About This Blog

Writing With a Broken Tusk began in 2006 as a blog about overlapping geographies, personal and real-world, and writing books for children. The blog name refers to the mythical pact made between the poet Vyaasa and the Hindu elephant headed god Ganesha who was his scribe during the composition of the Mahabharata.

It also refers to my second published book, edited by the generous and brilliant Diantha Thorpe of Linnet Books/The Shoe String Press, and still miraculously in print since 1996. Over the years, the content of this blog has coalesced around themes of keeping promises, crossing borders, and forging relationships in the service of story. 

Sparrows in a New Don Freeman Book

Remember Corduroy, the bear who lost a button and found a friend? When Don Freeman, creator of the much-beloved little bear, died in 1978, his wife, Lydia worked with his former editor on a book Don had left unfinished: The Sparrows of Stonehenge. The project never made it to press, but Don’s son Roy Freeman picked up the work and it’s in print now. It’s a time-capsule of sorts, offering a misty, somewhat haunting view into a picture book creator’s mind. There’s the allure of the henge itself, of course, standing in its green Wiltshire meadowscape, raising questions in the minds of viewers.

The delight of this book from out of the past lies in the fact that it does one thing that picture books do better than any other art form. That is to say, it endows the world’s smallest denizens with the ability to answer our biggest questions. We turn to sparrows in this book, starting with Farrow the First, the ancestral sparrow whose descendants still swoop and chirp around the stones.

The collective third person viewpoint of the sparrow family drives the story, which includes the lovely little conceit that the sparrows directed the building of the henge. They even name it. If this places us present-day humans in the peripheral role of slightly confused witnesses to history, while small avian participants sing their hearts out—well, really, that’s not so far from the truth.  

And if it all feels as if it’s come straight out of a sketchbook, it has. Of interest to Freeman fans and children’s lit enthusiasts.

Visualizing the Long Project

©John Hendrix, used by permission of the artist

Thank you to Caroline Starr Rose for letting me know about this marvelous graphic depiction of a process with which I am all too familliar, having been in “this writing business. Pencils and whatnot” for about thirty years now. Being the slow, plodding writer I am, stubbornly Poohish, I know all about the arc of the long project and have occasionally surprised myself retracing my own footsteps in search of Woozles, or could they be Grandfathers?

Artist John Hendrix (author-illustrator of John Brown: His Fight for Freedom) has captured it all in visual form with the brilliance and succinctness that induces instant illustrator-envy in wordsmiths.

Process, however, is process, and I find myself nostalgically retracing this very route in thinking about the road I’ve taken with a few novels, several picture books, and one 6-year nonfiction odyssey. Big takeaways:

  • Be open to the spark. Indulge in chasing the perfect butterfly.
  • Expect to fall, sooner or later, into the pit of despair
  • Be aware that you don’t always control the time axis, which is sometimes short and taut, sometimes unpredictably elastic
  • Final = different, not better
  • Trust the process
  • It will soon be lunch-time (wait that’s Pooh, not artists)

Prints (color version with a little additional enhancement) available here.

The Dead Bird

A bird is meant to defy gravity, right?

So finding a dead female varied thrush outside the door is just a heartstoppingly sad experience. I have stickers all over the glass windowpanes to stop birds from crashing into them. Did this bird miss my UV stickers? Was she a window casualty? Such a terrible thought.

She was beautiful, regardless, claws delicately curled, eyes closed, a few drops of rain on her speckled breast. A perfect life form.

And because there is a picture book for every event the universe can possibly render up, my dead bird reminded me right away of The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown. There’s a newer edition of the book, but the one that lives in my mind is the one with the bright green cover, published after Brown’s own death with illustrations by Remy Charlip.

The child sensibility is so strong and so wonderfully eccentric in this book, as when the children sing to the bird. Snippet:

We sing to you
because you’re dead
Feather bird
And we buried you
In the ground
with ferns and flowers

The children put flowers and ferns into the little bird’s grave and they cry, because the bird is so beautiful and because, of course, it is dead.

No question. Picture books are the best life manual one can possibly find.

The Story Before the Story: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 2

Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Nicole Wong, is a meditative reflection on poetry and love, family and connection and the beauty around us. Earlier, Mark told me about his journey as he dreamed of this picture book. Here’s more from him now on the path by which the book grew into itself.

