The “I” and the Eye in Nonfiction

IMG_3200.jpgI am emerging from a journey through a long tunnel. Five years long. A nonfiction tunnel that has involved two gut-and-rewrite revisions, a lot of ruminating on structure, story, the passage of time, and thesis–yes, thesis! Of which I can and will write more later, closer to the book’s publication next year.

What I can say now is that it’s historical nonfiction, sweeping in scope, and I am exhausted from writing it, but in the best way. I have learned more than I could have imagined when the first glimmers of this project showed up on my horizon.

Jan Priddy‘s post on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog sums up the creative part of creative nonfiction tidily. Priddy says:

The creativity is in the telling, not the story.

Which takes me back to Draft 1. It was earnest, packed with facts, burdened and burdensome in its effect. My editor asked me where I was in the draft? Who, me? I needed to be there. Yes. I did. I spent the next year or so trying to find myself in the narrative. I didn’t have to be the expert in the content. That was not my role. What I needed to own was the voice, the viewpoint. In other words, I needed to employ my fiction writer’s soul to find the story in the history I wanted to bring to the page.

Here’s what Jan Priddy says about that:

Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.

And it was. By Version 2, I’d shed quite a few facts, and around 100 pages. By Version 3, I was starting to craft a thesis, a point to it all. I’d learned what it was the work was all about, what I wanted to say that no one else had said before in quite that way. I was figuring out how to bring to the page the electric charge that had wanted me to write this in the first place.

Next, fold in research to find provenance and get permission to reprint photographs for the project. In that round, I found a whole new way to look at the work. The final manuscript began to coalesce around archival and contemporary photographs, maps, and a single brilliant cartoon. I learned the language of rights and permissions, and I began to learn how photographers on two continents and in two different decades  saw the events of their time and chose to document them.

As Priddy puts it, creative nonfiction “may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond.” I hope my book will do that for readers, as I know that writing it has done for me.

 

Cliff Swallows and Building Narratives

The architecture of stories fascinates me but I think of it in terms that are organic rather than designed, springing from a mental landscape. And sometimes, truth be told, I miss the landscape of the desert. So here’s a reprise of an old post about cliff swallows in New Mexico and the creation of story, maybe because I want to return if only briefly to a moment that was purely joyful, purely sufficient unto itself. Those moments feels rare these days. The world intrudes far more than it seemed able to do just a few years ago.

The cliff swallows nested just down the road from where I lived in the desert. I’d been watching them every summer for over a decade.

All those years, I’d drive past, slow down to glance at the swarms of birds overhead, feel the smile breaking out on my face in the way that bird-swarms make a person smile. Then I’d go on my way. I’d think, I ought to stop and take pictures. Really. Someday I will.

For some reason it sank in at last that those somedays didn’t just stretch forever into my distance, so one day I decided to act on my impulse.

The swallows came pouring out with flapping wings and shrill, squeaky cries, perhaps in response to me and my blundering around at the foot of their cliff palace. Life just burst out from that rock. In contrast to the extravagance of sound and motion, look at those nests. How perfect they are, a whole community on this rock face, built one little dollop of mud at a time, flown up from the riverbank a couple of miles away.
They remind me of Nader Khalili‘s ceramic homes.
What can we learn from swallows about form and structure? A lot, I think. There’s a deep sense of the organic and whole about this little colony of homes, each little cavity containing a bobbing beak or two. Nothing wasted. Everything with a purpose. Who needs heaven? Perfection is right here.

Think about building memory. I no longer live down the road from that cliff. The birds in my neighborhood are different ones, the cliffs in the region volcanic rock rather than sandstone. But the little mud houses painstakingly clustered on the cliff face evoke a place and a time–and they return me briefly to the person I was then. Story builds that way too, with that kind of care and concern for setting and context, space and sky, river and rock, that intensity and life force driving the whole endeavor.

Rajani LaRocca on Midsummer’s Mayhem

Midsummer's Mayhem final cvr.pngRajani LaRocca‘s Midsummer’s Mayhem is a marvelous mashup of two things you might not think were capable of working together–Shakespeare and fusion cooking! I asked Rajani:

[Uma] How did Shakespeare and fusion cooking come together for you?

