14 Years at VCFA

It’s January.

This must be Montpelier. The first time I came to this campus was in the summer of 2006, nearly 14 years ago. Here’s the serenity spot I pause at between dorm and classroom, in between lectures and workshops, readings and conversations about books, books, books. And now it’s nearly time to leave.

Thank you, VCFA. Teaching here makes me a better writer.


Sound and Scene

Diane Ackerman, writing about the mysteries of bat echolocation in The Moon By Whale Light, says this:

It’s not hard to understand echolocation if you picture bats calling or whistling to their prey with a steady stream of high frequency clicks. For most of us, their vocal braille is too high to hear. At our best and youngest, we might hear sounds of twenty thousand vibrations a second; but bats click at up to two hundred thousand.

And this:

Many can detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf. As the bat closes in it may click faster in order to pinpoint its prey. And there’s a qualitative difference between the steady, solid echos bouncing off a brick wall and the light, fluid echo of a swaying flower. By shouting at the world, and listening to the echoes, bats can compose a picture of their landscape and the object in it that includes texture, motion, distance, size and probably other features, too. They shout very loudly; we just cannot hear them.

When I am scurrying my way through a draft, I cannot often the sounds. Visual imagery comes easily. Auditory snatches feel elusive and faint, as if I have not yet tuned in to the story I’m trying to tell. It’s all part of the deal, returning many times to the story until I begin to hear not just the characters but the sounds of the places through which they move. And then many more leaps until the whole thing comes together, sound and setting and characters all one, moving forward in rhythm, nothing out of tune. Well, that’s the aim, anyway.

Randall Jarrell’s immortal The Bat-Poet is one of those books I return to when I want to get the feel of a small character in a deeply personal setting, all of it filled with heart:

The bat had always heard the Mockingbird. The mockingbird would sit on the highest branch of a tree, in the moonlight and sing half the night. About love to listen to him. He could imitate all the other birds – he’s even imitate the way the squirrels shattered when they were angry, like two rocks being knocked together; and he could imitate the milk bottles being put down on the porch and the barn door closing, a long rusty squeak.

There. Mystery, reality, wonder, all of a piece.

Beasts at Bedtime

At the start of another year, I find myself remembering one of the many ways that reading made me into a writer. One of my very early memories of books and reading is from my childhood years in Delhi Cantonment, Delhi, India, back in the last century. 

I see now that I was practicing being a writer.

In Beasts at Bedtime, ecologist Liam Heneghan studies the environmental underpinnings of children’s literature.

The chapter on Pooh, “The Ecology of Pooh,” addresses, among other things, the famous bear’s migration across the Atlantic into the American landscape, courtesy of Disney: the de-hyphenation of his name (perhaps at Ellis Island?) the shifting of accents, the addition of the character of Gopher. Pooh changes, Heneghan suggests, but in many ways he remains essentially the same.

Is that not true of all migrants? We change, as does the place we leave behind, and yet we retain a core of who we have always been. Another of Heneghan’s points that made me think again of my own vivid childhood Pooh experience:

… That which is most delightful to us in nature as adults is that which we remember from our youth. Thus, the landscapes of our adulthood, whether we have moved 300 miles or 3000, tend to remain somewhat unfamiliar to us and, as a consequence, difficult to understand, much less to love.

Maybew, though, we immigrants have learned to carry those pluralities within us, so we can craft overlapping, intertwining landscapes of the mind, joining memory and the senses together in a new and powerful reality. Pooh, after all, taught me to reverse-engineer the landscape I read, fusing it with the one around me. And so, as a grown-up, I can carry within me the gardens of my childhood, even as I absorb into myself the places through which my journey has taken me.

Kindness is Welcome Here

Frog, Mouse and a bunch of homeless animals figure in this woodland setting that easily stands in for anybody’s everyplace. In a world that increasingly feels devoid of welcome and kindness and the shared building of community, editor and writer Patricia Hegarty‘s warm comfort tale offers a simple code that lies at the heart of all peacemaking.

