Author Archives: timwynnejones

The Invisible Dancer

My daughter, Maddy, is a choreographer in London with her own company, Tempered Body Dance Theatre. There’s a link to a brief sample of her work listed below. In preparing new pieces, she will often have her troupe or a portion of it perform segments at events called Scratches: evenings of performance work in development, a chance to put the piece on its feet in front of an audience, followed by a Q & A. Recently, she was going to take a duet to one of these events and the day of the performance the male dancer phoned to say he had food poisoning and could barely get out of bed, let alone dance. So Maddy phoned the Scratch organizer and told him that she wouldn’t be able to show the piece that evening. Had it been a piece for two females, she could have stepped in, no problem, but there were a lot of lifts and it would just not be possible. The organizer disagreed, saying that this was exactly the kind of thing Scratches were about. She was scheduled to show a seven-minute piece and that’s what she was going to show. 

So Maddy got together that day with the female dancer and worked the piece into a solo. There was no mention to the audience, before hand, that it was supposed to be a duet. And it went over very well. People were excited afterwards, wanting to talk about it. One woman said it felt as if there was an invisible other presence in the piece. Maddy smiled and, having checked with the organizer, explained what had happened, news that was received enthusiastically and precipitated a lot more debate.

I love this story. I love that invisible dancer. It reminded me of a score I once saw for a piece of music written for the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. There was one note in the first bar; it was not to be played; Menuhin was supposed to think that note and then play the notes in the next bar. So, an invisible note. Would anyone in the audience realize that Menuhin was thinking that note when he played? Perhaps not but I firmly believe in the effect that un-played note might have on the piece – kind of like a gravitational tug, invisible but there none the less. 

I want to include invisible dancers in my writing. And, if you think of it, that’s exactly what a really good lyric does or the text for a picture book. The power of the piece is not its completeness but just the opposite. The power comes from how the text entices the prospective composer or illustrator with gaps and pauses, as if… well, as if there was this sense of yearning in the words to be lifted and spun around and danced with. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YkCwXGAKzk

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Beguiling Grammar

By Tim Wynne-Jones

The inimitable Coe Booth sent around a website, recently, that featured a great new array of punctuation marks that might help a writer in the never ending business of trying to make text on the page get across what we really mean it to say. Will the “Sinceriod,” the “Sarcastices,” and the “Andorpersand” ever rise to the rank of question mark or exclamation mark in usage? Not likely. What about that expressive new kid on the block, the interrobang!?  Who knows? But who would have guessed that the emoticon would ever be taken seriously as Lynne Truss does in her wonderful book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? See what you think of these pretenders to the punctuation game:

http://imgur.com/gallery/2nOJR

Anyway, this website got me thinking about punctuation and grammar in general. But hey, when I’m not thinking about words then I’m inevitably thinking about “…classes of words; their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence,” which is what Misters Webster and Merriam, tell us grammar is. And folded into that useful syntactical set of rules to follow or break (knowing that Strunk and White are watching and are probably not amused!), is the “…act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs… to clarify the meaning and separate structural units,” which is the definition of punctuation.
To tell you the truth, I was never all that good at it – punctuating I mean – when I was at school. I had a rather imaginative attitude to usage, and a downright crush on the semi-colon for a number of years. But I’ve come to a place where these little squiggles and splotches are important friends and cohorts that I never take for granted. If you want to imagine life without punctuation, try reading this excerpt from a famous story, as it might have looked carved gloriously into a Roman wall:

WHERESPAPGOINGWITHTHATAXSAIDFERNTOHERMOTHERAS THEYWERESETTINGTHETABLEFORBREAKFASTOUTTOTHEHO GHOUSEREPLIEDMRSARABLESOMEPIGSWEREBORNLASTNIG HTIDONTSEEWHYHENEEDSANAXCONTINUEDFERNWHOWAS ONLYEIGHTWELLSAIDHERMOTHERONEOFTHEPIGSISARUNTI TSVERYSMALLANDWEAKANDITWILLNEVERAMOUNTTOANYT HINGSOYOURFATHERHASDECIDEDTODOAWAYWITHITETCET

 The romans didn’t know from spacing, let alone punctuation. Quotation marks? Forget it. They only way to nudge meaning out of the text above is to sound it out, taking breaths as need be. Because in their day, the written word was still intimately connected and dependent upon its oral roots.

