The Practice of Art

Back in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article titled Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity? In it, he writes:

A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth…an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.

img_0205Years later, in Paris, in the Cézanne room at the stunningly beautiful Musee D’Orsay, I remembered the article. It took the artist practice. More, it took mentoring and seeking. It took years of experimentation. In the end he produced works that are now judged to be masterpieces, but he himself was sometimes  dissatisfied with them.

If Gladwell’s examination of genius and its realization means anything, it is that art will find meaning in its own way, in its own time. Much like architecture, in fact. When they built this train station, after all, no one could have foreseen that it would end up as a museum!

 

Fred Korematsu and Another Infamous Executive Order

628dd2bfb56cd1d0122408860ee65943Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is a new children’s book co-written by VCFA graduate Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi. When Laura first talked to me about this project I was excited. It seemed a vitally important story to tell. A story that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Today, the signing of executive orders is carrying a kind of crazed trigger-happiness that threatens to turn the clock back upon civil rights. Today, Fred’s story begins to carry a tragic new urgency.

I’ll be talking to Laura some more about her book. Meanwhile, here’s a snippet from the web site of the ACLU of Northern California:

Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 is Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, established by the California legislature in 2010 to commemorate the ACLU of Northern California’s client who was interned during World War II.

Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 is the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which began Japanese Internment.

It would be a shame to let that February 17th anniversary go by without taking some action, whatever we can, each of us who cares. Action to stop the erosion of civil rights and liberties in the land that was supposed to be the cradle of both.

Susan Krawitz on Viva, Rose! (Part 2 of 2)

gringoposter[Uma] In historical fiction the research can take its own time as well. How much research did you have to do? What were your sources? 

[Susan] I did SO MUCH RESEARCH. Whoops, that’s in caps. Sorry. 

So much. That’s better.

One really, really great source was a book by well-known journalist John Reed called Insurgent Mexico. He was history’s first embedded journalist, tasked by a publication called Metropolitan Magazine to live with Villa’s army for four months and send stories back home. Reed was hugely sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, and wrote passionately detailed articles about the revolution and its people that read like fiction. He was one of the first journalists to employ this technique, which is now widely used by modern journalists.

I also studied all I could find about Jewish settlement in the west, using online sources, non-fiction books, and fiction, including picture books. One, Zayda Was a Cowboy, by June Levitt Nislick, was named a Sydney Taylor award notable book by the Association of Jewish Libraries, which led me discover that the AJL also offered an annual manuscript award.

russiannesteds[Uma] Which you won! Congratulations. Like nesting dolls, one thing led to another.

[Susan] Thank you. I believe winning this award, which is intended to lift books out of the slush pile, was instrumental in getting Viva, Rose! published.

I could say some of my own life experience served as “research” as well. Before my daughter was born, I spent a lot of time riding horses and climbing rocks (my one and only trip to Texas was to a climbing site near El Paso), and those experiences ended up in the book. 

And last and most fun, I did some genealogical searching, with the help of my sister and her friend, on the web. We uncovered all kinds of fabulous information about our Texas relatives from old census records. We also discovered some of their descendants still live in San Antonio, and I recently sent one an email—and he actually wrote me back.

[Uma] How did you balance big historical realities with a sharper, closer look at the journey of a single character?

[Susan] It can be a challenge to fully serve history and also fully serve a fictional character in a fictional story. Though ultimately, I couldn’t plop all the nerdy research details I loved into the book, I felt they served as a sort of a radiant, energetic imprint beneath the story. And it wasn’t possible to adhere strictly to the whats and whens of the Mexican Revolution—if I did, the fictional tale would suffer. But the issues and events of the time HUGELY informed the book’s character and plot choices. I hope I conveyed an accurate energetic sense of the hopes, fears and goals of the people involved in the Mexican Revolution. Which, not surprisingly, are also the hopes, fears, and goals of many in today’s world, as well.

[Uma] Anything else you’d like to add?

[Susan] One of the best parts of this book’s award and publication was the delightful discovery that not all who wander are indeed, really lost. 

Viva, Rose!, which is the first book I’ll publish, took over a decade to go from inception to print, but it’s clear to me that everything I’ve ever done in the writing vein contributed to this outcome. The time spent as a journalist and newspaper columnist, the short stories and screenplays I wrote, the years as a freelance editor; even the bad poetry I wrote in college. All of it went into some huge mental and emotional MixMaster and became the slurry that formed this book.

