Visions of Revision

Art_of_losingA recent issue of the AWP journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, includes an article by Philip Metres titled “The Art of Losing (and Other Visions of Revision).”

Metres (is that not a fantastic name for a poet?) had me with his opening:

Recently, when I asked fiction writer Derek Green for a nugget of wisdom about revision, he relayed what Caryl Phillips had told him: “you never finish a work, you only abandon it.” I’d always heard that 19th century French poet Paul Valery had served up this wisdom, but I discovered that’s it’s much older than that. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo DaVinci apparently said that “art is never finished, only abandoned.” And probably DaVinci heard it from somebody else. No doubt, we’ll soon discover some grumpy cuneiform writer who is complaining about his busted stylus and the ending of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

This blog is named for the mythic scribe with an elephant head who broke off his own tusk to use as a stylus in order to keep a writing bargain. How could I not be hooked?

“The Art of Losing” goes considerably beyond common revision narratives of drudgery and loss.  It suggests that we need to make revision our friend. We need to move toward the work as it reveals itself.

Move toward the work. Here is the missing piece in how I have tended to think about writing. One half of the process, the way I see it, is to keep in mind the impulse that led to this story bubbling up for me in the first place. To honor my intention for it as a writer, and to gauge all critical readers’ comments in the light of that intention. That has always worked when I’m in draft mode, or even while I’m assessing feedback on a work in progress.

But somehow, by the time I get to revising, my beautiful intention always seems to get fragmented. What shows up on the page rarely gleams as brightly as the original spark. I begin to question my intention, and in that questioning, the work itself threatens to disintegrate. But Metres says the work is not full of mistakes and it’s not broken. It’s just not itself yet. So in revision, he suggests the writer needs to move towards the work that is still unfolding. Even, or maybe especially, if it’s going in a different direction from the one I might’ve envisaged for it? There’s a thought.

The other reason this article made so much sense, of course, is that it cited a poem I loved when I first read it and have loved more with each passing year. The poem is Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, which begins:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
The intent to be lost. That’s exactly it. Many of the other revision wisdoms in  the article have to do with words and lines and stanzas, the stuff of poetry. They’re all worthy and interesting but they won’t change how I revise.
But placing revision in the context of losing and loss, and celebrating it–that gives me a whole new metaphor to live with and write by.

Pictures: Possibly 12,000 Years Old

Before there were books, before there was writing, there was art. We don’t know why that instinct welled up in early humans to make a mark, to render their world in images, but we know it did because the results endure today. In the Ratnagiri District of the Indian state of Maharashtra, I saw petroglyphs carved into the porous laterite rock beds that lie scattered among fields, in this area famous for its distinctive Alfonso mangoes.

Here is an elephant, its eye-folds delicately marked, its tusks and ears and trunk clearly defined, recognizable even after millennia of exposure to sun and wind and blowing sands:

Ukshi.jpgDocumenting the petroglyphs has been an entirely voluntary enterprise, led by two men, both engineers by profession, both with deep connections to the region and with driving interests in birds and butterflies respectively: Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe. With the help of volunteers, they have located up to 1,500 discrete images at over 50 sites. They’re also speaking to local villagers about the importance of the sites and the need to protect them–and trying to decide what form such protection would take.

Some of the carvings are bold and representational. Here’s a monkey. Ukshi2.jpg

The seashore’s pretty close, so as one might expect, there are fish.  Ratnagiri3.jpgAnd peacocks, and tigers, and rhinos as well, in an area far from current rhinoceros habitat. And then there is this strange figure, stylized and enigmatic:Rajapur.jpg

There are other sites with prehistoric rock art elsewhere in India–the rock shelter paintings of Bhimbetka,  the carvings in the Edakkal caves in Kerala’s Wayanad, and others.  We don’t know yet how the Ratnagiri sites fit in with all those others. That is yet to be studied.

What now? What do you do when you have a treasure like this on your hands, scattered over a large area, across a patchwork of private and public lands? Marathe and Risbood both speak of a holistic  vision–of a region designated not only as a site with historical and cultural significance but also a biosphere, rich in plant, bird, and butterfly species, and home to people with real-life stakes in the place. Stewardship is only possible, they argue, when you create it from the ground up. It can’t be imposed by governmental fiat and it shouldn’t be dictated by politicians and bureaucrats who don’t understand local concerns.

