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A Writer Looks at the World
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This is a picture of my own. Even if I'm not actually able to sit at his desk, it’s so inspiring to be here. I feel connected not just to Thurber, but to all the dozens of other writers who have stayed in the attic. Who've heard the ghostly creak of the stairs. Who've watched the storm clouds cross the Ohio sky from the garret window. Who've left a bit of themselves behind on the bookshelf. Thank you all for keeping me company!
After giving a workshop at the Worthington Library, I got the chance to share some tea in the children's section with another favorite literary figure of mine.
That reminded me of something the Queen tells Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. "Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Staying here in James Thurber's house makes it easy to believe impossible things!
|I'm standing in "Sandy Remix"|
(photo by Katherine Koch)
Get up to go get coffee.
Try to move the cat. Fail. Turn on the computer anyway.
Start typing (which isn’t the same as writing but sometimes occurs before the coffee has taken effect).
Notice the battery is getting low.
Get up to find computer cord.
Plug in cord. Realize that computer isn’t charging. Jiggle cord. Replug cord. Notice that computer STILL isn’t charging. Get incredibly frustrated because without computer there can't even be typing.
Somewhere power is being created by coal and water and wind. Power surges through cables and is tamed by transformers. Power enters my apartment and waits in an outlet, ready to be used. After I plug the cord into the outlet, I can see the green light glowing at the end of the cord. Power is there! However my computer rejects the power. For reasons of its own (which I have given up trying to understand), it prefers to use its battery. Even though it knows and is telling me that the battery has only 11 minutes left, no, 10, now 9, 8 . . .
Realize that this is a metaphor for a human condition. Denying the good. The Greeks probably had a better name for it, which I don't know.
So I repeat what E.M. Forster said: “Only Connect.”
Connect to the world. Don’t be isolated. You can't make it on your own. Why would you even want to when it's infinitely better to connect? Add a Comment
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The girl spoke angrily to me. “Don’t change my name!”
Luckily it was only a dream. But when I woke up the next morning, I felt so badly. Maybe I shouldn't have changed that character's name after all.
It seemed so simple - just do a global. (Don’t forget to proofread. That new name will pop into other words by mistake. If you just change every Tom to a Ben, you’d get an aBenic bomb.)
But let's face it. Names are important. A rose called “yuck” would NOT smell as sweet. Names evoke in so many ways. Lots of consonants can sound harsh. Lots of vowels can be musical. The name can remind you of something -- like a hurricane. Or a kid who picked on you in high school. Or another character created by another author. Which was the reason I decided to make the change. I didn’t want my girl to be compared to the other one.
Sometimes people ask me where I find the names for my characters. There are so many things to consider that I postpone the decision as long as I can.
I usually write an entire first draft without names. In The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya (my novel that’s coming out on October 15th), the names of the main characters started as the initials Z and A. Eventually the African gray parrot Zeno was named after a Greek philosopher because his “servant” (as Zeno prefers to think of his owner) was a professor of Greek literature. That choice inspired me in other ways. Zeno the man had lots of great quotes, like - “Two ears, one mouth!” Which means, humans should listen more than they talk. So many of my favorite parts wouldn’t have been in the book at all if I had named Zeno something like Adam.
Switching names is very hard. Even when the characters don’t complain. However I did it. But first I rather superstitiously consulted my oracle. I offered Blackberry two pieces of food - having predetermined that one would be linked to the old name and the other to the new. She chose the new name. Two times in a row!
And so Lanora is now Lanora. Whether she likes it or not.
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|Stormy, photo by Hope Weber|
Dear Two-legged One,
You recently wrote about someone who said he was a dog man. I think his name was James Thurber?
Obviously I don’t know this person. Anyone who knew me would not prefer dogs to cats.
I believe you also mentioned this person was a writer? He must have been a rare genius who could arrange words properly on the page the very first time. His ideas must have been so amazing that he deserved to have his dog look at him in this adoring fashion.
You, however, are not a genius. You feed me and your lap is warm-–at least warmer than the sofa. But you are not nearly as clever as I am. It’s only because you are mine that I bother to tell you the truth.
