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. 

Audrey Couloumbis on Yarn, Sweaters, and the Long Internship

My virtual writer friend of over 20 years, Audrey Couloumbis, read my post on knitting and revision and wrote to me about a time when she sold sweater designs to magazines. I asked if I could use part of her email in this blog post. Because it’s Audrey, (author of Getting Near to Baby, dramatized since its original publication, and lots of other titles) this reflection on crochet and writing and life reads like prose poetry.

came up with a sweater that could be done in a mohair with a huge hook. half hour sweater. took it to woman’s day and the editor there, lovely motherly woman whose name escapes me at the moment wanted four in different colors, all with a different yarn than i had used.

she said how much? i figured two hours work, plus the time on the sample piece that couldn’t be sold to another magazine and i said 350. i figured i did well. 

when i got home she called and said she wanted to offer these designs as kits and since i had a shop (on my front porch) could i do the kits. i could and we settled on using my mother-in-law’s nyc address as the order point.

i had a mental picture of maybe two or three months of possibly 30 orders a week. 

ha.

Here’s a crochet time-warp! Image courtesy of Audrey Couloumbis

it was fall going into winter when the magazine came out and the orders were many more than expected and my mother in law enlisted her sister, aunt adrienne to do thanksgiving that year. i came in from the country with apple and pumpkin pies 2 kids and a dog to find mama nicky sitting at her dining table awash in paper and a laundry basket system (u.s, canada, and i think military bases, 4 or 5 baskets) for the order forms.

Letter from a museum director. Image courtesy of Audrey Couloumbis

she looked fairly stunned but also deliriously happy. she said she was giving thanks for every one. i asked how many hours did this take her and gave thanks for her, bcs i never could have opened that many envelopes in a day and set up a system to keep track.

we spent three day weekends stuffing envelopes and slapping on the labels, then trips to ups with the station wagon crammed with envelopes. this went on till spring, slowed to about 100 orders a month in warmer months (mohair) and picked up again the next winter.

we got orders for about six years. by the end it was a trickle of one or two a month. i think we sold abt 2500 of those sweaters at 28ish dollars.
i know this isn’t the kind of writer’s progress you were looking for but the thing that got me thinking,

that editor didn’t pay me 350 for the sweaters as a whole she paid me 350 for each 1/2 hour sweater. and when i asked her about it, she said when she pays her doctor she isn’t paying all that money for the ten minutes she spent with him, she paid for his years of learning to have the answers to her questions.

that too is what writers are paid for–a long self-imposed internship. 

Hunkering down in the era of Covid-19, a self-imposed internship, its rigors offset by yarns real or imaginary, seems like a desirable option. A chance to lose oneself in texture, form, and style.

Collection items – The British Library

Image source: public domain. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/curiosities-in-the-tower-of-london

Among the British Library’s collections are items reflecting centuries of children’s stories, poems and illustrations. Take a look at scanned images of a 2,000 year old homework book, an abolitionist poetry book, a 1484 translation of Aesop’s Fables from the French by William Caxton, Bronte juvenilia, and a 1741 miniature book, as well as original manuscripts and first editions from notable writers of our time.

Sitting With…The Power of Silence

The first 2020 issue of Bookbird has a wonderful article on reading difficult books to very young children. It’s about a two-day project at each of three preschool centers where educators worked with preschoolers through Oliver Jeffers’s picturebook The Heart and the Bottle (2010). From its large, awkward size to the ambiguities of its storyline, the book offers many ways to deepen connections between words and pictures on a page and the lived experiences of young children. But reading it is tough.

The article opens with a Kafka passage, ending this way:

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Starting with the “big sadnesses” of children living in the reality of the world, the article addresses adult reluctance to deal with hard feelings. Teachers confess to worrying about not being able to manage their emotions in front of the children.

The term “sitting with” is used consistently, and it’s a wonderful way to think about it. One can “sit with” and acknowledge hard feelings without needing to solve a problem or provide a solution. The world isn’t instantly fixable, or even fixable at all, so why not simply allow the feelings to be, and thereby validate them?

This account of a “somewhat successful, and somewhat failed, project”  is moving because it combines individual responses to the experience from adults and children without privileging one over the other. The writers conclude:

Because we are too little habituated to sitting with discomfort and to tolerating sad feelings as we read books aloud, teaching this book remains a brave and challenging act.

Provoking a pause, permitting us to “sit with…” our feelings. Isn’t this practically necessary to being human?

Thumbu Sammy, 1911

The SAADA 2020 calendar began January with a striking image. It was taken by photographer Augustus Sherman in 1911, part of a series depicting new Ellis Island arrivals. We don’t know much at all about the boy in the picture. Titled “Hindoo boy”, the subject is identified in Peter Mesenhöller’s “Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920” (c1905) p.94 from another print that bears a caption: Thumbu Sammy, aged 17, Hindoo ex SS ‘Adriatic’, April 14, 1911. 

