- The Arrival by Shaun Tan.
- Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.
- The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
- The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
- Matilda by Roald Dahl.
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.
- The True Story of the Three Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
- Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
- The Borrowers by Mary Norton.
The other thought that occurs is that 15 books is not too many--if every child read these 15 books, it would make for an enjoyable shared common ground, which as far as I'm concerned is one of the nicest things that reading does.
I'm pleased to say that I have read every one of these fifteen books, and most of the others in the two different "100 best --" lists. The biggest gap in my book knowledge is Enid Blyton, and it's one I intend to fill post-haste. How about you? How many have you read and which ones do you want to read?
An update is long overdue.
The current Sekrit Project is proceeding nicely. I probably shouldn't call it secret, because after all, I am sharing it with my advisor, the wonderful and talented Martine Leavitt. (I feel almost infinitely lucky to have her as my final advisor.)
However, to say that the Sekrit Project is proceeding nicely is both under- and over-statement. It is proceeding, and when I think about what I knew about this project in mid-July and what was on my calendar between mid-July and the time my first packet was due, just past the middle of August, I have certainly made progress. I know more about this world, these characters, the overall story and its structure and theme. However, the pages themselves are coming slowly, slowly, slooooowwwwwllllyyy.
How slow is slow? This afternoon it took me more than three hours to write under 818 words. The other day it took several hours to write 300. The pace has been similar, generally speaking, for the last two-plus weeks.
I've known for a while that every novel project is different. So far I've written one that I still think of as "the novel I didn't want to write" and it took me years to get the basic shape down--there was one part I could not figure out for the life of me. Three summers ago I wrote one that flowed like snowmelt, so fast I had the first draft done in less than three months. Last year I wrote one completely out of order--first scene, last scene, a scene that fell three-quarters of the way through--back and fill all the way. Who knows what the next project will be like. That doesn't matter, though, because right now, I'm working on this one.
This afternoon I realized something: This is my slow book. At least for now. Maybe it will turn into my Leo the Late Bloomer. We'll see. I'm not going to pressure it. Instead, I'm going to relax and accept that this is its pace. I know where it's going. I've got a plot skeleton that gives me just enough guidance. I love my main character and I love her enough to break her heart. And the pace of the story itself is not slow.
Slow food, slow money, and now--slow novel.
A better analogy would be to raising children. Each one is different. Each grows at his or her own pace. They grow best if we accept them for who they are and nurture them in a way that suits them.
How have your writing projects varied?
I do have a sort of floor plan, in the form of the twenty pages I wrote for workshop and the letter my character wrote to my advisor. That's it.
This week I've been sliding my feet along the metaphorical floors and waving my hands in front of me and to the side, trying to locate landmarks. It's been challenging, to say the least. I've done some work on a character outline, which has helped. (Thank you, Tom Birdseye.) I'll do more on that today, even though it is my birthday, because at this point it's important for me to keep in contact with the character(s) and the story.
I took my characters with me to yoga and let the story rest at the top of my mind, which always helps. As happens when I'm walking, when I'm in a pose and thinking about my breath, the not-paying-direct-attention often allows thoughts to rise to consciousness.
But the thing that has helped me most is something I've experienced before, back in 2010 when the "surreal bollocks" that is the comedy of Eddie Izzard first blew me away (and left me asking, what took me so long?). That experience led to a novel (one that will soon be shopped around). Seeing him in person in Montreal in 2011 led to some sort of strange picture book thingy that I love.
This week I had the supreme pleasure of being able to catch his "United Nations of Comedy" gala at the Just for Laughs/Juste pour Rire Festival in Montreal and his first ever show in Burlington, Vermont. Back to back. Thursday and Friday nights.
Last night, sitting in my very nice seat, filling my lungs with laughter until my already sore cheeks ached even more, I felt my mind open. Literally. I was aware of space in my mind that had not been there.
No, I was not immediately inspired--no fresh brilliant ideas sent the words pouring from my fingers the instant I got home. Still, in the middle of the night I woke with a realization that will make a difference for my current project. The specifics aren't what's important, though.
What matters is why the comedic force majeure that is Eddie Izzard is so important to my creative mind.
It can be summed up in one word.
Openness--or, if you like gerunds--Opening.
Comedy creates openings, both literal and figurative. When you laugh, your mouth is open and you are vulnerable to the world in a way that isn't often possible. But before you laugh, your mind has to be open. Comedy comes from seeing things in a new way, often from juxtaposing things in unexpected ways--the comic can present them, but if the audience isn't there, if their minds aren't open to catch the new juxtaposition, there won't be laughter.
Any comic can do that for any audience.
