Tag Archives: writing

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.

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How Etymology Can Change Your Life, And Other Matters Lexiconical

For years, those same years during which I couldn’t decide which I loved more—acting, writing, painting or sculpting, I tortured myself with one word: dilettante. Even my profile in the high school yearbook mentioned that “there must be at least three Louises,” one who painted, one who wrote, one who acted. Was I pleased by that suggestion? No, it confirmed that I was a dabbler, someone who skimmed the surface, who was a little good at a lot of things, A Jacqueline of all trades, mistress of none. In short, a dilettante.

Then one day, on an impulse for which I will be forever grateful, I looked up the word with which I’d been flagellating (a word which comes from the Latin for whip, but which is a cognate or close family member of the Old Norse word for fluttering wings) myself. Guess what the dictionary told me, dear readers? The root of the word (from the Italian by way of Latin) is a verb which means to delight. WHOA! What a revelation. Somewhere along the intersection of history and language, English speakers had separated art and knowledge from delight; and a dilettante had come to mean a person who wasn’t serious enough, who took mere joy from what they did or studied. Double WHOA! What’s wrong with taking delight? In lots of things? In anything you can wrap your hands or mind or heart around?

That is how, O Best Beloveds, the dictionary set me free. To be whoever I pleased. Among my many subsequent identities has been Etymologist, one who revels in the changing shape and meaning of words. (This specialty’s name comes, ultimately, from the Greek word eteos, meaning true or actual.) I’ve loved learning, for example, that almost all Indo-European words for write find their roots in verb forms that meant to push, scratch, carve, or cut. Little wonder, considering what hard work writing used to be before paper and computers. How rich and right, too, that the origin of the word human is probably a mashup of the Latin homo (man) and humus (earth)—not to be confused with beings of a higher order, you see.

wrong_superhero

If you’d like to dabble (which word originally meant to splash rather than immerse in water—can you really get clean that way? Tsk. Tsk.) in word origins, try this site, which introduces itself, aptly and juicily, thus: “This a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.”

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

So. What words have changed your life?

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Considering the “M,” the “F” and the “A” of the M.F.A.

Teresa - Tamales

I’ve been thinking  about the individual letters of the M.F.A. and what they stand for – and yes, maybe I have too much time on my hands right now, but that’s the kind of thing that pops into my head at unpredictable moments. This particular thought – “What is mastery? What is an art, and what makes it a fine one?” – rose up as a result of some spontaneous cooking lessons I’ve been getting from Teresa, the woman who cleans the garden apartment where my husband and I are staying during our visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. There are lots of cooking schools here – Oaxaca is famous for its food – but I prefer hearing from Teresa, who cooks for her own family and who can earn a little extra money telling me about the family recipes and how to make them. [As I type, I can hear a parade outside – the school-children at the elementary school across the street are marching in celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day tomorrow – they’ve been practicing all week – how to carry the big flag, how to wave the little individual flags, how to march in step, how to look serious and represent their school and country with honor….I hear a tuba and a trumpet….sorry, I have to run and catch that!….]

Okay, back to thoughts about the M and the F and the A. Imagine the scene: Teresa and I are in the middle of a discussion about tamales – this morning she brought a bag full of chiles, fruits, nuts and seeds, along with banana leaves for the tamales de mole negro (specialty of Oaxaca) and corn husks for the more common tamales de raja (green chile strips.) After at least an hour of browning bananas, peanuts, pecans, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, raisins, three types of dried chiles, cloves, garlic, salt and peppercorns, and after walking up to the local miller to get all of it ground up into a paste, Teresa now has chicken boiling for the filling, and she has me mixing the masa (also ground up from fresh nixtamal earlier that morning.) I am putting some real muscle into the mixing. Preparing masa is not like making hot-cake batter. It takes some oomph – like bread-making, I guess, though I’m no bread-maker, either.

When everything is ready, Teresa takes a few water-soaked corn husks and spreads the masa onto them with the back of a spoon. How easy she makes it look!  “Asi como yo lo hago. Ves? Es facil” (There, like I do it – you see? It’s easy.) With the banana leaves, the mole goes on, the shredded chicken goes on, and Teresa wraps them up. Then the masa and the rajas go onto the corn husks. She does it quickly – this side folded over, these tips down, tucked in, rolled all the way over, there. Nothing to it. Nothing spills out at the edges. The uncooked tamales hold together and look quite pretty, little spicy delights ready to be steamed.

