The Tenderness of a New Draft

I’ve often wondered at my ambivalence about giving new work to someone else to read. I mean, I’ve done this for years. I do want to know what’s wrong with my draft. I know there’s always something wrong. I know I don’t have the judgment to see it yet. But sometimes, especially with something that’s really new and just developing, I really just want to be acknowledged. Let’s face it. I just want to be told what’s right.

So this post on Brevity’s nonfiction blog really spoke to me.  L. Roger Owens frames the whole complicated business of asking for feedback in terms that finally made sense. He begins with an anecdote about his 8-year-old daughter:

“You’re a writer, Dad,” she said. “You can give me some pointers, if you want.” In other words: Here, Dad, take the bait. This could be the last time I ever ask for your feedback.

How easy it would have been for me to declaim on showing versus telling, the importance of eliminating adverbs, writing with specific details (“Did he fall out of a tree or was it an oak?”). And then end my craft talk with a kicker-quote by Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg.

But I didn’t.

He goes on to talk about how to think through what you need at different times when you might ask for feedback, so you don’t need to end up shutting down your inner child. Instead, you just learn to shield her tactically.

I’ve discovered there is an art to asking for feedback, and if you learn it, you can get the kind of feedback you need, when you need it.

It’s good to remember that the self who makes me long for praise is the very one whose boundless energy throws up the best ideas for me in the first place. I don’t need to outgrow her, just channel her energy where it serves me best, and acknowledge that sometimes we all just need a little praise.

The Pain and Glory of Adolescence in The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond

TightropeDominic Hall is the son of a mother with dreams and a bitter, disappointed war veteran father. Simpson’s Shipyard looms over their town, an occupational sinkhole to trap workers and their families. The borderland location in northern England seems to symbolize the teetering life of its adolescent narrator. The book is suffused with love and grief, ambiguity, contradictory longings and fears. The emotions seem to pour directly from the gritty background of the pebbledashed housing estate and the ever-present shipyard. An ecstatic and enduring first love reveals its myriad complications as young Dominic grows beyond childhood. The story progresses to the beat of his vacillating heart. The first person narrative casts secondary characters in tender detail. As a reader, I felt as if I were witness to something exquisitely private, yet so terrifying in its honesty that I couldn’t look away.

As Dominic and Holly dare to follow the impractical dream of an education, the tight-rope of their shared childhood stretches literally and metaphorically over the pages. Desperate cruelty hovers as well in the person of  the brutal and complicated Vincent McAlinden. The tussle of lifestyle and language is underscored by the rich use of dialect, which Dominic weaves his way in and out of, much as his life itself wavers between staying and leaving.

Almond blurs the borders between heaven and hell in this beautiful, unflinching novel, which was first published for an adult audience in the UK and released as a YA crossover book by Candlewick in the US in 2015. I haven’t read the original, so I’d love to know how much has changed between the two editions. The Candlewick edition tilts somewhat towards hope in the end, and therefore feels pretty securely YA to me. Still, it wasn’t an ending I’d seen coming. Closing the book, I wondered, did I want a little more of a different kind of hope? Something to assure me that the dreams of childhood, even deferred, might have stood a chance?

But wait. Returning to the writerly retrospective opening, I can hear it.

I was born in a hovel on the banks of the Tyne, as so many of us were back then. It was a three room dilapidated upstairs flat, in the same terraced row where Dad had been born, and just upriver from Simpson’s Shipyard. Rats slunk under the floorboards, mice scuttled in the walls. The bath hung on a nail on the wall, the toilet was at the foot of steep steps outside. The river slopped against the banks and stank when the tide was low. There was the groan of engines and cranes from the yard, the din of riveters and caulkers. Sirens blared at the start and end of shifts. Gulls screamed, children laughed, dogs barked, parents yelled.

All hackneyed, all true.

There it is, the promise fulfilled. Setup and resolution, all in the first paragraph, practically demanding that when you finish this book, you have to flip back at once to the beginning, to see what you didn’t get the first time around.

So simple and brilliant.

Remembering MLK 50 Years Later

It’s not over. It wasn’t over with the bullet he took on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee is hosting a special commemorative web site to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

King came to Memphis because poverty and injustice were there, because the sanitation workers weren’t getting the tiny raises, the basic dignity they asked for. Today’s Memphis is still a place of vast disparity. Appropriately, the web site includes a call to peace and action.

No Justice, No peace;
Know Justice, Know Peace”
is our rallying cry.


Maya Lin Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery AL 

It doesn’t end, this journey. It can’t. Not in a bullet. Not while there is still injustice in the world. Not until “justice rolls down like waters…”

Take the pledge.

Voice and Story in The Breadwinner

I’m often asked where I stand on the question of own voices and appropriation. My answer is mostly that it depends.

It depends on how honestly the writer knows her own biases, on how much work she has done to get past them, on the reasons she wants to write a story in the first place, on how she taps not only the significant details of place and custom and viewpoint but also the underlying spirit and soul of the story. And it also depends on whether that story really, really cries out loud to be told.