There were some huge bumps along the road (including an agent who signed, then dropped the book before submitting it!), and it’s such a relief to realize that all the side gigs, delays, and wanders were actually not in vain. I see their imprint in this book’s pages and am now so grateful for every step it took to reach this goal. And I’m also grateful that no matter how far (or impossible!) the finish line seemed, I just couldn’t seem to stop imagining it existed and stepping towards it.

[Uma] Imagining it existed. The story itself, the shape it took, and the book. Such a wonderful journey, Susan. Viva Susan, and Viva, Rose!

Veera Hiranandani: Teaching Writing and the Pure Act of Story-making

9780375871672_p0_v1_s260x420Veera Hiranandani is the author of the Phoebe G. Green series and The Whole Story of Half a Girl. See my earlier interview with her.

Veera also teaches at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and at the Writopia Lab in Westchester, NY. (Her upcoming spring workshops, Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction and Story Mapping are currently open for registration.)

I’m happy to be talking to Veera again.

[Uma] Veera, what makes teaching a good fit with writing for you?

[Veera] They intersect in many ways and constantly feed each other. I haven’t always practiced teaching and writing together in the way I’ve been able to the last few years. During a writing workshop, though I’m supposed to be the “teacher,” nothing teaches me more about writing than working with my students. I’m always learning.

P1070394.jpg[Uma] Tell me more. What does your writer self learn from teaching? 

[Veera]  As a writer, it’s hard to see your own work from an objective point of view. I’m usually too close to it. When I work with a student who’s wrestling with some of the same things I am, I’m able to bring that objectivity or at least some of it back to my own writing and get a fresh perspective.  

I’m also privileged enough to teach both children, teens, and adults. Working with such a wide age range compliments so many parts of me as a writer. When I teach young people, though many have dreams of being a “real writer” when they grow up, I find the work they do is so real, because it’s not motivated by professional and adult concerns. They’re not thinking about the market or query letters or finding an agent, they are simply wrestling with the stories in their heads and how best to get them out in the form of the written word. Watching and guiding them through the process is to witness the pure act of story-making, one I can sometimes lose sight of. 

When I work with adults, I get to relearn many elements of craft as I try to figure out how best to communicate this information with my students. I constantly think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to me as a writer when I’m giving feedback to others.  I’m inspired by their productivity and their ability to go back to the drawing board to get something right. I also feel like I’d better walk the walk when I talk about the benefits of having a writing schedule, plotting, and pre-writing work, so they keep me on my toes. 

[Uma] Walking the talk. Too true. So how do we reflect that back in our teaching?

[Veera]  As I’m writing, I really try to remember and be sensitive to what leads me to my own writing breakthroughs. What was the process that allowed me to figure out this character, or this scene, or this plot, and how do I share it with my students? I find that I’m a much more reflective writer because of my students. 

When I look back to all stages of my life, I feel like I’ve always had a writer and a teacher in me. Getting to do both things professionally allows me to connect with a fully realized version of myself. I only hope I’m able to do both for a long time.  It’s such a satisfying circle, the way each process serves and stimulates the other. I can’t really imagine doing one with out the other anymore. 

[Uma] Thank you, Veera, for placing this work in the context of a writer’s life. Here’s to the pure act of story-making!

Susan Krawitz on Viva, Rose! (1 of 2)

vrcover3My cyber-writing-friend and colleague Susan Krawitz celebrates the publication of her middle grade novel Viva Rose! She has a few things to say about family tall tales and their transformation into a fascinating story for young readers. 

[Uma] Viva Rose began with a family story—tell me that story. 