[Rajani]  I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was a child. I played Cassius in our (very abridged!) 5th grade class production of Julius Caesar, and that sparked my interest. The next year, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was smitten with the tale of feuding fairies and the hapless humans who got ensnared in their mischief. And there is a connection to India that I noticed as a child and remembered as an adult when it was time to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM!

My greatest joy—my half-Indian, half-Italian, all-American family—is fusion personified. I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with flavors, but writing this book made me take this pastime to a new level, translating favorite foods from my own childhood into tasty baked treats.

[Uma] Your Mimi’s charm comes largely from her uniquely quirky eccentricities. Tell me how you went about developing this most endearing character.

[Rajani] Much of Mimi’s personality came to me as if she were a real person whom I happened to meet. For example, I knew that baking was Mimi’s great passion, so I made her point of view very baking-centric: that’s the lens through which she sees the world, and there are lots of baking and foodie terms sprinkled throughout the book. I also knew she was the youngest child in a large family full of accomplished people. Like a lot of youngest children, Mimi tries many of the activities her older siblings love, only to find that they don’t really bring her joy in the same way. Mimi tries to find her place in in the world, and wonders what she can do to distinguish herself. But at her core is her affection and concern for her sometimes exasperating, often wacky, always loving family.

Rajani_LaRocca__Author 1.jpg[Uma] Every book you write teaches you something. What did writing this book teach you about writing–or about yourself, if you like?

[Rajani] It took me several years and many revisions to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, and the process taught me so much about the craft of writing a novel, about how to take a story idea and turn it into the book I want it to be. But I’ve also come to realize that Mimi’s story is a metaphor for my journey to becoming a published writer. At any age, there is a gap between what we are currently capable of doing and what we wish we could do. It is uncomfortable to be in that gap, but it’s also where we grow and learn so much about ourselves. Just like Mimi, I’ve learned to appreciate what I have to give to the world. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM inspires young readers to create with their hearts and to have the courage to share those creations

 

[Uma] What’s one joyful and unexpected outcome of writing this book?

[Rajani] Although writing is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, for me the process of writing and publishing has been about connecting with other people. I can’t count the number of people who have helped me: my first writing teachers who gently guided a newcomer without crushing dreams; my incredible critique partners who read, suggested, laughed, and cried with me; and my tremendously generous, brilliant Pitch Wars mentor, Joy McCullough, who helped me in my final push with MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. The connections continued with my amazing agent, Brent Taylor, and my fantastic editor, Charlie Ilgunas, who helped the book become even better. I’ve become friends with some wonderful fellow 2019 debut authors, and we’ve supported each other through this zany debut year. And in just a couple of weeks, my book will connect me to young readers…and that is the ultimate dream come true!

Congratulations, Rajani! Much luck with this quirky, funny book, and with your future writing projects.

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.

Building a Personal Reading List

faqsSome time ago, I got an email from reader Maxwell Shea who came across my FAQ lists and had additional questions. I’m posting my replies here, since they may be of interest to others as well.

Admittedly those FAQ lists are old and in need of updating, but that will have to wait until I have time on hand. Me and time, we’re constantly at odds.

Anyway, here we go:

MS: You said to try to read mostly newer books when getting a feel for how to write for children, but I don’t quite understand why you might say that, other than to say don’t try to copy other famous books.

UK: Well, here’s the deal. If you are submitting to today’s publishers, you’re just going to have to read a representative number of today’s books, to see where your voice is going to fit into the conversation. It’s not about copying someone else’s work, but rather understanding the range of subjects and sensibilities currently found in publishing catalogs, so you can figure out where the gaps exist that you and only you might be able to fill. Aside from gauging the field for submission purposes, I think a writer for young readers should read widely and deeply, across the age ranges, across the decades and also across borders of geography and culture. I tell my students that in each month’s bibliography they should read at least one book published before they were born, and one or two books published outside North America.

Nothing can replenish a writer’s wordbag like reading, so read generously. Learn to read critically. Write an annotation for every book you read, looking not for what you like and dislike but what you can learn from that book. If you want to write in a particular form (picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels), start reading now. Read 50 books before you try to write one. Read to see how others do the work you are seeking to do.

