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An article in The Writer's Chronicle got me thinking about a teacher. Credit: Elizabeth King Humphrey
Were you born a creative writer or were you taught to be a creative writer? I picked up a copy of the September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, a publication for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. It’s a publication I read often when I was getting my MFA in creative writing. One article immediately drew my attention: “Borges as Self: Toward Teaching Creative Writers” by Eric LeMay.
There is a line in the article, which I will paraphrase, that poses the question about whether creative writing can be taught or can students be taught to be creative writers. The article discusses various programs and what they may offer writers.
But when I read that, I didn’t look back on my master’s program. I didn’t reflect on an undergraduate poetry class with Kenneth Koch or a graduate workshop with Denise Gess (both incredibly passionate writers). I immediately thought of my high school English teachers.
To my knowledge (okay, to my memory!), she didn’t teach me anything about creative writing. I don’t remember the whys and wherefores of points of view or how to create suspense in a novel.
But Marilyn taught me a lot. She taught me about a love of writing. She opened a world of writing that I had never seen before—she wrote the introduction for poetry collections and, later in life, penned a collection of profiles of spunky Western women. Areas for writing that I hadn't considered before. Her enthusiasm didn’t teach me the craft of writing. Her Carol Channing hairstyle didn’t convince me to become a writer (or even influence my style choices).
Her enthusiasm helped me to discover writers I wanted to identify with—and could. Her passion and laughter and encouragement helped me to feel that writing—and being a writer—is an important skill/job/vocation/life.
We kept in touch even after I graduated and she remained a wonderful cheerleader and a fantastic teacher.
In my mind, writers can be taught. Writers can even be taught to be creative writers. But passion is a lot harder to come by. But when you have a teacher who is passionate and believes in you, you can become anything you want to be.
Including a writer.
I enjoyed LeMay's article because he made me think about those personal connections with teachers and their many influences throughout the years.
Do you have a teacher who helped move you to become a writer? Is there someone whose passion set you on the writerly path? Who was he or she?
Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and editor living in Wilmington, NC. Her kids just started back at school, so she is excited for a bit more free writing time. (Ha!)
Most of the entries in this series of things that have impacted on the Johnny Mackintosh books have been either science fiction or science based. I have though saved the biggest influence until last and it comes from another world, but one which many readers will know well: Jo Rowling’s spectacular creation, Harry Potter.
Some people might have heard the story of how I came to begin reading about the boy wizard from Godric’s Hollow, but for those who haven’t here goes. Of course as a publisher I’d heard about Harry and his creator JK Rowling, but I figured he was for kids and I had no interest whatsoever in books about witches and wizards and magic and broomsticks, even though the buzz about this remarkable creation wouldn’t go away.
I was working for a company called Addison-Wesley who were based in Boston, Massachusetts, so had been spending time over there. At the end of the week everyone from the office was out a party in a club (I think the House of Blues) and I would be heading back to the UK the next day. I was approached be someone looking a little sheepish who said she had something to tell me – that everyone in the office thought I was Harry Potter.
In hindsight it’s obvious. At the time, as you can see, I wore ridiculous round battered glasses, had black messed up hair, spoke with an English accent and (though I normally cover it under mounds of foundation) I do actually have a lightning-shaped scar on my forehead. Then there are all the mad things that seem to happen when I get angry, but that’s another story…
The next day I found and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at Logan International Airport and read it on the flight home. Curiously, although I may have read all the Harry Potter books 20-40 times, I’ve still never read the Philosopher’s Stone version of book one where it all began. At that time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was also published so I bought that at Heathrow Airport on the way home, and Prisoner of Azkaban soon followed. I loved this world that the woman who was to become my writing idol had created. It’s a tribute to her that she could even make things like magic and dragons and Quidditch sound interesting. But most of all it was what we call the voice of the books, and the cleverness of telling everything from Harry’s point of view, even when he got the wrong end of the stick.
It had never occurred to me to write the sort of books that children might want to read (as well as adults). I’d been trying to pen the ultimate cutting edge modern novel, a kind of cross between Iain Banks, Paul Auster, Tibor Fisher and Irvine Welsh (there’s a thought!) when one day, walking back from the
One of the great things about books is how long they last. We’re still able to read stories from thousands of years ago, many of them being continually remade as films or television stories. One book that made a lasting impression on me as a child was something that was written over a century ago: Edith Nesbit’sThe Story of the Amulet.
The book features some brothers and sisters who acquire an ancient amulet that will apparently give them their hearts’ desire – to be reunited with their parents. But there’s a catch. They only have half the amulet and only when whole will their wish come true. But there’s hope because the amulet can form into an arch through which you can cross time and space. Sound familiar? Of course Clara Mackintosh is always creating such archways, which she models on the Arch of Lysentia that she and brother Johnny pass through in the Spirit of London.
What was great about the stories was how the children affected time through their travels. For instance, I think when they were being held prisoner in ancient Babylon they showed their prison guard a twopence piece and that was apparently how the Bablyonians came upon the idea of a minted coinage/currency.
*****SPOILER ALERT – DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE FINISHED JOHNNY MACKINTOSH AND THE SPIRIT OF LONDON*******
Along the same lines, something that always stayed with me was when the protagonists travelled to Atlantis. They were there right at the end of the legendary city and escaped through the amulet’s arch just in time. This was very much my inspiration for having Johnny and Clara visit Atlantis and do a very similar thing. And another example, similar to Nesbit’s weaving in the Babylonian coinage, was the way I had Johnny wipe out the dinosaurs by accident, being responsible for diverting an asteroid onto a collision course with Earth.
***********END OF SPOILERS******************************
There’s so much great new writing nowadays that it can be easy to forget the classics of the past, but Edith Nesbit was a great writer and definitely deserves to be read and remembered. She also wrote The Railway Children, which is always being performed on stage or serialized. Tomorrow though, I’ll bring us right up to date with unquestionably the biggest influence on Johnny Mackintosh and the publishing phenomenon of recent times.
Of all the science fiction I read as a kid, the dominant force was Isaac Asimov. It seems only right that I should begin my series of pieces on the influences behind Johnny Mackintosh with this master of “hard” sci fi.
My local library contained copies of a series of books about a young Earth hero called Lucky Starr who was always saving Earth from the upstart human colonists of Sirius – as part of their plans for galactic expansion these Sirians wanted to return to take over their homeworld. Nowadays I don’t remember much of the stories, apart from some legalistic dispute over control of the Jovian system (or was it Saturn?) and I’m pretty sure that, even here, the books contained Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics.
Where the great man came into his own and his ideas stayed with me was the Foundaion Trilogy. I say “trilogy” – there are officially seven books but two prequels and two sequels were written later and in my opinion should be avoided. Far better to stick to the original three: Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation.
There’s a key idea in the books that concerns a mathematical theory of human behaviour. “Psychohistory” of which the greatest protagonist is Hari Seldon, is like a kinetic theory of gases for human beings – gather enough of us together (and the starting premise of the books is that humanity has colonized the entire galaxy so there are lots of people) and the overall, en bloc behaviour becomes statistically predictable. It’s an idea that always appealed to my own mathematical sensibilities – in my teenage years I thought long and hard about how it might work in practice. Asimov is aware of its potential flaws and cleverly builds them into the plot.
The book begins in the final centuries of galactic empire (although this demise isn’t obvious to the vast majority of the galaxy’s inhabitants). What Seldon did was to apply the equations of Psychohistory to predict the fall of Empire and a thirty-thousand-year period of anarchy – an equivalent of our Dark Ages – before a galactic civilization could reassert itself. It was too late to prevent the fall but by creating the Foundation on the rim of the galaxy he could cut those in-between times to just a single millennium.
*********SPOILER ALERT – do not read unless you have finished both Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London and Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze**********
The original settlers of the Foundation, believers in Seldon’s vision, were mainly scientists. Resources were deliberately kept scarce, forcing them to improvise and innovate. They created a device that features in my own stories – a personal shield. Something to wear around your neck that will protect you from blaster fire. In Asimov’s books these become the stuff of legend, and I wanted the same for mine.
***********END OF SPOILERS************
A second element I borrowed from the Foundation trilogy was the galactic capital. My Melania is similar to Asimov’s Trantor, in that every square inch of the planet has been built upon. In fact, Melania has an artificial second skin. On both worlds the only piece of greenery where natu
The very first episode of Cosmos should have hooked anybody:
“We will encounter galaxies and suns and planets, life and consciousness coming into being, evolving and perishing. Worlds of ice and stars of diamond, atoms as massive as suns and universes smaller than atoms … The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen out toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.”
Here was a scientist who was also a poet – a slightly cheesy poet maybe, but definitely a great communicator of “awesome” ideas.
Cosmos was a TV series first transmitted in the UK at the start of the 1980s. Sagan’s definition was “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be” so it had quite a wide remit. In the show, the American professor traversed the Cosmos in his “spaceship of the imagination”, a dandelion seed that he would blow on – the next moment he was inside, hair streaming in a non-existent breeze, hands waving over multi-coloured controls while he quoted from the Encyclopedia Gallactica. In this remarkable vessel Sagan traversed the universe, past and present. Readers of Johnny Mackintosh should recognize elements of this description and understand that Emperor Bram Khari bears a striking resemblance to the cosmologist from Cornell.
I always felt meeting Sagan was a highlight of my time at Cambridge University. He came to give a talk on the new theory of nuclear winter, the idea of which had come out of studying volcanoes on Mars. Afterwards I spoke to him and he signed by (battered) copy of Cosmos that I’d taken along.
When Brian Cox first started doing his Wonders of the Solar System TV programme I was determined not to like it because I thought nothing could compete with Cosmos, but I quickly changed my mind when I saw how superbly put together Wonders was – not another dumbed down trite computer-graphics-laden programme but something of real substance, and I could see Sagan’s influence shining through. I first met Cox at the Royal Society and we talked about our shared love of Cosmos. Later, in the second series of Wonders, I found it funny to see that the Manchester and CERN professor had carried his battered copy of Cosmos on location and referred to the photograph of the Anasazi rock painting, possibly depicting the supernova of 1054, that he’d first seen on this wonderful TV series from the 1980s.