But who is the judge of that? It’s worth listening to the words of a girl who first read Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner when she was nine years old. Excerpt:

The second I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I think I read the whole trilogy in about…like ten days or something.

Not just that, but this girl, upon meeting the author of the book, demanded to know when it was going to be made into a movie.

And there’s more. Much more, in fact.

When the book did get made into an animated film, this very girl (whose great-great-great grandfather first left Afghanistan for South Africa–a camel was part of that tale) auditioned for and ended up getting cast as the voice of Parvana in the movie.

Clearly, for that one reader, Ellis got it all just right. And that reader, young actor Saara Chaudry, gives voice with all her heart and soul to the character of a book that she says changed her life.

So there you are. It depends.

The American author Jacqueline Woodson is the laureate of Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2018

Courtesy of Educating Alice, this fantastic news!

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

The American author Jacqueline Woodson is the laureate of Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2018

Jacqueline Woodson is an American author, born in 1963 and residing in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of more than thirty books, including novels, poetry and picture books. She writes primarily for young teens, but also for children and adults. One of her most lauded books is the award winning autobiographical Brown Girl Dreaming (2014).

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) is the world’s largest award for children’s and young adult literature. The award amounts to 5 million Swedish krona (approx. $613,000 or EUR 500 000) and is given annually to a single laureate or to several.

The citation of the jury reads:
“Jacqueline Woodson introduces us to resilient young people fighting to find a place where their lives can take root. In language as light as air, she tells stories of resounding richness and depth. Jacqueline Woodson captures a unique poetic note in a daily reality divided…

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Sean Petrie on Typewriter Poetry Rodeo


Keep an eye out for these typing poets in your neighborhood. They can make you laugh and cry with their 3-minute personalized poems. That is correct. Three minutes. Personalized. Guaranteed.

Vintage typewriter poet and master of flying verbs Sean Petrie helped Cynthia Leitich Smith and me (lucky us!) when we led our Highlights Foundation workshop last year. Sean threw in some poetry rodeo for us one evening and I have been a committed fan ever since.

61xJk-TYSdL._SX435_BO1,204,203,200_So I talked to Sean about the forthcoming typewriter rodeo book–yes, there is a book!

[Uma] Typewriters. Poetry. Ad libbing. Put those three things together for me—how did this begin?
[Sean] It was not really anything we planned — and definitely not something we expected to last more than a day!
Back in 2013, Jodi wanted to do a booth at the Austin Maker Faire, which is a craft festival, featuring people who “make” things, from art to robots to wooden spoons.  But Jodi, who had an editing business, wasn’t sure exactly what she would make — maybe something with words?  So she put out a call to me and two other friends (Kari Anne & David), to do a booth called “The Word Makers,” where we would make up poems, stories, anything involving words, for the festival guests.  Kari Anne collected old typewriters, so she brought those along, because she thought it might be fun to use them, too.  But really, we had almost no idea what we’d do — we just planned to figure it out as we went.
Once we started, people flocked to the typewriters — mostly for the wonderful clacking sound.  And for some reason we began with haikus (probably because they are so short, and gave us a clear structure), on whatever topics people gave us.
Pretty soon a line formed at our table, and someone asked us, “Do you all do this at other events?”  We looked at each other for a nanosecond, and then said in unison, “Of course we do!”  Also that day, someone in line called out, “This is like a typewriter rodeo!”  The name stuck, and we registered the domain that night.
[Uma] And the book? How did that come to be?
[Sean] It’s pretty magical, how much complete strangers will share with us, and how much of a brief, intense connection we can have, writing them a poem.  Once those folks leave our poetry table, however, we generally never see them again.
But after we’d been doing events for a couple years, we’d gotten a following on social media, and some of our poems — and the stories behind them — had found us again, with people posting about them or emailing us.
We submitted a handful of these to a literary agent, who loved the idea, and then we reached out to more poem recipients, to try and collect more poems and stories.
Andrews McMeel (who I adore because they also publish The Far Side cartoon anthologies) agreed to publish the book, as not just a collection of poems, but even more so of the people and stories behind those poems.  It’s as much a human interest book as a poetry one.  And we are so excited about it.
[Uma] This has got to feel like doing a Tabata workout with words. How does quick thinking on the keyboard impact the rest of your writing? 
[Sean] I’ll be honest, I had to look up “Tabata workout” to see what it was, but yes, exactly!  It is definitely a rapid-fire mental workout, and sometimes a fingertips-tapping one too!
I think it helps the rest of my writing in two important ways.
First, it’s a great tool to fall back on, when I feel like I have writer’s block.  At the poetry table, there’s no such thing as writer’s block — we don’t have time.  There is literally someone standing there, waiting for you to write them a poem on the spot.  And there’s a line of other folks behind them, waiting for you to finish and get to them.  So there’s no time to worry about writer’s block — you just jump in, start typing, and trust in yourself.  When I feel stuck in my other writing, I try to draw on those same feelings, mentally put myself in that same situation, to keep going.
And that leads to the second, related aspect — writing confidence.  Often when I start a poem, I have no idea at all where it will go.  But I’ve learned to trust that whatever pops into my head, that is *always* the best place to start.  And that, somehow, some way, I’ll find a way to make it work by the end.  Sure, some poems “work” better than others, but that’s just life.  And if I tried to figure it out in advance, tried to plot out the “perfect” poem each time, I’d never get anywhere.  Also kinda like life.
[Uma] And finally, what does using a typewriter add to the whole process?
[Sean] First off, there’s the lovely sound, which often draws people to our table.
But also, there’s the inability to delete your mistakes.  Our typewriters are all manual ones, with no correcting ribbon or anything like that.  So, you type “hope” where you meant “hype,” you are stuck with that wonderful accident.  And sure, you could cross it out, but it’s still there.  Or you can go with the unplanned gift of “hope,” take the poem in a new direction.  (That is, if you even realize the mistake at the time…)  I find that both terrifying and freeing — with our typewriters, there’s no way to avoid mistakes, but that means you don’t try as hard to be perfect.  Also there’s literally nowhere to hide with a typewriter — the poem recipient sees the letters, the moment I type them.
I think all of that, along with handing the recipient a physical copy of the poem, right there on the spot, creates this wonderful brief bit of connection between the two of us — connection that often seems so lacking in our social media, screen-oriented world.
[Uma] Thank you, Sean Petrie. Here’s to happiness and accidents and combinations thereof. 

