Author Archives: laurakvasnosky

About laurakvasnosky

author and illustrator of children's books

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.

wayorbeach013

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.

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

GIVING THANKS FOR VERA B. WILLIAMS’ BOOKS

Can you point to the book that made you want to be a children’s writer?

For me it is Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe.

3Dayscover

My kids and I checked it out of the library shortly after it was published in 1981. Night after night we revisited the story of the narrator, her brother Sam, Aunt Rosie and Mom as they bought a red canoe at a yard sale and took their first overnight trip down a river. Highlights include portage over a waterfall, wildlife, fishing, changeable weather, lots of paddling and the return home to Sixtoes, their cat.

The book is set up as the narrator’s journal, a first-person account illustrated in colored pencil. It has heart and quiet humor and a recipe for fruit stew. The voice is pitch perfect.

Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe was my gateway to Vera B. Williams’ work, including A Chair for My Mother; Amber was Strong, Essie was Brave, and the Caldecott-award winning More, More, More Said the Baby. All brilliant.

I waited until my kids grew up to start making my own books. But I returned to those Vera Williams books as models of what a picture book can be. When my first book was published, I sent it to Ms. Williams, thanking her for her wonderful work and inspiration. I received a nice note in return.

So it goes, the circle of creation and inspiration.

For which I am so thankful on this foggy Seattle Thanksgiving morning.

And I wonder: what book made you want to create children’s books?

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Patterns of Spring

Image

Baby hummingbirds just before they fledged from their nest outside my friend Samara Louton’s Seattle kitchen window.

A couple of months ago our bookclub decided that we’d each memorize a poem. I chose Pied Beauty by Gerald Manley Hopkins. I taped it to the bathroom mirror so I can work on a line or two as I brush my teeth, (while standing on one foot, I might add: trying to improve balance and memory along with good dental care).

 Pied Beauty
 
 Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
 
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

This splendid poem is called to mind everywhere I look this spring: in the pink petal-pocks on the patio around the cherry tree, the checkered frittilarias nodding in woodland shade, striped tulips, and notched and patterned butterfly wings. And, not least of all, in the sweet spots on our springer spaniel.

91

Never miss an opportunity to include a photo of Izabella.

Once you start looking for it, you catch the quirky rhythms of pattern everywhere: yesterday in the decorations on Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s front door, today in the tiny deep blue pearls that circle the centers of the anemones we are arranging as we figure out table decorations for my daughter’s wedding.

photo

I love the images that this poem puts so succinctly before me. And the awareness of dappled-ness that it awakens. As I come to own each line, patting it into my memory to the buzz of the toothbrush, I have come to appreciate the texture of the words and the pattern of the lines. It is, in itself, a pied creation.

IMG_2212

More patterns, along the driveway at the Captain Whidbey Inn.

– Laura Kvasnosky

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

INVENTION

ONE OF THE most interesting people at our neighborhood gatherings is Jim Lea. He’s in his 90s now and sits in a wheel chair and he’s great to talk to. He is an inventor – his most famous invention being the Therm-a-rest mattress, beloved by backpackers everywhere.

thermarest

Jim started out as a Boeing engineer, one of 50,000 employees laid off in a scary downturn in 1971. Being out of work gave him more time for backpacking. But he was tired of waking up in the woods on a cold, flat air mattress. His inspiration came when he was kneeling on a gardening cushion. He realized the open-cell foam had a memory. He and fellow out-of-work engineer Neil Anderson rigged a sandwich maker to melt airtight fabric to the foam. They added a valve, and the prototype that birthed a multi-million dollar business was created.

jimlea

I asked Jim how he decides what to invent. He answered, “What do you need?”

SINCE THEN, my friends and I have come up with a few needs:

• A website called “MeetYouHalfway.com” into which you enter two locations and find the best meeting place and activities between you and your friend. I googled this idea. Someone is already working on it.

• A slimline Kleenex box with opening on the side for easy dispensing from the car sidepocket.