As we left the last figure–who is it meant to be and what is it saying? No one knows–I felt strangely moved. When a vast work of art lies at your feet, almost too large for your eyes to take in all at once, you cannot help but think about the mind or minds that dreamed it up, and the hands that held the chipping quartz. You cannot help but wonder what meaning we should draw from this human urge to think about the world around us, to recreate it in stone.

As the documentation and protection of these sites progresses, Sudhir Risbood can be contacted via old-fashioned post at the following address:

B-09 Shri Datta Sankul
Ghanekar Alley
Subhash Road
Ratnagiri 415612

Blue Trunk and Access for Travelers With Physical Disabilities

Rupa_Valdez_9552_2017-200x300.jpgAssistant Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia, Rupa Valdez is also the founder and President of Blue Trunk Foundation, an organization and web site dedicated to a single goal–accessible travel for everyone.


I asked Rupa if she’d talk to me about her organization and its  mission.

[Uma] I love the intersections of so many ideas in the Blue Trunk name—an old traveling trunk, the blue color of the international disability symbol, the trunk of the elephant god Ganesh who removes obstacles from the paths of people. Talk about how real-life intersections, symbolized in this name, are reflected in your mission.

[Rupa] People with disabilities or health conditions typically face many types of obstacles when traveling, from a lack of ramp access to smoke-induced breathing challenges to limited allergen-friendly food choices. Our ultimate goal is to be advocates for removing these obstacles, like Ganesh, but in the meantime, we hope to give people access to the information they need to make travel enjoyable.

[Uma] On your web site you have a page about your choice to use person-first language. Why does this matter?

[Rupa] The intention of person-first language is to emphasize that a person who has a disability is, above all, a person, with many other characteristics including but beyond disability. Some within the disability community find terms that are not person-first, like “autistic child” or “disabled person,” as reducing the individual to their disability. However, not everyone within the disability rights community prefers person-first language. This perspective comes from many ways of thinking. One is that it is often the environment which creates the experience of disability; for example, a person who uses a rollator might not feel disabled if there is short, properly graded ramp access because nothing is preventing them from equally experiencing the venue. From another point of view, using terms like “disabled person” is a way to reclaim that identity for the purpose of furthering the disability rights movement. Ultimately, we chose person-first language because we believe it is less likely to alienate the people we seek to reach.

[Uma] Your current web site is just a placeholder. I understand a full-service site is in the work. What are you aiming for?

[Rupa] Currently, we are approaching the final stages of building out our full website. This will allow people to search restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, and other travel-related businesses based on the accessibility features important to them. Our site will first go live in Charlottesville, VA, and Madison, WI, and our ultimate vision is to become a global resource for accessible travel. We have been partnering with many organizations and individuals, both locally and nationally, to develop these resources and expand our reach.

As a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of others to continue growing. If your readers are interested in learning more about Blue Trunk or contributing to our mission, they can visit us at

Our blog is a place for sharing stories about traveling with a disability or health condition. We bring together many voices to share the personal experiences of a particular trip, from attending a Broadway show with a wheelchair to navigating airport security with liquid nutritional supplements.

[Uma] Thank you, Rupa Sheth Valdez, and much luck with this important work.

Trading e-mails with Rupa reminded me of how few picture books I have seen depicting kids with physical disabilities so I went to the library to see what I could find. In looking through the picture book shelves, I was taken aback to find only one that wasn’t beating me over the head with its good intentions!

Here it is:


Emmanuel’s Dream is the true story of Ghanaian athlete and activist Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, whose bike ride around his country made headlines, bringing people with disabilities out into the streets (some of them emerging from their homes for the first time ever!) to cheer him on. Sean Qualls captures the energy and movement of the story with clever shifts in perspective. In telling us about Emmanuel’s story and his life, Laurie Ann Thompson’s words leave traces in the mind: “being disabled does not mean being unable.”

As Rupa says, we need to avoid “reducing the individual to their disability.” Shouldn’t that also mean making people with disabilities visible–way more than we do now–in books for our youngest readers?


Inviting Pictures: The Magical Text of Marion Dane Bauer’s The Stuff of Stars

StuffofStars.jpgThere is no question that Ekua Holmes has brought pure magic to the pages of The Stuff of Stars.  Her CSK Illustrator Award-winning art is otherworldly.

Created on hand-marbled paper,  the images seem to float, drift, explode upon the page as they render the text in visual terms. They are brilliant, abstract, compelling. I am driven by words, I’ll admit it, and I can’t help myself. I’ve spent an hour peering into the depths of those color swirls, finding new patterns each time I look. Every time I open them, the pages of this book make me feel as if I’ve been invited to visit an art gallery.

