Tag Archives: VCFA

Bath Spa and Lewis Carroll Sesquicentennial

2014-09-24 07.21.38

Photos courtesy of NG.

2014-09-23 08.01.36So we’ve been talking about the Bath Spa residency at VCFA–a week in Bath with a day trip to Oxford, a dream week for anyone excited about the history of children’s literature as seen through the eyes of writers. Not just that but part of that day in Oxford will be spent with none other than the distinguished Phillip Pullman himself! And that’s not all either Workshops and other offerings at the residency will be led by our very own Tim Wynne-Jones and Martine Leavitt. I know this prose is turning hyperbolic but I can’t help that.

What a treat, too, that this opening residency will take place in 2015,150 years after the first publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland! Yesterday would have been Lewis Carroll’s 182nd birthday. Look at all these Alice connections.

Did I say this is open to graduates as well as current students?

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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A Valentine from the Teacher

If you’ve recently accompanied a child or grandchild to the store to look for Valentine’s Day cards, you’ll have noticed plenty of choices for cards to send their friends, and even a great many options for cards to give their teachers. But, at least in my neighborhood, there were no Hallmark-type greetings for teachers to send their students. Which is fine, because I really want to write my own. And here it is:

To every student I ever told to put their novel in the drawer and start all over; to every new writer I asked to scrap a character, a scene, a metaphor; to every one who wrote me for advice and to whom I replied, however gently, Kill your darling, THANK YOU. Thank you for your grace under fire, your courage, your resilience, your can do/won’t surrender attitude; for teaching me so much about starting over unafraid. On this day, when we remember the people we’re thrilled and deeply grateful to have in our lives, I remember you. Image

Why now? Yesterday has a lot to do with it. Yesterday, I shared my latest draft with my writers’ group. I was more than a little excited about this manuscript, a novel whose opening some students and colleagues heard in a reading at VCFA. It’s a book about the young woman who danced John the Baptist to death. Working title? The Gospel of Salomé. But the story took an interesting turn after those early chapters—it acquired a second narrative voice, that of John’s most famous follower, Jesus Christ. The idea sprang, not from free writes or from any plot imperative, but from the headings in my Scrivener outline. Since I’d grouped the early chapters together under a section heading, “The Good Daughter,” it felt intriguing to connect the next (unwritten) chapters with the title, “The Good Son.” And who would this Good Son be? Who else?

Wow! How risky is that! And scary! And BIG! Flush with my own daring and feverish from leaping off one of the biggest writing cliffs I’ve ever contemplated, I wrote like crazy. I don’t eat breakfast, anyway, but I started skipping lunch, too. I wrote around the clock, skipping niceties like showers, walks, and answering the phone. Which means that, yesterday, when I finally turned my draft into the group, I had a great deal invested in it. But I wasn’t really worried. The whole risky concept was sure, I thought, to bowl them over. Besides, I knew the language was incantatory, even hypnotic at points, and I was, frankly, looking forward to hearing this reflected in their comments.

It wasn’t. Now everyone in our group is a published author, so we can all take an ego punch. (You can’t be published multiple times without having been rejected multiple times.) Still, I was stunned when my dear and precious readers, instead of praising my Jesus’ slightly ADD but enchantment-laced voice, asked me why I needed Him at all! They didn’t mean this in a religious sense, mind you. They were asking from a purely literary, craft-oriented perspective—why had I developed this second view point? What did it add to the story? How did it grow my central character, Salomé? How was it worth the risks, historical, motivational, and structural? Why not tell the story without it?

And this is where my students come in. You see, without the precedent they’ve set, I don’t think I could have possibly taken this in stride. But their example has been lodged in my psyche each time I ask a new writer similar tough questions, each time he or she rolls up their sleeves and tries whatever I propose. Sure, there is sometimes gnashing of teeth, not to mention moaning at the bar; but almost always my students are willing to put aside their disappointment, their agendas, even their ideas about why they write. And just go for it.

So I will, too, Sweethearts. I will, too.

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Picture Book(s) on the Subway

            A few weeks ago, Ken and I were all dressed up and heading to a party in the middle of Manhattan.  The occasion was my agent’s fifteenth anniversary party and I had in tow a picture book, Mitchell Goes Bowling, by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile, that I wanted to get signed by the author. 

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I knew she would be at the party, and I had every intention of getting her to sign it.  (Confession:  I will haul a book thousands of miles in order to get a signature).

            At any rate, our stop was a ways off, so I decided to show the book to Ken while we rolled along the tracks. 

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            Our car was crowded and noisy, but that was okay.  I was only sharing it with Ken, who sat right next to me.  That is, I thought I was only sharing it with Ken.  At one point I stopped to show him a particular illustration that just made me laugh, but while we were pausing on that page, the young man on the other side of Ken said, “Hey, keep reading!” 