Sagan didn’t only write and present nonfiction – though we should remember his fact was often far more extraordinary than most made-up traveller’s tales. If you ever saw the Jodie Foster movie
Not long after I’d signed the contract to write Johnny Mackintosh, I came across Iain Banks in a London pub. I remember telling him I had a publishing deal and that he was my biggest influence, to which he replied, “I shall bask in your reflected glory”. It was a very lovely and typically self-effacing thing to say, especially given the great man had consumed several whiskies by this point.
Banks’ Culture novels are the most compelling modern fiction I know of. They present a utopian future of enlightened humanoids at pretty much the highest level of galactic civilization without “subliming” – the act of moving on to the next plane of existence.
Some of Banks’ books are under the moniker Iain Banks while others are written as Iain M. Banks (his middle name is the uber cool “Menzies”). I believe Banks regrets the distinction that was foist upon him in the early days of his writing. Publishers (I should know because I am one) are always trying to classify books and identify the correct market. I suspect his didn’t want people not buying future novels “from the critically acclaimed fiction of the author of The Wasp Factory” because they might turn out to be science fiction (heaven forbid). What are known as “genre” books can often get a very raw deal from publishers and critics. I’m sure Banks believes his Culture novels would be a good read for anyone, just as I’ve always said the Johnny Mackintosh books are aimed squarely at a general audience and not hard-core sci-fi fans. In fact, the Culture books are the only science fiction I’ve read since I was a kid. I remember one reviewer saying of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London that it was reminiscent of “Asimov, Clarke, Moorcock and Dick” which I thought great only for the review to continue that these authors were “totally out of vogue now”. I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, “I don’t normally read/enjoy science fiction, but I love your books” while sci-fi fans appear nowadays to be looking for something else.
Back to the Culture. Banks’ novels take place at the boundary of the Culture’s influence – the society itself is so stable that any story rooted in it would most likely be pretty dull. Everything’s good and there’s no conflict of note. Instead we tend to read about their equivalent of the Foreign Office, a body called Contact, and their division that performs dubious activities of questionable legality to ensure society and the wider galactic civilization function as they should: Special Circumstances.
This society has developed an incredibly high level of artificial intelligence and the machines work in harmony with the humans. Overall the society is run by these “minds” whether in charge of a spaceship or an artificial planetary-scale habitat known as an “orbital”. Now Sol is, I suppose, the mind of the Spirit of London, but she doesn’t come from Iain Banks – equally well she could originate from Zen in Blake’s 7 or Rommie in Andromeda (pictured), or just from my own head
For those who don’t know, Blake’s 7 was a British science fiction television series in the late 1970s/early 1980s. At the time I thought it was the greatest TV show anyone could have conceived.
In a dystopian future, Earth is ruled by the oppressive Federation. People live in domed cities, controlled by drugs (if I recall). There was a small but growing resistance but its leader and figurehead, Roj Blake, was captured years before. This is all dimly remembered, but the series opened some time after Blake had been subjected to all sorts of brainwashing/mind control techniques to try to make him confess and announce to the world that the Federation were the good guys after all. He’s been released back into society to lead the life of a regular good citizen, but a new resistance finds him and reveal the truth. His memories return and the Federation has no choice but to recapture him and put him on trial. Along with several other Federation prisoners he is sentenced to a life in exile off-world, and is transported to a penal colony on a faraway planet run by Brian Blessed.
Something goes wrong. The relatively primitive Earth ship (in fact called the London) is damaged, finding itself in the middle of some kind of interstellar war between far more advanced civilizations. And one of the advanced ships is found drifting nearby. A few members of the Federation crew tries to board it but all succumb to a terrible fate so next some of the prisoners were sent over. Blake, now aware of how to prevent tricks being played on his mind is able to overcome the ship’s automatic defences and assume command.
His craft was to become one of my all time favourites, the Liberator (pictured). The ship was far in advance of any other vessel, incredibly fast and with its own teleport system. It also came with a computer/mind called Zen (pictured with Blake) and when Zen spoke the lights on a vocal display screen flickered in time to the words – just like my very own Sol. As the series progressed the crew went on to steal an even more advanced computer called Orac that got carried around in a clear box and, to say the least, had something of a personality problem. When I write Kovac’s dialogue I try to imagine how Orac would speak in the particular situation concerned. For this third book, that really helped as Kovac (my Keyboard Or Voice-Activated Computer for the uninitiated, which comes with a quantum processor) has a bigger than previous role in Battle for Earth. Some of the early readers described him as their “new favourite character”.
While it was being broadcast, Blake’s 7 was absolute must-watch TV and the first show where I really appreciated the quality of the writing and the story arc across a whole series. The final episode of series 2 (entitled Star One) was one of my favourite all-time moments when Blake discovers an alien invasion of the galaxy is imminent. He’s wounded trying to protect the Milky Way’s defences. Faced with a terrible choice, the remaining crew of Liberator (now commanded by Paul Darrow’s magnificent anti-hero Kerr Avon) make the terrible choice to join forces with the Federation to try to defend the Galaxy. Waiting for reinforcements to arrive, the aliens are breaking through and the final piece of dialogue of the series is Avon saying, “Fire”.
Unless you’ve been living on Mars the past few years, you can’t help but have been sucked into the hype surrounding the reboot of the Doctor Who franchise, with Doctors Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant and then moving onto current incarnation Matthew Smith. Even if you have been living on Mars, you can still catch the shows within an hour depending on where we and the red planet are in our respective orbits. The current series restarts tonight in the UK (and very probably in the US too as they’re so much better synchronized nowadays) so today of all days feels appropriate to post on the connections between Johnny Mackintosh and the sole surviving Time Lord from Gallifrey.
I grew up with Dr Who, John Pertwee being my first Doctor but Tom Baker the main and best one from my youth. Although there was a time when the ridiculous TV schedulers put it up against Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 (Moonbase Alpha won that particular battle for me way back then) I’ve watched Who pretty much all my life when available. The paperback of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London contains all sorts of time travelling adventures, and my publisher Quercus even referenced Doctor Who on the cover (we’ll swiftly gloss over the mention of Alex Rider).
When I first heard Eccleston was leaving and Tennant was taking over, I was very disappointed – how wrong was I? For me, David Tennant now bestrides the Who universe as the greatest of all Doctors, not least because he so clearly loved the role when it always appeared Eccleston felt a little above it.
For Who trivia fans there’s a great scene in the movie Jude (starring Eccleston as the title character) where the man Jude is drinking in an Oxford bar. He’s slagging off the Oxford scholars and ends up in a slanging match with one such, none other than Tennant himself. While Tennant’s character fits effortlessly into his surroundings, Eccleston’s Jude is deliberately awkward and it’s always reminded me of their respective Doctoral personas.
Perhaps it’s a precursor to Moffat doing one of those Five Doctor specials with everyone returning to save the universe from a particularly thorny problem?
Although Russell T Davies was the man who brought Who back onto the small screen, many people would say it was the writing of Steven Moffatt tha
Lots of fascinating book news in the world today... of which the below is but a tiny, arbitrarily selected portion.
AM New York has an article on a new Brooklyn bookstore I have not yet visited: Babbo's Books, a few blocks away from me in south Park Slope. Despite the article's incredulity about an indie bookstore opening and staying open, the shop seems to be doing well on a small scale, and proprietor Leonora Stein has ideas for making it better. A field trip seems in order!
In the indie-bookstore-makes-good category, a coalition led by ABA president Russ Lawrence of Chapter One Books has been influential in keeping Wal-Mart out of their Hamilton, Montana community. After watching the documentary The High Cost of Low Price I'm even more impressed by their efforts, especially since they admit not everyone in town was convinced Wal-Mart was a bad thing. But check out the Wal-Mart exec's explanation of the pullback for classic villain-retreating-while-proclaiming-victory...
Title Page TV is back with a new episode of their author interview podcast -- this one features David Hajdu's intriguing-looking comics history The Ten-Cent Plague, as well as Mary Roach's already much-loved sex science book Bonk and others. Not sure when I can sit for an hour to watch the whole thing (and now I have to go back and watch Episode 2 since Sloane Crosley AND Keith Gessen are reading at our store), but now that I'm down to just one job maybe I can actually take a lunch break...
Speaking of comics commentary, Matt Blind at ComicSnob.com has a very thoughtful post on an issue on the minds of many in the book industry: what's going to happen now that Borders is up for sale? He's done his research and has both some careful analysis and some "raw opinion", and his list of links at the bottom makes this a great place to go to get some insight on the matter.
For more thoughtful commentary, you can hear my bookstore coworker (and novelist) Cheryl Sucher on New Zealand radio here. Cheryl's married to a New Zealander and energetically involved with her adopted homeland, and she's got a great take on subjects as wide-ranging as our governor's recent indiscretions, the presidential race, and the most commonly stolen books at indie bookstores.
For a bit of laugh, check out the winners of the annual competition from British magazine The Bookseller of the "oddest title competition".
And if I can take a moment to love on something totally old and un-hip: this year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Margaret Atwood has a great reflection on the book's enduring popularity here. While I can see why some Canadians like George would feel a little eye-rolly about the whole Anne thing by now, I'll recommend not only the first book but the whole darn Anne series. I read those books straight through every summer from when I was about 11 to when I was 15 or 16, living through a whole life from orphan to beloved child to college girl to teacher to wife to mother, and even her children's adventures in World War I -- the last possible Anne story, it seemed to me, as the world just got too different after that, and uglier. I wrote a paper in high school defending Montgomery as a "literary novelist," though I'm not sure I would agree with that now -- as Atwood admits, the characters are mostly static, and the novels are more like fairy tales or romances than novels: the classic outsider who becomes the hero, wish fulfillment and fantasy. But, she adds,
This [wish fulfillment] is one of the reasons Anne of Green Gables has had such an ongoing life, but this in itself would hardly be enough: if Anne were nothing but a soufflé of happy thoughts and outcomes, the Annery would have collapsed long ago. The thing that distinguishes Anne from so many "girls' books" of the first half of the 20th century is its dark underside: this is what gives Anne its frenetic, sometimes quasi-hallucinatory energy, and what makes its heroine's idealism and indignation so poignantly convincing.
