One of my favorite sections from Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, is in the chapter entitled, “Persistence.” In it, she talks of how creating is important for us all, at whatever level:
“We all need something that helps us to forget ourselves for a while–to momentarily forget our age, our gender, our socioeconomic background, our duties, our failures, and all that we have lost and screwed up…
…Bring forth what is within you, then, whether it succeeds or fails. Do it whether the final product is crap or gold. Do it whether the critics love you or hate you–or whether the critics have never heard of you and perhaps never will hear of you. Do it whether people get it or don’t get it.”
Her entire book is full of gems and she reminds us that people used to make things all the time without making “such a big deal about it.”
So when I start wondering what business I have writing novels (especially after watching Anthony Doerr rock a presentation on his masterpiece All the Light We Cannot See) and wonder if I’ll ever edge further into the highly competitive children’s market. I remember what a teacher at Hugo House once told me. He said that having even one person connect with your writing – whether it’s a birthday card or a short story – is worth something. Why isn’t that just as important? And he was right.
Whenever I begin to worry or wonder how a piece of work has been or will be received I look at this little note or some student mail as a calming remedy.
Then I get back to work.
I’ve been working hard at my fourth middle grade novel. The work goes in fits and starts. With all my thinking and reflecting over past few weeks, I’ve now worked out some world-building details so that on this third pass I’m fixing things I hadn’t even known needed to exist before this point. That might include everything from a character’s attitudes, physical traits to occurrences that help make them who they are. It’s slow, but I feel I’m making progress. The sentences aren’t pretty. Descriptions are non-existent, but I’m pushing this large misshapen boulder toward the spotlight. (?? I’ll work on that writing metaphor)
I’ve seen this below Ira Glass quote all over, and thought I’d include it here because it’s worth re-reading. I’ll also soon share some favorite quotes from the new Elizabeth Gilbert book I read a few weeks ago, Big Magic. She’s worth reading just for day to day living, let alone taking on a craft full-time.
I’m in a good place in regard to how the full time writing and house-husbanding are going. My path still feels mysterious, as it always should, but satisfying rather than frustrating. I’m currently viewing the world with eyes of “enough” rather than of “scarcity.” Though it’s a big investment of time, I’m learning with each book and my days feel good.
Here’s what Ira says:
A couple of fun e-mail invitations appeared in my inbox lately. First, a school in West Seattle wants me to talk about how I go about my research with regional history and my process in choosing topics. The 5th grade teachers will do a Civil War history unit and the culminating project is for students to choose a fiction piece they want to write to demonstrate what they’ve learned. This invite intrigues me because it will allow me to talk about what makes these writing projects interesting and fun for me. I haven’t taken the time to note my themes in this way. The only way I can spend months (potentially years) with a project is if it feels fun, multi-faceted and deeply engaging. I’d think that might be freeing information for students. “Open-ended” can often mean “hard to choose.” Any story idea, historical or contemporary, absolutely cannot be dry for me. The topic has to be complex enough that it will remain exciting or humorous or intriguing (likely all of the above) for months and months. Also, this talk will be a nice way to engage with students again after a few months off. Then I get to go home with no report cards to write :).
The future visit also has me thinking about how I get my ideas overall. I didn’t ever think I would be a champion of history, but I do notice I enjoy rooting for lasting themes that come out of being human regardless of time and setting. I like that connectivity and commonality that exists over the generations. People make similar mistakes and have similar strong personalities despite the separation of decades. So pick your most spiteful, hilarious person from today and put them in some cool setting in the past. You’ll still tell a story that will ring true. If your character is authentic, people will connect.
Also, MOHAI asked me to be on a panel on writing NW regional historical fiction. It will be for a History Cafe in December 2015. I was invited to bring a children’s writing perspective. Frankly, I feel out of my league as I’m no historian, but that’s probably the point. I like people with their quirks and interests no matter the time. When I insert a person of my own creation (inherently interesting) into a unique situation it can reveal even more who they are. I took part in MOHAI’s Local Author’s Day last year, and enjoyed chatting with many interesting and talented local authors. History Cafe will be held at MOHAI in South Lake Union on December 17th from 6:30 until 7:30 PM.
I’m looking forward to both events. Until then I’ll enjoy reflecting on my research process and continuing work on my next children’s fiction novel. Slow and steady. Slow and steady.
I attended a presentation by CAN – College Access Now at Franklin High School the other night. The organization gives all manner of support to high school students of color and/or low income who might not otherwise be thinking of attending college – or that they even could. It seems to be one of those organizations that just gets it. They’ve figured out some challenges, put up a support network to address those challenges and made it happen. Their success rates and growth tell the rest of the story.
College Access Now seems to be made up of passionate individuals who all have their personal reasons for helping to support younger people. Either they went to college under similar circumstances or they believe in how education can change lives. The informational meeting felt like a warm, welcoming family gathering.