[Uma] You began this part of your reply to me with a question: Where do stories go when no one reads them? Where did this one go and what happened when you sent it out into the world?

[Mark] When I sent Kiyoshi’s Walk to publishers, no one wanted it. Difficulties, people say, make you stronger. Tell someone that when they’re in the middle of a difficulty. I didn’t touch the story for several years.

[Uma] But you also said there was a story before the story. So what was that?

[Mark] The arc of the writing of the story actually began before I wrote the story. Elements from my life that made their way into Kiyoshi’s Walk had been brewing for years.

The story begins with a reference to “the wise poet Eto.” When I was in college, I was searching for a mentor, a wise poet, someone like Eto. I remember the black and white photo of the poet, Robert Kelly, on the back cover of one of his books. He was walking out of a misty forest, his long beard flowing. At poetry readings, his voice was deep. I remember thinking of it as a river.

The grandson Kiyoshi is a central character in the story. Can writing spring from unknown desires? I wrote Kiyoshi’s Walk, a story that’s about a child learning how to write poetry and also about the relationship of a grandfather and grandson, years before Jesadha, my first grandchild, was born. Was I delving into and exploring a relationship I wish I had? Kiyoshi’s Walk is, among other things, a love story, a story about the love of a grandparent and a grandchild. Jesadha is now the center of my life. He makes me feel alive.

[Uma] And there’s no Basho now. No boats. How did that happen?

[Mark] Eventually, the story was picked up by Cheryl Klein at Lee & Low. Cheryl, a great editor, can make you see things in a different way. What, she wondered, would the book be like if it took place not in 17th century Japan but our contemporary world? She also discovered, during an editorial meeting, that Basho never had any children, let alone a grandchild.

I tried a new draft, placing the story in a contemporary city rather than in rural Japan. I thought about and tinkered with the two versions, showed them to Mary Lee and to my friend and colleague Uma…

[Uma] That would be me.

[Mark] …who said I should give the modern version a try. I sent both versions to Cheryl.

I asked her, “Would you just pick one of them for me?”

“No.”

By the time I had finished the “final” draft, there was no Basho, no river in Japan, no paper boats sailing towards the stars. Yet draft after draft, image after image, I still felt that the first story was there, a shadow story informing the versions. Now the story is contemporary and takes place in a small American city.

[Uma] Or a Canadian one–let’s say it looks like somewhere in exurban North America. But then the story changed some more?

[Mark] The story didn’t go where I had originally planned. It took on more of a life of its own, with the help of others. There were surprises in the writing. During the process I lived in ambiguity and uncertainty, which is an apt description of my creative act and its long arc.

After the book is published the arc continues.

When I read the published book out loud, when others read it, when children look at the illustrations, the story continues. What I wrote in a room by myself becomes a performance piece. It becomes interactive, child and adult sharing, each of them weaving the story, in some way, into their life.

[Uma] That’s the beauty of the picture book! Congratulations, Mark, on a joyful, lovingly crafted book.

See Caroline Starr Rose’s interview with Mark about Kiyoshi’s Walk.

The Meandering Walk Called Writing: Mark Karlins on Kiyoshi’s Walk, Part 1

Happy Book Birthday to Mark Karlins on Lee and Low’s release of Mark’s picture book, Kiyoshi’s Walk, illustrated by Nicole Wong. I sent Mark a couple of meandering questions, since I was lucky enough to stroll alongside during part of this book’s journey. Here’s our conversation.

[Uma] I’ve been thinking about the arcs of writing projects—how some take odd turns, or become something entirely different from what we imagine they’re going to be. Will you talk about the arc of this project—how it came to you, how it changed, and some of its unexpected turns? 

[Mark] I started by not knowing where I was going.

Nine years ago I wrote a few words and then a few more. I was on another of the meandering walks I call writing. After a few misturns and a patch of muddy ground, I found myself in a seventeenth century Japanese forest. The poet and wanderer Basho and his grandson, Kiyoshi, were beside me.

“Where do poems come from?” Kiyoshi asked.

“Come,” said Basho, “let’s walk.”

They walked past deer, birds, cottages with windows lit by kerosene lanterns. Basho wrote.  Kiyoshi wrote. Their poems were haiku that came from what we now call Mindfulness. They saw clearly, they listened, they let what was in their hearts join with what was in the world. Their poems blossomed.