[Susan] When I was a kid, two of my grandfather’s sisters lived together in a big house in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. It happened to be the same house Moe, Curley and Shemp of the Three Stooges grew up in, but that’s another story altogether. Anyway, when the family would gather there for holidays, my wacky uncle Sheldon liked to tell the kid-crowd stories of my grandfather’s cousins Rose and Abraham Solomon who, in the 1920s and 30s, used to visit from their home in San Antonio Texas. Rose had a lovely singing voice, and always came bearing gifts, and Abe wore full cowboy regalia so he could look like a rube and pool-shark the locals at the billiards hall. Uncle Sheldon said he played chess on horseback—balancing a board? Play-acting a knight? It wasn’t clear. But the wildest tale of all was that he’d joined Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s. 

serapesombreroBut were these stories true, or was Uncle Sheldon just entertaining the kids? Great-Aunt Edie did have a Mexican serape draped on a chair in her room, and a sombrero hanging on her wall. At any rate, the tales of our Russian/Jewish immigrant cowboy relative were fun to think about, and the serape and sombrero made me curious. 30 years ago I gave my sister, who’s a historian, a T-shirt with a picture of Pancho Villa’s gang on it, and we joked about which bandido might be our cousin. And then she came back from a trip to San Antonio with a printout of a 1932 newspaper article she’d found in the library’s microfiche that confirmed our family’s Abraham legends and created some new ones as well. 

[Uma] I happen to know a little something about how you began thinking about turning this history into a book for young readers. Will you tell that story? 

[Susan] I can truthfully say that the kernel of this story was the very first one that lodged in my heart and urged me to write it as a novel. I tried it as Abraham’s story first, but that tack didn’t seem to have much steam. And then, Uma, our mutual friend, Audrey Couloumbis sold a pair of middle grade Western novels featuring fabulous female protagonist (The Misadventures of Maude March and Maude March on the Run!). You and I were in an online critique group with Audrey at that time, and she said to us, “Who has an idea for a Western?” Both you and I raised our hands.

[Uma] Well, I kind of raised my hand. You were more enthusiastic.

[Susan] When I came up with a plot idea that made a thirteen-year-old Rose the protagonist, the story engine really began to chug. That happened more years back than I care to admit, but I was so delighted to discover recently that you also grew a book from that conversation, and it will be published right around the same time as Viva, Rose! 

[Uma] Not a Western, but set in the western United States, and also historical, yes.  

[Susan] Doris Lessing said, “In the writing process, the more a thing cooks, the better.” 

[Uma] Too true. Thank you, Susan. More in Part 2. 

Lies, Activism, and Books for Young People

1984

In the Age of Trump, when “alternative facts” are touted as real and the highest seat in the executive branch of the United States government is occupied by a liarsales of George Orwell’s 1984 are booming, and we’re suddenly reminded that the young have to be our last best hope.

My own chapter book, Book Uncle and Me, written back in 2010 or so and originally published in India in 2012, is a story of politics, corruption, and a kid who has to take her nose out of her book and do something. It now seems surprisingly relevant, and has made it onto a few lists  in the last couple of months.

From The Horn Book,  here is a nonfiction list of books about young people making a difference. And finally, look at this year’s ALA awards list! I’d like to think that books as always can offer us a tiny ray of hope. The children’s and YA book world must keep its focus on diversity, justice, and inclusion, especially in the face of racism and isolationism. That’s the truth.

Readers Live Longer? Really?

Not that this is necessarily a blessing, but a New York Times report suggests that reading books is tied to a longer life. As little as half an hour a day of book reading seems to give us what they succinctly refer to as a “survival advantage.” Only by an average of two years, which is not that much, but still. I always knew reading was good for me.

Highlights from the article on which the report is based:

  • Book reading provides a survival advantage among the elderly.
  • Books are more advantageous for survival than newspapers/magazines.
  • The survival advantage of reading books works through a cognitive mediator.
  • Books are protective regardless of gender, wealth, education, or health.

forgettingtimeIs writing good for me or not, longevity-wise, I wonder. If writing were to parallel reading or add to its good effects that would be grand. If not, well then, maybe, at the least, it does me no harm. Or maybe it’s bad for me, in which case I could be back where I started and it all cancels out.

In any case, I had better finish the book I’m reading now, The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, which has me by the throat at the moment and will not let go. (Thank you, Karen Rivers, for this thoughtful gift.)

As a writer who writes for young people, I used to scramble to try and keep up with each year’s new offerings. Now I read children’s and YA books regularly. But I also make it a point to keep reading grownup books often, for my own pleasure. It’s reassuring to be told now that I can live longer by indulging myself this way.

