to the world around me–the summer gardens, the evening bird song, the shimmer of twilight over the distant hills.  I try to be mindful of this small creative moment I’m crafting for myself and to be alive to  the world rather than simply moving through it.



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Looking for Hemingway

Recently my husband and I were fortunate enough to join a group of fellow pilgrims on a journey to Cuba.  We were tracking down Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts.

We stayed at the Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Hemingway lived for seven years.

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Here’s a view of the lobby:


On the fifth floor, the corner room where Hemingway lived has been preserved as a museum.  To me, his desk and typewriter seem almost like sacred objects.


We spent one morning at his beautiful house, Finca Vigia, which means “Outlook Farm.”  It’s situated on a hill that looks into Havana, just on the edge of the village of San Francisco de Paula.  On the side of the house, he built this wonderful tree house studio.


And here’s the interior.  I think I could write just fine in this room, don’t you?

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Meanwhile, in the main house, even the bathroom is set up for a reader/writer.  Notice the cats’ trophies on the shelves above the toilet.  Rumor has it that at one time, he lived with 64 cats.  And, of course, Hemingway had his own trophies too.

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As part of my preparation for this trip, I read Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson, so I was especially happy to see Pilar, even if she was in dry dock.


From there, we went to Cojimar, a small port, with a square that is dedicated to Papa.


If you stood right beside him, this is what you’d see . . .


What a wonder it is to think that a literary figure has become a national hero!  An American at that!  It makes me think that great art can transcend differences and give us all something to hang onto.


Yep, it does.


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Harper’s Index

I’ve been a fan of Harper’s Index since it began, which was a long time ago though I have no idea when. Do you know it? It’s a regular feature in Harper’s—a seemingly random list of statistical information. But it’s far from random. The editors of the page cleverly arrange one-sentence long factoids; often the juxtaposition is absolutely startling. Or upsetting. Or ironic. Amusing. Usually political. There are no conclusions; that’s your assignment.  Read between the lines, connect the dots from A to B.

For a journalist or a writer of nonfiction, these are little gems. Yet possibilities also exist for the novelist. Where do ideas come from? The Index offers opportunity. And also: how can you structure your own writing so that the reader does some of the work, making inferences, drawing conclusions, making connections.

My husband is a statistician, so I approach the Index with suspicion, if not with more than the average amount of skepticism. Harper’s always has source information, however. But that’s not the point. The point is—here—to engage the mind and imagination. Then, the connections are where story comes in.

For example, this series: (November, 2012)

  •  Percentage of Canadians who believe in global warming: 98
  • Of Americans who do: 70
  • Of Republicans: 48
  • Percentage of Republicans who believe in demonic possession: 68

 Those three are possibly incendiary (ha, what a punster I am), but would be fascinating to explore. What are the possible inferences? What is the connection between people who believe in demonic possession and those who don’t believe in global warming? Clearly there’s a lot of overlap—why? Maybe not a story idea yet, but where can you take it? Do more Republicans have actual experience with demonic possession? A president, perhaps? (No offense to Republican readers.) After all, we all know that the supernatural is what’s selling (ugh).

 Or these (August, 2012):

  • Percentage of top 40 songs from the 1960s that were written in a major key: 85
  • From the 2000s that were: 43

 What thoughts pop up from this startling information? That we’ve gotten more sophisticated in our tastes? That we’ve gotten sadder as a nation? That music teachers are more anxious? That social media are influencing our tastes? Moreover, what story possibilities occur to you? Let me know. I’ve got a few ideas myself. Example: one teenage rock and roll star who makes it his or her business to ban anything written in a major key. Perhaps he has been taken over by demonic possession and wants ensure that the entire US population is on anti-depressants, making us easier to invade. What—me  worry?

Moving right along: these (August, 2012):

  • Number of private U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks in 2010: 15
  • Number killed by falling televisions: 16

 My warped sense of humor takes me right to a film script. Were the televisions dropped by the terrorists? Who dropped the last one? Are televisions becoming animated killers? Oh, I like that.

 Or these single entries (August, 2012):

  • Number of days a juvenile penguin eluded Japanese authorities after escaping from an aquarium in March: 82
  • Estimated market price paid by panhandlers in Johannesburg to rent a baby for the day: $3

With the single entries, there’s no need to follow the line from A to B, but each, as with a good newspaper headline, suggests multiple entry points. From whose point of view should the penguin tale be told? Picture book or novel? Who else is involved? Where is the penguin hiding? What does he learn to eat? Is he disguised as a child? Etc.

The panhandler piece raises similar questions, minus the picture book option. A darker tale.

My brain begins to spin. And while it’s hard to take someone else’s ideas for your own work, there’s nothing wrong with springboards to your own imagination.

The Index  is also searchable if you’re a subscriber, so you can have fun developing your own sequences. I just happened to search DOGS. Can’t imagine why.

Item. Surely there’s a story here:

  • Estimated number of American dogs that have been named as beneficiaries in wills: 1,000,000
  • Ratio of American children to American cats and dogs: 1:2

Less happily. Tragically, and a companion to Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful new book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:

  • Number of beagles used in radiation research that the Department of Energy will bury in a toxic-waste dump in 1991: 850
  • Gallons of radioactive beagle excrement that will be buried: 34,000

I just might write that novel myself.



by | July 4, 2013 · 6:44 am

Emotional Polarities and the Construction of Story

Lately I’ve been looking at the draft of a novel that I should be working on but am not yet ready to pick up again. I pull it up every now and then and read a passage here, a scene there, just to reassure myself that it still exists in my mind. I’ll get to it more seriously this year, I’m pretty sure, but in the meantime I’m just sort of breathing in its energy, assessing where it trips along nicely, flagging the places where it seems to fold in on itself or run out of steam. In a way, I’m stepping back and letting my mind sort it out on its own without consciously trying too hard at the moment.

Yin YangStories so often advance by means of a pulsing of energy–back and forth between emotional points along the storyline. When those moments of shifting energy lead one to another, like darkness to daylight to darkness again, the story also seems to move. When they merely happen in sequence, and aren’t emotionally connected, it can feel episodic, as if it lacked a throughline, as if it were not about anything other than its events.

If I let myself step back and look at my story in this way I can prepare myself to gut the scenes that drain the energy from the story. That in turn will give me room to grow new material with different feelings or moods, with actions that build energy where that’s needed, or images and settings that sustain it.

All of which is really about structure. Only when I think too directly about structure–say in the Aristotleian sense–my head begins to hurt. Instead, give me pulses of energy, positive and negative space, emotional direction. With those concepts in hand, I can fool myselfinto contemplating structure–minus the headache.


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