The lower case didn’t make an appearance for a very long time, evolving from the writing of upper case letters by hand. The letters became rounded, until they assumed a quite new look, the so-called uncial hand. And it was longer still before a semi-uncial letterform came about, notably, the Carolingian minuscule developed in the ninth century, by the extraordinary scribe, Alcuin of York for his boss, Charlemagne.

Think of how much easier the quote above from Charlotte’s Web would be even if we simply had capitals to start the sentence. That would make it a bicameral script, by the way. This blog is actually tricameral; I wrote the title of Lynne Truss’ and E.B. White’s book in Italic, which is a common case on word processors, nowadays. When I started my career, typing on a typewriter, if we wanted to stress a word or acknowledge a book title we could only underline it. But anyway, Italic wasn’t really codified until the fifteenth century by Ludovico degli Arrighi.
Why am I indulging in this little history lesson? Well, it’s good somehow to know that this thing we do every day, expressing ourselves to the very best of our ability, is aided and abetted by a system of forms and symbols that we take for granted and yet have come into existence over literally thousands of years and were only brought about for the express purpose of making what we write as readable, and our intent as transparent, as possible: to indicate to our reader when to pause; or out and out stop; when something is urgent!; when something – out of nowhere – interrupts our train of thought; to indicate when a speaker, for one reason or another, just can’t go on…
It’s kind of magical, isn’t it? And having ability with language and all these squiggles and blotches, knowing how to put them together into a pleasing and clever and shapely thing, is powerful in its way — magically so. And you know what? Grammar, the word, comes from the same old Scots root word as Glamour, meaning the ability to beguile. Kind of makes it all seem a little bit enchanting when you think of it that way, doesn’t it?

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The Whole Story

By Tim Wynne-Jones

 

 

There is over two feet of fresh snow outside, a veritable winter wonderland. Having effectively missed winter last year on the road in Europe, it’s good to have a really Canadian Christmas-card type holiday. When the snow was not quite so thick on the ground two weekends ago, my wife, Amanda, and a friend of hers walked deep into our property down the old logging road, across the wild meadow out to the far pasture along the old railroad bed, where there are ramshackle barns caving in a little more each year. In the freshly fallen snow Amanda noticed vehicle tracks leading into the bush and followed them to a sturdy tower, newly constructed.

On our land.

Her friend knew exactly what it was: a bow-hunter’s blind.

Every year during the deer cull, hunters ask if they may hunt on our acreage, and every year we say no. We made an exception for one gentleman down the road, for reasons I won’t go into here; a whole other story, as they say. But we had only meant that he could hunt for the one week of deer hunting in November, not build a tower, for goodness sake. If in fact, it was his doing. We felt as if we’d been duped. Taken advantage of. We were gearing up for full-fledged indignation.

Sunday morning, getting up our courage, we drove to the fellow’s house to beard the hunter in his lair, as it were. I hate confrontations of any kind, especially the kind where I feel out of my element: a city dude living in the country having to challenge a died-in-the-wool good old boy. A large good old boy. But we did it. And he was courteous and remorseful without making a big show of it. He admitted he should have told us. Said that bow hunting season finished up at the end of the December, that the tower came apart easily and he would get it out of there right away, if we liked. He was so nice about the whole business that we said it was all right to leave it until the thirty-first. And with handshakes, we said our goodbyes, glad that it had gone so smoothly.

Mostly I had been afraid that with any kind of aggressiveness on his part, any reluctance, I might have lost my composure and become righteously snippy, or worse, babbled incoherently, my voice quavering into its upper register, and come off looking like a real goof. It’s happened before. I do red-in-the-face resentment really badly. But it didn’t go down like that and we put the incident behind us. An interesting anecdote to tell our city friends.

Yesterday afternoon, the twenty-sixth, as we were preparing for our annual Boxing Day extended family dinner party, the hunter came around to wish us a happy holiday. As I mentioned, he’s a big man; filled the entrance hall. He was dressed in camo gear. He wanted to explain that with the snow now so deep he might have to leave the tower up until he could get a vehicle back in there, if that was all right with us. Noting his clothing, I said it was okay once he had assured me that he wouldn’t be using it for hunting any more. He shook his head, looked down.