As one of those lonely, bookish kids, Anne opened up the world for me; gave me aspirations to virtue as well as self-creation. There were ugly things in the world, and difficult people, and things that you couldn't do anything about; but there was also deep friendship, and moments of beauty, and if you were lucky, as you got older, strings of happy ordinary days "like pearls slipping off a string." I can't quite do justice to the story; as with most things that influenced one strongly as a child, my feelings about it are strong but incoherent. But if you or some girl you know hasn't read the first book, pick it up with an open mind, and see if it doesn't have a kind of power, of imagination, and of the joys of ordinary life, and of old-fashioned unselfish love. Sure, it's a fairy tale -- but those are some of the most powerful stories we have.
Alexander R. Lucas, M.D., author of Demystifying Anorexia Nervosa is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and former Head of the Section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic. For forty years he has been a recognized authority on anorexia, with a practice that drew patients from around the world. Demystifying Anorexia Nervosa defines anorexia, illustrates how it can evolve and how common it really is, and outlines every part of the treatment process, from the early warning signs that parents should watch out for, to the initial evaluation, to specific treatment plans. In the post below Dr. Lucas questions a French bill which would regulate the promotion of extreme thinness.
The French parliament’s lower house recently adopted a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to promote extreme thinness. The bill is aimed at magazines, advertisers, and particularly Web sites. Pro-anorexia Web sites (also known as pro-ana) glorify anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness. They are popular sites that advise teenagers and young women how to maintain extreme thinness. They are frequented by anorexics who share their experiences and advise one another about unhealthy practices.
This latest move by the French parliament comes after a Spanish fashion show banned models with a body mass index of less than 18, indicating waif-like abnormal thinness. This was a reaction to the 2006 death of the top Brazilian model Ana Caroline Reston. She weighed only 88 lb. at 5’ 8” and had suffered from anorexia and bulimia. In the U.S. the Council of Fashion Designers of America adopted guidelines for its models to be healthy, not anorexic or bulimic.
The French bill, if passed by the senate, would be the strongest of its kind, and would impose high financial penalties, even imprisonment, if an infraction caused the death of a victim. This raises several questions. Can the avoidance of extreme thinness be legislated? Are voluntary guidelines preferable? And, more crucially, to what extent do cultural influences as conveyed by the media cause anorexia nervosa?
There are many factors that lead to anorexia nervosa. First of all there is a biological predisposition with a genetic basis. Further, the individual developing anorexia nervosa has certain personality characteristics including willful determination and persistence. Individual psychological influences also play a role. Finally, there are the cultural influences, glamorizing extreme thinness. Thus, there is usually no single cause, but a combination of influences that lead to anorexia nervosa. Of these, the cultural influences would seem most easily to be altered, but would require a wholesale change in our society’s attitude, in advertising, and in the messages conveyed by the media.
It is naïve to think that a law will prevent anorexia nervosa. Any efforts, however, to establish healthy guidelines for models could protect them from excessive dieting. Healthier role models would also send the message to teenage girls that extreme thinness is not fashionable.
"From the dawn of man's imagination, place has enshrined the spirit." -- Eudora Welty
If you are of A Certain Age, you will recognize the title of this post as a song title as well. Sung by Petula Clark in 1965, it's one of the songs on my playlist for the Sixties Trilogy, and it's your notebook assignment for today.
"I know a place where we can go..." Where?
In 1995, I took a class from a fine poet named Nancy Johnson at Frederick Community College. I had been publishing essays -- personal narrative writing -- for years in newspapers and magazines, I had been writing magazine features and had even been a magazine editor, but now I wanted to turn my attention to fiction. Nancy taught me (among other things) that fiction grows naturally out of personal narrative -- the old "write what you know."
Now I tell my students that story comes from your head, your heart, and your gut: what you know and remember, what you feel, and what you can imagine.
It's hard to write fiction without first understanding your personal narrative -- who you are and where you are from. This is especially important to know when writing with children. It's hard for fourth-graders, say, or middle-schoolers (aren't they beautiful?) or seniors in high school to sustain a fictional world when they haven't explored their place in their own world, when they aren't telling their own stories and understanding that those stories have heft and meaning and importance.
One of the first assignments Nancy gave our class was to write about a place. She had us LIST places first -- places we had lived, visited -- every place we could remember, large (Mississippi), small (the fort I made under the stairs), it didn't matter -- but a physical place.
This is where notebooks come in handy. I listed and listed -- I brainstormed away -- nothing was off limits. This exercise was meant to get our memories flowing onto the page so that we could SEE them, physically, and choose one. One. You do the same. List... then choose one. Circle it. Choose one place you know, and write about it.
Don't skip the listing step. I still, to this day, begin writing by listing. When I listed for this exercise, "Mississippi" was the word I circled. It was the place I chose to write about. I narrowed it down to Jasper County, Mississippi, and all the summers I spent there with my grandmother (the real Miss Eula), surrounded by the smells of summer and people who would populate my dreams for years to come.
I wrote a poem (more on this Nancy Johnson exercise another day -- if I forget, remind me), and from that poem I began a picture book called MISS EULA GOES TO HAWAII. I sent that picture book manuscript to Liz Van Doren at Harcourt Brace in late 1995, and in February 1996, Liz called me and asked me if I'd be interested in working on this story with her.
Would I? Would I! From the beginnings of trying to write for children to the day of this phone call, ten years had passed. Ten years of rejections, nibbles, more rejections, reading what I wanted to write, practicing, giving up, beginning again, joining a writer's group, leaving a writer's group, finding online support, finding solid resources (including this class at FCC), finding like-minded souls to travel with, and just plain hanging-in-there and refusing to give up -- perseverance. I had stories to tell -- I knew I did. I just needed to figure out HOW to tell them. Listing in my notebook helped me get started.
Two years into working with Liz on this picture book, she still had not bought it, the story got longer and longer, and I found myself writing a novel instead of a picture book. Liz gave me good advice at this point: "Let go of your memories, and tell me a story." And I learned to do that, to make that fictional leap. But all my memories -- all those lists -- were trusses for my stories. Without them, I would have no stories to tell.
I left my day-job (freelancing everywhere) in 1997 in order to focus on what would become LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER. All told, it took me three years to get it right, to make it sellable, and another two years of revision before the book was published in 2001. Along the way, I wrote FREEDOM SUMMER, my first picture book, and sold it to Anne Schwartz at Simon & Schuster. It, too, comes directly out of my life and those notebooks that help me capture my life so I can SEE it, in front of me, in words, images (photographs help), thoughts, doodles.
So.... what places do you know? And which one would you choose to write about today? It doesn't have to be a novel. Or even a picture book. How about a sketch? A poem? One paragraph of one moment in time you experienced in that place?
You can see some photos of Ruby's town, my Jasper County, here. I went back and took photos last summer. There are also some photos here, at my Life Notice on my website.
The places I'm showing you today were taken last week, during my scoot through Prince Georges County, Maryland, Frederick, D.C., and western Maryland. I've used my notebook to journal about each stop. I have photographs. And boy, do I have stories.
Any one of those memories I could mine for story. The present echoes the past... or does the past echo into the future? What I know is that my personal narrative -- my history -- informs my fiction.
RUBY is fiction, of course, pulled from personal narrative (as is LITTLE BIRD and ALL-STARS). RUBY narrates a place I knew, it remembers it in the golden light I loved to remember it in. FREEDOM SUMMER is also fiction, also pulled from personal narrative, and it narrates that same place in its not-so-shiny light. Both stories are true emotionally. And that's what I'm going for, in my fiction: emotional truth.
Fiction starts with discovering the emotional truth of your own life -- which can change, actually, with a deeper understanding of the people, places, and events that have defined you.
So pick that place. "You're gonna love this place I know." You can hear the song, sung by Petula Clark, here on YouTube. List, list, list. Pick your place. Pick one experience there. One clear moment in time. Circle it. Write short. Be true. Use telling details, and all your senses. If you need to write long at first, that's fine... you can cut later, and revise as your reason for writing about this particular place emerges... this is a gift of process.
Then write me -- share it with all of us -- what place do you know?
Welcome to Books as Autobiography, or personal canon post #1. Welcome to several books in my canon, starting with THE CAT IN THE HAT by Dr. Seuss.
This is the first book I remember reading by myself. Not only do I remember reading it, I remember the moment I learned to read, the moment that letters formed themselves into words that I could understand on the page, sound out myself, say out loud -- read. It was magic, pure magic, and my life would never be the same. Learning to read was one of the pivotal events of my life; from this book flowed all others, so I must honor it and give it its number one place on my bookshelf.
THE CAT IN THE HAT was published in 1957, when I was four years old. It would have been a newly published book in my home, a book my parents bought for me and my brother. I don't remember my mother reading it to me, but she must have... yes? I don't remember my mother reading to me much at all, but I do remember always having books around the house, and I vividly remember my father with his nose in a book. I don't think my mother was much of a reader, although she came to mysteries at some point and devoured those.
I was a solo reader early. The very idea that words represented stories thrilled me, although I couldn't articulate that when I was young -- I just knew that something juicy was held within the pages of a book, and I wanted to read it. It was something I could do well when, all through the years of my growing up, I felt there were so many things I couldn't do.