What makes Eddie Izzard different is his own openness, his willingness to be vulnerable up there on stage. He does this in several ways:
Last night he talked about being an action transvestite and what that meant, about his experience being arrested for shoplifting makeup (a beautifully built-up story with a lovely punch-line). Even as I was laughing, I admired his honesty now, for revealing what it cost him to keep his secret as a teen. I also admired, all over again, the courage it took for the young man who was just starting to find success to reveal the truth and make himself so vulnerable. (--Talk about rocks and hard places: to come out and risk physical abuse and the possibility of losing the professional position you were only starting to gain or to keep a secret and risk it being discovered and the scorn that could be heaped on you.)
As admirable as that sort of openness is, Eddie Izzard offers a far more valuable kind of openness--the vulnerability of improv. He goes off on the most entertaining of tangents and then, when he reaches the end, he asks, "Now where was I going with that?" But those tangents allow him to come up with new material every night, to explore possibilities as they arise. They're a comedic form of not stepping in the same river twice. (They also mean that a 90 minute show can become a 2-hour show, about which I have absolutely no complaints.) Set topics work as stepping stones, providing a path, but around them, everything flows in the moment.
Openness, vulnerability. They're what I need right now as a writer fumbling in the dark. Not that I want to stub my toe, but if I do, so be it.
I will remember how much courage it takes to be a certain sort of teenager, even one who is sure of who s/he is.
I will remember that tangents can be fruitful and until I have all my stepping stones in place, I'm going to give myself full freedom to pursue them. Writing is an act of improv (at least for me), but, as I have said before, it is one we have the luxury of performing in private.
I will remember to be open and let the possibilities pour in until they overflow into words.
I still love all those items, along with paper clips, binder clips, clear and manila file folders.... I could go on.
But my current favorite is the humble index card, 3x5, blank or lined. Right now blank has a slight edge.
The index card has become my go-to when I'm in a story jam. Or for that matter, any sort of writing jam.
Of course, I had used them in the past. I had three boxes full of them when I wrote my master's thesis for my degree in German Language and Literature. They kept my bibliography organized. They held key quotes. They had their place. But they didn't thrill me.
I discovered the joy of the index card last fall, when my then advisor, Tom Birdseye, shared a nifty plotting technique that uses index cards. I tried it when I got bogged down in a section worse than a truck mired in a muddy back road. I didn't use it to get out of the quagmire and go on--not being a truck, I leapt over the muddy spot and kept writing "like my fingers were on fire," as Kathi Appelt says. But I used the index card technique like a crusher run of number three rock when it was time to rebuild that section of road. (Can you tell I used to sit in on Selectboard meetings? If I paid better attention when the board member with the expertise in hauling talked, I would be able to use the right number for the rock, but road repair talk makes my eyes roll back in my head, necessary though it is.)
The road repair technique was nifty and went into my writer's toolbox for use the next time I started a piece of fiction, or at least when I got stuck in one.
Index cards were useful for fiction.
But that's not all!
This winter, after I turned in a truly horrible first draft of a critical thesis (I shudder, really I do), my advisor, Coe Booth, cleared her throat, pointed her index finger at me, and said, "Young lady, you must outline." (Not really, but I'm sure she shook her head over what I gave her and she did tell me I had to write an outline.) It wasn't the first time I'd heard those words. Through my undergraduate years and then again when I was studying for a Ph.D. in German language and literature, at least one professor a semester would demand an outline, usually a week ahead of the paper. I discovered that I could not for the life of me create an outline that would look like the final paper. I'd write the outline, and then, by the time I'd thought more about it and was writing the paper, I'd have changed my mind or reached different conclusions or come up with additional points. The outline usually bore about as much resemblance to the final product as Kaley Cuoco does to Taylor Swift.
So now I was stuck. Coe required an outline with the next draft. I didn't have a choice. And I couldn't really fake it. A) I'm not a faker, and B) The thing about an MFA is, at least at VCFA, there's no point in faking it. It's about giving you the tools you need so you can work on your own after you finish the program.
I flailed. I thrashed. I gnashed my teeth. I gnawed my nails. (Again, not really. But there were some middle of the night moments and along with some not so sound sleep.) I felt haunted. I couldn't do this, but I had to. How was I going to do this thing? Failure was not an option, even though it was inevitable. I had the solid trail of ineffective outlines to prove it.
Eventually, one afternoon, I cleared the dining table, spread out my office supplies--the colored pens, the highlighters, the PostIts, some sheets of scrap paper, and the truly horrible first draft of a critical thesis.
