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Metafiction: a literary device that poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
Not the kind of thing you would ever find in a book for 3-year-olds.
Until now, that is. I didn’t intend to, honest.
It happened like this:
While writing Story Structure Expedition (which launches in two weeks) I found myself the unwitting protagonist in a Congo River nightmare.
Narrator — that’s the role I signed on for. From Brazzaville we would head upriver in search of the heart of a story. My thesis would prove first of all that the story heart exists, then explore its deadly nature.
Something happened. The essay morphed, it went rogue. Characters showed up uninvited and soon I found myself in a novella. I didn’t ask to become fictional. I suppose it’s my fault for not blowing the whistle, which left me to face the consequences that befall any worthy protagonist.
I didn’t quite get it — me, a fictional protagonist in my own story.
Would I have to suffer the story heart myself? The facts of fiction demand that the hero suffer a massive failure. Meaning what exactly—that my book wouldn’t get written? I would rather die.
I wanted to escape from my own story.
How meta is that?
Anyway, for comic relief I distracted myself by writing a children’s picture book.
A series of photographs would depict a woolly little character named Columbus who reluctantly abandons his storybook heroes to see the world with his own two eyes.
(Oh, yeah — Una Kitt — that’s my pen name.)
“Be a storybook hero yourself, Columbus!”
Do you see what’s happening here? My cute little alter ego is being made to suffer my surreal ordeal.
“If I was in a storybook,” Columbus asks himself, “what would I do? Storybook heroes do something.”
Columbus confronts the very same metafictional existential dilemma. It’s a book for three-year-olds, for goodness sake!
“If this was a storybook, I couldn’t lie here all day, could I?” says Columbus. “If this book was about me, I’d get off my woolly whatsit.”
Columbus doesn’t have to wonder very long. The tide comes in!
Now he’s in trouble. Now up the Congo River!
I’m betting—in both these books—that readers young and old have a soft spot for the unwilling anti-hero.
I’m already finding out. Columbus launched this week and it’s already heading for #1 in its category. One reviewer liked the “ingenious concept that connected straight to the heart of my child’s imagination and to the way he already plays.”
Metafiction for kids. Who’d have thought?
If you have kids, or are a kid, or just want to see Columbus hit #1, here’s the Amazon link to save Columbus:
On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.
Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!
For those of you who write picture books, here’s some great news!
My friend and colleague Julie Hedlund and I recently ran a survey asking for questions about picture book submissions. We received SO MANY great questions – literally, hundreds – and we were amazed by how many people asked the same questions.
Julie and I are both dedicated to supporting fellow children’s book authors – in our view, the children’s book writing community is perhaps the most mutually supportive of any professional community out there, because, hey, we’re all writing for kids! So we decided to create a FREE video training series answering your most commonly recurring questions as follows:
1. How to write a GREAT HOOK sentence in your query letters
2. The Top 5 MISTAKES TO AVOID, and 5 lesser known (but frequently made) mistakes – so you don’t sink your submission before it starts.
3. Our ANSWERS to the most commonly asked QUESTIONS that came up over and over again in the survey.
Click here to sign up for the free training…. but do it quickly! These videos will expire in 10 days!
P.S. Please share this post on social media or with your picture book writing friends… there’s great information in these videos for everyone who writes picture books. And check out some of the fabulous comments we’ve already received on the first video, below!
February is Black History Month. To commemorate the contributions of African-Americans to science and innovation, we offer this list of 12 books chronicling some of their many achievements: Black Inventors.
Go for it, Claudia—Gardner is one of my favourites. But before you go, take two minutes to consider my argument for becoming a writer from the inside out.
First, a confession:
Back in the 90s, I devoured the ‘how-to” gurus — Gardner and Hague and Vogler and Egri and Goldberg and Field and McKee and Campbell and Walter and Ueland and Dillard. Those books still adorn my office, their authors looking over my shoulder as I type. How do I get anything done?
That’s the answer, Claudia of Argentina–the answer to the “how-to” dilemma.
Write your own manual.
Thereby will you finally be able to unhook from “how-to.”