I loved the rhyme in THE CAT IN THE HAT (it's still brilliant, to me, today, how 223 words, arranged in anapestic tetrameter, tell such an engaging, enduring story). I loved the sense of naughtiness that the Cat flounced around with, his devil-may-care attitude, and his sincere sadness at being sent away, unappreciated, at the end. I loved the humor -- I laughed out loud. I loved the absurd. I loved the independence of Sally and her brother, obviously latch-key kids, which in 1957 was unheard of... here came Mother through the door, in her heels and dress, home from work -- yes? That was my interpretation. I didn't realize until I was much older, how much that independence meant to me... but more on that later.
THE CAT IN THE HAT was radical, a breakthrough in children's books and a blessed balance to the Dick-and-Jane childhoods that passed for children's books at that time in schools, but all I really understood when I was five-years-old was that I could read this book.
I wouldn't have known that I was learning phonics in school, but that's how I learned to read, by learning the connections between letter patterns and the sounds they represent. Wikipedia's entry on phonics states: "Phonics instruction requires the teacher to provide students with a core body of information about phonics rules, or patterns."
I clearly remember learning these patterns... along with the pattern of daily life in my family home, the patterns of morning-noon-night, the patterns of the seasons and more -- I was decoding the world I lived in, and I found it exhilarating. Reading was another method of decoding. There were patterns to figure out -- let me at 'em!
I stared at those letters, and they began to make sense to me. I couldn't, and then suddenly I could -- I could read. I also could learn... all by myself. I could begin at the beginning -- with anything -- and start to decode it. This knowledge, this desire, has stayed with me all my life, and it is how I have approached learning -- begin at the beginning. What is the foundation of what I want to learn? Go back and find out. You'll see me do this as I write about more of my personal canon. This is a skill I've learned to use in my life with anything new I want to learn.
And one more reason this book is part of my personal canon: I was there at my daughter Alisa's magic moment when she learned to read -- the book in her lap was THE CAT IN THE HAT.
As a child, I went on to read all the Dr. Seuss I could get my hands on, and I loved much of it, especially AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET and GREEN EGGS AND HAM (I thought HORTON HATCHES THE EGG was unbearably sad).
I loved, too, THE LORAX, and placed it in my canon because it is the first environmental picture book (or book) I read, and I read it aloud, over and over again, to my two oldest children, who especially loved it in the 1970s. It heavily influenced my thinking about the environment (so it changed my life) at a time when environmentalists (in a just-emerging field) were considered wackos by so many. I went back to the beginning, to see what I could see, and began to read the nature writers -- John Burroughs, John Muir, Edwin Way Teale (I loved THE COURAGE OF TURTLES), John McPhee, Hal Borland, Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson and more -- I have a collection of these books on my canon shelves, and I pull one to me now and then and read a section in it -- I am always transported to those days of intense nature reading. I can trace it back to THE LORAX and my curiosity. I can trace my interest in ecology and the environment to this book. To other things as well, of course... but we're talking books here.
I was a kid with an insatiable curiosity, so it's no surprise that I would gravitate to a set of encyclopedia-like books called THE BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE. These twenty books (with yearly updates in supplements) lined my father's office walls, and included a character education booklet and a "Graded Course of Study" that contained study outlines for every school subject -- geography, history, literature, biology and much more.
The index was in volume 20, so if I wanted to learn about, say, Pilgrims, I would look it up in volume 20, where I would be referred to all the articles on Pilgrims throughout the 20-volume set.
This set of books was a treasure trove for me. I spent hours just reading through it -- there was so much that was fascinating in those pages.
I'll end with another set of books that opened the world of literature to me as a child. These books also were in my father's "office," a book-lined room at home, where my dad payed bills and cut-and-spliced 8mm (or was it 16?) movie film from his home movies, and where he had a room of his own, full of the Time Life series of books on nature, and science -- all the Popular Mechanics series, and that BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE.
But the ones I'm remembering now as pivotal to my learning and becoming were big thick books of stories in THE JUNIOR CLASSICS, published by P.F. Collier in 1960. There were ten books, and I worked my way through most of them, reading "Stories About Boys and Girls," and "Stories of Wonder and Magic" and "Fairy Tales and Fables" and more... heroes, animals, sports, history, and an entire volume on poetry -- one of my earliest introductions to poetry. Every genre was there -- and I was steeped in story, Sunday after Sunday afternoon or summer day after summer day, lying on the bed reading from these volumes.
This was were I first saw Randolph Caldecott's work. He illustrated many of the stories in the "Fairy Tales and Fables" volume. I was struck by the color and detail and life in those paintings. This was were I began to really look at illustration, too -- the illustration of Prometheus bound to the rock in "Myths and Legends" was almost too much to bear (literally) -- he wore barely a loincloth and it blew in the wind. His muscles rippled. He reached out a hand in supplication. I wanted to help him. And something in me made me look away, too.
I got lost in the illustration in these books, in the line drawings in THE BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE, and in the Dr. Seuss as well -- I was getting an education in illustration and didn't know it. I was learning to appreciate different styles.
I was also developing my own voice, although I wouldn't have known that yet, either. I tell my students today that, in order to write well, one must READ. Read and read and read. Then read some more. Nothing prepared me for being a writer more than reading did.
And none of this was directed reading. I was reading for pure pleasure, and for knowledge because I wanted to KNOW -- it's one of Maslow's five basic human needs: to know and understand.
I wanted to be entertained, too. I was reading because it soothed me. And because, on a level I could not understand, reading was forming me -- it organized my mind and thoughts, it gave heft to my sensibilities, my desires, my personality, and my way of seeing. Reading would save my life -- I'll talk about this in future canon posts. Reading would dictate my future. It would refine what it meant to me, to be human in the world.
What are your first influences in books? Jerrod T. writes to say (after reading yesterday's post about canons), "Not everyone reads or is read to. Not everyone is a reader by nature. What about those people? Do they have personal canons?"
A canon in music, in nature, in food, in friends... there are many ways to define your life. For our purposes here, however, I'm interested in uncovering autobiography in books... why do you keep certain books on certain special shelves? What did they mean to you when you read them, and how have they informed your life and who you have become? Where have they taken you?
I hope you'll keep a notebook dedicated to these stories you uncover. They will spark all kinds of personal narrative, essays, memoir, fiction. Even if you never publish them, you will own your own story (no small feat)... and you can share your story with others.
I used to think I was the only person in the world who had read, loved, and remembered MISTER DOG: THE DOG WHO BELONGED TO HIMSELF, by Margaret Wise Brown. I thought it must be a rare book, and I was content to know that I had discovered a treasure. It wasn't until the Internet began to bring us closer to one another that I found out so many readers adore MISTER DOG as much as I do.
When I was little, I didn't know what I responded to in this book, but it became important to me in a way other Golden Books did not, not even SAILOR DOG, which was also a favorite, and probably for some of the same reasons, but I would not list it in my personal canon. But today, I can look back on who I am as a person and know that I was probably resonating to the themes of independence and autonomy -- the dog who belonged to himself, and the boy who belonged to himself.
I have always needed stretches of time alone, even as much as I treasure community. I'm an introvert (although, not a conservative, as Crispin'sCrispian is -- although, if we use MWB's definition, probably I am), and being with people -- as much delight as it brings me -- wears me out in short order, and I always need time to recover. The first time I went to ALA, in 1996, I was so overwhelmed by the lights! noise! people! movement! that I would take the shuttle back to my hotel room and have a little cry, sit in the dark for a while, and then try the exhibit floor again. Too much, too much! I've gotten better at that, today, but I still need recovery time after lots of people or lots happening. That needed recovery time has sometimes, over the years, been seen by others as anti-social, but it's not meant to be that way -- it's meant to fill me up and make me ready for people again.
Solitude feeds me in the way that it nurtures Comfort (in her closet and on Listening Rock) in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. So something in MISTER DOG -- even at an early age, when I already possessed these leanings -- made a deep connection with me. Crispin'sCrispian and the Boy Who Belongs To Himself decide to live together in the end. I loved those two completely independent souls deciding that they could live independently with one another. And I loved Garth Williams's art.
I also credit this book with giving me my first written ideas about a safe and loving home:
"Crispin'sCrispian lived in a two-story dog house in a garden... with a warm fire that crackled in the winter and went out in the summer. His house was always warm... and upstairs there was a little bedroom with a bed in it... and there was plenty of room in his house for the boy to live there with him."
That sounded perfect to me. Gentle. Kind. Compassionate. I would grow up one day, and that's the kind of home I wanted.
For more about this book, there are many sources to visit, including Leonard Marcus's biography of Margaret Wise Brown, AWAKENED BY THE MOON. Here's a nice essay on the blog "New York Wanderer" that includes photos of the house where MISTER DOG is set, in Brooklyn. And here's one more that says it better than I can, perhaps, about that lovely fictional world that Margaret Wise Brown created in MISTER DOG and how it spoke to readers.
One more Little Golden Book, and I'm done with Golden Books as personal canon. I received this book for my birthday one year: THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES by Kathryn Jackson, illustrated by the fabulous Richard Scarry, and it became a constant companion for me when I was probably 8 years old. This book was a precursor to the Junior Classics and the Book of Knowledge. I loved reading the daily entry for each date, and especially finding the important dates -- my birthday, my brother's birthday, even my parents' anniversary -- I remember marking all the important days with little pencilled stars -- my first intentional, informational marking in a book (I have gone on to copious mark-ups in books, but that's a story for another time).
Before I graduated to longer books, this book made me feel as if I was reading a great big book, and it helped me tremendously with my reading skills, as I read it over and over and, for such a long time, there was always something new in it to read -- and there were "genres" -- a short story, a song, a poem, a fable, etc.
There's a good overview of this book here, at the blog "Collecting Children's Books." I had forgotten the "infinity" cover, but I well remember thinking that my brother's birthday got a great story, and I got this puny little poem -- but it was a GOOD poem, I told myself. Ha.
Finally, don't miss Walter Mayes's comments (and mine in return) on First Influences, Friday's blog post. Thanks, Walter, for the great thoughts, especially about Dr. Seuss (Walter is directing SEUSSICAL: THE MUSICAL in San Francisco!) and thanks for listing your personal canon as well. Walter defines personal canon: "books that are, in one way or other essential to my image of who I am." Yes, that's what I'm after.