At first, I worked on the sheets of scrap, writing major section titles at the top, points I had made, points I wanted to make, transitions, all of that stuff, underneath in different colored inks.
It worked. But only to a point.
Eventually, I got out the index cards. And the pens, markers and highlighters. I worked off the sheets of scrap paper and off the manuscript, and things began to fall into place.
This was when I first experienced the true magic of the cards, which is this:
- They are easy to arrange. And rearrange.
- They don't hold too much information, but they do hold just enough information to be useful.
- They are easy to rip up.
Once the cards were in the order that made the most sense, I typed up the outline. I revised the thesis. A few times I had to stop and replan (more index cards) and revise the outline. But--BUT--the result was an outline that matched the thesis. The result was a sense of near-Eureka-quality elation--I could do it! I had the technology. I could build an outline. Finally! There may have been more revisions of the thesis, but none of them were as massive as the first. Because I could outline!
Two weeks ago, when we were going to be traveling and I was going to be doing some revising while my husband was at a seminar, I took the index cards along. The section I was going to revise needed some serious shuffling and a scene, or maybe to, needed to go in. I needed to think about how best to do this. I needed to put down enough information so that when I had time to write all those scenes, I could remember where I was going--but not so much information that I was bored because I had already written it. I figured if the index cards could work for drafting, if they could outline a critical thesis, maybe they could help with revision.
Well enough that when I had my new computer up and running, even though I didn't have the 650 words I wrote that day in the hotel, I was able to get some work done.
That brings me to a final point about index cards. They may be easy to rip up, but
- They don't vanish into the cyber-ether when your hard drive fails and your computer is out of commission.
I got the index cards out today, when I needed to plan how I was going to totally redo a Big Scene, noting what scraps I could reuse from the first draft, but how the overall arc needed to change.
This is what it looked like when I was done. Note the torn card to the left.
Now, I'm ready to revise on.
What's your favorite revision technique? And how are you with outlining?
- Current Mood: satisfied
- Current Music:"Satisfaction" Rolling Stones
All the same, it has been a tough week. The laptop that my daughter used for four years of college, that I had used as my back-up until my four-year-old Dell died sometime in the late winter, that I knew had a limited life-span, and for which I had ordered a replacement days earlier, died.
We were traveling. I had done a day's solid work planning revisions, and writing about 650 words on those revisions. I had coordinated my full semester's bibliography and had interfiled the entries with the running full bibliography I keep as part of the MFA. Why I did not send it to Dropbox, I will never know. It was late, I was tired. I shut down the computer and went to bed.
The next morning the computer would not boot. We traveled on. I enjoyed our trip, reconnecting with my husband's college classmates and with a cousin who lives in Maine. The suspense built until I got home and could take the laptop to the shop.
The guys at the shop are good. I've used them before. They are my go-tos. They said, we should have it for you tomorrow. That was Tuesday. Wednesday, when I got back from having MS Office installed on my computer (a valuable perk of being an adjunct), there was no phone message. Thursday, when I stopped by to drop off a larger storage device, they told me the hard drive had failed. They hadn't given up. Knowing them, they won't until they've explored every possible alley and secret passage.
I, on the other hand, have gone into mourning. I'm not blaming the laptop. It was six years old, it had survived having water spilled over the keyboard its first semester, several cord issues, and a year being plugged into a converter so it could handle European current. I knew it was going to go. I had planned to spend this last week transferring everything in an orderly fashion to the external hard drive and to the new computer. I planned to dive, refreshed, into more revisions and to get to know Scrivener so I'd be ready to use it for the new project I'm planning.
The bibliographies have been recreated. The 650 words will be rewritten and will most likely be better than the ones that were lost. All the same, I have lost some things I treasured--some very special emails, and, most of all, the writing momentum I had.
Rather than diving back into THREE MINUTES THIRTY, I had to wait until I had the software installed, then see what I had for working drafts (I had definitely backed that up, and valiantly). I had to install all those indispensable programs on the new computer (Tweetdeck, Firefox, iTunes, Adobe Reader). It all ate time and took energy. It wasn't until last night that I could really sit down and absorb my advisor's feedback on my last packet and enjoy the praise and think about how I could incorporate the questions and issues she raised (99 percent of them valid).
But before I wade back into the waters of revision, I have three words of advice:
BACK IT UP!
Ideally, in the "cloud" and on an external thumb drive. Do it every day. And if it is super-ooper-duper important, print it out.
If you have a tale of technology woe, feel free to share it. Misery does love company.
It is wonderful because Cindy was so clearly a fantastic teacher--reading, writing, and discussion as a way to discover grammar, spelling, syntax, AND beauty. This is doing it all.