[Uma] And then you wrote to me that they folded their poems into paper boats and set them on the water.

[Mark] Each boat was the length of a small child’s hand. On an inside wall of the boats, a poem. The river was dark. The sky was dense with stars.

[Uma] That’s poetry right there. And now can we go back to the long arc?

[Mark] The long arc of my writing depends upon images.

I’ve always been attracted by images. They speak to me deeply, like lampposts lighting the way. During the writing of Kiyoshi’s Walk, the boats were central, radiant images that kept me writing.

There were also other images in the writing of the story. A deep pond sounded with frogs. A pair of cranes appeared. When I was stuck at one point, I opened an art book and found what I was convinced would help lead the story in the direction it needed to go:

In my book, Basho and Kiyoshi would hang their poems in spring blossoming trees. The poems would also be boats. Was this too much? Was I falling in love with images and not giving the story its proper structure? After all, a satisfactory structure is one of the pleasures of reading a picture book.

[Uma] But your story didn’t embrace structure readily, is that right?

[Mark] For years the story drifted—a new line written here, another line taken out there. I read the story over and over—to my wife (my longtime and always first reader), to myself, at a night of faculty readings at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I wrote haiku under the personas of Basho and Kiyoshi. I wrote haiku for myself. I read about poetry and Japan. I wondered why I was so attracted to this story.

[Uma] Kiyoshi’s obviously still in the book, but there’s no Basho present now, and the setting has changed. Yet that orginal vision of finding poetry in everyday observations has found itself. In a starred review Kirkus described the book as “a meditative walk,” saying it “unleashes the power of poetry.”

More soon from Mark about the publishing journey of this beautiful picture book.

Freedom in Structure and Other Thoughts About Words

This Thursday will be National Grammar Day in the United States, designated by none other than my colleague Martha Brockenbrough. I almost said “founded” but you can’t found a day, or find it, for that matter, can you?

Martha also wrote a book on the subject of good grammar and its place in the world order: Things That Make Us (Sic): The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the White House, and the World. It’s the American answer to Lynne Truss’s well-known meditation on hungry (or murderous) pandas.

Seriously, who but writers finds grammar so compelling? Consider these principles from syndicated columnist Catherine Rampell’s English teacher. Here’s the first:

Learn all the rules of language, even the stodgy-seeming ones. You will find freedom in structure.

To which Rampell writes:

Initially, this exactitude felt constricting. But once we mastered Mr. Greco’s rules — learned who from whom, and whatnot — they were liberating. He taught us the masonry of language. Now we could build whatever we liked. I remember realizing, at age 12, how awesome it was that words and sentences could do my bidding.

I get that! I do. My 12-year-old self was thrilled to pieces when she understood the distinction between “who” and “whom.” Mind you, “whom” will probably fall off the language map in my lifetime–I found myself striking it out of a draft recently for sounding, well, stodgy. But the neural pathway the distinction wired for me–that’s the point of finding joy in the company of words.

Imagine 2200: Cli-fi Short Story Contest

Environmental nonprofit news outlet Grist’s solutions lab, Fix, has launched a new climate-fiction short story contest. Imagine 2200 calls for stories (3,000–5,000 words) that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress. What might the world look like in the year 2200, and how did we get there? Conjure your wildest dreams for society — all the sweet, sweet justice, resilience, and abundance we could realize — and put those dreams on paper. Submissions are open now, and will close April 12, 2021.

Literary judges will include authors Adrienne Maree Brown, Kiese Laymon, and Morgan Jerkins. The top three contest winners will be awarded $3000, $2000, and $1000 respectively, and nine additional finalists will each receive a $300 honorarium. Winners and finalists will be published on Fix’s website and will be celebrated in a public-facing virtual event. Writers are invited to join this uprising of imagination, and help turn the page on earth’s next chapter. 

Process Notes: Caroline Gertler on Many Points of Me

I’m always thrilled to see books by writers whom I can claim as my students. Not because I think I taught them how to write that book–do we ever do that, really? The most I can do is recognize students who have the talent and drive to take a book from idea to completion. After that my job is to point out how a writer can lift a story into the light.