I love that one of Walter's picks is the Rand McNally World Atlas. I had forgotten about the atlases! Oh, yes, how wonderful they were. I fell in love with geography in fifth grade, thanks to an atlas (don't remember which one) and a teacher who made geography scintillating -- is it any wonder that Great-great Aunt Florentine in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS calls herself a geographer? (Which is shorthand for gossip, in Snapfinger, Mississippi.)
Did you love Crispin'sCrispian, Sailor Dog, or Rand McNally? What early books are essential to your image of who you are today? I remember reading over and over again SAILOR DOG, just for the lyrical, rhythmical language. The very sentence structure awed me (although I wouldn't have been able to articulate that as a child -- I just knew I heard something special). Here's the first sentence: "Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog. Scuppers was his name."
I'm deep, deep, deep into the Sixties this week. Hope you are deep, deep into something just as absorbing -- maybe it's vacation! It's hot here. It's August. The cicadas chorus outside my window at 8am -- time to get to work.
Back to work in a real way this morning. Last night I had several breakthroughs while on my walk (exercise is part of process!), which catapulted me out of bed this morning, eager to get to work.
Breakfast on the porch this morning while I contemplate my progress so far this month. It never fails to amaze me how the slog slog slog of days turns into a white-heat for me. I know it's different strokes for different folks. Some writers must write every day. Some go for weeks without writing a word, while soaking up whatever it is for the next story, or coaxing it to the surface.
I am more in the latter camp. Unless I am on deadline, I go for days without writing the actual story at my laptop, but I don't let a day go by without scribbling in my notebook. Of course, right now, during this white-heat, deadline time, I am writing/revising the story, at my laptop, every day.
I use my notebook daily -- even if it's for a to-do list or a grocery list and that's it -- even when I'm traveling (esp. when I'm traveling -- I write on airplanes this way, in the interminable waits on takeoffs and landings, and then I transcribe to my laptop). The physical act of writing in my notebook keeps my writing pump primed.
Here is some of what I have scribbled in my notebook about the novel in the past three days. I haven't corrected spelling or grammar, as this is stream of consciousness, and also quick-recording. Here it is, just as I wrote it.
You can see, there is lots of personal narrative in here -- I am taking my life -- my ten-year-old life -- and turning it into story, a totally made-up story. ----------------------------------
Word assoc. with CMC what?
Tie the explorers and fifth-grade exploration unit, note taking, etc., into the narrative.
Note-taking some of the letters, memos? Franny writes like that?
Explorers discovering new lands, vs lands about to be annihilated with atomic war.
MAKERS OF THE AMERICAS has balboa and also cuba in it. Copyright 1947
What about textbooks having incorrect information? Howard Zinn, the people’s history of the united states, etc.
A kid will move in across the street who brings Franny down a notch and teaches her that she is special without being special. Deflates her ego but shows her the truth. No.
JoEllen is a mentor. Magician, whatever.
LOSING BATTLES, no exposition. Can I do this?
Absolutely true diary remember that novel. What I am writing is highly autobiographical.Just found out Franny is the new kid.
My weekly reader, current events
Guns of navarrone
War of the worlds
Franny will be 11 and in fifth grade, and it will be 1962. I’ll start in Sept.
Was trying to make her 12 in 1962 and in sixth grade, but it’s not going to happen, this feels better.
Oct. 9 2008
On my trip to kudzu
HALLOWEEEEEN! Was talking with meg at kudzu this afternoon about Halloween and our childhoods and I told stories about my children’s childhood and the fire at the end of the driveway and everything… what about Franny and Halloweeen might be impt. I have had this thought before but abandoned it. Now it feels just right.
On my walk tonight:
GALE is not a bad girl, although Franny’s mother thinks she is… and Franny will find this out… hmmm… defy her mother? Gravel pit? What? So maybe franny and Margie don’t break up, but they have a tough time of it over gale and Margie growing up faster, gale already grown up a lot
Halloween: noisemakers from the fifties/early sixties, costumes, card table and old woman (work this in somehow with fear)Halloween party at school?
Maybe gale’s mother DIDN’T allow her out on beggars night, maybe Gale’s mother works nights and Gale just went out on her own. Gale can be racy but not bad… risky but not ridiculously so. Maybe her mother is separated or divorced… a no-noin the early sixties.
Mom, can I sleep with you tonight? Dad’s out of town on a trip. Mom will pick him up at Friendship and JoEllen will babysit. What about uncle otts?
Franny’s mother, Nadine, is Miss Mattie’s daughter. So she is Evelyn Lavender’s sister and Ruby’s aunt. That makes Franny and Ruby cousins. Ha!
Drew wants to sleep with mom, too, but it’s franny’s turn. Does she hear him sniveling in bed and how does she feel about that? Does she go into his room and comfort him? Sleep with him in a twin bed? Army men are everywhere? They can still fight later.Oh, I should use those caterpillars! And locking drew out of the house/shed thingie! Can be little flashbacks… to first snow, and etc. the way I did Uncle Edisto and Aunt Florentine flashbacks. This can be a good story.
New kid moves in across the street woody with raccoon goads drew? Gravel pit? Now drew has a friend his age in the neighborhood?
Is gale jewish? Does she not show up for school for rosh Hashanah and yom kippur? ------------------------------------
Finish notebook entry.
This is my process now. The story is revealing itself to me, bit by leap. I am scooping it up. My notebook goes with me everywhere, to record what is being revealed, to ask questions, to practice what-if, to capture tiny fragments as they present themselves.
And yes, this far into this novel (years worth!), I am still uncovering layers of meaning and structure. This is the way it is with every novel, for me. I've come to believe that I push a novel at my peril. In some ways, I don't believe I can push it to reveal to me its secrets. I just have to keep showing up at the page, whether it's the laptop or the notebook, the slog or the white-heat. (I like white-heats a lot better.... insert hollow laughter here.)
Nothing is too small to note. Nothing that doesn't work out is wasted. It is all necessary to the whole and to the finished project. This is why I tell my students, keep a notebook. Put everything in it. Everything. You never know when you may need it. Paste leaves in it and photographs. Clips recipes to it and letters. Draw pictures, scribble, pour your heart out, and you will see:
When I was in my twenties, I wanted to write essays, so I went to the library and read my way through the 800s -- particularly the 814s -- and fell in love with White, Thurber, Perleman, Goodman, Didion, Trillin.
I particularly loved the essayists who wrote about home and family. Some were famous, and some obscure: Pat Leimbach, Erma Bombeck, John Gould, Robert Hastings, Annie Dillard, Gladys Taber, Gladys Ogden Dimock, William Childress... and that's what I remember without getting up from the couch to peruse the bookshelves where my used copies live. Yesterday my friend Cyndi offered up a quote by Anais Nin: Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.
I have met some of my most intimate friends between two book covers; living human beings whom I have never met in person, but know so well because they have shared their stories. They never knew me, but I have been changed by them. They have opened up worlds for me. When I read all those essayists, when I studied them so thoroughly, I was learning to write -- attending a school of my own divising -- and I copied these writer's styles. Soon I developed a voice of my own, and I got a gig at the local paper, writing opinion pieces -- for free, at first -- and then a gig at a magazine, writing local color, and features. Personal narrative was and remains my first love. I wrote hundreds of essays in those years -- decades. Nothing was wasted. If a piece wasn't published, I kept it with the published pieces -- I had documented my life and my family's growing up. And one summer when we went on our annual pilgrimage to Garrett County, Maryland, where we stayed in a cabin in the woods and hiked, fished, canoed, swam, ate and slept and did nothing electronic, I bought a book of essays at Yoder's Market by a woman I'd never heard of, Celestine Sibley. The Sweet Apple Gardening Book was the title, all about Ms. Sibley's gardening adventures in a restored 1842 cabin in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains. These essays opened a world for me -- a world I had been hoping to inhabit for years. Celestine Sibley left the city and found a piece of rural property, restored a cabin and lived a sustainable life while supporting herself and three children with her writing. She planted and put by, hung her sheets on the line, plopped zinnias into Mason jars, snapped beans on the front porch, fed the neighbors and fought the squirrels and looked up at the black night sky and picked out the constellations, while the cicadas sang away summer. I never inhabited that world. Or did I? Is it a matter of how you look at it? I have a screened in porch, I plop zinnias in the jar, dress the back yard with bedding so it can sun, gratefully feed the willing neighbors (and they feed me), lie on a blanket under the stars, and garden to my heart's content. I live not far from where Celestine (may we call her Celestine?) lived on Thirteenth Street in Midtown Atlanta before she made her trek to the country... the country that is no longer the country.
Roswell, Georgia is now a suburb of Atlanta. Celestine wrote prolifically about the bulldozers and the developers that were eating up her countryside. She wrote once that she loved a rainy day because it meant she didn't have to listen to the chain saws.
Roswell is a short drive from Atlanta, in fact, and is not what I'd call the foothills -- that's another hour up the road, near Dahlonega. But I got to thinking about Celestine last week, about how she supported her children working at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for over fifty years, how she wrote countless articles, several novels, and thousands of essays... and books about her beloved Sweet Apple in the foothills. I wanted to find this place that had opened up a world for me, a place that had existed only between the pages of a book. Although Celestine died in 1999, an online search told me that Sweet Apple was still standing, still in the family, and one of the lone holdouts to the rabid and rapid development surrounding Atlanta. I clutched the directions I'd sleuthed out from several articles I'd found online, and with just a few missteps and wrong turns, Jim and I soon found ourselves on a dirt road that led to a mailbox that stood in front of a cabin. Sweet Apple.