It is amazing (though not surprising), because her students clearly got so much out of the experience that they took it outside the four walls of school and did reading on their own at home, which they then brought back to the school.
Heartbreaking, because this is what school should be like (and because the system we currently have can drive wonderful teachers into retirement). The whole point of school is not to pass some test. The point of school is to create engaged learners who will grow up to be informed and engaged citizens.
The best teachers are those who love what they do, are enthusiastic and passionate about it, and who know how to both communicate that enthusiasm and passion and the actual content to their students. I had a teacher like that for first grade, who has as much to do with why I enjoy reading as does coming from a family of readers. I had a teacher like that for sixth grade, who is why I know as much about the flora of Vermont as I do. I had a math teacher like that for Algebra I and II, whose attitude both toward her subject and toward me kept me trying when I would much rather not have and who is probably also responsible for my on-going desire to have another go at those subjects so that I finally actually understand them.
In fact, Miss Giebotowski, poor woman, is a good reason why teaching to the test is the wrong way to go about things. I am not for one moment saying that she taught to the test. She didn't. She was an excellent teacher, tried her best with me and was incredibly patient. Without her attitude, I would have been despondent and would probably have pulled Cs, maybe a low B when I got lucky. As it was, I managed to do enough to ace the tests, but after, everything I had learned evaporated from my brain faster than dew in July. As far as the tests went, I looked great. But when it comes to performance in the real world (read, the college classroom), I was lost. And that's the problem with testing. It does not prove ability.
Yes, we do need to know that students know how to read and write and do math and science. Yes, we do need to find a way for ineffective teachers to either improve their teaching or find another profession where they will excel. But standardized tests don't do either of those things.
What will accomplish those things is students who are prepared to learn and teachers who are prepared--who know their stuff and their students. Teachers like Cindy--and Miss Giebotowski.
A holiday weekend.
A workshop piece due May 31.
A packet due June 4.
A locally-sourced freelance piece due June 4.
It didn't help that four days of torrential or near-torrential rains started late last Wednesday. (I'm ignoring the snow that hit the higher elevations over the actual holiday weekend.)
Aside from one interview for the freelance piece, I couldn't get myself to work. While it was true that the weather made me uneasy, and for good reason--there were washed out roads and water across main highways between us and points west--there was another reason for my inability to work. My creative mind was being pulled in so many directions it was short-circuiting.
I kept sitting down to work on my workshop piece, thinking I could pound out eight rough pages in a morning, and finishing with two or three. It was torture, of the slow drip kind. Sure, I was making progress, but not fast enough. It wasn't until Monday afternoon, when I sat down and realized I only had four pages to go, that I knew I could do it.
Once that was done, it was as if order had been restored. Yesterday's work on the packet went smoothly. I made some progress on the freelance piece.
This is why I am not a last-minute person. Even without panic, too much pressure inhibits my ability to work well.
What about you? How do you respond to multiple, close deadlines?
P.S. It didn't hurt that we took time out for Star Trek Into Darkness.
I was nervous--as nervous as I was two years ago when I made my stand-up debut. It helped that we got lost on our way to the auditorium, and I mean that in all sincerity. Having to look for missing street signs (Boston suburbs are apparently notorious) and listen as Bianca (all our GPS voices are known as Bianca) "recalculated," kept me focused on the moment rather than what lay ahead.
We arrived in time (barely), and met those of the selection committee who could attend: Kim Ablon Whitney, Lisa Jahn-Clough, Liza Ketchum, and Mitali Perkins. (Susan P. Bloom, Pat Lowery Collins, Susan Goodman, Robie Harris, and Leslie Sills were the other committee members.) Mitali was the only member of the committee I knew at all, but everyone made us feel so welcome and at home that I relaxed immediately.
Liza Ketchum introduced me, and that was a particular honor, because Liza has a home in Vermont and knows this state and therefore something about my story's setting. It was also an honor because both Liza and Lisa taught at VCFA with Norma Fox Mazer, in whose honor I received an award in January. All these connections make me feel as if my story is supported by a web.
I read, and I have to say, it was so gratifying to be able to make eye contact with people I knew: Anna. My fellow Magic Ifs, Jim Hill and Jenn Barnes. VCFA faculty member Sarah Ellis, who happened to be in Boston that weekend and was there on her birthday! And my husband Greg. It was good to hear people laugh when I hoped they would, too.
The other gratifying thing about reading--and the reason I'd like to add my voice to those who call for reading aloud--is that when it works--as it did last night--I feel like I'm channeling the character. The vocal chords may be mine, but the voice is not. When the character takes over, the feeling is glorious.
And then I was done and could sit down and relax while Mitali introduced Anna. It was a delight listening to Anna read. I realized I had heard the very first pages at this March's Novel Writing Retreat, when they had left me wanting to know more. Last night, I got to hear that more, but that, in turn, only made me want more still. I can't wait until this book is published!
I knew that the Discovery Award had been around for a while, but I didn't realize until last night that this was the 15th year. Nor did I realize how many people who received this award have gone on to have their winning title published. That list includes Sara Pinto, current committee member Kim Ablon Whitney, Janet Ruth Young, Jo Knowles, M.P. Barker, Erin Dionne (bostonerin), Ammi-Joan Paquette, Jame Richards, and last year's co-winner and current VCFA student Helen Demetrios.
After our reading, the audience had some excellent questions about our process, research, and our reading. What was fascinating to me was where those things overlap and where they diverge. One thing that Anna and I turn out to have in common--at least for these works--is reading widely. I don't think either of us can imagine doing otherwise. One place where we diverge--Anna is spinning many more plates than I. She also writes curricula for books and does things like mini triathlons. I don't know how she has time for it all!
These are called the Discovery Awards and I am so grateful to be discovered. I, too, have also made a discovery: it is worth taking a creative risk. I went into this project, Three Minutes Thirty, feeling not like I was going out on a limb, but like I was stepping onto a high wire, weak in the knees and trembling. There was a lot of breath-holding and wobbling and uncertainty, because I didn't know if what I was trying would work. If it didn't, I was going to fall a long way and I didn't know what I would do if I did. But it was the only way I could see that might possibly work and I had a couple of people I could trust cheering me on. So I crept slowly on.
Take the creative risk--that was my discovery. But, in the process, I was reminded of something I discovered in the book before this: You've got to believe--in your story, in yourself, in what Tim Wynne-Jones has called "your inner genius," that bit of you that puts things in the story for you to find when you need them.
I still have this on my computer to remind me:
But now I also have this lovely award, created by the multi-talented Lisa Jahn-Clough, to remind me to take those creative risks:
PW's Q & A with Paul Rudnick contains some interesting nuggets.
I could not agree more with Rudnick about why it's exciting to write YA:
"I love the storytelling aspect of YA books; I wanted the book to be carefully plotted with twists and turns and surprises, and that’s something that’s only available in novels, especially YA novels. It almost seems that in adult novels, there’s so much latitude that it sometimes becomes laziness, and writers can forget about entertaining the reader. Reading YA books is so pleasurable; they really deliver."
The one thing I would add is that YA also seems to matter more. Even when we're telling the stories and entertaining readers, it feels like we are sharing something with them that we want them to know. I don't mean "life lessons," but something more like, "Yeah, life can be like that sometimes. See? Someone else has been there. You aren't alone."
Check out the cover of Rudnick's novel, Gorgeous:
Does this not look like a "girl cover"?
I saw this not long after I read about Maureen Johnson's coverflip challenge. It puts an interesting twist on that concept. Here we have a male author whose novel has a "girly" cover that, given what I've read of the book, suits it perfectly. So maybe the issue isn't so much the author's gender, but the perceived gender of the novel.
And, to get back up on a soapbox I've been on (far too) many times before--why shouldn't a guy read a book written for girls? Why should that be a problem? Shouldn't he be given points for doing some research into how girls work and what they like? Or a book that is simply a good story, with a girl as the main character? Why oh why should anybody think there's anything wrong with that?
Off the soapbox now. But--
What do you think about the Paul Rudnick's cover and Maureen Johnson's coverflip challenge? And book covers in general?
Why do you write for teens? Or, if you don't, why don't you?
On the other hand, these three commencement speeches resonate with me and all three say things I want to tell those seniors.
- "I hope you fail." Failing means you have tried, you have reached for something just beyond your grasp. But, as Samuel Beckett, that bucket of cheerfulness, said, "Try again. Fail better." If you fail and still want it, you have to be willing to try, to work, to dedicate yourself to whatever it is you want to do, until someday you won't fail. This isn't supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be worth doing. If you think it is worth doing, stick with it.
- "Hold onto your art. It may be a lifeline." There have been days when the only thing that got me through was the idea that "nothing is wasted on an artist." Even when I didn't have the emotional wherewithal to "make good art," I knew that whatever the experience, it was making me the person who could, just maybe, make good art, could try something she wasn't at all sure about and find that other people thought it was worth recognizing.
- "Choose how you will approach life and the world." A friend of mine, who worked with John Cage, said that one thing he learned from Cage was that you can't control the world, you can only control your own reactions to the world.
(Here's the text of David Foster Wallace's speech.)