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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Influences, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. finding ways in

The way into a story often comes in unexpected ways, as bit of kismet or synchronicity at work, I am convinced.

This morning I read on NPR ("An Unlikely Hit in an Imaginary Language") about Paul Kingsnorth's new novel, THE WAKE, about 11th century England after the Norman conquest. I was intrigued because the review talked about a made-up language. So I followed a few links to the Guardian, and one to Mark Rylance (who was Cromwell in PBS's WOLF HALL production) reading from THE WAKE.

And it was a wake-up call. OMG, I get it. My language is ALL WRONG with book three. Not that standard English isn't the way to go, not that I haven't planned to sprinkle in "groovys" and "far outs" and other counter-culture phrases... but I have been pursuing the wrong character altogether, which is why book three isn't working. Maybe.

I'm going to try a new beginning today, a new way in. Here is Mark Rylance reading from THE WAKE:





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2. dispatch from mississippi: belonging

I was born in Mobile, Alabama, while my dad was stationed at Brookley Field. He had gone off to the Korean War in 1951, just after he and my mother married, and now here I came, in 1953, on the heels of his return. We lived in Mobile for five years, until the Air Force transferred us to Hawaii. I have always claimed Alabama as the land of my birth, and I also claim Mississippi as home, as it was the land we returned to over and again as I grew up, and as my own children grew up, as my people were there. And so was my heart.

My mother was born in Mississippi and grew up in West Point, MS. My dad was born in Jasper County and grew up there. I grew up there, too, with the wacky grandmother who became Miss Eula in LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, and the three maiden aunts who become Ruby's chickens, and all the cousins and aunts and uncles and a decaying town that is even more of a ghost today than it was when I was wandering its one main road and its cemetery and crossing the railroad tracks to visit Aunt Mitt and playing piano in the unlocked Methodist church.

Mississippi doesn't claim me, though. According to book committees who decide these things, I didn't live for five continuous years in Mississippi, so I am not in the club, even though I am a Mississippian by blood and by words.

This is a long story and one I hope to write about at some point, so I can figure out how I feel about choosing home. Home is in Atlanta today, of course, but home will always be where I've hung my hat: Hawaii, Maryland, D.C., South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia.... and Mississippi as well. "What you know first stays with you." I am a Southern Girl, through and through. I am a human being with stories to tell. What does that mean?

Here's what it meant this week, as I took part in the first-ever Mississippi Book Festival, visited that family I love so much (Uncle Jim is our patriarch now, about to turn 92), and that place that defined me as a child -- and as a writer. Photos below of what becomes Aurora County in my books LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER; EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS; and THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS.

And then there is my first book, FREEDOM SUMMER. I have never before posted pictures of the pool and roller skating rink that closed in 1964. The forest is claiming it now. I have taken photos there for many years, and have documented this abandoned place as it goes back to forest land. I wrote FREEDOM SUMMER -- and REVOLUTION -- to understand what happened. To keep this time and place alive, so we remember our history. So young people will know what it was like then. What it is like now.

Dispatch from Mississippi:


Picking up Kerry Madden along the way
downtown Jackson, Mississippi. My folks retired to Jackson after a long military career, and I kept coming to Mississippi with my own kids as they grew up... Mississippi has been a constant in my life, all my life.

With Ellen Ruffin at the Eudora Welty house on Friday night at the author reception
Kimberly Willis Holt, moi, Chris Barton, and Karen Rowell of USM.
Jamie Kornegay and Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi has been such a staunch supporter of my books. Jamie's new novel is SOIL. "It has saturated the South!" Jamie says.
Kelly Kornegay, who (among other things) reads and buys children's at Turnrow. She heard me whining about not being recognized literarily as a Mississippian and said, "Debbie, people who have lived here all their lives are trying to ESCAPE Mississippi!" which made me laugh and gave me perspective. She also said, "Your books are THE quintessential books on what it means to be from Mississippi, to be a Mississippian. You're IN." hahaha.

Fuzzy photo of a bunch of us including Lori Nichols, Ellen Ruffin, Greg Leitich Smith, Susan Eaddy, Kerry Madden
taking in all in. What a lovely evening.
We had to turn people away, in Room 113 of the State Capitol, for the Young People's Literature panel. It was that way on all panels, all day. The turnout was tremendous. HOORAY!
Pontificating. Which I am very good at.
This is what it's about at a Festival.
And this. Clara Martin is the children's book buyer at Lemuria Book in Jackson. Last year on the REVOLUTION tour, she had me sign her copy of LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER that she has had since she was a fourth grader. "My favorite book!"
Chris Barton signing Shark vs Train and John Roy Lynch in the Lemuria tent.
At dinner, Saturday night, with my loves.


My son Jason with his Great-uncle Jim. Both of them jesters.

Two more Jims: mine, and the cousin I have always called Bubba.

If you're a RUBY fan, you recognize this sign!





My grandmother's house, The Pink Palace, in RUBY, Snowberger's Funeral Home in LITTLE BIRD, House Jackson's home in ALL-STARS, and Young Joe's home in FREEDOM SUMMER. This was my world every summer, and the place I longed for when I wasn't there. Still do, I guess.
The back kitchen. Sloped ceiling, lightbulb on a string, Nanny eating buttered toast and milky coffee at the enamel table, closthepins in a bag hanging on the door, a pan of green beans waiting to be snapped. I did dishes in the deep sink with my Aunt Evelyn, who we all called Goodness. Once, when my mother sent me in to dry while Aunt Evelyn washed, Goodness waved me away with, "Go play. I let God dry the dishes."
My friend Howard now lives in Rhiney Boyd's house, across the road from my grandmother's. Rhiney had a son named Luther Rhinehart Boyd, which is where I took Mr. Norwood Boyd's name from in ALL-STARS.