“No, we’re finished,” he said, with a finality that I didn’t at the moment understand. We shook hands again but as he turned to go, I sensed that there was more he wanted to say. He looked thoughtful, stopped with his hand on the door handle. Then he turned and what he said was the last thing I would have expected.

“You see, my son has cancer.”

I made one of those sounds that isn’t quite a word; several syllables but no consonants to give it any shape. An inarticulate outpouring of surprise and sympathy. He nodded, held up his hand. He wasn’t looking for sympathy.

“He’s thirty-three, eh. And he’d just… he’d kinda hoped, just once, to actually bag a deer.”

“But no luck?”

He shook his head.

There was nothing to say that would have made much more sense than the shocked and shapeless utterance I’d produced before.

“Anyway, thanks for understanding,” he said. I muttered something about how horrible it must be for them, how sorry I was. He told me a little about the prognosis. We shook hands again and I wished him a good new year, though from what he’d told me, it wasn’t going to be.

How does a story like this end? It is a sad story at a time of the year when sadness is determinedly pushed aside, and yet I don’t want to push this aside. The part of me that wants a story to fold into meaning, somehow, spent a long time searching out the meaning of what we call Boxing Day in Canada. Apparently, it started as an old English tradition of putting a metal alms box outside the church on the day after Christmas for folks to make a special offering to the poor in the name of Saint Stephen. I looked up Saint Stephen, wondered if the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas might have a verse I could borrow from to bring my story around to some tidy conclusion. Nothing. Apart from the obvious pathos of the hunter’s story, there is something in it about always needing to know more, to push through stereotypes and displace an all too easy impression with another more vivid and more human perception, some moment of insight. I wanted the solace of that.

Later that evening, after our dinner guests had gone and we were cleaning up, someone saw deer at the compost in the garden happily enjoying a midnight snack of leftover sweet potato, cranberries, red cabbage. And watching them, I found myself thinking inevitably of that tower, empty now, on the other side of the dark woods and these two men, a father and son, who had silently been looking out over the bush. Silent, because they were hunters. Silent, because there was nothing to say.

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The Mounting of Adventure — Tim Wynne-Jones

Illustration by Stuart Tresilian from Enid Blyton’s The Mountain of Adventure 

We stumbled on “The Old Children’s Bookshelf” on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, last April. The shop’s name is nicely ambiguous because the stock is antiquarian, to be sure, but I suppose it is a shop for old children as well. To my great thrill, I found all of the Enid Blyton “Adventure” series, with their original dust jackets and in pristine condition. I couldn’t resist buying The Mountain of Adventure, since I have long thought of this one particular title as being special in some way.

There was this Sunday… I was eleven. I read The Mountain of Adventure in my attic room on Clemow Avenue (the house that Rex Zero would come to live in, but that’s another story), barely being able to contain my excitement. I couldn’t have read it all in one sitting; I was a very slow reader; but I must have finished it that Sunday and in time for us kids to be taken to the Museum of Nature in the afternoon, where everything, especially the dinosaurs, seemed to glow in the light of the adventure still pumping through my bloodstream. I remember being breathless the whole day and finding the otherwise prosaic world around me to be suddenly an amazingly vibrant place.