There it was. It looked as if no one was home, and I didn't want to intrude even if someone was, so we took a few photos and were on our way. But not before I stood there for a long time, just looking at Sweet Apple. It represented home, family, simplicity, love, longing, and hope... to Celestine, and also to me. A world had been born for me, again, right there on that dusty dirt road in front of a house I never knew but knew all too well. We drove away, back onto the pavement, past the Krogers and the Olive Gardens and the strip malls and the broad roofs of the huge homes in spanking-new subdivisions. We drove into the actual foothills, like we always do. The car found its winding way to Dahlonega, where we always go, to the Crimson Moon, where we always eat, to the music that we love to hear. The music that has, for so long, been my friend as well.
We -- all of us -- have so many friends, not all of them human, and there are lots of worlds being born, over and over again, in a myriad of ways... all represented by stories.
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.
I'm going to write about my biggest fear with Hang The Moon, the second book in the Sixties Trilogy, but I can't do it today. My friend and mentor died on Friday, and she is part of this Hang The Moon story, so first I want to tell you about her.
But I can't. I'm bereft and don't yet have the right words. So let me direct you to her website and her obituary, and let me say farewell in a most clumsy manner to Norma Fox Mazer today. I loved her and love her still. Her book When She Was Good knocked my socks off and was part of the reason I went to Vermont College to get my MFA in writing. Norma was my advisor for two semesters and became my friend. She loved me, too, with a fierce devotion that always surprised me. She demanded the best from me, and often I failed her miserably. And more than that, I cannot find the words to say.
I'll leave you instead with a piece I read this morning about a student and a teacher. It's Good Writing -- that phenomenon I love. Good Writing elevates the mind, and even life. And today I need a little elevating.
In that first class, she wore the pearls and a tab collar peeped over her sweater, but she looked as if she would punch you if you didn't behave. She walked with a cowgirl's stride into the classroom, and from her bag withdrew her legal pad covered in notes, a thermos of coffee and a bag of Brach's singly wrapped caramels, and then sat down. She undid the top of the thermos with a swift twist, poured a cup of coffee into the cup that was also the thermos top, and sipped at it as she gave us a big smile and looked around the room.
Hi, she said, sort of through the smile.
My first meeting with Norma Mazer was very different. I'm writing about it for publication right now (I will post the link when it publishes) and I'm trying to get the words just-right. I want the tone, the detail, the feeling of it to come across... and -- once again -- I'm failing miserably. But I will continue to try.
This is what Norma would tell me to do -- write. Keep working. Try. I may be gone, but that is not an excuse for you not to do your job, not to meet your deadline. I know she is right. And I know I will find the words.
Norma was ever the teacher. So, in her honor, I will put on my teaching hat today, too:
Try. Open your notebook and sketch a scene about meeting one of your teachers -- a mentor, a muse, a monster. What was it like? Notice what works about the Alexander Chee paragraph above, and why it works. Take it apart and see how you can do the same in your own short piece about a teacher whose presence has stayed with you.
My wise husband says that some people leave a part of themselves within you when they die. I think he's right. Norma is still right here, right with me, in my mind and heart, as I write Hang The Moon. What a gift that is.
Thank you, Norma. Thank you for all you gave to your friends and family, to the world of children's literature, and to those of us who came to learn at your feet. How strange the world is without you. How lucky we are to have our memories... and your stories.
"Portulaca in pie pans was what they set along the front porch. And the mirror on the front of the house: I told you. In the yard, not a snap of grass -- an old auto tire with verbena growing inside of it ninety to nothing, all red. And a tin roof you could just imagine the chinaberries falling on -- ping! And now the hot rays of the sun."
Every year, I plant portulaca in pie pans, on the front porch, in honor of Eudora Welty and this wonderful story of generous, rich and lonely Uncle Daniel Ponder, his brand-new -- surprise! -- 17-year-old wife Bonnie Dee Peacock (a little thing from the country who looked as though a good gust of wind could carry her off), and the crazy Peacock family, not to mention our narrator, Edna Earle Ponder, bless her little know-it-all heart.
The book was published in 1954, when I was a year old. I found a paperback copy of it in a used book store in Front Royal, Virginia, when I was in my thirties and trying to write for children. The book was pubished for adults, but I found this copy in the children's section -- lucky me.
I have read this book so many times, I have broken the spine. I have underlined passages and just about memorized stretches of this story. I took it apart, and learned from it, as I tried to write stories of my own. "How does she do that?"
Today, I am convinced that the June family, the family I have created in Hang The Moon, the second book in The Sixties Trilogy, owes a lot to the Peacock family in The Ponder Heart. They aren't the same, not by a long shot, but... they are, in their crazy southern way. I hear echoes today, and I recognize a legacy being passed down because Eudora Welty wrote and published this book, and I reached out and said yes, I love this, I want this, I want to learn; teach me.
I didn't see this as I wrote the draft, which I started in the mid-nineties. But I see it today. What an influence Welty has been on my work.
Influences. Do you know yours? Who and/or what are they? Can you see them in your work, whatever kind of work you do? Name them out loud today. It will give strength to your sword arm.
And maybe, portulaca in pie pans. (I know; it's a cake pan. I revised. :>)
I am doing the same thing Welty did, in my own way: I am releasing my book, my tender story, into the wide world, not knowing who may need it now, or who might, years after I am gone, come across a dusty old paperback in a used bookstore one day, and say... yes.
Elaine Howard Ecklund is a member of the sociology faculty at Rice University, where she is also Director of the Program on Religion and Public Outreach, Institute for Urban Research. Her new book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, investigates the unexamined assumption of what scientists actually think and feel about religion. Surprisingly she discovered that nearly 50 percent of the scientific community is religious. In the excerpt below we learn how religious scientists incorporate their faith into teaching.
“My Faith is Simply Part of Who I Am”
About 39 percent of the nearly 1,700 scientists I surveyed considered their religious or spiritual beliefs influential on their interactions with students and colleagues. Specifically, faith can create an ethos for teaching. In other words, the faith of these scientists is a part of their everyday lives to the extent that they see it shaping the what, how, why of their teaching.
A Catholic chemist was especially forthcoming about his religious views after I turned off my tape recorder. A recent immigrant, he thinks that academics (and Americans in general) should talk more openly about religion and integrate it into their lives. He blames the present unwillingness to discuss religion on what he called the “political correctness” of the United States, which he contrasts with the religious discussions people have in his home country. Although he clearly had outspoken views about public discussions of religion, this scientist explained that at work, his faith influences him primarily through the ethos it provides for teaching: “I would say religion itself doesn’t come up, rather the values I get through religion…As a teacher you have, for example, a little bit more regard toward weaker students and trying to help them out and also communicate to them the joy of studying science.” Here, he explicitly contrasted himself with more secular colleagues who he thinks mainly spend time with the better students.
Similarly, a physicist said that his faith causes him to treat those who work in his lab compassionately, going out of his way to do things for them that do not necessarily benefit his own career. In his words, “I’m at an age where I see mentoring as one of the most important things I can do,…trying to get [younger scientists] on paths that will get them to the jobs that they want. And you know there’s no particular self-interest here. I mean the majority of [other scientists] I don’t think do this.” This physicist is also establishing a clear boundary between himself and his colleagues who, in his sense of things, care more about their own personal success than making sure that students are mentored well. Obviously, nonreligious professors might also mentor students well. The point is that religious scientists often mentioned this ethos of teaching as something that they believed separated them from their secular colleagues.
The Jewish economist…also said that his faith has a great impact on how he cares for students. He remembers his mother lighting candles on Friday evenings, a ritual that left him with “very peaceful imprints.” And this knowledge that he belongs to a broader faith community influences, for instance, how he thinks about promoting character development among his students, such as those who have failed a class. These students might then meet him in his office to request a higher grade:
And I say, “Well close the door and let’s talk now. Aren’t you ashamed to be here? What do you want out of life when your parents are spending money to keep you here? Are you really interes
Ohmygolly, y'all. I have had such amazing mail in the 24 hours since I last posted... who knew how many of you felt this way, too, and understood that deep desire to live an authentic life, a life not made to someone else's order?
It's so good to have company, and it's so good to hear your words. Thank you. One friend sent me this column by Cary Tennis in Salon. He says what I was trying to say in a different way, but with just as much conviction.
My favorite lines:
Consider this: The world approaches you like an ugly beggar and begins pawing through your backpack. So you resist. The world wants something. It just doesn't have a very nice way of going about it. It grabs for things you think are sacred. You resist. It grabs for things you think are worthless. You resist. You say, that's worthless, you don't want that. But the world keeps pawing through your backpack.
The world may not want what you think is your greatest talent. So we learn that we are not the best judge of what we have to offer. We learn that if we simply adopt a posture of service, the world will let us know.... Shift your perspective. You're not running the show.
What we express does not originate inside us. What we express we pass on. We borrow. We are conduits. This yearning, this is not from inside you. It is your response to an invitation.... The world is trying to pull something out of you. Let the world pull this thing out of you. Let the world act on you.
What I express does not originate inside me. I am not running the show. I am letting go, remember? I only run the show to the extent that I can say YES to what has opened in front of me, instead of resisting it. YES to seeing where it takes me. YES to loving-kindness and curiosity and open-ness and willingness to make myself available. To find out who I really am.
That's the entire struggle, in my opinion. All of life is a journey home. Home to our true selves, our true nature, our connectedness. We do nothing alone.
What is your invitation? What is the world offering you right now? That is the question.
How wonderful to be able to look the world in the eye and say, "Here I am. Where to?" And then to go at the pace you can travel.
My pace yesterday was... slow. I could have stayed with chapter three, but it was fidgety, finicky, and fussy. Jim texted me from his last break at his Valentine's Day gig at La Grotta: "I'm dead." He had worked three gigs yesterday, playing and singing, and I knew he was done-in. I texted back: "You're almost done. I'm making you something!" And I closed my laptop.
I finished these pans of brownies at 11pm. They were supposed to look like this, but I couldn't face doing the entire pan in that way at 11pm, so this was my concession.
Got home from Tennessee travels late Friday night -- shout outs to my good friend Scot Smith, his colleagues, and all 7th graders who are working on a truly amazing Countdown project at Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge.