MS:Wouldn’t a voice with fresh ideas and some skill be equally at home finding inspiration in the richness of the early 70s as well as what’s on the bookshelf today? In fact, I actually am disappointed in a great deal of the new books I read when I go to a bookstore. There must be an insatiable demand for cuteness. I know there must be many more good books being published than I see at bookstores. I just can’t see how reading new books, whether as an adult would-be writer or as a child would be an improvement over a similarly rich bench of books from 40-50 years ago.

UK: We do have an amazing artistic history in our field, so sure, draw on whatever inspires you but remember that you can’t compete with books that are deemed classics, for one good reason. Those books are still around. Unlike in adult literary writing, where today’s writers aren’t competing with the giants of decades past, the nostalgia factor in the sale of children’s books is huge. I also think it’s a paradox of the art we work in that if we want to write something that endures, we must write the stories that matter to us and will resonate with children in a world that is vastly different from that of the 1970s. The word, in Paulo Freire’s terms, must connect the reader and the world.

Finally, don’t be too quick to write off today’s writers based on the overflow of cuteness on shelf at your local bookstore. If you can’t find indie bookstores with informed children’s/YA staff (and I know they’re scarce in many communities) scour library shelves instead. Get to know your local children’s and YA librarians. Read review journals and the many blogs that offer information and opinions on current books. Start making your own lists of books that speak to you, books that extend your thinking, books that make you want to read more, and books that make you want to write.

What I Learned from TeachingBooks.net

teachingbooks-logo-bookmark-smallTeachingBooks.net is a terrific resource for teachers, offering all kinds of information on books for young readers and the authors and illustrators who create them. They’ve been doing this for years. They started when the Internet was new and relatively uncluttered. One of the really useful tools they provide is a set of audio-recordings by authors and illustrators on how to pronounce their names. As someone with a long last name, one that may seem like an obstacle course to someone unfamiliar with it, I’ve been grateful for years to have my own little audio pronunciation guide on TeachingBooks.net.

And now I have new reason to be grateful to the good people at TeachingBooks.net, for inviting me to record brief audio about some of my books.  Listen! Here I am talking about Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, Book Uncle and Me, and Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

Sure it’s nice promotion for my books. But there’s more to my gratitude that this. I expected I’d just take this on as a promo task, one of things you do because you know it’s good for your books but really, you’d rather be working on your new favorite book, the next one! But in preparing for the recordings, I found out something about writing and reading.

I’ve known for years how to write so that a book sounds credible when it’s read out loud. But in my mind, reading out loud has usually meant reading an entire picture book or a chapter or two of a novel. It’s easy to pick out passages from novels that work well for, say, a bookstore  reading or a reading at a VCFA residency, where I have anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

But TeachingBooks requested me to talk a little about a book, and read an excerpt–all within three minutes.  That meant the excerpt needed to be no more than 2 minutes long.

The picture book, naturally, posed no problem. The chapter book and the novel were another matter. All the passages I considered were either too long, or depended on the reader already knowing the background and context, or didn’t have a balance of dialogue and narrative, or didn’t have enough of a narrative arc. I realized that I needed all that for a reading of under two minutes. The opening scenes of both books came in at a little over three minutes so that wouldn’t do either.

I did manage to find a few passages that worked and was happy with the ones I ended up picking, but it made me think about how limitations of time and words can really push a writer not only to pick the best, strongest words possible but also to bring the underlying strength of a story to the surface.

The next time I revise a draft, I’ll keep this two-minute challenge in mind. I suspect it will help me spot and delete my more self-indulgent passages more efficiently.  Not that every scene needs to make the two-minute cut. But the prospect of reading a passage out loud within a limited amount of time isn’t a bad way to remain aware of the need for energy in a work in progress.

 

 

 

Hannah Moderow on writing Lily’s Mountain

 

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All photos courtesy of the author

When Hannah Moderow was my student at VCFA, she worked on a novel about a girl, a missing father, and a mountain. Not just any mountain but the iconic Denali, the tallest in North America. Her early draft contained striking elements of truth and beauty. It was difficult and moving. It is always hard to use a novel close to your heart as the vehicle for learning how to write a novel, but Hannah was one of those students you dream of, the kind who never flinches from hard work.

author photo-smallerI asked Hannah to write a guest post on the writing and publication of Lily’s Mountain. Thank you and congratulations, Hannah!

My dream to publish a middle grade novel began when I was a middle grade reader. In elementary school, I fell hard in love with books like Charlotte’s Web, Summer of the Monkeys, and Tuck Everlasting.