7 Suggestions for Unhooking from “How-to”
#1. Consume fiction
Read your brains out. Good fiction and bad. Savour, chew, and digest buckets of it. Reflect on how the best writers did it. How she moved you. How the hell did she make me cry? And laugh! I fall to sleep at night replaying the scenes that blew me away, the scenes that turned the story around. What happened there? How did she do it?
I fall to sleep soothed by the art of fiction
#2. Fall in love with the art of fiction.
Write like a lover. I remember watching sports on television as a kid, and how the instant the game ended we’d bolt out the door, bounding like jackrabbits, to the playing field where we would emulate the champions. We played past sundown, playing our brains out, in the dark—Who has the ball!
I’m equally hopeless whenever I read Virginia Woolf. I rush to my manuscript and emulate the hell out of her. I wrote the 15th draft of my novel ROXY in an adrenaline rush after reading Mrs. Dalloway.
What a joy to write like a lover. We’re not mechanics. Mechanics think. Lovers love their characters ecstatically and to death.
#3. Love your characters to death
There’s nothing “how-to” about this dictum, because no one else can tell you how to love your protagonist to death. You invented him and only you know how to thwart him. But you have to do it, the hero must die. Just do it. It is (arguably) all that counts in fiction. There’s no “how-to” book out there that teaches you how to love your fictional characters to death.
To heck with “how-to”—what about “where to”?
#4. Forget “how-to” in favour of “where-to”
What’s the point of “how to” if we don’t understand “where to”? We wouldn’t buy an appliance without knowing what it’s for. So, what’s fiction for? What’s at the heart of fiction? Is that where it’s going? What’s it all about?
Reading the best fiction we learn (repeatedly) that the best protagonists are on a trajectory toward freedom from their lesser selves. That’s “where to.” That’s (arguably) all we need to know. We keep writing draft after draft until our protagonist has arrived. We know he’s there when he stops kicking and screaming. He’s got that far away look in his eye. He’s gone so far and is so disillusioned with his game plan that he has no alternative but to forsake himself. A higher cause descends. There’s no “how-to” about it. This may look like “how-to,” but it’s not. It’s about understanding the human condition.
#5. Don’t try to BE a writer
“How-to” tomes often coax us to be a writer rather than encourage us to do the hard work that would turn us into writers. That is to say, write your brains out. I’ll bet there are young writers out there reading less literature than “how-to” books. We’re being seduced into posing as writers “rather than spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.” (author, Richard Bausch)
#6. Don’t get it right, get it written
I sometimes run a course with such a title. Students write at home, then come to class to watch scenes from powerful movies—scenes that give the audience their money’s worth. And by that I mean scenes that depict the hero challenging his own human condition. Challenging the right of his own beliefs to prevent his true happiness.
Immersing ourselves in fiction, we get a feel for a story’s essential payoff. We are astonished each time we recognize it. And then we constructively and lovingly critique each other’s work before bolting for home like jackrabbits.
#7. Write your own “how-to” book
Make notes on your own astonishment at how the best writers serve the art of fiction. Each of our understandings is bound to be unique. Your perspective is going to underpin your own advice about “how-to.” Write that book and put it on the shelf and let it breathe down your neck.
Go for it, Claudia of Argentina. Write your own manual out of love for writing.
Our own “how-to” will be born of the love of the art of fiction.
Although technology is changing the way we discover our personal histories, the reasons why people may begin to investigate in the first place have stayed the same. Curiosity, of course, but also a sense of history. Maud Newton told the audience how her interest in her family tree was sparked by the improbable stories her mother told about their predecessors. But the importance of ancestry cut very close for Newton. “I myself was basically a eugenics project,” she said. “My parents married because they thought they would have smart children together, not because they loved each other.” Her father was particularly obsessed with the idea of purity of blood, she added. “Someone suggested to me that there might be something [my father] was hiding, and then I got really interested.”
We had lots of fun; I don’t think any of us were ready for the panel to end when it did, and how often can you say that? The audio is below Bogle’s summary, if you’d like to listen.
A longtime reader wrote to ask if everything’s okay. He was concerned because I post here so rarely.
Everything is okay! My stepdaughter, Autumn, turned twenty-one! Often I still think of her as the little waving girl in the photo above. But she is an astounding young woman, a clear and compassionate thinker, a poet, a gift, my only child. Also, my goddaughter and her mom moved away. I miss them tons. And my cats died, a few months apart. Oof, as my friend Carrie says. That was sad.