You'll be hearing more about this as we catalogue and archive and write up this project. How do we teach Countdown in the classroom? How does it reach into every corner of the new, national, Common Core standards? Stay tuned.
Thank yous as well to Jo Wilson and her team at Eaton Elementary in Lenoir City for an amazing hour with 3rd and 4th graders who have read the Aurora County trilogy and Freedom Summer, and to all teachers and students at Grandview School in Jonesborough, Tennessee, for a memorable teacher workshop day and another day with students in grades PRE-K through EIGHT. Whatta stretch. And it was good.
Got my hair cut yesterday. Talked with Vincent about working with our hands. I talk about this a lot lately. It's part of what I'm trying to put into words in my new novel, book two of the sixties trilogy, and into a new project I'm cooking up. Again, stay tuned. :>
I made a commitment this year to work more with my hands. I talk about it all the time in schools. I preach about it, actually, about how we have to use our notebooks (Totally paperless classrooms? Aiiieeeee! At our peril!), and keep teaching handwriting and cursive and drawing and doodling and pasting and cutting and taping and knitting and cooking and gardening and sweeping and painting...
I finished Abby's Tiramisu late yesterday afternoon. (Ravelry notes here.) As I wove the ribbon through the border spaces and watched the whole thing come together, finally, I was filled with the delight of "I made this! With my own two hands! And it's beautiful!" I love that feeling. The beauty lies in the process, in the effort, and also in the finishing.
It's like that with writing as well. I've been teaching lots of teachers this spring, and that's what we've been working with -- process, effort, finishing. This is the investment.
If you write for young people, consider this LJ post a big, fat thank you note (virtual chocolates and ice cream, too). I just finished reading my 7th graders' final exams. I ask them to write an essay reflecting on how they've grown as readers, writers, and human beings this year. Here's a quote from K...
"In the beginning of the year, I didn't like to read at all. But then my teacher showed me all these books that were for me, and I couldn't stop reading."
Books that were for her. Written just for her. Or at least it felt that way. She went on to talk about Sonya Sones, Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Nancy Werlin -- voices that spoke to her over the past ten months.
And K wasn't the only one who named names as she reflected on books that made a difference this year. My kids talked about finding themselves in the characters of Pete Hautman, Janet Tashjian, Jack Gantos, Laurie Halse Anderson, Lisa Yee, Sharon Creech, Jerry Spinelli, Wendelin Van Draanen, David Lubar, Cynthia Kadohata, Mal Peet, and Walter Dean Myers. They wrote about being challenged by M.T. Anderson, Richard Preston, and Markus Zusak. They wrote fondly about escaping into the worlds of Margaret Peterson Haddix, Christopher Paolini, and JK Rowling. And they reflected on walking a mile in someone else's shoes as they read Gene Luen Yang, Cynthia Lord, Will Hobbs, Jennifer Roy, and Joseph Bruchac.
I write for kids. I know that some days, it feels like you're alone with your computer, and even your computer doesn't like you very much. So I thought I'd share K's reflection on her year of reading. We all need to realize when we write, we're writing for someone important. Someone like K, who's waiting for a book that's just for her, just for him.
If you write for kids, that's the work you're doing every day. You may never get to read the end-of-the-year essays, but you should know that you make a difference, and you're appreciated.
I'm off to Canterbury Woods for day two of a four-day residency. More on this wonderful school soon. I want to leave you today with some thoughts from Eudora Welty's essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?"
I re-read it this morning, as I'm working with some folks at Georgia State University on wrapping up an interview I did with the Eudora Welty Society about how I came to know and love Eudora Welty's work and how I eventually named a character in THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS after her. The interview will appear in the next Eudora Welty Newsletter -- I'll let you know about it when it appears.
But in the meantime, I received a query from Dr. Pearl McHaney about one of my answers-to-hard-questions:
"Is the essay you mention reading and using as a model during the discussion of civil rights and Freedom Summer the essay 'Must the Novelist Crusade?'"
Yes, it is, Dr. McHaney.
The entire essay can be found here. It's good for me to read it again as I embark on a novel that takes place in 1962. I don't want to crusade. I want to tell a good story. Here are a couple of plum bits for me to remember:
"Writing fiction is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be put down little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address. For life is lived in a private place; where it means anything is inside the mind and heart. Fiction has always shown life where it is lived, and good fiction, or so I have faith, will continue to do this."
And one more passage I love:
"Indeed, great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean. A good novel of any year can initiate us into our own new experience."
Here are my mom and dad many years ago, sitting on my grandmother's front porch in Jasper County, Mississippi, fresh from a fishing trip to the Railroad Pond. They've got a string of fish between them. This house became the Pink Palace in LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, and my parents became Bunch and Joy Snowberger in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Look at that dappled sunlight. Look at those beautiful people. They are my first influences.
I'm thinking this morning about influences, especially writing influences, as I've had some exciting mail (which I'll get to in a moment). Don't you love it when you see the fruits of your labors blossom into surprising shapes and forms that you would never have dreamed of? The Buddhists (and others) tell us not to be attached to outcomes and instead to concentrate on the present moment, and I try to do that -- it's a great place to work from.
From time to time, however, I like to think about the path, which is something teachers and writers and I talked about quite a bit this past weekend: the path to reading like a writer, the path to writing and using all those conventions of good writing, the path to publication, and the path to becoming a whole human being.
So -- as I prepare to go to Chicago this afternoon to work with Scholastic Book Fairs (back Friday), I leave you with some influences on my writing, and my.... hmmm.... becoming. I thank every one of these lovely influences, every name, place,memory and moment below: Namaste.
Speaking also during this year's festival (April 2-4) are James Ransome,Vicki Cobb, Will Weaver, and Kimberly Willis Holt. A lovely line up, and that's just the tip -- this is a conference full of concurrent workshops and southern charm. Plus, good friend Barbara Immroth is the Keats Lecturer this year, and you don't want to miss that. Hey, Cousin Ellen!
The second Southern treat is the spring edition of the Eudora Welty Newsletter, with an interview of Yours Truly in it. When you name a dog Eudora Welty, as I have done in ALL-STARS, well... folks want to know what that's all about. I am honored to be profiled by the fabulous Deborah Miller in this issue of the newsletter. If you'd like to read all sorts of scholarly goodness about Eudora Welty and one decidedly non-scholarly interview (although I think there's lots of scholarship in there, in its way, as I have studied Welty's work for so long I can recite it to you!), you can order copies here. At some point, I would like to put the interview on my website as well. We'll see.
3. Speaking of scholarship, I want to pass on a link to an excellent article written by Michael Dirda of the Washington Post about this year's AWP conference in New York City. I attended and spoke at last year's conference, here in Atlanta, on two panels; one about voice in southern literature for children, with Mary Ann Rodman and Sharon Darrow (all of us with Vermont College ties), and the other about writing about the civil rights movement in southern literature, with Tony Grooms and William Heath -- I was the only children's book author on this panel and was delighted to be asked to be a part of it.
AWP was quite the experience, to be one of a few writers for children in a sea of those writing and expounding on adult books in such academic, bohemian, important, strange, convoluted and wonderful ways. It was everything Michael Dirda says it was in NYC, too -- he captures the feeling of the conference well.
One reason I bring up AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is because I've been thinking so much lately about how we separate out literature for adults and literature for children in this country... maybe in the world. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. I was asked to be part of the AWP panel on literature about the civil rights movement and was thrilled to have FREEDOM SUMMER -- a picture book -- represented along with Bill Heath's and Tony Grooms' novels. We all had something valuable to contribute. And yet, that's not always how it works.
Sometimes children's literature is seen as lightweight and undeserving of serious attention. The folks at the De Grummond Collection would say there is nothing further from the truth, as would the organizers of the Bond Conference and the SCBWI conference I just attended, and the Eudora Welty Society -- after all, Welty also wrote THE SHOE BIRD, a children's book.
When I took a writing course at my local community college in 1995, I was trying to figure how I could learn to write the stories I wanted to tell. I told the instructor, "I'm an essayist, I don't know how to write fiction, and I also want to write for children; I'm not sure I belong in this class." My instructor, who was teaching a fiction writing course, said, "Story is story. Come in." And she was right. Story is story. I started what would become LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER in that class.
Literature is hard to make. Maybe it's even harder to make for children -- that's another argument I've heard. But in any case, I love it most when literature is inclusive; I have never separated literature into camps. In my house, THE REIVERS by Faulkner sits on a shelf alongside THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson, THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman, and DELIVERANCE by James Dickey -- these books are part of my canon -- but I'm getting ahead of myself, I'll come back to that.
I know that children's literature is an art form -- I know it to my bones, despite the stories I have heard (and can tell you) of children's literature being relegated to "those nice little stories" that "anyone can write." I know better. I have experienced how nuanced children's literature is, how complex and layered good storytelling is, how difficult a business this is to survive in, how much stamina it takes to withstand the buffeting from within, to say nothing of the misunderstandings without. I also know how important it is, and how rewarding it can be to be part of it.
So I stand tall, even in the midst of AWP and gatherings of writers of adult books, even when I am the token children's book writer at an evening cocktail reception of writers at a small conference, and someone asks, "so what do you write?" and then that someone gives me a vacant smile and turns to the next, more worthy, conversation. I know better. "Here am I," I say as I chat about writing and books with those who have never read a novel for children, "Here am I; read me."
And sometimes, they do. Which brings me to number 4.
4. I had to read it twice when it arrived in my email inbox:
Deborah, I am the Executive Secretary for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. You have been nominated for an award in Fiction for your book, The Aurora County All-Stars. I need your mailing address. What did I do? I sent my mailing address.
And lo, a letter arrived just yesterday. I will go to Jackson, Mississippi on June 14 and attend a dinner with the likes of... well, I don't know who will be there, but here are some of the past winners of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award: Richard Ford. Barry Hannah. Lewis Nordan. Rick Bass. Ellen Gilchrist. Walker Percy. WALKER PERCY! What company! How very humbling. I am so totally and completely in love with this opportunity to step into the world of Mississippi writers and take my place as a WRITER. Not a writer for children or a writer for adults, but a WRITER. It's breathtaking. I wish I knew who I had to thank for reading ALL-STARS and recommending it to the committee. Thank you, thank you, thank you, all of you who understand that "story is story." Literature is literature. We are all in this together.
