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 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.


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.

From Denver, Mumbai, and Space

Congratulations to Cassie Beasley, my infinitely talented student, whose second middle grade novel, Tumble and Blue, is currently in press and whose Circus Mirandus turned my advising life into pure joy during Cassie’s final semester at VCFA.

Untitled-17Imagine my delight when I discovered that the amazing art for Cassie’s new book cover comes from this duo, Hari and Deepti. Fantastic! A new India connection in American children’s publishing who make paper art with lightboxes!

Look at the deep colors, the glow from the backlit art. Look at that exquisite cut paper work. I hope we’ll see more of their art before too long.

The OED and Me

simlalibrary1971I first encountered the Oxford English Dictionary in this building in India. It was the first time I’d ever been in a public library. This one was a remnant of the Raj in the hill town that is now called Shimla. The dictionary was at eye level. Only five volumes remained of the original ten-volume 1928 edition. I pulled one of the five off the shelf. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a love affair.

Through my life I have managed to make do with other dictionaries, but I’ll never forget the fine, dusty smell, the crackling pages of that old OED, with its tiny print and its detailed examples of the usage of each word. I spent quite a few hours lost in those pages. Many years after that first encounter, I read The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester’s wonderful account of the OED’s creation.

image2Recently, a friend was retiring, and in preparation he was clearing out his office. He decided he didn’t need an additional twenty volumes in his house–and I got lucky!

We’re reunited, the OED and me. I’m gray now and my knees creak a whole lot more than they did in 1971. The Dictionary is one revision older and several volumes fatter than the cloth-bound version I first met. But now I can look up a new word every single day if I feel like it. Fascicle. Zug. Meridional. Does it get better than this?


Down With Spoiler Alerts

Raise your hand if you find that the concept of the spoiler ruins any real conversation about the craft of writing. I sometimes tell my students that if they flip to the end of the book all they will get is information. Information is not going to spoil the wonder of the journey. Get over the concept of spoilers, I tell them. I don’t know if they really listen.

Jonathan Russell Clark puts it well:

As a participant in a story, the most practical thing to do is ignore what you “know” and let the narrative plunder you for all your spoils, strip your skin off your bones, and let it, in every way it can, spoil you rotten.

Spoil you rotten. Exactly.

The spoiler alert (Caution: read at your own risk, etc.) implies that once you know a fact about the story it’s all over. But it’s not, is it?

charlottesweb_coverCharlotte (gulp) died.

Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

Rosebud was a sled.

Some spoilers are more emotionally loaded than others, I’ll admit. A seven- or eight-year-old needs to be delivered that particular arachnid demise most tenderly.

But I’m talking about writers here, people who want to understand what makes a story tick. If you’re a writer, the facts in a spoiler shouldn’t mean a thing unless you’ve read the pages in between or watched the entire movie. Facts are not what a novel is made up of (or a film). If that were the case, a bulleted list of scenes would do the trick and none of us need ever reread anything.  For the seven-year-old who first encounters Charlotte, rereading is everything. Rereading unpacks the beauty of friendship, of life, of loss and healing and regeneration. At that point, the child reader has gone beyond spoilers.


Freedom is a Constant Struggle

I’ve been writing historical fiction and working on my historical nonfiction project at the same time as the unfolding of the most bizarre political events of our time. It’s all given me new windows into what the past means to me, personally, and why it matters. Growing up in India, I always had the sense that the American civil rights movement was a natural, inevitable validation of peace and justice. Of Gandhi. Of everything I grew to hold dear. Freedom. The end of colonialism. Human rights. Equality. You know. Those kinds of things. The things all human beings ought to be be able to take for granted.

Now, in the 21st century, I’m finding a new reason for why history matters. It matters because you can’t ever feel you’ve won the battle against human meanness, insularity, cruelty, and injustice. Look at this page from John Lewis’s heartbreakingly beautiful graphic memoir, March: Volume 3.  img_1167It is indeed. Last week I spoke to kids on the BC mainland about voting and rights and taking a stand–for trees, for people. It matters more than ever.

Resistance at Standing Rock 

All story is personal and all story is political. Here is a real life story of resistance playing out in our time, but really, it’s not a new tale.

lastingechoesI am reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s Lasting Echoes, his eloquent compilation of Native voices that carried the story of endurance, suffering, and resistance into the twentieth century and made it accessible to young readers.

Keeping this history alive has always been important. But knowing it and understanding its significance is, sadly, much more relevant today. Instead of taking the road toward healing the planet and communicating with the indigenous people of the continent, we have taken quite a different trajectory.

Meanwhile the protests continue against the Dakota Access Pipeline.



Is it Craft or is it Magic?

Students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA  are asked to turn in an annotated bibliography each month. Mostly trade books for young readers, with a sprinkling of craft books and books not specifically intended for children. I ask my students to use that bibliography as an opportunity to read closely and thoughtfully and generously. I tell them to read books they might not otherwise have selected for themselves. To read several books published before the year they were born (thank you, Sarah Ellis). To read books published in countries other than their own. And when they read, I ask them to look for what makes a book work for them, or fail to do so. I tell them they must get beneath the surface of the text and try to examine its working parts. Which also means understanding their own reactions to a book–why do they like or dislike it? What part of that is the book’s doing and what part the reader’s background and feelings and experience?

My students sometime worry that this kind of close reading is going to ruin the magic of it for them. Secretly they worry that tinkering with their writing is also going to somehow kill its beating heart. Megan Abbott speaks of just this in her reflection on a youthful epiphany on reading Macbeth. Perhaps craft and magic are not two separate things, after all.


Photo courtesy of VCFA

And now, VCFA has launched this incredible new venture. Focusing on bringing diverse young readers and writers to the table, the initiative introduces diverse young minds to the magic of craft and the universe of reading and writing. This has not happened overnight. It’s taken hard work and persistence and collaboration between the college and our amazing graduates. It’s taken an enduring belief in the confluence of craft and magic.