You're lucky to have a cat like me because you need to rewrite. Many times, in fact. You must dig deeper, delete those second rate sentiments, and above all never be satisfied with your first thought. Lucky for you, I'm here to tell you that whatever you've written today isn’t quite good enough. You can do better. If you ever forget that, my stare will remind you.
Go on. Get back to work. After you’ve given me my dinner. Add a Comment
|Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio|
Naturally I can’t wait to be inspired by the setting, but I also look forward to teaching the students who come to study writing at Thurber House. I know I’ll learn as much if not more from them. That has been my experience as an instructor at Writopia Lab.
Kids’ minds are so fertile. There are no limits to what they can imagine. That ability reminds me of something Thurber wrote. (He had suffered an eye injury when his brother shot him with an arrow while they were playing William Tell.)
“With perfect vision, one is inextricably trapped in the workaday world... For the hawk-eyed person, life has none of those soft edges which for me blur into fantasy; for such a person an electric welder is merely an electric welder, not a radiant fool setting off a sky-rocket by day. The kingdom of the partly blind is a little like Oz.... Anything you can think of, and a lot you never would think of, can happen there.”
That is exactly what I hope happens whenever I sit at my desk. I try to remember what it’s like to be a kid where anything is possible. I try to escape the workaday world and look for radiant fools. I know I'll find something equally amazing at Thurber House!
It’s hard to stop quoting Thurber, but I will -- after sharing one last thought from him.
“I am not a cat man, but a dog man, and all felines can tell this at a glance - a sharp, vindictive glance.”
He must have met the one with whom I share my writing space. I’ll give my cat Blackberry a chance to respond soon. Display Comments Add a Comment
Dear Two-legged one,
Oh how you have betrayed me.
For years we have shared our morning rituals. First you give me my breakfast (which, by the way, is never enough). Then we watch the pigeons prancing along the roof across the street.
Recently I found out the real reason that you have been studying the particular way they bobble their heads as they walk. You are writing about them! In your new novel! Which apparently is full of birds––including the hero, an African grey parrot named Zeno. If you can call a parrot a hero.
Why would you elevate an animal who isn’t a cat to such a lofty position? Just because he can talk your language? That is very arrogant––even for a human.
As a writer, you should be paying attention to all kinds of communication. Especially the non-verbal type. Isn’t that the real meaning of show don’t tell?
I can tell by your pacing that you are doing rewrites. You have been muttering that you can’t find the exact right ending for your novel. You need a final image that will resonate with the reader, long after she has shut the book.
I have a suggestion. Maybe your parrot should encounter a strong, wise, beautiful black cat.
Blackberry THE CAT Add a Comment
On May 5, 2012, I walked around the island of Manhattan with my friend Nancy Johnson and about a thousand other members of the Shorewalkers Hiking Club.
See our smiling faces? This photo was taken when we had completed about a third of our journey. We’re under the George Washington Bridge -- right by the little red light house of children’s book fame.
A few miles after this photo was taken, sauntering ceased. (According to the dictionary, to saunter means to walk in a slow, relaxed manner without hurry or effort.) A few more miles later, our hike felt more like a forced march. During the last third of the 32 miles, we didn’t dare sit down. The effort to resume our slog far outweighed however welcome the rest would have been.
WHY oh WHY would I subject my feet and my psyche to such an ordeal?
When Nancy first suggested that we “saunter” 32 miles, it didn’t sound that difficult. I felt confident that I could do it. I had walked plenty of miles in Manhattan before. But at the 20 mile mark, I was ready to quit. My joints ached. My feet seemed to be one big blister. At the 25 mile mark, when we were on city streets, a few yellow cabs followed our straggling group. If Nancy hadn’t been there, I might very well have succumbed to temptation and yelled, “Taxi!”
The sun was setting as we reached South Street Seaport, the point at which we began. People in sombreros were out celebrating Cinco de Mayo. The contrast would have made me smile if I had the energy to move one extraneous muscle.
So why oh why DID I do it?