Kerry listens to Merle's stories. Merle now owns my grandmother's house (The Pink Palace, in the background).

I adore Lois. She has just entered the Witness Protection Program. I think she got dressed just for us. "I used to wear all black and brown, but now I wear COLOR all the time." You go, Lois. Go on with your colorful self.
This is where I'm sitting this morning. Back to the pink chair and back to work. Knowing that it doesn't matter if Literary Mississippi claims me or not. I claim me, and those people who are, and who once were: moments, memory, meaning, as I always say when I teach. 

I will never live long enough to write all the stories asking for my attention. They claim me. And for that I am grateful.

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3. 48 days, day 18: bountiful moon

{{ I am chronicling 48 days of writing before my July 31 travel. If you are chronicling your summer writing/days and would like to share, please link or comment so we can all cheer one another through. Strength to your sword arm! }}

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4. the year of exploration

For some time I have been birthing -- in my head and on paper -- a new way of seeing, working, living, connecting, and being in the world. Why? Maybe it's turning 60, with the knowledge that there is less time before me than behind me for sure. Maybe it's recent disappointments and realizations. Maybe it's recent gifts and surprises. Maybe it's the on-going therapy, which is hard work. I'm sure it is.

Whatever it is, this shift in my thinking feels major, so I'm going to do something about it, and I will chronicle it here, March 20, 2015 to March 20, 2016 (start where you are, and I started with Saturday's post).

I want to see where this new energy and commitment take me and my work. I'll also Instagram my explorations, using the hashtag "theyearofexploration."

I'll label it that way here, too. I used the blog to chronicle my 2012 year off the road to finish REVOLUTION and called it "the year of possibility." You can read about it by clicking on the label on the sidebar. (or here. :>)

I'll tag some of these exploration posts "the home economics project." I've had a project in mind for a long, long time, and I want to start making it visible.

I'll chronicle book three of the sixties trilogy as well. I've already starting documenting photographs and research at Pinterest. You'll find a "book three hold file" and a "book three playlist possibilities" board as well as the many boards for COUNTDOWN and REVOLUTION... and I've started resource boards for my other books.. I'll get to them as I can.




I'm going back to the roots of what makes me happy. I'm going to write more. I'm going to use my hands more, which is something that grounds me and centers me and helps me understand my place in the great continuum.

To that end, I have purchased four cacti, three French lavender plants, and a mother fern. I'm going to take a class at Creativebug - line drawing with Lisa Congdon. Also, Lisa's sketchbook explorations work-along at Creativebug. I've got my supplies (which include these plants!) and I'm ready to go.

I have no expectations. I want to do what I ask students to do when I teach writing: pay attention, ask questions, make connections.

I'll be an explorer like Comfort Snowberger in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS: Explorer, Recipe Tester, and Funeral Reporter. Like Dove, the 9-year-old anthropologist-in-training in LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER. I shall be an anthropologist of my life. I'll try to let go of anxiety about the future, and just stay in the day. I will work hard. I will try to uncover as well as discover. I hope to learn a lot. Wanna come with?

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5. THE IRIDESCENCE OF BIRDS, A Book About Henri Matisse – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Title: The Iridescence of Birds – A Book About Henri Matisse Written by: Patricia MacLachlan Illustrated by: Hadley Hooper Published by: A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press, 2014 Themes/Topics: Henri Matisse, painters, the influence of childhood, France Suitable for ages: 5-11 40 pages, … Continue reading

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6. hand work

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.

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7. you knew I'd have to come

I still miss her.

The house has not sold. Last time I was inside, it was after a funeral.

Sometimes I want to buy the place. Mostly I want to remember.

Miss you, Daaahlin'.

1 Comments on you knew I'd have to come, last added: 5/20/2011
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8. Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Isaac Asimov

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

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9. Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Carl Sagan

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

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10. Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Iain (M.) Banks

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

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11. Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Blake’s 7

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”.

The show ended after four

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12. Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Doctor Who

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

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13. Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Edith Nesbit

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’s The 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.


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14. Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Harry Potter

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

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15. Influential Teachers


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.

And one in particular: Marilyn Griggs Riley.

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!)

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16. When Can You Say Thin Is Too Thin?

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.

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17. I Know A Place

"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?

Place -- it's the backbone of story.

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18. First Influences

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.

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19. Me and Crispin's Crispian


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's Crispian 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's Crispian 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's Crispian 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's Crispian, 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.

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20. The Story Gives Up Its Secrets

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?
Fear
Invisible
Drill
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.
Oct 10
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:

There it is, on the page: your voice.

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21. celestine and me

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.






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22. norma

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.

This piece is by novelist Alexander Chee, about his time studying with Annie Dillard. It will appear in the book Mentors, Muses & Monsters, edited by Elizabeth Benedict and published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster later this month.

Here's a tiny excerpt:

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.

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23. portulaca in pie pans

"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."

From The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty.

This, my friends, is voice.

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'm headed to Knoxville, this minute. Tomorrow I work at the Knoxville Children's Festival of Reading at World's Fair Park. I speak at 11:30 and again at 2:00. Come see me! I'll be talking about influences, for sure, as I introduce Countdown to a brand-new audience in Tennessee.

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.

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24. Science vs. Relgion

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

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25. strumming a chord

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.


And:

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.

And:

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.

 Me again:

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.  
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