And me? I wrote a book, a southern story, a Mississippi story about kinship, family, community, our collective southern history, poetry... and baseball. And a dog named Eudora Welty. In this book, I wanted to say that everything is connected -- the past, the present, the dancer, the ball player, the outcast, the recluse, the living, the dead, the decisions we make and the choices that others embrace.
This book has been embraced by kids and teachers and librarians and booksellers all across the country, for which I am so grateful. And now, this book is recognized in the larger context of Mississippi stories, with other Mississippi writers and in the larger world of literature, which makes me feel as if I have truly come home. Home to the heart of story.
As a largely self-taught writer, I have learned all my life from the literature I have admired, and I have been indiscriminate about it -- adult books, children's books, it never mattered. It has always been STORY I have been after: essays, non-fiction, poetry, fiction... story. I have taken it apart, have studied -- "how does she do that?" and have tried to incorporate what I learned into my own writing, giving it my own stamp, my own voice, as I learned how. I've been thinking a lot lately about canons, as I mentioned earlier, and influences, and I spoke about this at the SCBWI conference this past weekend:
What is YOUR canon? Your canon of good literature? We argue over THE canon, but no one can argue with you about your own canon of what has made you a writer and a reader. Who is it? What books? Who have you admired and studied? And why? Over the next few months I want to introduce you, from time to time, to my personal canon of literature. I wonder if every classroom would benefit from thinking about a canon that is particular to each teacher, each grade, each subject. And I'll bet that every serious reader -- and certainly every serious writer -- can tell you about her canon, chapter and verse.
Be thinking about yours. Start making a list, in your notebook. Give yourself plenty of room. I'll bet, if you start back as far as you can remember, you'll find your influences are far-ranging and deep.
I'm off to Chicago in two hours. Time to finish packing. I'm very behind on email -- I've been having email problems at home, but I'm slowly figuring it out and will get caught up soon, I promise. Thanks for all the mail -- I love the conversation, even though I am a slow correspondent.
Long before Rebecca Wells published her book of the same title in 1992, I knew what "little altars everywhere" meant, because I'm a Southerner, and because I've had altars all over my house, all my life, long before I understood the meaning of what I was doing or had a name for it. I'll bet you've got little altars everywhere, too. I was thinking about altars this morning, as I began finally, here in March, to put away the ornaments on the little tree I put up this Christmas as an adjunct to the big green one; the little tree that became an altar to my three Christmases in Atlanta, or was it an altar to family, or love, or to a chunk of my past I could arrange by Christmases?
The picture above is what the tree looked like in December. In January, I moved it to my bedroom and put it on my dresser, so I could admire it a little longer. This morning I decided it was time to put these ornaments away until next Christmas, when I'll bring them out and they can surprise and comfort me all over again.
Every ornament tells a story: Here's the sax player I bought in New Orleans in December, when I was visiting Coleen, here's the nurse bell that made Hannah and I laugh so much we had to buy it, here's the clown that reminds me of Jim, here's the orange ball I couldn't say no to, here are the pine cones that said "us," here is.... you get it. There are also a couple of very old glass ornaments -- a bell, a ball -- that my former mother-in-law gave me one Christmas. They mark another period in my life -- and in hers, long before I came into it. I like to think of that. Then there is one glass icicle I bought when I was married years ago to someone else... the icicle represents those years, not because it is cold, but because it is beautiful -- you can see it, with it's blue/green/red tip. The years this icicle represents had their icy elements, I'll admit, but mostly, I am learning to love what those years brought me -- all those years and all the messy glory.
I have learned that I am the sum total of all my life experiences and all the people I've met, and I want to honor that, somehow. Ram Dass says that he has little altars everywhere, too, and that he has a picture of George Bush on one of his altars, to help him develop compassion for him! I am not nearly that highly evolved, but I liked what this said about learning to love, because it's what I'm trying to do, too. I'm learning to love as well. Aren't we all?
So I'm trying to integrate all my life experiences instead of accepting some and pushing away others, so I can see that it's all necessary, as Uncle Edisto says in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Uncle Edisto calls it "the messy glory," and says "Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!" to which Comfort replies, "I don't like messes." That's me, Comfort, not wanting messes or surprises or pain or hurt or disappointment... but of course, it's part of life. I have to learn this again and again.
"It is what it is" sounds loony, but somehow I get it in a way I didn't yesterday or last year or ten years ago. Something like that. So onto my ornament tree go reminders of times and even people that weren't always the most comforting, but that are now integrated into my days and my history, and so, are precious to me. Even the pain is precious. If that makes sense.
As I started to wrap each ornament in tissue paper and box it away, my eye caught the trinkets on my dresser -- jewelry, I suppose it is, but mostly it's not fancy-enough to be called jewelry... still, these are the few pieces I own and love to wear now and again, especially when I'm traveling and working, because it's as if I take a little piece of my life with me on the road.
I took those pieces and hung them on my ornament tree this morning. Look closely and you can see, on the bottom left, the charm bracelet my mother gave me the year I turned 12, and the C-141 Starlifter jet charm -- my father flew C-141s into and out of Vietnam for two years; before 141s, my dad flew C-130s. Right above the C-141 is a heart carved with my initials and a boy's, a boy who liked me so much more than I liked him -- there is a story here. Next to the charm bracelet is a bracelet featuring shoes from a museum exhibit that my editor Liz and I attended in Philadelphia one year while at a conference. Liz bought me the bracelet as a gift, insisted I take it, said it would remind me of that day, and it does. I wear it (the day and the bracelet) and take Liz with me to Las Vegas, Chicago, San Franciso, and beyond.
Right in front of the white button necklace is a bracelet handmade by Kate Fortin, a best-friend of my daughter Hannah. To the upper right of the button necklace is a bracelet given to me by the Brandon, Mississippi librarians, at a dinner that Harcourt hosted while I was on tour for ALL-STARS in September. These librarians say they are my biggest fans; I am their biggest fan, that's what it is, and I wear this bracelet so I can take them on the road with me, too.
Here's a photo of the other side of the ornament tree. You can see that button necklace - bought it just recently on a day's outing with Hannah, and will remember that day when I wear this necklace.
See the pearls? They were my mother's. I wore the brown string bracelet near the bottom to San Antonio IRA a couple of years ago, where my editor friend Allyn put it on while a little gaggle of us sat outside with on a balmy May day after the conference. Margaritas decorated the crowded table. Allyn admired my bracelet for a moment, sat back in her overstuffed chair, and said, "So, Debbie! How's your life?" and we all swapped stories. I take some of that day, some of those Harcourt folks, with me, whenever I wear that bracelet. And believe me, given the cataclysmic changes at Harcourt this past year and how much I miss my friends, these memories are precious, precious... and some of them are held forever in this bracelet.
Likewise, when I wear the necklace to the right of my mother's pearls (I wonder if you can see it; it's a dark silver square on its tip, right in the middle of the mirror), I think of how my cousin, Carol, came to be with me at the MLA -- Mississippi Library Association -- in Tunica two years ago. She took good care of me. It was the first MLA since Katrina had devastated Mississippi libraries, and I was delivering a speech to my librarian friends, and I wanted it to be meaningful. I had titled it, "What Have You Lost?" I was nervous, and I was so glad Carol was with me.
"HERE!" Carol said, as she squirted something-or-other into my palm so I could try and tame my out-of-control hair just before we went downstairs to the convention and speechifying time. "Keep it," she said, handing me the bottle. (Hmmm....) Then, as I was agonizing over what to wear -- nothing would fit -- Carol gave me that necklace to wear and told me to keep it. I considered it a talisman. I calmed down (especially as I discovered that Catherine Nathan had figured out how to print my speech for me, and Ellen Ruffin could jiggle the slide presentation).
That necklace represents more than a moment, of course. It represents a lifetime of years in Mississippi, many of them with cousins and aunts and uncles, especially with Carol, and all those childhood summers.
For the moment, I have made an altar of these jewelry stories. I was going to post today about personal canons, and share with you some stories of books that have informed and influenced me as a human being and a writer, ask you about your canon, and I will do that soon. I am interested in influences, in altars, in stories. I'd love to hear about yours. I'll bet, if you looked around with intention, you would find that you've created little shrines, little altars, everywhere. I challenge you to write about them, about their importance to you, or about why you choose the altars you choose.
In HANG THE MOON, the 1966 novel in the Sixties trilogy that I'm working on now, I have a character named Partheny, a very old woman, who teaches 13-year-old Margaret about little altars everywhere, because she has them -- literally everywhere. At some point, Margaret realizes she does, too. That everyone does.
What's important to you? Where are your altars? Are they "official," like the ones in churches? Are they tiny? Hidden? In your heart? Over the moon? Inside? Outside? And... why? Why do you choose to combine certain elements in certain ways, thereby making an entirely new story out of them? That's what we do as writers; we take a little from here, a little from there, and we craft a story. Somehow, elements that did not make sense together, come together beautifully -- the way all the different elements of ALL-STARS make a novel, for instance: baseball, Walt Whitman, dance, Jackie Robinson, friendship, Sandy Koufax, a dog named Eudora Welty, "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder, soap operas, little girls in tutus, and an old recluse with a secret.
THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS is an altar full of so many things I love about the world, so many things I didn't understand, and the questions I had as a ten-year-old child. These elements come together in a structured way within the pages of a book, just so, in much the same way I hung the trinkets on my ornament tree. In much the same way I try to capture my days in my journal, or keep a list in my notebook.
We catalogue our days by telling our stories. We collect our trinkets, we fashion them into movement, song, art, words, work, play, memories. Then we give them away, because, in the end, that is all we have to give: our stories --