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

bronzeanssunflower.jpgAs measured as the movement of the jet-eyed buffalo dear to the heart of the young boy Bronze, Cao Wenxuan‘s novel for young readers is a masterfully crafted work. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist who is sent to a Cadre school during the Cultural Revolution. When her father dies, she’s taken in by a family from the village of Damaidi across the water, where she finds love and belonging and community. The boy Bronze, who does not speak, becomes her brother.

And what a tale it is, of people who are loyal and loving and generous to one another against all odds! Each family member makes allowances, even sacrifices for the others, and they value Sunflower as if she were a precious jewel in their midst. Locusts, illness, natural calamity, aging, death—we see them all, and we see the children grow in spite of them, or perhaps because  of them. Even the casually brutal Gayu comes around in the end to help Bronze and Sunflower when they’re trying to hide from the city people. I could go on and on. There’s a brilliant scene in which the village leader manages a critical meeting, working the crowds, the family, and the officials with a dexterity that brings the lot of them alive in the mind. Those dreaded officials, too, have hearts. They, after all, come to take Sunflower back in order to make amends for having sent her father away in the first place. There’s a sure authorial hand here, nothing invisible about it and yet it never detracts from the story.

And the ending—I won’t give it away other than to say that its golden light suffuses the reading heart, and at the same time, it’s impossible to decide where it lands. It’s a study in ambiguity. Was it a mirage? And if not, where is the hope coming from that we feel so palpably on the page?

Finally, it’s hard to find poetry in a translated work and to feel in it the energy of the source language that it came from, but between Cao Wenxuang (winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Anderson award) and translator Helen Wang, that magic is conveyed across geographical and linguistic borders. Candlewick, 2017 (Walker Books UK, 2015).

When Conceptual=Tiny

Picture book writer and VCFA graduate Kate Hosford sent me a link to this video from conceptual artist and miniature knitter Althea Crome:

Among her creations are the sweater and mittens that the title character wears in the 2009 animated film Coraline based on the book by Neil Gaiman.

Crome has pioneered knitting at the incredibly tiny scale of 1:12. She holds the title of fellow at the International Guild of Miniature Artisans (IGMA), and her process of creating her extreme art requires an incredible level of precision and skill.

What does it do to the subject you are looking at, to shrink it down on such a tiny scale? I tried it in my preferred medium, that is to say, words. I wrote notes for a story, setting no word limits. I read my notes, taking in the spirit that stirred the idea in my mind, made me rush to put it down.

I put the notes away.

Then I wrote the story, imagining it all taking place on a tiny scale, everything reduced, shrunk down to a miniature mental diorama. It ended up short and sharp and pointed, with very few wasted words. Not tiny, but definitely denser and tighter than it would have been otherwise. I ended the day feeling a little dizzy from the exercise. It sharpened my perceptions, allowed me to get closer to the heart of the story. Most of all, it allowed me to gain necessary distance from the initial words in my notebook.


Thank you, APALA and Amelia Bloomer List Committees


StepUpToThePlate_final_coverStep Up to the Plate, Maria Singh took me thirteen years to write. It was a process of slow, repeated revisions, lots of tossed pages and plenty of feedback from many informed readers. So now that it’s out in the world, it’s very nice to see the book getting a little recognition, thanks to to the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association and the Amelia Bloomer Project. Why does a story come bubbling into the mind and demanding a writer’s attention repeatedly? I don’t know, but it’s rewarding now to look back at the notes, the edited versions, the comments from readers, the questions from my writing group, my scribbled asides, the research material–to look at all that and know that others find meaning in what I have managed to make of it.  Time can sometimes be a writer’s friend.