Who was this boy, I wonder? He’s well dressed. Look at the gold-trimmed cap, the diamond earring, and the shawl wrapped about his shoulders. What would have sent a 17-year-old around the world on the SS Adriatic in 1911? Here was what happened in 1911 in his native India:

I wonder, was it plague that drove the boy? Or was he part of a resistance to British rule so he had to leave? Or was his wealthy family interested in sending him to an American university? And what became of him? Where did he go from Ellis Island in 1911? Where did he live and die? Is there anyone today who counts him among their ancestors?

So many unknowns. And a photographer who caught a face, a posture, and those remarkable details of clothing and jewelry and hair.

Knitting Away the Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

I realize this is not going to be everyone’s skein of yarn, but knitting helps me revise. I learned it as a jumpy child, reactivated my skills at VCFA–thank you, Rita Williams-Garcia!–and have made it a part of my writing practice for over a decade.

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The objects I generate–hats, socks, scarves, shawls, a blanket, and the occasional attempt at a sweater–are not the point. I’m aiming to keep my hands busy so I can still my restless mind and get it to concentrate on the project at hand. So I can read on screen and hard copy without being tempted to rush in and start moving words around when what I need to do is dive into a deep revision. Knitting has seen me through revisions on three novels, a chapter book, and countless picture books.

So when a friend sent me this link to a Christian Science Monitor article on a writer’s attempts to learn to knit, I read it with interest:

Knitters create holes with string using sticks and a clickety-clickety noise.

We do, we do. But wait. The writer says:

Knitting is spooky. It’s obviously impossible to do, and yet you see people doing it all the time. These people clearly are a superior life-form. If you doubt this, spend a day with a dozen of your friends. At the end of the evening, have a look around: Eleven of you will have cookie crumbs in your laps, and the knitter will have an entire sweater.

Now, much as I’d like to think of myself as a superior life form, that would not be me. I am not that kind of knitter. When I go into my local yarn store and find myself immersed in knitting conversations, with the names of yarns flying about, I have to summon up my courage so I can pretend I belong there. It’s a lovely store, no question. Collectively, the staff possesses an absolutely frightening expertise on needle sizes and yarn weight and stitch-markers. They can squint at a rack and tell me just how much of that nice brick-red yarn I might need for the sweater I am working up the nerve to try out. They can point me to Ravelry patterns almost before I’ve finished asking my question. All of this serves to put me properly in my place–I leave clutching my yarn, in a state of mind that is equal parts gratitude and humility.

Which, come to think of it, is much the way I begin every new writing project. Aware of how much I have yet to learn. Grateful to see what the next book will teach me. But knowing that if I show up over and over, I will make it through the journey.

Many writers experience self-doubt. We may laugh about imposter syndrome but it afflicts many of us to varying degrees. It helps me when I click-clack a couple of needles and create holes between loops of yarn. If I do that in between scrolling through my manuscript on a screen or perusing a paper copy of a troublesome chapter, I’m better able to fix the holes in the work I’m trying to revise. Making an entire sweater, I tell myself, is not my art form. It’s just something I do, in my own imperfect way, while working on knitting the pieces of a story together.

Heartdrum to Sound in 2021

Last fall, HarperCollins announced the launch of Heartdrum, a new Native-focused imprint led by award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek), and Rosemary Brosnan, Vice President, Editorial Director, HarperCollins Children’s Books.undefined

More from the Harper web site:

Launching in Winter 2021, Heartdrum will offer a wide range of innovative, unexpected, and heartfelt stories by Native creators, informed and inspired by lived experience, with an emphasis on the present and future of Indian Country and on the strength of young Native heroes.

Congratulations, Cyn! I can’t think of anyone better to do this magnificent work of expanding the richness of Native voices in the children’s and YA universe.

Karen Rivers on Fiction and the Measurement of “Real”

In her middle grade and YA fiction, my colleague and neighbor Karen Rivers is really good at navigating that difficult terrain between the real and the imagined, in such as way as to leave readers guessing until the very end which way their belief should be tilting. And she’s done it again with her middle grade novel, Naked Mole Rat Saves the World. Here Karen talks to me about this book–the characters’ minds, especially young kit (yes, that’s in lowercase), anxiety and depression, and the emotions we pour into writing fiction:

[Uma] I kept guessing, and turning the pages to find out, whether what I was reading about was fantastic or not, or whether that distinction mattered. I’m left with this huge respect for the human mind, especially the minds of kids.Can you talk about what led to the elements of this story and what leads you in general to this kind of interior world of your characters?