Right now there’s a blizzard outside. I’m drinking water and tea and working on my book, which is usually what I’m doing, unless I haven’t refilled the water and tea recently.
The manuscript is due in 2016, and I asked for regular installment deadlines with my editor to keep myself on task, and I’m so busy writing that I actually got excited when an app I use to keep myself from wasting time online malfunctioned for a few weeks. It cut off my access to half the Internet, including this very site. I’m also working on a related profile-essay thing that’s taking me a long time to finish to my satisfaction, and I’m very excited about it. And I’ve been doing a lot of weird, wide-rangingreading, which I’m sure will all be reflected in my book, if you’ve missed my meandering fixations.
Skipper Bill Blake eased back the throttles and slowed Girl Anne to a workable speed. The crew hustled to their stations as the giant winch slowly began to coil the grinding cables over the rusty stern, pulling the giant orange meshes on board. The dripping net slid over the aft deck, loaded with herring sparkling like treasure in the evening sun.
“Stand by for the end of the trawl,” said Eamon, as the voluminous orange meshes coiled around the well-worn spool. He directed the crew to manhandle the pregnant purse onto the rolling deck.
“Wait! Stop the winch!” He shouted. “There’s something’s stuck in the net!”
“What the hell is that?” shouted Gerry, the chief deckhand, as he moved closer to the pile of quivering scales. First mate, Padraig, helped Gerry push some of the fish out of the way, “Jaysus, looks like a feckin’ body in there!”
The crew tore into the orange meshes, cutting, hacking, scattering net and herring everywhere, freeing the body which slid slowly from beneath the massed pile of shivering fins and glazed eyes. The torso was badly bruised and its arms wound weirdly around the remaining semblance of the person to whom they had at one time belonged.
Still recognizable as a portal of the body, the person, with one eye horribly bruised, and the other gaping wide open, stared up at its saviors. A dark smeared mass of hair lay across the chapped and battered face. Gerry and Padraig rolled the body over and noticed a Celtic knot tattoo emblazoned along the man’s upper back.
“Hold everything!” Skipper Blake demanded as he rushed down the aft companionway, past the berthing area. He grabbed the digital camera and hustled back outside onto the rolling deck as his crew worked feverishly to stow the haul of fish and separate the body from the catch.
“Drag him over here,” he shouted amid the chaos, “I’ll take some pictures.” Gerry and Padraig moved the body away from the pile of fish still streaming around it and rolled the body onto its back in order to see the face again. Its head in weird rotation, ended up with the good eye staring vacantly at the two men.
“My God, what happened to him?” asked Blake, moving the man’s arms from behind his back. The flash of the camera interrupted the crew as Blake recorded the ghastly scene. “OK. That’s enough,” he said. “We’ll need these for the Garda.”
He pulled out his mobile and dialed the emergency Garda number; no service. Then ran back up the stairs and onto the bridge. I’ll try VHF. That should work. Blake lifted the mike and called in his location, the name of his craft and a brief description of the grisly discovery. “Girl Anne, did I hear you say you’d pulled a body out of the water?” asked the radio operator.
“Roger,” responded Blake.
“What’s your closest port of call?”
“About two hours from Cara Quay.”
“Make way for CQ. I’ll get the Garda and the coroner to meet you there,” the operator replied.
“Roger,” Blake placed the mike back in its cradle.
“Stow the rest of the catch,” he hollered over the intercom, “We still have to make a living.” The speakers crackled once more. “Get ready to make port at Cara Quay in a couple of hours. Ice the body and wrap it in one of the tarps until we get home.”
He pushed Girl Anne’s throttles forward; black smoke belched out of her two stacks. Her bronze propellers bit into the rising sea and drove her westward towards the approaching land.
The crew worked quickly, piling the catch into the nearly full hold. They washed down the decks and stowed the gear. Padraig and Gerry carefully slid the body onto a green tarp and wrapped it in ice. When they finished, the crew surrounded the shrouded figure and lowered their heads in the mariners’ tradition of respectful silence.