            Then another person chimed in with, “Don’t stop!”  I looked up, and all of the people in our end of the car were staring at me and smiling.  Without even knowing it, the book had drawn in at least a dozen people.  I didn’t need any more prompting.  I held the book up and read the last few pages. 

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          As I closed the book, everyone started clapping. Of course they did!  It’s a book that merits applause. 

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            I have had so many happy reading experiences in my life, and many of them have occurred while traveling, from all the books I read to my kids as we drove down the road, to the many books that I’ve read on airplanes, but that one on the subway made my heart sing. 

            Here we were, strangers, each of us wrapped up in our own worlds, each of us going our own ways, and each of us in the presence of that most wondrous of all literary accomplishments, a picture book, and in this case, a book that calls for a “steaming hot potato dance.”

            As we rolled to our stop, Ken and I waved to our fellow readers.  We had shared such a small moment, but also such a happy moment.  There are many glories in a picture book.  There is the wonderful economy of text.  There is the highly satisfying experience of the perfect match of text to art. There is the art itself.  But most important is the glory that comes from sharing it. Voice, as it turns out, is a most essential ingredient, turning a book into that fundamentally human enterprise–story.

            The members of our small subway cadre will likely never meet again in our lifetimes, but we will always be part of each others’ lives now because we did something together that people have been doing since the dawn of time—we took a story, we took the art of it, we put it all together, we went along for the ride.

            And that, my brothers and sisters, is what it’s all about.     

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                     Have any of you ever had an unusual picture book reading experience?  Tell us about it, why don’t you!

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Looking for Hemingway

Recently my husband and I were fortunate enough to join a group of fellow pilgrims on a journey to Cuba.  We were tracking down Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts.

We stayed at the Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Hemingway lived for seven years.

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Here’s a view of the lobby:

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On the fifth floor, the corner room where Hemingway lived has been preserved as a museum.  To me, his desk and typewriter seem almost like sacred objects.

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We spent one morning at his beautiful house, Finca Vigia, which means “Outlook Farm.”  It’s situated on a hill that looks into Havana, just on the edge of the village of San Francisco de Paula.  On the side of the house, he built this wonderful tree house studio.

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And here’s the interior.  I think I could write just fine in this room, don’t you?

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Meanwhile, in the main house, even the bathroom is set up for a reader/writer.  Notice the cats’ trophies on the shelves above the toilet.  Rumor has it that at one time, he lived with 64 cats.  And, of course, Hemingway had his own trophies too.

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As part of my preparation for this trip, I read Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson, so I was especially happy to see Pilar, even if she was in dry dock.

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From there, we went to Cojimar, a small port, with a square that is dedicated to Papa.

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If you stood right beside him, this is what you’d see . . .

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What a wonder it is to think that a literary figure has become a national hero!  An American at that!  It makes me think that great art can transcend differences and give us all something to hang onto.

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Yep, it does.

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New Blog Launch: Write at Your Own Risk

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Sometime this past winter, Sarah Johnson, a graduating student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, snuck out to a sheet of ice by College Hall and did some spontaneous editing: she changed the first three letters in the word skate so that a posted warning by the pond now read, Write at Your Own Risk. Sarah took a photo of her stealthy revision, and when we saw it, the title of this blog was born.

Each of us who will be posting here (see our roster to the right) is a faculty member of the college’s MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. And all of us love the idea that our title is the result, not of a committee meeting (we tried that and nearly came to blows), not of a Google search (all our ideas were taken, anyway), but of an impulsive, funny, nervy prank — a risk. And isn’t that what writing is all about? We pen pushers may not be able to do a triple lutz or a double axel. We don’t get up from our desks with bloody knees or finish the day with sprained ankles. But rest assured, we take chances every time we sit down to work. When a writer crawls into her characters’ skins, feels what they feel, experiences what they do, she invariably draws on her own traumas and joys, hurts and triumphs to feed the journey.

And while it’s an awful pun, it’s also true that most of that journey is across very thin ice: the alchemy of storytelling is that it transmutes the particular to the general; the more of ourselves we put into a story, the closer to the bone our readers will feel it. And the good bad news is, it never ends. We risk everything all over again each time we start a new story, a new book. What kind of skater would play it safe, performance after performance, doing the same routine each time out? And what kind of writer asks questions he’s already answered, takes his readers where they’ve already been? Not our kind. Not yours.

So remember when you leave the comfort of the edge and skate out into the middle of that smooth, trackless ice, you’ve got plenty of invisible company. That’s why we started this blog: we can’t go where your courage leads you, and we can’t take your falls for you. But the field notes from our community of practice may help you keep the faith. You write at your own risk, yes. But don’t be surprised, when you’ve hit a rough patch and taken a messy half gainer, if you feel someone lift you up, brush you off, and set you on your way again — a little more prepared, a little less alone. From Louise Hawes on behalf of the WAYOR bloggers.

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