[Karen] I love the question about perception vs. reality: Does it matter if a thing is “real” or not if you’ve perceived it to be real? When I was a kid, I was obsessed with UFO abduction stories and to this day, I wonder if it truly matters if what happened to these people really occurred. In their minds, it did, and that experience is what shaped who they are. Our experiences are no more than our perception of our experiences, so the measurement of “real” is always muddy. Writing this as it is, with kit’s experience being presented as a reality made me think of those UFO abduction stories.   Disproving or proving scientifically or factually what really happened is so much less interesting, from a fiction writer’s perspective, than the emotional impact of the real or perceived event. Whether it’s impossible or possible for kit to truly become a naked mole rat was never the most interesting point for me.     

[Uma] “Hurt people hurt people.” Clem’s mother is quoted as saying that, and your book takes readers to those inner anxieties we all experience. As your characters cope with their own anxieties, they act and react, and those actions in turn have consequences. How did you tread such tender, emotionally fraught ground while still giving the story its nimble, light quality?

[Karen] First of all, thank you for saying that it came across as nimble and light! I think as a society, we have a strong inclination to follow buzzwords toward a foregone conclusion: “Depression” and “anxiety” are heavy words that carry the weight of assumptions and long-held stigmas about mental illness. These things are just facets of us, not all of who we are. In The Possibility of Whales, Nat’s dad is often saying, “Everyone isn’t all one thing!” and I truly believe that.  We are all complex beings.  I have anxiety and lots of people close to me have anxiety, depression, or both.  But we all also have a sense of humor and have experiences and full lives that aren’t ONLY defined by the times that we are struggling. So to make a long answer short, I hope that it’s because I see kids (and all people, really) as complex and lovable and worthy, people who are so much more than one thing.   

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer something. What did this one teach you? 

[Karen] When I started writing, I didn’t realize how much kit’s mum’s anxiety spilled over onto kit, and for me, this was a huge revelation. I knew my kids were affected by my issues with anxiety, but I think I’d let myself believe that they didn’t notice or that, because it was all they ever knew, it didn’t affect them. When I wrote this, I realized just how much kit absorbed her mum’s anxiety and how much work she did to take care of her. It was intensely emotional for me; it forced me to confront something I hoped wasn’t true. I truly think it made me parent differently than I had been doing, which is life-changing. In a strange way, I’m grateful to kit for that.  

[Uma] And I am grateful for Karen’s talent and her offbeat, extraordinary depictions of the worlds of childhood and youth.

Counting Birds

The Christmas Bird Count in Victoria BC last year yielded sad news. The count, that took place on Dec. 14, found 135 different species of birds, well below the 10 year average of 140 to 143. Local ornithological experts say that bird counts in Victoria are the lowest they’ve been in over a decade.

But it doesn’t do any good to get into a pickle about what’s going on in the natural world. We still need to put one foot in front of the other. We need to try to deal with the present, as grim an outcome of past mistakes as it might appear to be. Maybe we can treat it instead as a kind of seed of what we’re trying to become.

When you’re looking for hope, open a picture book. Bird Count by Susan Edwards Richmond documents the counting of birds by a young girl learning to be a citizen scientist in her communty. The tally, which grows down the side of each spread in a clever design feature, depends on young Ava’s sharp eyes and ears, both of which she puts to good use. At least two other people need to hear or see each bird, and no bird should be counted twice. Young readers not only learn how the annual Audubon Bird Count works but also get to identify a nice array of birds.

From Bird Count by Susan Edwards Richmond, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman

An additional touch in Stephanie Fizer Coleman’s digital illustrations is that both Ava and Mom are brown-skinned, while Big Al, their team leader, is identifiably white with a weathered face and a carroty beard.

So there. Count those birds. Plant a garden. Compost. Do what we can do and write the stories that matter.

“It’s not about us.” Remembering Jim Lehrer

In 1988, barely a toddler, my son began to recognize the theme music of a show we watched regularly: at the time it was called The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. He’d get a delighted look on his face and begin making little dancing movements. It was a part of his childhood as the show was part of our lives as immigrants in America, trying to make sense of all its many contradictions.

The program was fair and balanced before that phrase became a slogan and lost all meaning.

A PBS tribute to Lehrer says this:

Night after night, Jim led by example that being yourself — journalist, writer, family man, citizen — can be a high calling.

Being yourself. That too has changed with time, with too many public selves revealed to be less than admirable.

And this:

For Jim, being a journalist was never a self-centered endeavor. He always told those who worked with him: “It’s not about us.”

A Washington Post headline reads:

Always low-key, Jim Lehrer anchored TV news for grown-ups.

Indeed. But childhood memory can be a powerful thing, like a piece of music paired with a kindly presence on the screen, delivering the news, without drama and fanfare, to families across America.