So, it’s 2015, and one of my resolutions for the year is to VISIT YOU!
That is to say, I want to visit more schools this year. Talk with kids, connect with teachers, discuss how WE ARE ALL WRITERS.
Of course, I’m always willing to book a traditional school visit, but in addition to that, I’m doing what Deborah Wiles calls a “shoestring tour” this spring– hitting the road to share Seven Stories Up with kids, since it’s got a snappy new paperback cover, and I didn’t tour when it came out in hardcover.
This means that I’ll be doing some FREE one-session school visits, in the Southeast and Midatlantic. Ideally in places with bookstores that can help coordinate a few schools a day. I’ve already got some things lined up in Georgia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and that’s plenty, but while I’m on the road I might as well pop in and say hello to YOU.
So if you think you might be interested, drop me an email, and we’ll see if we can’t make it work!
The single best resource that I know of for picture book writers is — for a very limited time — accepting new registrations.
12 x 12is a year-long writing challenge, where members aim to write 12 complete picture book drafts, one per month, for each 12 months of the year, with advice, encouragement and submission opportunities along the way. Created by author Julie Hedlund, 12 x 12 is now in its fourth phenomenally successful year, and provides all the motivation, support, and accountability you need to help you write, submit and get published.
Imagine a 24/7 writing community where, if you have a question, you can receive answers almost instantly from a network of over 750 authors. Imagine having curated resources for planning, writing, revising, submitting, and promoting picture books at your fingertips, every day. Imagine a picture book playground where you can meet other writers & illustrators, talk shop with people who “get” you, give/receive feedback on your manuscripts & queries, form critique groups, and tap into an endless supply of inspiration. This is 12 x 12.
But it’s ONLY for picture book authors – and registration is ONLY open in January and February, so don’t wait.
Here’s my personal affiliate link to get more info:
I was browsing Amazon’s Kindle Store this morning.
In the Story Structure Department I noticed a drama unfolding:
“Writing by the rules” vs. “Organic writing.”
On one side it’s all structure and story engineering while the other camp is chanting, Don’t get it right, get it written!
But hold on a minute. The traditionalists insist that structure doesn’t mean formulaic.
The debate rages on writing blogs where the “rule rebels” get to express their disenchantment with the confusion of so many story theories. And who can blame them?
To hell with story theories
To hell with graphs and grids and plot points and page counts and blogs and eBooks and audiobooks and podcasts and webinars and all those online courses with all their marketing savvy—that’s the growing mood out there.
Well, it turns out to be a pretty standard writing text. Can’t say that I’m surprised. The book’s author is an accomplished novelist, he knows very well what a story is. I’ll bet he knows the rules so well that he knows how to break them. He’s probably a master story engineer.
“Prose is architecture,” said Ernest Hemingway.
And if that’s too didactic, try this:
“Structure is only the box that holds the gift.” ~ K.M. Weiland.
If the rebels reckon they’re beyond story structure, then they should explore “the gift” that lies at the heart of fiction. Yes, there exists a scene in every good story that lies beyond story structure.
The most ruthlessly simple overview of story suggests that a good story is actually two stories separated by a gap.
A chasm so deep that the plot comes to a halt at the brink.
The plot seems to serve this purpose—to hound the protagonist into this existential nothingness. This scene—often called the “Act II crisis”—is structure’s gift.
Story structure exists fore and aft of this hell hole, which becomes for the hero a chrysalis of moral adjustment. This is the gift.
Here, in the heart of the story, the hero disavows himself of himself. All strategies, structures and belief systems fall away and the human organism finds itself in a position to transcend its own self-serving delusions. This is the gift.
Here’s the jacket of the forthcoming Japanese edition of A Letter for Leo, published by Mitsumura (which already published my Amandina a few years ago). The blue band is the obi, the traditional paper strip that wraps the book jacket. Yumiko Fukumoto translated the text, as she did for Amandina and The Room of Wonders. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)
Here’s a story that almost comes true. The film is on a trajectory for greatness, but with the final shot the writer turns his back on the story. He gives us the standard romantic convention—boy gets girl back—roll credits.
The writer opts to merely sate the protagonist’s desire. And for this we have given up two hours of our precious time?
