Monthly Archives: December 2014

NOTES FROM THE IDEA FARM

Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout “I belong in a story?”

Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is: “that belongs in a story.”

We writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.

We snap mental photographs that hold story. Like mine of my friend Margrit quilting in a circle of lamplight, an image that speaks her specific tenderness. Or Izzi’s evening vigil by the gate, her fur backlit by the sun, doggedly awaiting John’s return. Or the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown. There’s story there.

Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The squeaks and pops of the elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.

Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like that of three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”

grove

Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. That’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they serve a story. We savor little vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day. Or: “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” (According to my notes, this is something children’s author Eve Bunting’s dad said to her.) Or: What’s the worst thing that could happen?

All these glittery bits, some as brief as a word, offer inspiration. Like this list near the path at a coffee plantation in Hawaii which suggests an alphabet book about ways to move:

walkthisway

It is not unusual to meet a word that inspires a story – snarky, hunched, snick – or a word that fits into a work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.

Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.

Anecdotes can get me going, too. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.

Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.

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I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged, cobwebby hall. Golden light streams through clerestory windows and falls on a particular item, suggesting it. I start to write. That bit seems to attract others and they begin to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.

When I work with material that has the supercharged quality – the “I belong in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be.

Those are the best days, right?

• • • • •

FAREWELL. In July 2000, I was a guest speaker at what was then Vermont College’s three-year old MFA program in writing for children. The following January I joined the faculty, and taught off and on for a total of nine semesters over the next 11 years. It is a first-rate organization, superbly captain-oh-captained first by Lousie Crowley, and now by Melissa Fisher. I loved working with fellow faculty members who lit up the days with lectures and workshops and lit up the nights in the faculty lounge. I loved being an advisor to my students from whom I learned so much. VCFA is a nurturing, supportive community and I will be forever grateful for its presence in my life. Let’s stay in touch.

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The Watermelon in the Room

How much difference does a watermelon make? There I was, watching the live stream of the National Book Awards last month, when Jackie Woodson’s beautiful and haunting memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming was chosen as this year’s winner in the Young People’s Literature category.

            Jackie, her face as radiant as the sun, gave her thanks. Such a moment! A hallelujah moment. A moment dashed by Daniel Handler’s foot, which he stuck directly into his mouth by trying to make a joke about Jackie being allergic to watermelon. “Think about that,” he said.

“WHAT!?!”

Of course, by now this is old news, and Handler compensated (somewhat) by tendering a series of apologies and also by making a major donation to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Jackie, too, in her ongoing graciousness wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, addressing the issue.

All of this to-do over a watermelon!

But it’s so much bigger than that, isn’t it? So much more. For Jackie and so many African Americans, a watermelon is representative of repression and racism and ridicule. Images of slaves and later share croppers bent over in the blazing heat of the deep South, harvesting the heaviest of all melons, cutting the rope-like vines and hoisting them into the back of a wagon or a pick up truck, isn’t the same at all as the image I grew up with.

For me, a watermelon signaled the beginning of summer, of family reunions, of bare feet and neighborhood baseball. It was a harbinger of long days and no homework, of firefly evenings and Coca-Cola chilled in big bucket of ice, a church key tied to the handle with a cotton string.

My grandmother was an expert at thumping watermelons. With her thumb, she tapped the hard green rind and listened for it to make just the right kind of echo before she purchased it. I never acquired this talent, and I sometimes wonder if she did it just to mystify my cousins and me.

A watermelon was for my grandfather to smack with the side of his fist and burst open with a resounding craaack! It was for seed-spitting and sticky fingers and juice so sweet it made us pucker at the first bite. It was for picnics and backyard barbecues and church luncheons. It was for me one of my earliest picture books: Watermelon Day.

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      And it makes me ask the question: what do we do with all of this? In so many ways, mine and Jackie’s lives were similar. Like her and her siblings, my sisters and I were often left in the care of grandparents. We both had fathers who loved us, but didn’t raise us, who were absent for long stretches. Both of our mothers moved us from one place to another, always seeking something better. Better jobs. Better housing. Better husbands. All of these shared samenesses. And yet, there is still the watermelon.