• A Lift Chair that not only lifts a sitter to standing but pinches her toosh and says, “You’re still hot.” I would hire Denzel Washington to do the voiceover.

I THINK ABOUT INVENTION in terms of writing, too, of course. Jim’s question, “What do you need?” can be a challenging one to answer.

Is there a story I need to tell? All these years of composting life into story have established my writing habit as a way of thinking. I write to find out what I think, thereby identifying need?

Perhaps it’s easier to consider what any particular story needs. What combination of character, voice, emotion, tension, pacing, metaphor, revelation, etc. are necessary to invent a story? I scratch around, trying one thing or another. Maybe for me, like Jim, some time in the garden will lead to inspiration.

Want to get inventive? Ask yourself: What do I need? Then share here your ideas for inventions — as well as the stories that are evoked by how you answer this question.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Bit By Bit Putting It Together

“What’s the story?” my dad used to ask if I was having a hard time pulling together an article for his newspaper.

It’s a question I am still, always, asking.

Being a writer means sifting through memories, experiences and observations for the material that is charged, for the pieces that line up to tell the story. Usually it is the emotional component – humor, anger, fear, grief – that signals an event is story-worthy and has the juice that will hold a reader’s interest as you tell the story.

MINING FOR DRAMATIC TENSION

For instance, last week we discovered both of our kids had chosen the same date for their summer weddings. Unbeknownst to each other, plans were moving ahead for June 8 festivities in Palm Springs and Seattle. Throw in the fact that the six of us are getting together soon to celebrate John’s and my 40th anniversary, and the tension ratcheted up to find a solution.

This is the stuff of story. I put on my writer’s hat for the six-person phone discussion. A story-gathering perspective offers helpful objectivity. Like any good reporter, I tried to gather information. I also noted tones of voice and scraps of dialogue. I considered which words would best describe the weight in my chest – or was it my stomach? Churning? Tightening? And I imagined our way forward. Oh, I am lucky to be a writer. I could see myself dancing at two beautiful weddings.

Mostly it’s unplanned experiences like this that offer fodder for stories, but we could be more intentional. Peter Sagal on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me said he actively chooses life experiences for their anecdotal value. I think the guy we saw on Nature who gave over his every waking minute to raising a clutch of wild turkeys is this kind of storyteller. An amazing story resulted. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/full-episode/7378/.  Now he’s off to live a year with mule deer in Montana.

trapeze550I, too, have a commitment to going after a good story, but the voucher for trapeze lessons that my husband gave me last January for my last birthday still waits on the shelf.

We writers live in a continual process of noting and sifting, weighing and arranging, looking for the potent pieces that add up to the bigger thing. In a heartrending story about her mother, former student at Vermont College, Melissa Chandler, talked about this process. “If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life,” she wrote, “what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words?” http://thehairpin.com/user/9639/Melissa%20Chandler.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Building a story is more than finding the charged bits. It’s about assembling, too. I once mistakenly listened to an audio book on “shuffle.” I enjoy stories with skewed chronology, so it took awhile to figure out what was going on, but it turns out what piece of story rubs up against the next matters.

tree

After I strung the lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, I decided my result was a lot like the plotline of the middle grade novel I am revising. The lights are carefully placed at the top where I began, winding in and out of the branches, but they get sparser and loose toward the bottom, covering bigger and bigger expanses with a single strand. When an LED bulb went out, the rest of the string went dark. It is not a big reach to recognize I need to go back into my novel and add more lights, to twist the plot more carefully around all of the branches, all the way through.

I look forward to that – and to two weddings — in the new year. Happy holidays to you all!

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Mind the Gap — Laura Kvasnosky

Let’s start with a joke:

      A blind man comes into a bar with his service dog. He stands in the middle of the room and starts spinning the dog in the air by the leash.

      “Wait a minute there, buddy,” says the barkeep. “What’re you doing?”

      “Just looking around,” says the blind man.

If this story made you smile, it’s partly because your brain got to do what it loves to do: make connections. You experienced a brainbusy moment while you put together the given bits of information and puzzled it out, then the satisfying moment of understanding.