Perfect Sense makes perfect Hollywood sense
Perfect Sense is your standard romance—boy meets girl, etc.—except that the story unfolds during a global epidemic in which the afflicted become deprived of their five senses. Smell is the first to go, then touch, then hearing, etc.
I saw it coming and was excited—billions of people rendered deaf, dumb and blind. Wow! Humanity will discover that the habitual doors of perception have actually been obscuring life’s true beauty. With the senses gone, pure consciousness will prevail…
All over the world—in India, Mexico, Thailand—whole populations are moving beyond themselves, helping each other, falling into each other’s arms.
This isn’t boy-meets-girl love, this is impersonal love.
This is Big Love.
The best stories end with Big Love
We saw it in Casablanca, where the hero sacrifices the love of a woman for a higher cause. Love for the wider world—this is Big Love. And it doesn’t just satisfy an audience, it nourishes.
But look again—it’s not even the love that melts our hearts, rather it’s the pain of the sacrifice. It’s Bogart emerging out of smallness. It’s the escape from the small self.
It’s the birth of an evolved consciousness.
Okay, just call it “growing up.”
Oh, yeah… almost forgot… we were talking about Perfect Sense.
The boy, who has met girl and then lost girl, is just about to find girl again. They’re on a trajectory to fall into each other’s arms at the moment the disease renders them blind. Excellent. The screen will go black just before they find each other.
It’s a clever twist on the usual ending, which worked for Crocodile Dundee and When Harry Met Sally and scores of Hollywood romances before and since. But wait a minute! Something’s radically wrong here in Perfect Sense.
While the Big Love disease is sweeping the planet, our protagonists only crave each other. Their love is small, puny. No way I’m buying this ending.
I WANT MY MONEY BACK!
Can’t the director see what’s wrong with this picture?
Let this pair of protagonists find each other, sure, good. But by now they’re infected with Big Love, aren’t they? Petty personal preferences take a back seat to a world that so badly needs love to have its way.
These two characters have proven themselves to be great lovers in the standard, carnal, self-interested sense. Now it’s time for great love to serve the wider world.
That’s how the best stories end.
The degree to which Big Love prevails in the climax, that’s what determines our satisfaction with the story.
As a children’s author, editor and writing coach, I spend a lot of time talking about writing and/or publishing books for children and young adults. I feel so blessed to do the work I do, and to belong to such a warm, supportive and buoyant community of fellow readers, writers and children’s book lovers.
So I thought I’d start this New Year off a little differently. I want to begin 2015 by listening… reallylistening, in order to help me best serve those who share the dream of writing or publishing a children’s book or young adult novel in the year ahead. Will you help me? Please tell me…
What’s your #1 question about writing and/or publishing books for children or young adults?
What holds you back? What do you feel like you don’t know, or need to do or have in order to fulfill that dream?
To answer, simply click on the link below and write your response in the box provided:
But the Viggo Mortensen character serves to show how many good stories end.
It goes like this…
And love has its way with the world.
You don’t hear it, no one says it, it’s the subtext. It’s even more “sub” than that. It’s what the audience feels in themselves:
And love has its way with the world.
The protagonist has his way for most of the movie. He may be charming but he’s self-centred, misguided, and self-destructive. (I’m talking about most fictional protagonists.) His way with the world has created mayhem and misery. It’s called the plot.
Now at the end, having failed utterly, what else can the protagonist do? He disowns his game plan…
And love has its way with the world.
Contrary to popular belief…
You know that happy-ever-after feeling—well, this is it. Think about it. The feel-good feeling rarely has anything to do with heroes winning or successfully manipulating people or events. Nobody achieves love. It’s transpersonal, isn’t it? Love is a grace.
Love does us.
Audiences feel good because their virtual heroes are done to.
Check it out for yourself—your favourite protagonists are probably those who finally get out of their own way so they can be done to by a force beyond their power to manipulate.
We’re talking about escaping from our “second nature.” It’s the one that prevents us from knowing the first.
Marcel Proust identifies this second nature as the heavy curtain of habit which conceals from us almost the whole universe.