Right there.

In the room.

The thing is, neither of us can deny our own histories. I can’t change her experience and she can’t change mine. But when Mr. Handler made his remark, I understood at a deep level what had just happened. I grew up, after all, in the segregated American south of the 1950’s and 60’s. I have my racist ancestors, not all of whom are that long gone. If I’m being honest, I have to check my white privilege, knowing that there are absolutely ways of knowing that I can’t know, not fully anyways. I wish it were different. I wish that we were so far along in our shared history that Mr. Handler’s remark could actually be considered funny. He’s a funny guy. But we’re not there yet.

What I do know is that we can change, we must change, especially for our children, we have to change. And the only way I know to do that is to share our stories without making fun of them. For that, we need to make the room bigger, which is the work of We Need Diverse Books. It’s a start. Just like the scholarship that Barry Goldblatt has established in honor of Angela Johnson at VCFA is a start.

The thing is, I want to keep the watermelon in the room, not in spite of what it represents but because of what it represents. I want to eat a cold slice of it in honor of my cousins and our mystifying grandmother. And at the same time, I want to take a bite out of all the sorrow and antagonism that it holds for my black sisters, so that we don’t forget. And then, I want to plant some seeds from it, to grow a whole patch of new and old stories, some of which may be sour and hard to swallow, but some of which will be sweet and juicy. All those important stories. I want us together to grow stories that all of us can smack our fists against and crack open both truths and untruths, so that all girls, and boys too, no matter their color can be dreaming.

watermelons2

 

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I am a reader first. A reader is what I am.

readinginbed

Art by Mary Azarian

I love to do a lot of things. There’s never enough time in the day, or in the week, or in the year. Music, for one. Never enough time for music.

Last spring I had to get on an airplane. This is not a problem for most people. It is for me. I object to be flying both because it’s an environmental disaster and because it’s a horrible experience. Of which I am afraid. Naturally, I am afraid I am going to die. I do not want to die.

I called the lawyer to set up an appointment to rewrite our wills. “Are you flying somewhere?” he asked. “How did you know?” “Did you last fly seven years ago?” he said. I nodded. “That was the last time you called me.”

I laughed, sort of.

It is apparently standard practice now, in Vermont at least, to fill out an extensive advance directive. This document is not a whole lot of fun. It asks lots of questions I don’t want to have to think about, and I bet you don’t either. Basically, they come down to this: How dead do you want to be before we disconnect the machines?

The document also raises questions about funeral choices, etc. The truth is that I want my funeral to be held before I die. Who cares afterwards? Pas moi, I suspect. So I put that in. Why not?

What does this have to do with writing? Not much. But it has a lot to do with reading. “As long as I can read,” I wrote, “I would like to be alive, even if plugged in.”

Many of us are readers first. But when people ask us what we do, it’s hard to answer that we read. We write, we play music, we garden, we attempt to train obstreperous dogs, we paint, we ski, whatever: we DO STUFF. Yet I have read since I learned how to read. I read constantly. Read a lot. I cannot be without reading material. I take books in the car in case of an emergency. I read on the treadmill. I am an only child, and I was always allowed to read at the table (breakfast, lunch, dinner). I now realize that perhaps this gave my parents a chance to talk to each other without my whining about wanting to read. I still do (read and whine, actually). Bob puts up with it.

For years and years and years and years, most of my reading consisted of books for children and young adults. That was my work and my delight. Now I prefer to read grownup books, even though my status as one is questionable. And I still love long, long books.

I cannot read one on a screen.

I want to hold it on my lap.

I cannot hear one in the car.

I do not like those book-y apps.

I’ve read some great books recently (you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine). Books that surprise me, please me, challenge me, amaze me. The novel for both young and old people is alive and well! I have enough books in the house to tide me over until that advance directive comes into play, which I hope is never. Too many books to read. I laugh, I cry, they change my life.