I wanted to see if I could. And I am extremely proud that I did. Yes writing a novel requires a huge amount of stamina. Any long term creative project demands energy, mental tricks, motivational techniques--and lots of coffee. This was the first time I had ever pushed myself to do anything physically strenuous. Now I have a deeper respect for people who put themselves to physical tests.
There’s one other reason I (why not say it again) walked 32 miles in 12 and 1/2 hours. I wanted to know if I could accomplish what I made my poor character Megan do in my novel Nature Girl. Well, could I?
Yes––but just barely.
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Sadly there aren’t as many wild places anymore. Children no longer have much unstructured time or unstructured places in which to spend it. As a result, they have what Richard Louv describes as a “Nature Deficit Disorder.” He believes that lack causes all kinds of health and learning problems. According to Dr. William Bird, the chair of Britain’s Outdoor Health Forum, a person’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.
The same is true when I see blue oceans, brown deserts or even a vast grey sky. When I'm in nature, I don’t dwell on my own problems. I gain perspective. The woods, the sky, the ocean, the desert are all much larger than I am. The abundance of life outside myself doesn't diminish me. It expands me. When I am in nature, I feel part of the world.
Now that I’m an adult, I live in a city of 8 million people. When things go wrong, when I feel bullied or disappointed or discouraged, I walk to our nearby park. I find a spot where the grass isn’t mowed and the bushes aren’t trimmed. A hawk flies by. The wind rustles the branches. Two squirrels play chase up a tree. Life continues there, in a crazy profusion, so I feel like I can too.
You’ve probably heard a lot about saving the environment. Let’s not forget that when we save the environment, we are actually saving ourselves.
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(Before I explore that question, I need to thank my guest blogger, Blackberry the cat, for re-inspiring me. I’m sure she will return from time to time. But since she uses maps for naps, I’ll post on this topic today.)
A car trip is kind of like writing a novel. You start here. You end over there. In between are so many routes you could take, it’s probably a good idea to make some kind of plan before you start.
Thanks to satellites we can’t even see, the Global Positioning System knows where you are and the location of where you want to go. GPS will insist, in a polite but firm voice, that you turn where it tells you. If you stray, it will “recalculate” and tell you again. Of course you can disobey its commands. Once my husband Lee thwarted the GPS so many times that it shut down. He is the exception. Most people are grateful for its advice.
If the goal were just to arrive at the end where the monster is killed and the lovers get married, then GPS probably works best.
But I love maps. I always have. I like solving the puzzle of navigation. I like making the leap from the two dimensional view to where I am in the world. I like to look at maps even when I’m not going anywhere. I like to see where I might go. I love the names of places. The Great Dismal Swamp. Jenny Jump Mountain, Promised Land Lake. The town of Porcupine. And just to the south of it, South Porcupine.
Yesterday I reached the end of a draft. I was so happy when the ending I envisioned flowed from the previous chapters. I had gotten from the start to the finish. But I had not stuck to my plan. Sometimes the characters took detours. Sometimes they decided, hey, why not take a trip to the ocean because I can see from the map that we’re pretty close to the beach. Would GPS have told me that?
With a novel, the journey is always about more than reaching the destination. Add a Comment
Dear Two-legged One,
I don't know why you are upset that I rearranged your pieces of paper. How was I to know that you had spent hours placing each square in a particular order?
I didn't think you were the type to make an outline. That implies planning. Do writers plan? I don't think so. I never see you creeping up on a target. You never tense your muscles in preparation to pounce. You never twitch your tail because you absolutely must have some outlet for the adrenaline surging through your veins.
Oh that's right. You don't have a tail. Perhaps that's why I never see you twitch it.
I did find it interesting that you wrote some of the squares in red ink and some in black. Is that because the red words describe the actions of one character and the black words describe the actions of the other? Hmmm. Have you taken my advice about making me one of your characters? I am, as you know,
PS After re-reading your first book, I've decided that I like the dog after all. He is almost clever enough to be an honorary cat––provided he changes his name to Mew.
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Dear Two-Legged One,
I have taken over your blog. Don’t be surprised. I always sit in the chair you have just vacated.