CUT BACK TO:
The Two Faces of January and Viggo Mortensen lying dying on a street in Crete…
[SPOILER ALERT! Not really. Students of story aren’t concerned about spoilers. We consume fiction to better understand it! We want to know how fiction works. But I digress…]
Viggo Mortenson has been an incorrigible swindler, con man, and liar, and here in the final scene, with a bullet in his back, he has one chance to come true. And he better be quick about it.
Viggo has one chance to prove the film’s title—The Two Faces of January.
Janus is the Roman god of transitions, the god of gates and doorways, of endings and beginnings. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking backward, one toward the future.
Viggo is Janus at the threshold.
Viggo’s second (bogus) nature is evaporating in the blinding light of his first nature. He’s glimpsing almost the entire universe. At the very least he probably wishes he could take back a whole lot of unfortunate history.
But of course it’s too late do anything more than die in truth.
Protagonist dies and yet audiences feel good—what just happened there?
Answer: Because love is finally having its way with the world.
I’m falling in love…
I’m falling in love with this turn of phrase. It slipped out while I was writing the final chapter of The Writer in Love. My protagonist is likewise caught in a dead-end where he surrenders his game plan. He is Janus at the threshold of a new beginning.
As are most good protagonists.
As are we all in a moment of crisis.
Deep down I know that if only I would quit deluding myself, love would have its way with my world, too.
I have updated my Zazzle shop with more product. Keep checking back as I will be adding more in the next few days. If there is something that you would like to purchase that isn’t in my shop please let me know and I can customize one for you of previous created art. Last year I had a mouse pad request, and within a couple of hours the customer was able to purchase the item. SALE: Until NOON Pacific time you can get an additional % off. Use code SUPERFUNDEAL to save at checkout!
I can’t BELIEVE I sold this book. It feels impossible, a book like this. And yet there it is, on Publisher’s Marketplace…
Author of BAXTER, THE PIG WHO WANTED TO BE KOSHER Laurel Snyder’s HUNGRY JIM, about a kid who wakes up feeling ravenously hungry and gobbles up his mom, instead of the pancakes she’s lovingly made for him, to Melissa Manlove at Chronicle Children’s, by Tina Wexler at ICM (World).
It feels funny, that my next 6 books will be picture books. I’m still at slow work on The Orphan Island. But I’m not rushing it. I’ve gotten used to doing novels now, but picture books feel like poems to me, when I’m working on them. And poetry is where this all began, for me…
You can enter to win a signed hardback copy of The Christmas Owl December 4 – December 12. Two lucky winners will receive a copy of these beautiful keepsake books and the hardbacks are only available here. Visit a Rafflecopter giveaway to get your entries in.
Also, during 12/4 -12/6 our Christmas Owl kindle book will be discounted to $.99 on Amazon (reg $3.50). Happy Holidays from 4EYESBOOKS!
All this death business relates to my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. In this personal essay I suggest that “paying the price” is precisely what proves the fictional hero’s heroics.
The Writer in Love concerns itself exclusively with this “death” that takes place at the heart of a story. This is the scene where die-hard protagonists undergo a radical change of heart. They find themselves in such a deep dead-end that they have no choice but to surrender. Everything. Especially who they think they are.
We writers should be clear about our responsibilities to the protagonists we create—the hero must die. While most writing manuals mention this “Act II crisis,” I seem to be alone in suggesting that here is the reason readers read and writers write.
It’s worth a book!
But how do you write about something as amorphous as death? I’m trying to write about death as a station on the hero’s journey, but how to sound convincing? Death is without dimension or language. It has no shape.
A book needs shape. It needs limits and dimension. Otherwise, what are we spending $4.99 on?
Anyway, I badly needed to step away from the keyboard and spend the day processing new insights about how death makes life worthwhile.
I must have been in a trance when I took this pic—why else would anyone snap a shot of their foot? I was probably musing over another quote from Death, theLast God:
“Ideas of finding happiness and serenity away from the inevitable suffering of death are the superficial desires of spiritual materialism. We have to find happiness and serenity in the inevitable suffering of death. And that is a very different journey from seeking happiness by getting what we want.” ~ Anne Geraghty
I love it. Happiness in death. Talk about a tough sell. It’s killing me!
Here I am having a heart attack. Just kidding. The shutter caught me bending down to examine what appeared to be my doppelgänger lying in the surf—a dead jellyfish.