For me, Caroline Gertler’s middle grade novel, Many Points of Me, was about light—the luminosity of stars, the sheen of freshly applied paint, the light of artistic inspiration and finally, the inner light that allows Georgia’s grief and anger to grow into resilience and hope.

I asked Caroline if she’d write to me about these layers and how they emerged as she worked on the novel.

[Caroline] Thank you, Uma. I love your take here, because light is such an important concept to me. I’ve mostly thought about light in terms of painting. I did an MA in art history, specializing in 17th-century Dutch art, and my absolute favorite artist is Vermeer, known as the master of light. I wish I had thought consciously during the writing process about how to play with these layers of light, as it would’ve been interesting to approach the novel from that angle—at least, at later stages during the editing process. But it wasn’t something I was aware of as I was working (and I didn’t have the benefit of your wise eyes on it!). This is one of the more exciting parts to me about having my novel out in the world—hearing readers’ responses, seeing how the story resonates with other people.

[Uma] I found the use of present tense oddly touching, given Georgia’s assertion about her father in your opening sentence: “Here’s the thing about when your dad was a famous artist: he still lives. He still is.” But coming to terms with the death of a loved one is often about accepting that they no longer are, that what you must own instead are feelings and memories. Will you talk about how it felt to explore that tension in your writing?  

[Caroline] That opening sentence really encapsulates what you describe about the conundrum of death—accepting the beloved no longer are, and only live on in your memories. The “what if” question that drove this story for me, is “what if your father was a famous artist—the world feels like they know him, own a piece of him—but you didn’t have as much of him as you wished you could’ve?” I wanted to explore how Dad’s memory would live on for Georgia, when she has his art, and some memories of him (which are still rather fresh while she’s young, but sadly, will fade somewhat, eventually), but she wishes she had more, and can’t get away from his constant presence through his art. That presence being both a sad reminder, and a blessing.  

As far as voice, I’m exhausted right now by the first-person present-tense of this novel, having lived in it for so long. My current book that I’m working on, I initially drafted in first person past-tense. Then switched to third person, to get as far away from first-present as possible! Now, I’m writing it in first person-past tense, and I think I’m settled into that voice for this book. Fingers crossed. My revision process in the early stages is drastic—page one rewrites for the early rounds.

[Uma] Finally, what kind of work did you do—on or off the page—to layer in the mystery elements of the novel?

[Caroline] You know my writing history almost as well as anyone, Uma, as one of my first classes in writing for children was taught by you—at least fifteen years ago, now. Back then, and even when I started writing this story, my intention was to write a surface-level, fun mystery.

[Uma] I remember that. But drafts are like that. Drafty. They teach you how to write the next round and the next and that is all you need.

Photo courtesy of the author

[Caroline] I didn’t want—or know how—to dig deeper emotionally. But as I matured into my self and my writing, I came to accept that my stories would never resonate or have narrative drive if I didn’t access more emotion. Plus, I’m not quite the plotter/mystery-conjurer that I wish I could be! I’ve also come to realize that in a sense, all novels are “mysteries,” in that they’re driven by a question, or set of questions, that need to be answered on some level by the end. And the best novels keep readers turning the pages because they need to know what happens.

So, the mystery in this novel ended up emerging more organically, by getting to know my characters and what they wanted, what was driving them. At some point very late in the revision process—I think just before my agent sent the manuscript on submission to editors—I did sketch out the mystery in a few lines on a separate piece of paper, just to make sure it worked.

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer how to write that book. What did this book teach you?

[Caroline] I learned so much about revision through the process of writing Many Points of Me. I had a beloved James Bond-type scene in the novel which I held on to for years, until that very last revision before going on sub to editors. In a previous version, Georgia submits Dad’s sketch to the competition on purpose, because she’s desperate to win, and doesn’t have anything else that works for her entry. And then, she tries to get it back by breaking into the office at the Met where the entries are being held. I had so much fun writing that scene of her escaping through the internal corridors of the Met, evading the guards, but by the final drafts, that scene didn’t make sense anymore for what the book had become. It was a prime lesson in “killing your babies.” But by the time I realized it had to go (several people had gingerly suggested it over the years), I was ready, and knew what had to happen, instead.

I’m so happy to have run alongside on the very first part of this book’s journey. Congratulations, Caroline Gertler.