Besides, you don’t blog very often. I've eaten 63 cans of cat food and many mice since your last entry. However that isn't the main reason I'm taking time from my grooming and napping to walk across your lap top.
I know you are writing a new novel. I want to make sure that this time you feature a cat.
Your first book Nature Girl centered around a small white dog with questionable hunting skills. Believe me, if I had been in the woods with Megan, I would never have been hungry.
A cat made a brief appearance in your second book, The Girl Behind The Glass, but you portrayed it in a most unflattering way. What’s worse, you allowed your characters to name it Mr. Muffin. How could you do that to one of the most aristocratic beings in the animal kingdom?
Why won’t you write about cats? I would be an excellent subject. You've had ample opportunity to observe my leaping, my battles with pens, and my preoccupation with paperclips.
Maybe now that you know I can also write, you will change your heroine to . . .
P.S. Are we out of tuna fish? The last can you opened contained tomato sauce. Add a Comment
In just three days, my second novel The Girl Behind The Glass will be published by Random House. A few days after that, my daughter’s play 22 Stories will have its opening night in the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival. This is an exciting coincidence. Especially since we have both written about twins.
Here are my twins. This image is a section of my book’s cover (illustration by Jaime Zollars).
The hands in this photo (taken by Keith Weber) tell the story of my daughter’s play. Her twins embody the conflict between wild creativity and discipline. I know I have that struggle in me. If I don’t get both sides to work together, I’ll never write a book.
My disciplined part likes to have a plan. It decided my second novel would be about a girl who pretends a house is haunted and is shocked to discover it really is. Then my wilder part whispered, let the girl be twins. Naturally the wilder part didn’t say why. Wilder parts don’t need reasons for what they do.
The disciplined part believed there was no justification. Two sisters would just be a distraction from the scary fun stuff. The howling wind, the bats in the attic, the glowing eyes.
Then my husband, who is often wiser than I am about what I’m writing, pointed out that twins are experts at wordless communication. Since they understand each other so well, they might be able to understand whatever that haunting presence is desperately saying.
So many human sorrows stem from this. Are you listening? Are you there?
Disaster strikes my daughter’s twins when one sister fears that she has lost her connection with her sister. Mine are led to a similar brink.
But in the end, they do listen. They do understand. And they are understood. Add a Comment
It’s officially spring. Daffodils are blooming. Seeds are sprouting. I’m writing a new book. All these growing things make me think about fertile ground. If you don’t have it, whatever you plant won’t thrive––whether it’s an idea or an actual tomato. You don’t need to envy those who live where the grass is greener. And you don’t have to spend a lot of money on chemically enhanced dirt. You can compost.
Wait, what? Isn’t compost another word for garbage? What does that have to do with writing? Actually a lot.
The principles are the same whether you’re making literal or figurative dirt. Your compost depends on what you don’t eat. Rich compost starts with a balance of fruit and vegetable scraps. So try new things. Expand your diet. Mix those coffee grounds with mutsu cores and beet peels.
Your compost is also what you read. Good old newspapers are a great addition to your pile. But those glossy magazines with pretty pictures can be poison for growing things. So don’t put them in.
And don’t put in anything really stinky. Those old chicken bones and cheese rinds really are garbage. So is the cat poop. You might think you can get some use out of that crap, but you can’t. Get rid of it. And get rid of anything infested with diseases like greed or envy or cruelty. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to keep those poisonous feelings from infecting whatever good things you’re trying to grow.
Okay now you’ve got a lovely pile of whatever you’ve half-eaten, experienced and read. But your work isn’t done yet. You’ve got to turn the pile over and over, again and again. You need to air it out or your ideas will rot. Some moisture is necessary, but if you drown the pile with too many tears, you’ll get slime.
Finally, you need heat to speed up the magic of decomposition. And what is heat? Passion. Get excited about whatever you’re doing. Love your work. Love your family. Love your garden. Love your life.
And then, when you’ve got a dark, rich pile of compost, plant your best seeds and watch them grow.