As the year ends, if not the decade, I’m comforted as well to find this web site, representing an ongoing project between two friends, one Hindu, Ravi, and the other, Azeem, Muslim. The Dharmadeen Alliance features videoclips and articles about interfaith friendship in Nepal, an exploration of the feminine concepts of Shakti and Shakina in both religions, an interfaith symposium in Singapore, a story of Kashmiri Muslims taking care of Hindu orphans, tech professor and activist Ram Puniyani’s TEDx talk about history and the political imposition of divisive hatreds, and more. (Puniyani has received threatening calls for his lectures promoting tolerance and understanding between Hindus and Muslims in India).

Gandhi was fond of quoting Corinthians 1:13, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” And what greater way to manifest love than with kindness?

All over the world, we humans are busy corroding our souls with suspicion of and hatred for one another. What if instead, we practiced (and welcomed) kindness, communication, understanding?

Light and Shadow

Quirpon Island, Newfoundland, 2019

Viewpoint is everything, we know. It determines what part of a story gets told, what gets left out. It shows us where to look, where to linger, where to leap, where to make connections.

Viewpoint is practical. It can be chosen, adhered to, supported, shifted as needed.

But then there’s the question of light. Light is capricious, dependent on much that is outside me, the writer. Light is what I find out about my work in progress as I’m blundering through it, living it in my head when I should be feeling it in my heart. Light is the illumination I get when I’m not looking directly at the story but allowing my mind to swirl within it.

Light casts shadow, and that too is more than a choice. Once I see what needs to be included, the rest falls away, like the shadows in a picture that superimpose one image on another, or blend building and sky in fantastic cutouts I never intended.

What Draws You There?

empiremade.jpgEmpire Made by Kief Hillsbery is part travelogue, part family memoir. It’s the story of Nigel Halleck who sets out from England to be a clerk in the East India Company in 1841. But it’s also the story of his American nephew many times removed, who travels to India, Nepal, England, and Afghanistan, to unearth Nigel’s story.

I loved the rabbit-holes of the Raj the book took me down—the Golghar in Patna, the Russian in the court of Nepal, the machinations following Ranjit Singh’s death, the atrocious goings-on at Haileybury, the origin of the phrase “in the nick of time,” the sad tale of the decline of Dacca and its eponymous muslins, and so much more. The book follows the slow evolution of the Company from a band of feckless adventurers into the instrument of Empire but along the way, the tales of oddball characters lend enchantment (Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, is just one among them). Fluid writing with an engaging narrative sweep. IMG_3393.jpgI found it pleasing when odd, unexpected connections showed up–e.g., Monier Williams whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary sits authoritatively on my bookshelf, was a classmate of Nigel’s.

Finally, Hillsbery offers an unusual take on all these layers of history for two reasons: firstly, because he’s American, he makes connections broader than either a British or an Indian writer might. He notes, e.g., how the Cornwallis monument in Calcutta commemorates  his victories in battles against Americans in the Carolinas, Irish rebels in Connacht, and Indians under Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore. And secondly, while I felt from the start how deeply personal this story was, there remained mysteries about it that didn’t clear until the very end. At that point those elements became a kind of poetry, echoing fragments of information I’d had from the beginning, only it took this whole journey through history and geography for me to understand what they meant.

I suppose the question to ask yourself, in every writing project that comes your way, is “What draws you there?” Those lines connecting writer and subject gained in strength and significance as I read my way through this book, each link placed clearly and with intention.


Look at the Weather by Britta Teckentrup

9781771472869_FC.jpgLook at the Weather
, originally published with the title Alle Wetter by German author illustrator Britta Teckentrup, comes to North America via Owlkids in an adapted translation by my friend and VCFA colleague Shelley Tanaka.

