Monthly Archives: February 2012

Two Towns, One Heart

The national press covering the Chardon tragedy keeps referring to the town as “a quiet suburb of Cleveland”.  But for most of us here, the two places are barely related.  Chardon is a town square, a maple syrup festival, deer hunters in funny orange vests, the place that gets all the snow.  Cleveland is gritty neighborhoods, museums and music, foreclosed homes, the one place in Ohio that always goes Democratic.  Those of us who live in the city or, like me, in an inner ring suburb, think of Chardon as an innocent, if not clueless, place.  My guess is that many Chardon people view Cleveland as a place to visit for a ball game or a trip to the science museum, a Little Italy pizza or a bowl of Vietnamese pho, and then a happy drive back to their natural beauty and quiet. 
Not that those differences matter, not this week.  An eleven-year-old girl  at last night’s vigil for the victims said, “It means caring together.”  Holding  onto her candle, she said,  “It means we have one heartbeat.”
In his photos, T.J. Lane looks almost too slight and fragile to have the strength to heft a gun, much less point and shoot.  He’s 17, but how easy to imagine him at 7.  His 81 year old grandfather was beside him in court.  He and his wife took on raising T.J. and his brother when they were small, trying to give them the stability their parents couldn’t, a story that’s pretty common here in Cleveland, too.   Their backyard has a rope swing and a swimming pool.  He and his brother used to build forts and tunnels in all that snow.

Lots of questions, mostly unanswerable, will fly around now.  Of course we want to lay blame somewhere—it’s how we feel safe, how we assure ourselves it could never happen in our family, to our friends.  It’s clear that T.J., whose brother turned to heroin, and whose father has a mile long police record, witnessed things most of our children are shielded from.  But I have friends whose once-happy children have wandered down heart-breaking, if not violent, paths.  The pain of not being able to fix a broken child is terrible, and it’s life-long.  There’s also shame, and anger, and humility before a dark we can’t beat back. 

I’m hoping that it’s true, that our hearts can beat together, for the victims, the shooter, all the friends and family.

Worth a Thousand (of my) Words

It’s that time at my house, time for the Clivia Extravaganza.   Behold their unthrifty loveliness!

Thirty plus years ago, when some friends of ours were making a big move and couldn’t bring much along with them, they bequeathed us a single plant– one, they said, that had belonged to his grandmother.   Now I have eight plants and counting.  They propogate in secret, their tuberous roots tangling and wrangling behind my back until, sproing!  A new one appears, a baby among the adults.  The leaves are tough and sprout in twos, like leathery rabbit ears.   For a long time their flowers, too, would take me by surprise, but by now I know to start peeking around New Year’s for the buds that begin deep in the dark cleft between the leaves.   Only once in all these years have they failed to bloom.  Not a single flower on any of the plants.  It was a general strike, though I’m not sure what they were demanding, and the following year and every year since they’ve appeared in all their tropical gaudiness and always, always, just as winter hits gritty, bleak bottom.   Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


Extra bonus: a joke!


This past week I wrote a draft of a new adult short story.  (I say short even though it’s 7000 words, which in these days of flash fiction and short shorts is practically a novella.)  The story came together pretty quickly, which makes me suspicious about how good it can actually be.  It’s now resting in The Purgatory Drawer, where all my work has to spend time before I pull it back out and let my fresh eyes render judgement. 

Though in the last two years the scale has tipped heavily toward writing for kids, I’ve always written for both young and old(er) readers.  When I started out, around the time lung fish crawled out of the sea, I was lucky enough to get published in both Redbook and Highlights for Children, the cream of their respective crops, and I’ve remained a schizoid.  This world brims with stories. Some belong to children, some to adults, some (the best) to both.  Some stories are all language-y while others want to cut to the chase.  Some need to go places kids aren’t, in my opinion, yet ready to follow, and some stories need to throw their hands in the air and stomp out the everlasting Dance of Joy. I once read something along the lines of, the main thing kids need to learn is how to let go, while for adults it’s all about having the grace and strength to hold on.

(Which reminds me of a joke I heard at a dinner party last weekend.  A woman who lives on the 15th floor of a 30 story apartment building looks out her window and sees a man plummeting past.  She cries out, “Are you all right?” and he yells back, “So far!)