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I’m really happy with it. It’s creepy. The girl’s eyes follow you no matter where you go. The colors are rich. The lettering suggests someone wrote the words with his finger. It’s great.
There’s just one problem. When I was a kid, I was taught NOT to judge a book by its cover. I’m having trouble reconciling that lesson with my excitement.
To be honest, I had nothing to do with this cover. Jaime Zollars drew the illustration. The art director Heather Palisi, my editor Shana Corey and other people at Random House all worked on the design. I can’t even really claim that I came up with the title. THE GIRL BEHIND THE GLASS was pulled from a line in the book. The original title -- the one I thought of -- was kind of ordinary. It would never have inspired such a great cover.
So should you judge MY book by its cover?
Yes! And no.
I do hope the cover makes you curious about who that girl is. I think she looks scary and sad. I have no idea how the artist accomplished that. The expression is exactly right for the girl in my book. The green eyes are important too. I hope the cover makes you wonder why they glow.
But I don’t want you to judge my book by this cover.
In fact, the more I think about it (and for me, thinking is what blogging is about) the more I think that the saying means we shouldn't judge. Not books. Not ideas. Not people.
I’m not saying we should like everything or everybody. I’m not saying we have to agree. Certainly I don’t. In fact, some members of my family believe I enjoy arguing for the sake of arguing.
However I really try not to judge. I can disagree without name calling. So can we all.
You can also NOT like my book. Or its cover. (But hopefully you’ll read it first before you decide.) Add a Comment
The other day I met a girl who had read my novel, Nature Girl. She wanted to know all kinds of things. How long did it take me to write the book? Why did I name the dog Arp? Is Trail Blaze Betty really a person? Then she asked me a question I had never thought about. What's it like to look at the world with a writer's eyes?
At the time, my answer wasn't very interesting. I think I said writers observe whatever they need to describe. For example, I spent a lot of time watching how little white dogs trot along a path. But I kept thinking about her question.
How does Jane the writer look at the world?
I never let things go. I remember all the remarks any sensible person would ignore. If something bad happens to me, I dwell on it. I bear grudges. I'm moody because I have to think about things until somehow or other I make sense of them.
Actually I don't make sense. I make a story. Even when I was a child, no matter what terrible thing happened to me, I would always say, well at least that will make a good story.
When I was 9, my enemy shot spit balls at me on the school bus until I finally flung one back at her. Naturally the bus driver punished me for shooting a spit ball. I was humiliated and miserable, but after I thought about it enough, I knew this irony could make an amusing story.
An oyster protects itself from a bit of dirt by covering it with layers of nacre. Without that irritation and without those layers, there would never be a pearl.
So that's how I view the world -- as a source of both the irritating bits and the beauty.
“What was the book that made you love reading?” a high school student asked me.
I had no answer. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t. But he could. He named The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.
I was surprised by his choice. It’s an excellent book about following your dream, but it isn’t for young children. He must have read other books for school. Hadn't he loved any of them? He seemed so bright and articulate. How could he have spent all these years locked out from books?
There’s a moment in the movie The Miracle Worker when Anne Sullivan finds the key for her pupil Helen Keller. Anne has been unable to teach any language to Helen who is deaf and blind. As Anne vigorously pumps, water gushes over their hands while Anne’s fingers spell the word over and over again. W- A- T- E- R. And then, at long last, Helen understands. W- A- T- E- R is that wet, cold liquid so absolutely necessary for life. Helen drags her teacher around, demanding to know the word for each object. Helen had been aware of her surroundings. But now language enables her to grasp them.
We are isolated in our individual worlds. We think no one understands us. We think we suffer alone. And then one day a teacher or a friend says, “Have you read this?” Or maybe we find the book completely by chance. Somehow we discover that the words inside that garish or tattered cover are naming something necessary for our existence.
From that point on, our lives are different. Even if we read a hundred other books that we can’t “get into” as the saying goes, we still know that there will be ones that we can inhabit. Someone has put words to our sensations. Once that door has been unlocked, we can find our way into whole new worlds.
So -- what was the book that made you love reading?