But it’s the invitation in the text I want to talk about. Because Marion Dane Bauer’s  very spare text is written on nothing short of a cosmic scale. Just look at this:IMG_2840

…invisible as thought,
weighty as God.

We’re told that text has to be illustratable. As a writer, you offer up the possibility of an image. You leave room for the artist to enhance your words. You say only what the art can’t say.

But this much room? How do you take the concept of all creation and even begin to translate it into pictures? What a nerve, to even think about this as a picture book! And such a perfection of words. About to embark on an exploration of the Big Bang and the formation of the Universe, Bauer’s words “weighty as God” challenge the narrow-minded to check preconceptions at the door!
IMG_2841.jpgBut all this may be precisely why this text invited the creation of this particular style on the part of this particular artist. How else can you show “the beginning/ of the beginning/ of all beginnings” other than in pure color, pure abstraction?

Holmes uses the brilliance of her palette, the luminosity of contrast and the sharp edges of collage shapes, until, in the final moving moment, we encounter the adult and child figures of the book’s jacket. Ungendered, unmarked by race or other elements of identity, not even necessarily human, they are simply alive in the face of a marvelous, living universe. The concluding words carry the same wonderstruck realization: “All of us/ the stuff of stars.”

This is no ordinary text. It seems only fitting that it ended up inviting such extraordinarily beautiful illustration.



Kidlit for Christchurch

On Friday March 15, a gunman opened fire in two Christchurch mosques, Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque. During this terrorist attack, 50 people lost their lives and 48 people were injured. And I have been riveted by the grace and humility with which New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adearn has become the face of her country in dealing with the aftermath of this terrible violence.

So I’m very glad to see that there is an effort by members of the children’s literature community to take a stand against hatred and Islamophobia, and to show solidarity with the victims and with affected Muslim communities.

Auctions and raffles will support the United for Christchurch Mosque Shootings fundraiser, which aims to “help with the immediate, short-term needs of the grieving families.”

Donate items for the auction and raffle here. The fundraiser will be open March 24th – March 27th.

Mailbox Pages, Pressure, and the Writing Seesaw

listeningI try to be a disciplined writer. That is to say, I try to write something daily.  Something on a story page. Blog posts don’t count.

That part works most of the time. When I’m in danger of falling off the discipline wagon is when I’m near the middle of a large project and my self-doubt is reaching tsunami proportions. In recognition of this seemingly inevitable stage, a colleague and I agreed to serve as each other’s “mailboxes” for pages from a work in progress.

We decided on an arbitrary deadline (the 5th of each month) by which to send each other approximately 30 pages apiece. If we didn’t receive pages in any given month, we’d send gently nagging emails.

When a mailbox sender’s working draft got completed, we agreed, it was completely optional for the mailbox recipient to  read it and offer comments. No pressure at all, right?

Six months later, my colleague, who is obviously more disciplined than I am, completed her draft. I read it. It was wonderful. Not finished but filled with good energy and story and brimming with character. I wrote my comments, sent them off and got back to work. She said I was right on track–she might not necessarily agree with all my suggestions but my reading of the draft gave her lots to work with, which is the whole point. I felt validated as a reader which is always good for my writing confidence.

As for my draft, travel intervened. And teaching. I went to Kindling Words East, which kindled the fire for my novel right back up. I longed to get back to this work. What I didn’t have were enough hours in the day. Then, predictably, the doubts began to creep in. Had I packed too much into the novel? Should I go back and take out a subplot or two? Was it even a middle grade? This is a slippery slope.

My semester began. The picture book intensive kicked in. My reading started piling up. I’d sent in my February 5 mailbox pages in January, anticipating the crunch, but March 5 now loomed. It felt impossible.

I wrote a picture book draft. That’s always a nice break from a novel.  But somehow, I couldn’t go back to my mailbox pages.

I asked my kindly mailbox for a hiatus. A couple of months, I said. I’ll have to set the novel aside. How about I resume in May? She agreed. This is a no-pressure agreement, right? All about mutual support and respect for our work.

Then something odd happened. Right after I’d hung up the phone, I fired up Scrivener and got right back into the novel. Right into the messy middle. That evening, I wrote a couple of new scenes. Not 30 pages, granted. More like 10. But I was off and running again. Just the thought of not having to meet this (completely flexible, erasable, voluntary) deadline unfettered my creative impulse and allowed me to move ahead. And so the seesaw goes.