The story I just wrote (and I’m not being coy or secretive here: it has no title yet, since I stink at titles, and only apply them at the last minute under extreme pressure) tried very hard to be a sad one.  I mean, there’s a messy divorce, and a dog on dialysis, not to mention a dead mother (see why I needed 7000 words?)  And yet, somehow, in the last two pages, it had a change of heart.  Whether this works or not remains to be seen, of course.  But I will share the last paragraph here:

The dog barked.  The sun poured down.  Lawrence held onto my hand.  In the spring light, my second-hand princess dress sparkled, and Lily’s twin cowlicks shone like straw spun into gold.


With Sound Effects

Patience is a virtue, and blab bla bla.   But this week I got to see the full color art for my new picture book PHOEBE AND DIGGER and it’s about killing me that it won’t pub till a year from now.  Aargh, as pirates, the un-dead, and impatient writers say.  My editor at Candlewick has gently reminded me that a picture book is a unique, hand-made object, and as such takes time. Gobs and gobs of time.  Now, just say Candlewick to a children’s librarian, and I guarantee he/she will close eyes, purse lips, and murmur Aaah  as if you’ve just offered dark chocolate, a glass of really good red wine, and a seat by the fire.   Candlewick’s picture books are always sublime.  And now I know why. 

Patience. Groan.

The illustrator is Jeff Newman, whose best known books so far are Hippo! No, Rhino and The Boys, which uber-blogger-librarian Betsy Bird called, and I quote, “Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.”  Jeff (I call him by his first name even though, as is the time-honored if somewhat insane tradition with writers and illustrators, he and I have never met or spoken) works mostly in gouache and ink, and he’s got a retro line and pallet that are utterly distinctive.  This is a witty fellow, and what he’s seen in my 600 words is amazing.

Digger becomes a cross between Mike Mulligan’s Mary Ann and a Mo Willem’s pigeon.  In other words, equally hilarious and soul-ful.  Phoebe exhibits a verve (not to mention fashion sense) I totally envy.  The book has an urban setting, and Jeff has created a wonderful, diverse cast of minor characters and a great city park.  Take me to that playground, pronto. I want me one of those red-white-and-blue rocket pops!  

Witnessing someone else’s interpretation of your work is scary.  Except when it’s not.  Like, when a reader or reviewer makes you look smarter and more profound than you really are.  Or when a brilliant illustrator decides to show the big bad bully from little Phoebe’s perspective, so you guffaw and quake at the same time.

Patience.  It can go chase itself.

What we talk about when we talk about writing

Instructions for how to make the most of a(nother) gray Cleveland afternoon deep in winter:

1)  Invite over girlfriends, one of whom brings take-out soup, another who brings big bags of chips, and another who has scored miniature fruit pies from the farmers’ market. 

2) Open red wine, settle on couches, sigh and begin.

These friends are all writers.  One has hit the NY Times best-seller list.  One is chair of the English department at a prestigious university. One is a poet who has won prizes and published books and if you know anything at all about being a poet, you know how extraordinary that is. (One lives in Manhattan where she works for The Honest-to-Goodness New Yorker and so, unless she happens to be in town, we have to conjure up her spirit.) 

We’ve known one another for a long time—sometimes we calculate how long, just for the pleasure of it. So first we talk about things like children and grandchildren (or the annoying lack of them), and about our day jobs, aching knees, men, plans for this year’s garden, what we’re reading,  how we wish we could get on a plane for Italy together tomorrow.  Plenty of gossip (Cleveland is a small town, after all).  

But eventually, and we look forward to this happening, we circle around to our writing.  We don’t show each other work—that’s for other times. Instead we talk about the side of being a creator that doesn’t show up on the page.  About how the new work’s going, or not, and why oh why.  Where we are and where we long to be.  Using our “real lives” in our work.  Once we all confessed to wishing we could write darker stuff.  Last Sunday we talked about envy, and whether contentment was a good or a deleterious state.  We argued about whether, at this stage in our careers, we should know what we are and aren’t capable of or whether, as one of us said, we should always be “wildly hubristic”.  

And we were still talking, even as we licked our pie plates, and even as they shrugged on their coats and scarves and headed back out into the inexplicably warmer, far less bleak winter night.  Those girlfriends–I hate to close the door behind them.