It’s a beautiful book, informative and clear, always keeping the young reader in mind, and the illustrations are exquisite. Using a simple direct address, the text speaks to the reader about weather in all its aspects—sun, rain, ice and snow. The final section is dedicated to extreme weather, and also addresses climate change.

Some spreads feature very little text, others lay out the physics of light or the placement of the constellations so that the reach of the book ranges from intimate to sweeping. The clarity of the writing allows the large, expansive illustrations to lead the eye. Details of place, as well as the palette employed, suggest a setting that can be interpreted as European and possibly North American.

Backmatter includes a glossary and author’s note. At 152 pages, this is a hefty book, inviting visual contemplation rather than a sequential read. But it’s also satisfying in the way that art can leave you feeling saturated–its an effect created by color and line and the suggested movement of wind and water, all held together with words that both inform readers and invite them back for more.

I don’t know of a comparable book with a wider lens, dealing with weather in a more global context, but what a gift that would be!

Taking America Back

In a foreword to We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden, Nic Stone (Dear Martin) writes of her Indian American high school US history teacher, a Mr. Tripathi and how remarkable it was that he, an immigrant, was teaching US History in one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse high schools in the state of Georgia. Yet they never talked about the fact that they were the only two brown-skinned people in that classroom. It wasn’t something you did, back then.

IMG_3372.jpgWe Are Not Yet Equal is all about talking plainly of what has remained unmentionable for too many years. It’s a YA adaptation of Emory University professor Carol Anderson’s White Rage in which she laid out the patterns of advancement and retreat from ideals of equality and away from the deep injustices of centuries of slavery.

The Anderson and Bolden adaptation employs historical narrative to shed light on the measures taken for generations by white people, from assaults upon progressive policy to the most utterly absurd legal contortions, to keep Black resolve from succeeding and Black aspirations from being realized. The book pulls no punches—accounts of Mary Turner’s 1918 lynching in Georgia and Ossian Sweet’s 1925 ordeal when trying to move into a white neighborhood in Detroit (and his subsequent suicide in 1960) are just a couple of examples. They’re unflinching in both their clarity and their compassion toward the victims of these crimes.

Some young readers may be shocked to learn that Mississippi didn’t ratify the 13th amendment until 2013. That narratives of white innocence were rampant in the Nixon election campaign! That lack of equal access to education held back American technological advancement. And so much more.

The book ends on the fringes of the present time with Dylan Roof’s murder of nine black people in Emmanuel AME Church and Donald Trump’s 2015 electoral promise to “take America back.” It urges us to imagine a different future, one that really looks forward, takes the opportunity to defuse white rage.



Highlights 2020 Workshops

IMG_2108Just the other day, I was thinking fondly of the Highlights workshop I led in Honesdale, PA, with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Sean Petrie, all of  two years ago!

This year, the Highlights Foundation’s offering yet another terrific roundup of workshops, retreats, and symposiums for writers across genres, forms, and experience levels.A handy filtering tool has been added to the site to help you sort through the list and find the one that’s right for you.

Here are just a few examples:

Be sure to make time to walk in the woods as well.

Mary Winn Heider on The Mortification of Fovea Munson

Jacket Pic MWH.jpg

Photo courtesy of Mary Winn Heider

Ever since Mary Winn Heider was my student at VCFA some years ago, I’ve looked forward to the books that I knew she’d write–curious, eccentric, inventive. Recently, having gotten my hands on a copy of her delightful middle grade novel, I spent an afternoon chuckling over it and marveling at the machinations of its author’s wondrous mind.

Allow me to introduce you to The Mortification of Fovea Munson, and to the author who brings Fovea and friends to life: Mary Winn Heider. I asked Mary Winn to talk to me about her wacky new book.

[UK] Talking heads and music, a loopy extravagance of wordplay, and a kid finding her way in the world–how on earth did all this come together in the labyrinths of your mind? I want to know how that brain of yours ticked its way into this story.