Upon rereading the story now, it was, in and of itself… well, dreadful. I have to think that something else must have happened to me that long ago Sunday.
The thing we all know is, you can’t go back. The door is locked, the key lost. Or should I say that the green curtain covering the secret entrance to the mountain has grown to such a density of vegetation it is impossible to find your way through it to what lies inside. In every kind of critical, adultish way, The Mountain of Adventure is about as exciting as a sock. The casual racism, the insanely silly plotting which allows for the young adventurers to stop for a smashing good tea in the middle of exploring the hideout of a nefarious criminal, the coincidences of discovery and rescue… but why go on. Why spoil it. And who cares? Blyton wrote somewhere between 600 and 800 books, depending on who you believe, and none of them was meant for the likes of me; that is, the likes of me at my present age. But oh, she gave me great joy as a boy.
So what happened that Sunday in 1959? Why does it ring down the years to me as a turning point? At first, upon rereading, all I could think was all that food! All those hams and meat pies and freshly baked rolls and bowls full of raspberries and cake with cream icing on top – jugs full of cream! The edible content of Enid Blyton’s stories is a post-war, post-rationing dream come true. But it wasn’t just that or even my appetite for adventure of all kinds. It wasn’t the content at all. I think what must have happened to me that day was a growth spurt. A reading growth spurt. I think I must have crossed that extraordinary threshold where the words on the page became easier to decode –more readily the things they represented. I think I could see the food on the table, feel the hot breath of the wild dogs and the chill, low darkness of the cave in a way that I hadn’t been able to quite so vividly before.
Is that what our favorite childhood books are? Markers of our increasing ability to become partners in the contract a writer makes with his or her reader co-conspirators? Maybe it was something like that. Not, for me – not then — the burning desire to one day become a writer but the quick and deep satisfaction of being a stalwart reader able to carry my weight of camping gear and keep up on the journey into the Welsh mountains and the adventure that was waiting there. And maybe something else: with access to that story, the access to a place where I could begin to dream my own worlds into existence.

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What a Difference a Year Makes

On this very day last summer, my wife and I arrived in France to begin our extremely belated gap year. We touched down in Lyon, where my cousins were waiting to whisk us away to a picnic breakfast on the side of the highway, en route to their home in Bourgogne. Crémant, croissants et pain au chocolat: a wonderful way to mark the fact that we certainly were not in Kansas, anymore.

Looking back on my blog last fall, the one about “the well being dry,” it is extraordinary to think about how much has happened – how filled up I feel! Six country’s worth of new experiences, tastes, breathtaking scenery, breathtaking art, new friends, new thoughts. I didn’t write for seven months and no wonder!  And while I got a bit testy about not writing by January and a lot testier by February, I can only think in retrospect how deeply important that cessation was: a discontinuance, an interruption not an ending. It was a time to take stock, to reboot, to re-imagine life and what it is I had to say about it. Finally, in March, at a beautiful house (with cannons in the rose garden!) over looking the harbor in Salcombe, Devon, I launched into a novel, of which I had written 36 pages the previous spring and not so much as looked at since. As of last week – last Wednesday, to be exact — a first readable draft of that novel is now complete. And it is a different novel than it could ever have been without the trip. 

One thing I believe that happened on the road was that I lost something. Timidity. I stopped caring about the gatekeepers and critics and other worthies who have so much to say about what children’s writing should be or could be or used to be. How easily one hems oneself in, armed with their laudable commentaries and sincere lamentations. 

And how delicious to escape! 


by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Proverbial Room of One’s Own


by Tim Wynne-Jones

I missed the deadline for my blog! Completely forgot it. Sorry, one and all, but I have about the best excuse a writer could ever have: I’m writing. After a seven-month dry spell (see my blog about empty wells from last fall) March roared in like a lion. It didn’t hurt that we’d taken a beautiful house in Salcombe, Devon for the month that provided that most crucial properties for writing: a room of one’s own. Woolf got that one right. The second morning we were there, I woke up at 4:00 and, taking a big shaky, frightened breath, reread the 36 pages of a novel I’d started almost exactly a year ago and not touched since. It was all there; all the passion I’d felt at the time and not been able to find while travelling.

By the time we left Devon on March 30th, I’d written 180 new pages. I was worried about returning to our cramped quarters in London, but there was enough momentum to keep the thing going. Two weeks later, I’m at 350 pages.

I’ve even figured out how to write in coffee shops.

I had always disdained that idea as being a Natalie Goldberg kind of dilettantism, but as long as you know what the scene is you’re writing before you get to the café, and as long as the words are already lining up in your head, the squalling babies and mobile ring tones fade into white noise. The barista even knows my drink of choice!

            But the room.

I had never realized just how unportable my job was. I guess Hemmingway could write in cafes because he travelled light – no adjectives! I couldn’t until I got the thing – the story — snowballing down the hill to the point where I have to hustle just to keep up with it. Lunching with Philip Pullman in February he said that ideas don’t come to him, they come to his desk. There is truth in that. But it’s good to know the desk can be somewhere else, as long as it’s in a room where all your notes are spread out, a room you don’t have to pack up whenever you leave it, a room of one’s own.    

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Which of You is Which?

Which of you is which.doc
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