This manner of telling a story so that it activates the brain’s gap-bridging mechanism is most obvious in a simple joke, but it is necessary to all good stories. Putting the pieces together adds to reading pleasure. It may be partly what E. Dickinson was talking about when she wrote:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Lately I’ve been listening to cognitive researcher V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain. He includes a discussion of what he calls the “peekaboo principle” — the idea that you can often make something more intriguing by rendering it less visible. He writes, “We prefer this sort of concealment because we are hard-wired to love solving puzzles, and perception is more like puzzle-solving than most people realize.” Might this be a scientific explanation why we enjoy stories told slant?

Telling it slant is a powerful way to engage your reader. It works because our minds are keyed to the pleasure of making connections. A mystery is most obviously constructed this way, but in some sense all stories are mysteries in that the reader must assemble clues to reach understanding.

If you are writing and illustrating a picture book, you have the opportunity to put that gap someplace between the art and words, like Julie Paschkis does in her brand new book Apple Cake, a Recipe for Love. If you were to read text alone, you would get a recipe. But with the illustrations, you see Alfonso’s heroic efforts to woo Ida. For instance:

Alfonso gathers ingredients for apple cake. The text reads: He took an egg and added it to the bowl.

This time it’s love as well as humor that bridges the gap. What better place to end this musing?

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

WRITING THE BEACH

Who better than Julie Larios to serve up a writing prompt? I have often admired the wide-reaching content of her poetry and I got a little insight into her process when our northwest contingent of the faculty of VCFA MFA WC-YA gathered in June at Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Img_2171

(L. to r.: Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Jane Kurtz, Tom Birdseye, Julie Larios, Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howard.)

Julie suggested we each come up with ten strange facts, trade our lists, then choose two items to address some way in a poem. This makes sense with what I know about creativity, how the pairing of disparate things can lead to new thinking. As I worked I felt a tiny shift from writing with intention to writing to see what I might discover. An interesting turn.

The list Julie handed me oozed with possibilities:

  • Seahorses swallow their food through their snouts.
  • The eyes of the seahorse move independently (helps them see predators – compensating for slow movement.)
  • Newborn babies take 30-40 breaths per minute. Adults over 18 average 8 – 20 breaths per minute.
  • When flying, the blue-throated hummingbird’s heart rate can reach about 1250 beats/minute. When perching, 500-600 beats per minute. At night, resting, as low as 40 beats per minute.
  • The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward.
  • Birds have many bones which are hollow.
  • One sentence in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 823 words long.
  • Stress can cause your hair to “turn white overnight” by causing the darker hair to fall out, (alopecia areata), leaving only naturally de-pigmented (white) hair.

One item seemed to be a found poem:

The home of the Collyer Brothers,

famous Manhattan hoarders, was

emptied of 19 tons of junk after

they died – that was only the first floor.

Eighty-four more tons of rubbish were removed

from the second and third floors during the second

attempt. In total, 130 tons of garbage

were removed. Included:

1. bowling balls, 2. three dressmaking models,

3. 25,000 books, 4. kerosene stove, 5. top of

a horse-drawn carriage, 6. 14 pianos,

7. two organs, 8. eight live cats, 9. rusted bicycles,

10. hundreds of yards of silk and fabric, 11. bugles,

banjos, violins, accordions, 12. decades of

newspapers.

The younger brother saved decades of

newspapers because he thought his brother

might like to “catch up on the news” if his vision

ever improved.

 

I ended up going with only one fact:

  • “four-eyed” fish (anableps) actually have two eyes, the half above water sees one world, the divided half below water level sees the underwater world. Vision is simultaneous.

It was a lovely retreat. I learned that gathering quirky facts can inspire and bouy my writing. I reveled in early morning, mist-shrouded walks down the beach almost as much as my dog, Izzi. And I loved being with my wonderful colleagues.

Perhaps you, too, might be inspired by Julie’s list. See where your wandering takes you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized