Cody’s newest adventures!
Cody’s newest adventures!
Just back from a few days on my favorite island. The real Kelleys Island is so closely tied to my fictional Moonpenny Island that as I saunter around, I nearly expect to see Flor zip by on her bike, or Joe pitch a stone at the school clock tower, or Cele slip down into the abandoned quarry on her way to her secret life, or Flossie the Thug Cat slink out of the brush with a doomed field mouse in her jaws. The writer’s loony double life!
I didn’t put my suitcase away, because tomorrow I leave for the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book http://www.hsfotb.org/ Another great lake! I get to see my dear friend Alison DeCamp, and meet some other writers I’ve long admired, including Lynn Rae Perkins (squeals a fangirl squeal), and some I’ve just discovered, including Dan Gemeinhart. I have a very nifty presentation on Moonpenny that I look forward to sharing with some middle school classes.
Autumn’s closing in. Once winter gets us in its bony clutches, I hate leaving my house, let alone my city. Then my travels will once again be mostly imaginary. But for now…
We just spent a little more than a week in New York, near the sea and our two daughters, and my heart is still singing. On the rug there’s a little pile of sand that spilled from my shoe just after we got home, and I refuse to sweep it up.
We went into The City one afternoon to check out the new Met Breuer, where we saw a heart-stopping exhibit of Diane Arbus’s early photos (I’ll write more on that for sure) and “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”, a fascinating exhibit of art never completed, for one reason or another.
By now I should know better, but I still tend to torment myself with the idea that turning an idea into a work of art comes easy for other people. At least for geniuses. But here were unfinished canvases by Cezanne, Picasso, El Greco, Klimt, some scrapped after many tries to get them right, some interrupted by illness or sorrow or even death, some abandoned for unknown reasons. It was a chance to see the way a painting takes shape layer by layer, how outlines are filled in, sketches given dimension and texture. To remind myself that creating something where there was nothing is not supposed to be easy.
Some of the art, like a group of glorious canvases by Turner, was perfect in its imperfection. In a NY Times article on the show, one viewer said, “An artist is never finished, so their art is never finished. When you finish it, you kill it. Leaving it unfinished, you keep it alive.”
Yes. No book I’ve ever written was as good as I meant it to be. Nowhere near as good as my racing heart hoped to make it. And this is another reason I’m so grateful to readers, who take an imperfect thing and find their own beauty in it.
Almost there! The ending is in my heart and, at this point more important, in my head. I’m pushing aside all the things I know I will have to go back and fix, cut, add, just keeping that ending within my sights.
Well, that’s what I wish I was doing. In fact I’m still having too many moments when I make characters walk in and out of rooms, slump into chairs or bolt to their feet, tap their chins and furrow their brows: in other words, stall.
A quote I came across this morning in Poets and Writers (procrastinating? me?):
“When I am stuck in the perfection cog—as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft or, I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how everything is going to fit together—I find it helpful to tell myself: You will fail. I have this written on a Post-it note. It might sound discouraging, but I find it very liberating. The idea is that no matter what I do, the draft is going to be flawed, so I might as well just have at it. I also like to look at pictures I’ve taken of all the many drafts that go into my books as they become books, which helps me remember that so much of what I am writing now will later change. When I am aware that my work is not as brave or true as it needs to be, I like to look at a particular photograph of myself as a child. I am about eight, sitting on a daybed in cut-off shorts, with a book next to me. I’m looking at the camera with great confidence, and an utter lack of self-consciousness. This photograph reminds me of who I am at my essence, and frees me up to write more like her.”
—Anna Solomon, author of Leaving Lucy Pear (Viking, 2016) http://www.pw.org/content/anna_solomon_0
Thank you, Anna. And now back to work…
Last summer I was knocked for a loop when Kate DiCamillo, that is, THE Kate DiCamillo, wrote about enjoying “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”. She especially liked the “whim whams”, an expression Cody uses to describe the feeling that her world is crumbling into an unrecognizable heap. Kate said she knew that feeling, and was glad to have a word for it.
Fast forward to the end of the summer when she came to the Cuyahoga County library and I waited in a long, long line of fans to say hello. In the photo, I’ve just told her I’m the whim-wham writer. Oh my goodness. She was so nice.
This summer, I heard Kate speak again, this time at Nerd Camp. She read a speech, a small perfect essay really, that began with the story of her being 8 years old and obsessed with digging. A Florida summer, the sun relentless, and every morning she got her shovel and dug. She didn’t know what she was looking for, just knew the urge to dig. One day she found a small smooth bone with a hollow just right for a young girl’s thumb. It was magic, she was sure. Or wanted to be sure.
I won’t even try to tell the whole story, because so much of it depends on her always startling and perfect choices of words, on her details (not just a dishtowel but a green and white checked dishtowel) and on her trademark rhythms, but the climax comes when she wishes for a pony and, moments later, one comes walking up the street.
Kate’s essay was about writing, and the pony became a metaphor for conjuring, creating, for calling something into being by sheer force of imagination and will. “Where there was nothing, now there was something.”
It was an amazing, stirring talk, a gift to all of us who heard it. I’ve thought of it often since. I thought of it just yesterday, when I was walking across the baking, dry-as-dust schoolyard down the street, on my way to the library. I could see the determined, lonesome little girl, digging in the hot sun, and I was back in my own childhood summers, all those endless, hot afternoons when there was nothing to do. We didn’t go to camp or art classes. We played ball in the street, swam in Nancy Wells’s above ground pool, swished our Barbies around in the backyard shade, but lots of the time, most of the time, there was nothing to do.
We never said we were bored, because our mother would immediately assign us chores. And now when I think about it, I’m not sure bored was the right word, anyway. I remember more a feeling of longing. For something to happen. To be the one who made it happen. To be the hero of a story still unknown. It was a diffuse kind of longing with no clear object, and that made it all the more powerful.
Trying to pin down that feeling might scare it away. Instead: the hot sun. The tar truck slowly coming down the street. The cicadas buzzing in the trees. A girl in red PF Flyers, standing in the shade, squinting into the light, waiting and wishing.
So I wrote about Nerd Camp and the ongoing frustration of dedicated, creative teachers with how their profession is being quantified. And now don’t I pick up “Hard Times” and find that that Dickens of a genius was preaching against the very same thing in 1854. It is hilarious and painful to read passages like the following, about Thomas Gradgrind, staunch believer in Facts and More Facts, who, looking out over a classroom, sees: “the inclined plane of little vessels, then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim” and the schoolmaster Mr. M’Choakumchild, whose own education is described this way: “He and some hundred and forty other schoolmasters had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs.”
Before I get too depressed: I’ve also been reading some very fun and inventive kids books this summer, and here are just two:
On Planet Boborp, Yelfred and Omek have been best frints since they were little blobbies. If you’re looking for a belly-laugh-inducing-read-aloud, your search is ended/
Even though I already knew about the outrageous twist at the heart of this story, I still snorted in glee. As our snarky, loveable hero Chloe says when she discovers it, “Upset was so not the right word. There really wasn’t any one word that captured it all; only a phrase would do, like head in a blender.” This is a gentle but still provocative look at the kinds of micro-aggression so many people of color face.
And finally: recently (where have I been before this?) I discovered the amazing organization, Facing History and Ourselves www.facinghistory.org I’m very excited to be working with them, and will have more to say about that soon!
..at Nerd Camp.
Which is a wonderment that takes place in tiny Parma MI. Which, if you never heard of the place, is understandable but regrettable. This year about 2,000 (yes I got the zeroes right) teachers and librarians gathered there to talk about reading and writing, with one another and with the authors and illustrators lucky enough to join the conversation.
I went to camp last year, too, and my respect, gratitude, appreciation, indebtedness to these educators, already ocean-deep, grew yet deeper. Working in schools has always been challenging (my husband taught for 30 years, and I saw that firsthand). But right now, teachers face a monetizing and quantifying of their profession that is nothing short of soul-killing.
Yet here these super-heroes were, putting heads together and arms around one another. We were galvanized by talks from Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, Kate DiCamillo, Teri Lesesne and Kathy Burnette. We workshopped and brainstormed and lest you think we were too admirable, we drank beer and laughed a lot.
Then, on the second day, 700 kids showed up (got those zeroes right). And we all made stuff together, without worries about scores or levels or, as Jenni Holm put it, the “curse of perfection”.
My workshop was on dialogue, and we had mermaids, robots, princesses and guys named Bob talking to each other. When at last we all had to say goodbye, we stepped outside to find a double rainbow arching over the school.
The funny thing? I hoped to help teachers to be better, happier writers, and to inspire kids to let their imaginations run wild. What a gift to discover that over those two days, my own desire to write close to the bone and heart steadily grew. And grew and grew, so that when I got home, I couldn’t wait to get to this desk.
Some of my best friends are boys. I’ve been married to one for more than forty years. I have brothers and nephews I adore. So why don’t I ever write a boy main character?
Last week I Skyped with a book club that had read MOONPENNY ISLAND, and someone asked me this. (If you dislike provocative questions, beware serious young readers.) I tried to get off the hook by pointing out how many dads, brothers, and guy friends I’ve written, but the sad truth is, I’ve never been able to center a book on a boy.
I have tried. In fact, the first two (or maybe three) drafts of MOONPENNY had a boy named Larry Walnut as hero. I loved Larry, who had big ears and an even bigger heart. He was a funny, engaging, troubled person who was very much alive in my head, but on paper he fell apart. I couldn’t get his voice right. I tried first and third person, present and past tense. Nothing worked. Poor Larry always sounded fake, a bland copy of who I knew he really was.
I take this as a failure. I’ve imagined my way inside lots of characters who are, at least on the outside, nothing like me. This is what writers do. We find the place where we connect, where we and the character have something in common. A fear of heights. A love of the sea. A tendency to be stingy, or talk too much, or try to be in control even when that’s impossible.
Yet with Larry, and other main character boys I’ve tried to write, the spark kept going out. In EVERY SINGLE SECOND, Nella, who has four brothers—four!!—is still baffled by boys (including her crush, Sam). No matter how long she lives with the other sex, she thinks, she’ll never understand the blueprint of their minds.
Not that I’m giving up. By this point, I pretty well know the things I can do in my writing. And the things I’m not able to. Yet.
This is Oma Springstubb a few months ago, celebrating her 92nd birthday with her two favorite things: friends and something delicious to eat.
She died last Sunday. Eunice was a true believer. For those of us who knew her well, it makes sense that she passed away in the afternoon, and the Cleveland Cavs won the NBA championship that evening. No doubt she had a word with the Man Upstairs.
At her funeral, when my daughter described her grandmother, the first word she used was “tenacious”. That only became more true the longer she lived. Eunice Enid was tenacious in her faith, her loyalties, her grudges. I dedicated a very early novel to her, with deep thanks for how she supported me in every way. As the years went by, I got to see her give that same unwavering support to my daughters and, for four happy months, to my own grandbaby.
She was a Lutheran who loved to belt out a hymn. She’d requested 15+ for her funeral service. We did our valiant best though, with her good ear, she was probably wincing. Sorry, Oma! We miss your voice so much.