[MWH] Well, the first spark happened outside of my mind and sort of…by accident? I was looking around for a job and I landed a gig as the receptionist of the cadaver lab at a medical school in my city. It turns out very few people arrive unexpectedly at a cadaver lab! (Often those that do have nothing to say.) So as the receptionist, I did very little actual reception and had plenty of time to write—it was as dreamy as a cadaver lab can possibly be.

The lab was a great workspace, but it was also immediately clear that I should set a story there. It was all life-and-death-y while still being completely absurd, and if that doesn’t sound like middle school, then I don’t know what does.

As far as the rest of the puzzle, I knew Fovea and heard her voice right out of the gate. Everything else took its time. I didn’t know there would be heads until Fovea heard a noise in the lab and decided to go check it out. I had no idea what the heads wanted at first, although the options were limited. (In general, the limitations of having half of your main characters unable to move much of anything but their eyebrows was not something I’d thought through. If it had occurred to me to worry about it, I probably would have been way more stressed out about it than I needed to be. And this is probably true about most of the things we worry about when we write?)

Mortification of Fovea Munson[UK] Very true. And really, drafting is not the time for worry.

[MWB] The wordplay is inspired by my own family, but feels inevitable in this world, since medicine is a field of chewy language—all that Latin and Greek and euphemism. One of my favorite details is Fovea’s obsession with the Museum of Holography, but that didn’t enter in until my editor demanded (in the kindest way possible) that I figure out what Fovea actually enjoyed. After some mental flouncing around, I remembered that near the neighborhood where I imagine Fo’s apartment building and the lab exist, there used to be a real Holography Museum. It closed about twenty years ago, but I’d been to it just before that and it was so weird and cool—and I decided she might like it. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a perfect, intangible foil it is to her parents’ love of the corporeal.

So I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t do anything (there was SO much to do!), but I did let myself be pushed around by the story a lot, and when I needed solutions to problems, I tried to use what already existed in the story as often as possible (like the Holography Museum, for example, or when I needed something flammable and I’d already stashed tampons in a drawer many chapters earlier. Chekhov’s tampons, I’m calling them.) That’s one of the things I love about revision—finding the threads that already exist to be tied together. I’m a big believer in our writerly inner geniuses, that we subconsciously plant things that later become useful or meaningful in ways we didn’t overtly recognize when we were doing it. It might not be a great way to get out of a labyrinth—getting pushed around by the labyrinth itself—but then again, it might?

[UK] Every book teaches you something you didn’t know before. What did you learn from writing The Mortification of Fovea Munson?

[MWH] Hmm. I learned I could write a novel, which is no small thing.

In the course of learning that I could write a novel, I also learned a lot about writing and about living and also about the cadaver business. I learned how amazing copy editors are…

[UK] Indeed. They are. Hats off to copy editors.

[MWH] And also how long you can leave a thawing head outside in the summer before it starts to go bad.

[UK] Wow. (To quote from the immortal Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, “Wow. That’s all she could say. Wow.”)

[MWH] I learned that I love revision more than I love drafting and also that when I make mistakes like accidentally ordering 600 legs, that stuff is very useful material.

[UK] 600 legs? You really did? I’m speechless.

[MWH] That’s right. I accidentally ordered 600 legs, because ordering legs—among other body parts—was my job and I was probably daydreaming about my story when I should have been paying attention to the online form I was filling out. I was supposed to order ONE leg at 600 dollars and…you can probably figure out what happened. But the good news is that then I realized it could use it in my story.

[UK] ONE leg at $600….I am lost in contemplation of this, but go on.

[MWH] My grandparents donated their bodies to science and I learned how that process works on the other end. I learned how to write about stuff that scares me, and how to do it in a way that is both irreverent and loving. Although—full disclosure—I’m trying to do that again, now, and I think it might be something I’ll have to learn all over again every time I write anything. But I’m here for it.

[UK] I’m so glad you are. What a treat. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next, Mary Winn Heider!