Dangerous Words: Reflections on Dave the Potter

I was at Kindling Words East earlier this year. KW is that wonderful organization that brings writers and illustrators and editors together to speak in community about the work we love. And I got to listen to Bryan Collier talk about Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave–a book that earned him the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. His presentation, weaving his own artist’s journey into the story of how the art for this book came to be, left many in the audience misty-eyed.

9780316107310The genius of the text of Dave the Potter, written by Laban Carrick Hill, lies in its unwavering focus on the clay and the pots and the man who made them. Understandable to children, it nonetheless paints a picture of that most pernicious institution of American history–chattel slavery. Dave’s hands are dry and caked, his fingers chapped, the work unending, with the massive jar threatening to collapse, if not for the attention and skill of the man at the wheel. And yet, more than the massive pots, more than the life of the potter even, was a drive in Dave to add a final touch.

…before the jar
completely hardened,
Dave picked up a stick
and wrote to let us know
that he was here.

I wonder where
is all my relation–
friendship to all
and, every nation

This background from the New York Times review of the book:

Very few slaves could read or write, and those who displayed their knowledge risked punishment. South Carolina took the lead in banning the education of slaves, and in 1834 — the year of Dave’s earliest known poetry in clay — the state severely tightened its antiliteracy statute. Whites who taught slaves to read or write were subject to fines and imprisonment. Slaves caught teaching other slaves were “to be whipped at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 50 lashes.”

The text of the book is clear and simple, while the art is rich, deep, and moody, opening up the history to spiritual dimensions, bringing into the reader’s heart the wide sweep of imagination that led Dave to reflect on his own scattered family and yet settle on friendship, extended far out of his reach, to “every nation.” What a tribute to the triumph of love over hate.

This book is an incredible dance of words and images–the words of a white scholar who has devoted the work of his life to the study of African American history, and the art of an African American illustrator who felt that history in his heart and brought it to the page.

Series Nostalgia: Animorphs

riverofadventure.jpgLiterate adults who were once child readers tend to carry warm memories of books that shaped and nourished them. They also carry memories of the books they were addicted to, the ones that worked like candy, arriving in shiny packets, promising escape to imaginary yet predictable worlds, and usually dismissed by grownups as junk. Often these junk reads were series titles.

In my long-ago youth, they were the books of Enid Blyton. I read them avidly and repeatedly, and then tossed them aside for the next one and the next. In the end, I grew disillusioned with them and with the worldview they represented, but that is another story.

My son, now a responsible adult in the world, similarly devoured a series of books that pre-dated Harry Potter. Anyone remember the Animorphs books? Today we’d call them middle grade. At the time, they were thought of as YA.

I will admit I have not thought about the Animorphs books in a good, long time, but then I came across this article in  The Paris Review. And I remembered that child in my house, not yet morphed into a teenager, who devoured every one of these shiny new titles, poring over it until the covers disintegrated, at which point it was time to read the next. The pages warped from endless flipping to experience the low-tech spot illustration that “morphed” from front to back. My son subsequently created a miniature morphing flipbook of his own, transforming himself into our cat. It felt as if those morphing teens–boy to jaguar, girl to butterfly, girl to squid, boy to hawk–had moved in with us for the long haul.

In the Paris Review article, Frankie Thomas writes:

Look, I know! I know how it sounds. And yet, against all odds, the books were great. They were dark and witty and thrilling, endlessly inventive and achingly sad. They made me laugh out loud and cry myself to sleep.

Back in the waning years of the 1990’s and the start of the oughts, on the principle that I needed to know what the kid was reading, I read the first few. Even with my parental mind on, I could feel that dark-funny-aching blend. They were every bit as consumable as the Enid Blyton series titles of my youth, and they were clearly by a writer who knew what she was doing.

That writer, of course, is Katherine Applegate. She and her husband Michael Grant co-wrote the books under the name of K.A. Applegate. The series was a product (I use the word deliberately) of Scholastic Books. There were 54 of them in all. Eventually the fad passed, Harry Potter arrived on the scene and we were off on another kind of book-binge altogether–also, as it happens, courtesy of Scholastic.

But series titles count in the life of a young reader, and today I find myself thinking fondly of those cheesy 90’s covers and the friends with secret powers who battled the evil invasive Yeerks and kept my son reading voraciously.

The Yeerks of our time, alas, digging into our ears, uttering falsehoods, taking possession of our thinking, come from right here on Planet Earth. An Animorph or two might come in handy in the real world right now.