Monthly Archives: April 2014

Names on a Map

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I spent some time last week with friends out in the Gulf Islands of Canada, and I was reminded again -as I usually am when I travel – how intriguing local place names are. I’m sure my fascination with place names was heightened recently by reading (for the first time, sad to admit) the opening novel of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust is a master of details, including the naming of imaginary towns, churches, houses, and roads in one direction (by way of Swann and the village of Combray) and the other (the Guermantes way.)  I think it’s in the naming of people and places that our imaginations first begin to engage with stories.

The lighthouse at Georgina Point...

The lighthouse at Georgina Point…

Out on Mayne Island, I studied a map and found the following place names, by category:

Bays:

Village, Miner’s, Bennett, Piggott, Gallagher, Campbell, Oyster, Horton, Dinner, Kadonaga, Naylor, Reef, Maude

Points:

Edith, Helen, Laura, St. John’s, Crane, Georgina

Highground:

Heck’s Hill, Mt. Parke

Road Names:

Minty, Latour, Felix Jack, Tinkley, Tinker, Cotton, Skana Gate, Isabella

I wonder about the women: Maude, Helen, Edith, Laura, Georgina, Isabella. Were they mothers? Sweethearts? Daughters? I wonder if Miner’s Bay was named for miners on the island or for a family named Miner. I’m delighted by the existence of Cotton, Minty, Tinker and Tinkley Roads, which sound like the names of mice in a Beatrix Potter adventure (Tinkley is the naughty one, right?) If you go from Heck’s Hill to St. John’s Point, will you have been walking in a heavenly direction (or if headed round trip the opposite direction while picking blackberries could you say you went to Heck and back for those berries?) The story behind a road called Felix Jack needs to be told, though the strangeness of “Kadonaga” Bay might be explained by the Japanese Memorial Garden,  planted in honor of the Japanese-Canadian families whose land was taken from them during World War II. I imagine the Kadonaga family, suitcases packed, waiting on the dock at Miner’s Bay for the steamship which would take them from their homes.

Members of the Japanese-American Community days before their forced evacuation from the island....

Members of the Japanese-Canadian community days before their forced evacuation from the island….

Next time you travel, make a list of the place names around you. They might surprise you – or make you wonder…and don’t stories begin with wonder?

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Right now, I’m wondering about Maude. Who might she have been? Though the timeframe is wrong, and the origin of the place names is off,  I begin to imagine someone like Maude walking up Heck’s Hill with her friends, one who might be named Georgina Campbell and another who might be named Hamako Kadonaga, looking for berries. It’s late summer, 1941…by the following April, Hamako and her sister, mother and grandmother will be sent inland to an internment camp; her father – I imagine someone who might have run the fish saltery near Emery’s Store – will be sent farther inland, as Japanese-Canadian men between 18-45 were – and forced into hard labor until the war was over.

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Maybe the story is told through letters from one girl to the other. Maybe Hamako addresses her letters to Maude Miner, Cotton Road, Mayne Island, British Columbia….who knows? I’m playing a game – let’s call it an experiment –  “Names on a Map.”

Berry Picking circa 1910

Berry Picking circa 1910

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by | April 28, 2014 · 2:11 am

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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