Monthly Archives: July 2014

Ramblings about change and transition

John Tenniel

John Tenniel

 

Advance twice, set to partners…/Change lobsters, and retire in same order.  Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I have a very difficult time with transitions, with big and small changes, and of course I am not alone. In some areas, I’m an early adopter. It’s that curiosity thing I have spoken of so often. But life in general? No. Not so much. Change=worrisome.

What about transitions in writing? Early on, I remember being puzzled by details. To propel a character from bed to breakfast, for example, did I have to include getting out of bed, turning the doorknob, peeing, brushing teeth, traipsing downstairs, letting the dogs out, back in, out again, back in, out again, and so on? If not, would the reader understand what was going on? Of course the reader understands, and the accumulation of unnecessary details only leads to the cheese sandwich.*   “I woke up. For breakfast, had pancakes [a nod to Tobin Anderson, who just adores pancakes in books, ha], and went to work.”  [THIS IS JUST AN EXAMPLE. I WOULD NEVER BEGIN ANYTHING WITH WAKING UP AND HAVING BREAKFAST (Exception: Winnie Wakes Up). AND NEITHER WOULD YOU.]

I read, I thought, I listened, and I wrote. I learned to eliminate, cut, eviscerate; to tell only what propels the story. Studying how other writers moved characters about was ever so helpful. In fact, I soon wondered why I had puzzled so. Jump. Slow down when necessary. Crowding and leaping. Etc.

In real life, transitions are a wee bit more challenging. Change often=scary.

Life is its own journey, presupposes its own change and movement, and one tries to arrest them at one’s eternal peril. Laurens Van der Post, Venture to the Interior

Transition: I am no longer teaching at VCFA. This has been a particularly challenging change and not one I am navigating with great success. It is odd indeed to pop in for a visit and recognize none of the students. It is odd that they don’t recognize me. It is odd to have new faculty members I don’t really know. It is odd to become an outsider. I am lucky, however. I do get to pop in from time to time.

I do have my sources, however. They tell me the July residency was terrific.The Allies in Wonderland have graduated (and doesn’t the class name say it all? Aren’t we all allies in wonderland at VCFA and in the children’s book world?) Now they face the real world. When they return to campus, which almost all of them will at some point, they will see unfamiliar faces and may feel a bit lost. They’ll schedule group retreats and reunions; they’ll share writing online. Some will drift away. Some will be best friends forever.

Change everything, except your loves. Voltaire, Sur L’Usage de la Vie

My own VCFA class graduated in January, 2004. During the mini-residency, ten of us gathered once again on campus. All are writing. All still love each other. We ate, laughed, gossiped, and caught up. Marriages, divorces, publishing successes, children, grandchildren. Fortunately, no one is very ill and no one has died. For us, for now, the changes are mostly good ones, and for that I am very, very grateful.

I wish everybody a cheery end of summer, filled with good changes only.

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

 

All quotes from Bartlett’s.

*the cheese sandwich: Many VCFA students and alums will remember that this was from a talk by Alan Cumyn. If you bore your readers too much, they’ll go to make a cheese sandwich and likely not return.

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Too Old to Write YA?

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

(from Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker, “This old Man,” 2/17/14)

 If you haven’t read the essay from which the above excerpt is taken, don’t miss it. It’s a gloriously written, truly felt piece that perfectly describes what it’s like to walk among you with a sound mind in an aging body. Do yourself and your horizons a favor, and read the whole thing. Today, though, I’d like to narrow the focus a bit, and take a look at a particular sub-genre of “elders”—dare we call them “poplars?”—older authors who write fiction for young adults.

I don’t know how many of us there are, but to judge from my informal survey of colleagues and from the regular round of faces I see at state and national book festivals and conferences, I’d say a fair number of writers for young readers are already, or on the verge of, collecting social security. Which means they are also fair game for the naysayers who insist that, if your phone is dumb and your jeans sit at the waist, you have no business authoring books for anyone under 20. Beyond the fact that jeans and phones are irrelevant if you write historical fiction, how much sense does this dismissive prejudice make when it comes to novels set in the here and now? Or for that matter, stories that travel to tomorrow and beyond?

What compels any writer to write the book she does? I never sit down and tell myself, I’m going to write a young adult novel today. Or, Now for an adult short story, or, I feel like a picture book. I write what I need to write, go where I have to go; many of my most pressing personal emotional issues can be traced back to adolescence, so that’s often the age of my protagonists. If I don’t learn and grow from the journeys I take in my writing, neither will my readers. I never write down to young readers or “up” to adults; it’s simply that blooms of one kind seem to beg for a slender vase, flowers of another sort look better in a wide goblet. The arrangement in either case calls for skill and caring and yes, passion.

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The young woman I was at thirteen was probably more idealistic, more romantic, more passionate than she has ever been since. The turmoil and heart-clutching theater of that period in my life keep calling me back. But at the age I’ve been blessed to reach now, I have lots of other periods calling me back, too: I’ve written short fiction that was published (and therefore labeled) as adult, YA, and middle grade; a picture book for young readers and a graphic novel for older ones; poetry; novels—books for all the juicy stages of me and you. So the logic of demanding that a YA author be young escapes me. I can appreciate, barely, the conviction that a teen author will have trouble portraying credible adult characters, whose experiences that young writer hasn’t yet lived. But to suggest that older writers have such heart fog they can’t reclaim their past, can’t revisit the young woman or man who helped make them who they are today? Not so much.

In fact, we mature types have what might be considered an edge over those still embroiled in the pangs and ecstatic highs of adolescence. We’ve been there, done that; and we have “crossed over” to the other side of that roiling time. By going back to it, we are, in effect, offering our young readers, not a helping hand, but company for the road. Someone to walk beside them, someone who can convincingly testify that they’re likely to get out alive. And maybe even wiser, happier for the trip.

 

 

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