Last week we lost power in a magnificent snowstorm. We lit candles. I read. The house was deliciously quiet (and we have wood heat, so it was warm). We couldn’t flush toilets, but I could read. We couldn’t eat, but I could read. No machines purring, no writing nagging at me, no email or internet. Reading!

This is my last VCFA faculty blog post (my choice, but it’s time, even though I suggested this blog in the first place, or so I believe–). It’s been a delight, and I thank you all for reading my ramblings. I’m not disappearing, so stay in touch.

Afterword: for more on writing itself, please read this delicious post by mystery writer Leonard Rosen. It may inspire you. http://lenrosenonline.com/2013/04/harold-his-purple-crayon-and-the-writing-process/

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Pushing the Limits

Coe’s post about keeping the momentum and Amanda’s Hey You post both made me think about the mind-games we have to play with ourselves to keep going. Which of course reminded me of my own large project under way right now. It’s trying, poor thing, to get past its saggy-baggy-middle and I often find myself getting royally in its way.

IMG_7905Some of you know that from mid-October to early November, I was part of a group that aimed to trek the Annapurna Circuit. We didn’t do the whole thing because the week we started was the week that Nepal and the world (or at least anyone who was paying attention) got gob-smacked by this terrible catastrophe that killed over forty trekkers and left maybe 50 missing.  We were three days away from that pass and the worst we suffered included bad colds, sleep-deprivation, and mild altitude spaciness. We ended up hiking in some glorious places, meeting some generous, gracious people, and falling in love with Nepal.

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Wait. There’s a writing connection here. I kept a daily journal for the 22 days of the trip. Here’s what I wrote on Day 4:

To Chame, uphill and downhill until I feel I have no breath left at all but still I keep going and somehow at the end of the day I am still breathing and my muscles have stopped emitting screaming pain signals from all this overtime work. Past dozens of waterfalls that are sculpting the rocks. Each striation gleams, ivory on granite, elephantine in scale. You can hear the water roaring down, sometimes half an hour before you round a corner and see it. It is as if the source of all life on the planet is here; here is the heartbeat, and our puny wants and whims fall away at the sight.

And story is like that. You should be able to feel it long before you know what it is. You have to trust that every corner you turn is taking you in the right direction.

Sometimes, too, you have to recognize that there’s an avalanche ahead and you may have to turn back. That’s not failure. It’s letting go your original, logical plan, and going with what the universe has handed you.

That could be an 800 foot waterfall, or it could be laughing children. Be grateful, and keep on trekking.

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Keeping the Momentum

congratulationsCongratulations to all the NaNoWriMo winners! You all rock!

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is still something I’ve actually never tried; the 50,000 word goal intimidates me too much. I mean, I’ve barely written that many words in a year — definitely not a month. But still, I have huge respect for everyone who participated, even those who fell short of that (quite possibly insane) goal.

There’s something so admirable about dedicating an entire month to one writing project, maintaining your focus day after day, and learning to silence your inner critic long enough to keep pushing ahead, even when your novel seems to have veered off in a rather unfortunate direction.

That’s one of the main benefits of NaNoWriMo — you don’t have time to stop and analyze what you’re writing. You have to keep your head down and get those words on the page… now!

And when you think about it, isn’t that the kind of determination writers should have all the time, every month? We shouldn’t have to wait ’til November rolls around to make our novels-in-progress our priority, right?

Well, guess what?

It’s December 1st — a shiny new month! And if you participated in NaNoWriMo (or not!), you can start this month with a NaNoWriMo-esque kind of energy and dedication. It’s all about momentum, isn’t it? If you didn’t get it last month, maybe you can get it now! And you don’t need to set a 50,000 word goal or anything, but you can write every day. And you can move your project 31 days closer to a complete draft.

Let me put it this way: Every month can be National Novel Writing Month… in our minds.
🙂

Start now!
~Coe~

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