Audience, Purpose, Content

At the moment, I am struggling simultaneously with two picture book manuscripts. This is unusual. Mostly, picture book manuscripts liberate me when I’m feeling defeated by  a novel draft or revision. Mostly, picture books help me to see more readily the bigger landscape of story. They get me disentangled from the words on the page. But not these.

They are both nonfiction. Historical. With multiple layers of story. The question that keeps coming up is whether there is too much here for a picture book. I’ve had fellow writers read both of these at different times. I’m drowning in all the very good critical appraisals I’ve received.

But now the job is mine and mine alone. Because in the 20+ years since I began daring to call myself a writer, here is something I have learned.  At every successive stage, a work in progress differs in its audience and its purpose, and therefore in its content.

Early Drafts: The first draft is for me and me alone. Some people say the first draft is the writer telling herself the story. In my opinion, it’s not even that. The first draft is simply to pin the idea down, to commit to the page my intention to pursue it. No one should ever see that first draft but me. It is too fragile to share even with trusted readers.

imageDeveloping Drafts: Subsequent rounds of drafts can benefit from the opinions of informed readers. Not my family, I hasten to add, but readers who are writers themselves. At this stage I go to craft books as well, or books about books. I might flip through their pages to see if I can pick up on any ideas to help me bridge the gap between intention and outcome.

Drafts Nearing Completion: Back to me, myself, and I. Last rounds to clean up, get rid of extraneous ideas and wishful thinking, self-indulgent prose and unnecessary decorations. Sometimes at this stage, I can’t see the work with any judgment at all.

This is not a bad time to send the work to an agent or an editor. An editor told me long ago that she’d rather get a manuscript with a strong idea, good execution but with work clearly yet to be done, than one that is weak and prematurely polished. Every book begins with an idea that offers many, many possible directions. A writing group or critique partner can tell me all the many paths that my work seems to be pointing toward. But an editor, especially a good, thoughtful, practical, visionary editor (they do exist–really) can point you to a single path. Then you can decide if that’s the one.

 

The Journey is the Point

All the way from South Africa comes an essay from a writer who once took a writers.com class with me. She tells of her own creative journey, often one of fits and starts, with breaks necessitated by life.

Marianne Saddington is a paper artist and a painter, a poet and an essayist. She writes of a process that is often tentative and incremental, with a good measure of self-doubt mixed in and with side trips along the way. She writes of moving to the country and then to the Little Karoo, two hours from Cape Town, surrounded by mountains. Place and its voices seem to create certain echoes in her writing mind, even as she’s seeking to define herself.

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She writes of meeting online an American woman who once lived in South Africa, and then of meeting her in person years later:

Although Joyce and I had corresponded for 14 years, this was the first time we met in person. When I looked into her brown eyes and gave her a hug, my eyes misted and my throat swelled. It was like finding a long-lost sister. Similarly with other members. I knew their writing “voices” on the page, but not their real voices, accents or physical presence. It was very moving.

Sometimes, as with travel, the journey is the whole point. Sometimes you have to stop and express gratitude for the people who walk this road with you.

Teaching, Writing, and the Spaces in Between  

I am jet lagged already. I am on my way from India to Vermont, in the tender care of Lufthansa and assorted other airlines.
This is not the ideal way to prepare for residency, I know, but for complicated travel reasons, I didn’t have a choice. So here I am on my way to VCFA for the Winter 2017 residency, my workshop packet uploaded to my iPad. In a strange way, being in this travel bubble is helping me to get ready for the bubble that is residency. Ten days of lectures, workshops, students, old friends and new on faculty, preparing for the semester ahead, engaging in those large, animated, circuitous conversations about the work we all hold dear.

img_0580I understand the VCFA sign’s been repainted a brighter green since I was there last. That is fine by me. India has prepared me for extravagances of color and form.

The brighter the better.

img_0646

But now I’m beginning to appreciate the sign’s design, the spaces it affords for a shifting perspective. I can put my face into that square, or hang my current story over its edge like a melting Dali clock. I can look through its window and appreciate the space I have to live my writing life when I am not teaching. Which is every other semester now, because there is too much that needs to be done. I can’t teach year round and do it all.

Too much writing, too much travel, too much life. These ten days will have to stoke my writing fires year-round.