When I try, of course, the corn husks won’t cooperate – it’s as if they know I’m not the boss. They curl up on me and fight me all the way. I add the filling as best I can – then I fold here, I fold there, everything spills out. I open it up and start again, and I feel like a pre-schooler trying to master finger-painting and making quite a mess of it. “Master” – yes, that’s how the word springs to mind. Looking at Teresa, who is watching me patiently, I see a master of the fine art of cooking. In her school, which is just my little kitchen in a vacation rental, I learn by doing. A good way to learn.

“Esta bien, no te preocupes,” she assures me. It’s fine – don’t you worry – “Cada vez, te van a salir mejor.” Each time you do it, they’ll come out better. “Poco poquito” – little by little. I don’t have to learn it all the first time.

Am I stretching to say that the same goes for writing as for tamales? Sure, I’m stretching a little. But the skill – some call it mastery – comes little by little, just as with all skills. Writing a good story is not unlike driving a nail into a shingle or setting tile for a back-splash or playing the ukulele or drawing a nude in a studio class. Or making tamales. You keep trying, you get better, you watch a master, you learn by doing.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from tamale-making to writing novels (I love the sound of that – tamales to novels – as if they were foreign countries with a bridge from one to the other.) But what intrigues me is the way we assign the term “fine art” to certain things and not to others. That “F,” and that “A.” Dancing, drawing, sculpting, painting, film-making, design, creative writing, music composition – all programs at the graduate level, all granting “Master” degrees. The faculty says, “Here is what I’ve learned, try this.” They say, “Don’t worry, the skill comes. You learn by doing.” They even say “You have to put some muscle into it. It’s not easy.” Hopefully, they say, “The trick is to give it your own little flavor.”

“Fine” Arts. Does that mean “refined” arts? What about cooking – even cooking at the small kitchen level – is it not a “fine” art? And come to think of it, carpentry and plumbing and tile-setting and cleaning apartments? What makes those not so fine? If it’s about getting your hands dirty, think of a master ceramicist at the wheel.

I find myself wishing once again that the world were organized in a less vertical way, where some activities are at the top of the ladder, honored and respected, and others are dismissed. Those who have heard me rant about verticality vs. horizontality know this is a constant drum I beat. The art of the janitor seems equal to me to the art of the writer. Toolboxes, skills, learning by doing, mastery. Why do we honor activities that take leaps of imagination over those that take muscle? A poem can be musical, intellectual, filled with desire. Masa can be folded, pushed, pulled – a corn husk can be soaked just enough and not soaked too much. Flavor, artistry, desire, rhythm. Seems to me that a Picasso and a great apple pie share the “A” of art. And the “M” of mastery. To be fair, I suppose some CEO’s are masters of what they do – unfortunately, astronomical salaries usually make them look down that vertical ladder and believe themselves to be entitled to the privileges of being “at the top.” If our model changed, if we saw the world horizontally rather than vertically, the ladder could be put aside, and “status,” (that is, the level reached on that ladder) would need re-defining.

So. There I go again. As I age, it gets harder and harder not to end up at the political end of the parade, waving my own little flag – even when all I’m doing is looking at the alphabet and asking what a word means. “M” – mastery. We know it when we see it, whether it’s a tamal or a well-built arbor in the garden or a Matisse on the wall of a museum.  “Art” – I guess the same goes for art, since taste is personal – we know it and we feel it when we see it. Flavor, desire – it’s there somewhere. The greatest mystery, then, of an M.F.A. must be somewhere in that “F”  – the “F” of “Fine.” But I can’t figure it out. Am I’m being disingenuous? Maybe a little. And maybe the 10,000 hours people say it takes to become a master craftsman can’t be applied to the art of housekeeping and cooking. Only I’m betting it can. Next time you’re out and about, take a look around at the people passing by – there are a lot of Masters walking around out there. And there are a lot of Arts. Let’s just broaden what we call Fine.

[Okay, now there is the most horrible music coming from somewhere. I don’t think that musician has mastered his craft yet. He’s quite a few hours short of 10,000. Or, to put it another way, there’s filling coming out of that tamal.]

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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.

Image

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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Tweenland

So, I’m in that place I call Tweenland, and I’m not talking about that genre of children’s literature that is broadly written for kids in their “tweens.” Nope, rather I’m in that place between projects, somewhere on the other side of Donesville but not quite near enough to Drafthaven.