I knew then that I wanted to be able to create this kind of magic: words on pages that had the power to take readers into an imaginary world that could hold them and captivate them, if only for a few enjoyable hours.

Brilliant teachers throughout my life told me to keep writing… that I could become a published writer someday.

Thankfully they didn’t tell me just how hard it is to get a book published.

Flash forward to my early 20s. I’d finished my undergraduate degree in English and I had a big fat middle grade manuscript sitting on my desk. I went to a few writing conferences, and editors encouraged me to submit work.

This was back in the early 2000s when you still had to mail manuscripts to publishing houses.

LilysmountainAfter a few rejections that took months to arrive, I decided on a very cold day in Denali that if this dream to publish a book would come true, I needed to know more. I could read books and revise my manuscript a million times, but I felt like I needed more instruction… more feedback, more lessons, or more of something.

That’s why I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts to get an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

I’d always known there was magic in middle grade novels, but I never could have imagined how much magic I’d find at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For two years while pursuing my MFA, I was given the rare opportunity to indulge in the magic of writing. I worked with four different advisors over that time—including Uma!—and I read dozens of books each month while writing dozens of pages.

This was the one time in life where I was being told to play with words, play with stories, and revise, rewrite, and re-envision. Sometimes, my teachers told me my work was brilliant. Sometimes they told me to throw away everything I had just written and start over.

The best part was feeling that everyone in the program—teachers and students alike—seemed just as captivated by stories as I had always been, since those early days as an avid reader.

IMG_2154I started Lily’s Mountain while studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). From first draft to publication, the book took eight years to write.

Eight years spanning crazy milestones in my life. When I started the novel, I lived with two girlfriends in a house—our first attempt at being grown-ups after college. Midway through my MFA, I met Erik, the man I would later marry. Not too long after that, Erik suffered a spinal cord injury throwing a major mountain in our life.

We pressed on, and Lily was a constant companion while we were living in Seattle for a few months when Erik was in the hospital. For me, Lily became not just an imaginary girl in my imaginary story. She was a fellow traveler in this journey called life. Lily’s character morphed over eight years, and so did I.

VCFA did not save me from rejections. Lily’s Mountain was rejected by 47 editors. 47! There’s no magic in that. But I pressed on, buoyed by the wisdom of VCFA, and the friendships and mentorships that I received there. I remained hopeful that someday this story about a girl and her missing father, and the mountain that stood between them, might offer a little magic to young readers.

47 editors might have rejected Lily, but the 48th said “yes.” That “yes” made the dream to have a published book a reality.

I always thought life would feel different once I had a published book. It’s not as different as you might think. I love writing just as much, and I love reading just as much.

For me, the best part of being a published writer is imagining kids out there, even if it’s just a few of them, who open the pages of Lily’s Mountain and get to experience a few hours of magic that made me so sure that I had to grow up to become a writer.

I’m forever grateful to my teachers and fellow writers at Vermont College of Fine Arts for telling me and showing me that it’s worth it to keep on writing…and bringing magical stories to life.

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

Unraveling, That is to Say, Revising

IMG_2145Sometimes when you start to knit something, say a sweater, you think you know how. And maybe in a way, you do. You follow a pattern.  You choose the right needles. You try to do it right but for some reason it doesn’t quite work. The pattern, you find out along the way, is all wrong. It’s too boxy. The neckline will look misshapen. It’s longer than it should be. And you can’t see all this until you have knitted two-thirds of it. The yarn is still good. And you still have that vision of what you’re after. But you need a different pattern. Maybe no one’s actually got that template all ready for you. You need to make it up.

Welcome to the work of unraveling. That is to say, revising.

My work in progress is similarly two-thirds done, and today it needed unraveling. Not completely, I’m happy to say, but in at least two large chunks. It takes nerve to pull out that first thread but once I did, it was magical. I could see what was left behind so much more clearly. The shiny yarn, the heft of it in my hands, the feel of those rows of stitches waiting once more to be formed. All the stuff that drew me to knitting in the first place.

Loving the work is what makes it possible to yank it off the needles and pull that yarn loose. If you’re afraid of revising, maybe you don’t love the work enough.

Only unraveling it lets you see the qualities of the yarn, the potential that made you  dream of working with it.