I know what you’re thinking, that PJ is all spoof and superficial happiness on this Mexican beach, but the truth is I’m in agony. I’m stuck. And it’s not writer’s block, it’s worse. I’ve written myself into an existential crisis.
I didn’t plan it, but my essay morphed into fiction and I became the protagonist trying to write a book. (Yes, very meta, I know.) It’s a book that takes the shape of a journey to the story heart. I only wanted to be the narrator, but I have become a fully-fledged protagonist.
You see, if I’m a protagonist, I can’t permit myself to escape the facts of fiction. Starting with, the price of freedom is death. As in, I’m going to fail so miserably at this book project that I lose all faith in myself. As in, this book is going to be the death of me.
Well, folks, it’s happening!
I’m proving the existence of the story heart by my despair at failing to finish this book. Fantastic! Of course, now there might not be a book. Which might have explained why I’m on the beach, had I not been refreshed by these latest musings on death.
Here’s a friend I met farther along the beach. He was plucking out that Nat King Cole classic… Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking…
What’s Nat saying here?—even though you’re dying, be happy, don’t worry, smile.
Ms. Chödrön has calculated how long a person is required to “die” in order to disable the matrix of habits we mistakenly identify as “me.” Astonishingly, Chödrön has calculated it to the tenth of a second…
One point six seconds!
Is she being facetious? Who cares? This is something I can run with. One point six seconds, that’s how long the hero is required to keep his eyes open in the blinding light of utter annihilation. (Sounds like no time at all, but consider that the mystic Nikos Kazantzakis called this the “supreme human achievement.”)
One point six seconds—suddenly I have the framework for my book.
My whole book concerns 1.6 seconds of time.
Now, that’s shape!
The price of freedom is death, and in 1.6 seconds you’re paid in full. And the price of my book will be only $4.99. That might be the best five bucks a writer will ever spend.
I wrote this piece for this year’s illustration issue of The Horn Book. They graciously let me post it here as well.
I don’t like to experiment.
I know it sounds pusillanimous, but I’m just being honest: I don’t like to experiment because I am afraid of failure.
But at least two times in my life – at the very beginning of my artistic life – I found enough courage and determination to take risks. I was a fearless teenager then.
Being already passionate about picture books and comic strips – in particular those of Maurice Sendak, George Herriman, Elzie C. Segar, and Charles Schulz – it was clear to me how important would be to master pen and ink, if I wanted to be in that business.
Elzie C. Segar
Each of those artists had a very sophisticated and personal way of using the pen, and I wanted to find my own.
I remember going to the stationary store to buy my first two nibs, one very flexible and the other stiffer; then returning home and try them on the paper, keeping my hand from trembling; realizing I had to go from upper left to lower right to avoid; understanding how different pressures produce different lines; learning what kind of paper had the best surface for the kind of line I wanted to make.
In time, I did find my own way with pen and ink, which became my favorite and, for a few years, my only way of drawing. Most comic strips, at least the dailies, were in black and white, and I knew that even Sendak’s illustrations for Little Bear – a crucial source of inspiration for me – were colored mechanically. Because of all this, I didn’t think the lack of color in my drawings would be an obstacle in my future career as an illustrator.
Of course there was a hidden reason why I didn’t use color: the fear of failure. I had a fascination for Hieronymus Bosch, medieval frescoes and illuminations, so how could I not realize how important color can be for an artist? In fact, I had timidly attempted one or two small acrylic and a few oil pastel paintings, with very disappointing results, at least according to my overpowering superego. Those painful experiences kept me from seriously trying for years.
Once I became more conscious of the necessities of a professional illustrator, I couldn’t hide anymore, and had to face the challenging task of finding myself a method to add color to my pen drawings.
The most natural way to do that is watercolor, and so one day I went to an art store, bought a few half-pans of Schmincke watercolors, a brush or two, some Arches paper, and began testing the technique and my own resilience. For what concerned the techniques, I was set.
Maybe one day I will venture into buying a new kind of nib, or a new brand of watercolors, or even be audacious enough to try a paper with a slightly smoother surface. Who knows. For now, more than twenty-five years later, I’m still recovering from that initial double stress.