Drafthaven is the realm where all of my inadequacies rise to the surface. My friend and fellow author, Jeanette Ingold, once told me that every time she starts a new novel, she feels as though she has to learn all over again how to write one. This, from a woman who has written several highly-acclaimed novels, a craftswoman of the highest sort. It’s hard for me to imagine that Jeanette, with all her acumen, has to relearn anything. But Jeanette is also canny, and she wouldn’t say that just to provide comfort.

No, I think what she meant for me to see was that each and every story has its own sensibility and its own requirements, not only of the research and the prose style and all those other things, but it also has its own requirements of the author herself.

The Underneath, for example required me to to figure out how to finish, to see a project all the way through to the end. Keeper required me to be honest about the difference between anger and heartbreak, and to choose the latter over the former. True Blue Scouts needed for me to remember joy, joy in the writing, joy in the story, joy all around. When I think of each of those books, I can see that I had to learn about all of those things, and more, in the process of bringing each book to the page.

But Tweenland is so cozy. I like it here. It’s a great place to be lazy and catch up on reading and watch sitcoms and stare. Staring is good. But it’s also like that place in Pinnochio where its all fun all the time . . . that is, until it’s not fun. Eventually, it gets boring. I’ve got to get out of here!

But I keep getting stuck by the question: what is it that I need to learn in order to start the book I want to write? It’s hard because until I actually put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, there is no way of knowing. I’m caught in my own circular argument. Like Jeanette said, I’ll have to learn how to write this new book, and I’ll have to do it as I go. And it might make me feel really, really dumb, and I might not make it all the way to the end, and what if I get stuck, and what if it doesn’t make sense and what if nobody likes it and then nobody likes me? Ack!

Tweenland is better!
There’s chocolate.
Sudoku puzzles.
Cats who don’t care whether I ever write another word or not!
Double ack!

What I do know, for certain, is that the project that is waiting for me has something to teach me, and that until I begin I won’t know what that is. In fact, I may not know until after I’m finished. That is highly likely. What I also know, but hate to admit, is that staying in Tweenland is a trap. If I get too comfortable here, I’m likely to stay forever. And then what? Will the world be lesser without one more Kathi Appelt book? Of course not. But will I be lesser?

Again, I don’t know. And that’s one of the wonders of creating a story—encountering all of the “I don’t knows,” maybe especially the one that is meant only for the author herself.

Drafthaven calls, with all its crazy sinkholes and roadblocks. I need to go there. Yep. It’s time to put my boat in the water and leave Tweenland, at least for the time being. And what do you know? There’s a boat right there for you too. Grab a paddle. I’ll meet you on the other side. I bet Jeanette will be there too.

              

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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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Air Kisses

Is it age? Loss of an in-house family? More free time? Whatever the reason, I find I now need, thrive on, cannot do without meditation—twice a day! My evening meditations are often fodder for dreams, and yes, they help me wind down, de-stress, sleep. In the morning, though, things are a different color: I open my eyes from these quiet times, as full of excitement as an untamed puppy. Down girl! I want to tell myself. But still, I can barely restrain the eagerness–the minute the world comes flooding back, each thing I see or touch or hear is kissable! How do you kiss a sound? How do you keep from trying?

Which reminds me of a piece of art I saw last June in a student show at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. I was teaching writing there, but in the spirit of interdisciplinary connection, I took my students to an on-campus show by high school painters. We wandered the exhibit, both inspired and cowed by the versatility, the fresh ideas of these young artists. The work that snagged me from the moment I walked in, and which I tried without success to capture with my cell phone camera, was a clear, single-paned window hanging off to one side of the gallery. It was covered, top to bottom, with lipstick kisses.

I think now of the girl who did this (I found her name on a wall tag, but failed to write it down). I’m sure she’s someone like me, someone who isn’t afraid of “dirty” things—dead birds, squashed squirrels and snakes. Feathers, stranded river stones, turtle shells. No piece of life (or death) seems without its own magic. Each is worthy of examination, attention, what I called in a recent poem, “impertinent curiosity.”

So when my grown kids tell me not to let their children touch these things, it makes me sad. The warm body of a small bird that’s just died on my front steps, flight still whispering in its chest—how is this “dirty?” How can we fail to stoop, to wonder, to bury with thanks?

I see her, then, this child-woman, who was never taught that germs are everywhere, pressing her lips against the old window she’s found. Over and over, making sure the moistness of her mouth finds the glass. Doing what artists do: letting her love shine through.

 

airkiss

 

 

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