Students in the program–both currently participating and alumni–were heartfelt and honest. These were obviously kids who loved and respected their CAN mentors and were appreciative of the support. They shared some big smiles and deep passions. Many were the first to attend college in their family. Since we were all urged to contribute our stories, I also reflected on the fact that my own parents didn’t attend college (dad went to technical school) and how overwhelmed and lost I felt trying to decide what to do after high school, let alone navigate what to do that first year. I didn’t face nearly the size challenges many of them have, let alone their challenges I’ve never had on my radar as a white person. There were some entertaining memories shared by all participants of their first year of college. I enjoyed a moment when the CAN mentor urged us to also recall a positive memory from that year, as well. He said we tend to focus on the challenges instead of moments of inspiration that a university education can also bring.
Well said, sir.
An organization worth supporting with time or money. Check them out.
In the spirit of exploring my local South Seattle neighborhoods in more depth, I visited a Vietnamese restaurant in New Holly a while back. I hopped on light rail, took it a few stops south and got off at a neighborhood I don’t ever visit. While there I “watched” a Vietnamese newscast. It was interesting to see on what the broadcasters chose to focus. It was interesting to view the national news filtered through another culture. Most in the restaurant were not speaking English. I ate and enjoyed a bowlful of stewed beef with noodles (I would type the title but my keyboard doesn’t have Vietnamese accents–at least that I know how to find.) I received a couple smiles, which in my mind were because they thought, “How quaint that this white guy is in our restaurant.” More likely they were just being friendly fellow humans. My own cultural insecurities at work.
Another spot I can always shop for human quirks and characteristics is the post office. What a study in humanity those visits are! Behaviors in long lines of humans are so telling. The branch I visited this past week is small so you can hear each customer’s interaction with the desk employee. If someone in line feels that the interaction is taking too long – and we all judge differently based on our level of patience and/or if we have someplace to be – their responses vary in verbal and non-verbal ways. Impatience is the most obvious and immediately noticeable. But it’s kindness that comes out in the smallest ways – offering someone with small children the opportunity to go to the front of the line; helping entertain a little one. Without wanting to get too schmaltzy or mawkish (sorry, brief trip to the thesaurus), it does add to the experience when it’s all sorts of cultures doing so. Helps me remember we are all so, so human.
The post office is definitely somewhere I’ll revisit when I need inspiration. Next stop: the public bus, an airport and an Ethiopian coffee house.
Recently enjoyed Ivan Doig’s, Dancing at the Rascal Fair given to me by a parent friend a few years ago. A couple favorite bits:
To say the truth, it was the water winding its way through that still valley–its headstream, so to speak–that captured me then and there. When the summit line up along these mountains, the Continental Divide, halved the moisture of American’s sky, the share beyond went west to the Pacific Ocean while that of this slope was destined to the Atlantic. Are you telling me, Rob shipboard, we’re already on water from Montana, out here? Aye, yes and yea, Rob. This supple little creek below me, this North Fork, was the start of that water which eventually touched into the Atlantic…
Margaret Ramsay, mother of Anna, looked as if she could out-general Wellington any day of the week. A drawn, bony sort of woman with none of Anna’s adventurous curves, she seemed to have room in herself only for skepticism toward the male race. Beside her sat probably her prime reason for that. Peter Ramsay was a plump, placid man who sat with his hands resting on his belly, the first finger of his right hand gripped in his left, in the manner a cow’s teat would be grasped. Ready to milk one with his other and evidently content to spend a lifetime at it. It stretched my imagination several ways beyond usual, as to how these two beings could have made Anna.
Fun to come across passages that bounce around your brain for a few days or weeks (months or years, rarely, but it happens) after.
What Makes Art Good?
Or since that is such a slippery slope perhaps a better question is, “How do I continue to improve my own art?” The below excerpt is from the book, Story Engineering, in regard to what makes a character endearing:
“It is the humanity of his agenda in Part 1 (stakes) and the commonality the reader feels toward the hero’s response in Part 2 (empathy) that hook the reader into your story. This is where we cement the relationship between hero and reader, because the reader a) sees part of herself in this character; b) can feel what the hero is going through; and c) is strapped in for a vicarious ride that allows her to escape her boring real-life existence. That’s why she’s reading the story, and it’s important that you deliver on these counts.”
– Larry Brooks, Story Engineering
I love it when a teacher can articlulate the whys and hows of their suggestions on how to make your work–in whatever medium–better/resonate with other humans. Don’t boss me around with your ideas without giving me some reasons as to why they work.
I remember a graphic design professor in undergrad who always judged what designs of ours were “good” and what “weren’t good” during critique time. She drove me crazy because when I did ask what in our brain makes us appreciate a certain aesthetic, she wouldn’t (or couldn’t) explain it and kept avoiding my question. She never did tell me -just kept on telling us what projects were good and which ones weren’t just BECAUSE. It drove me batty and eventually I mentally checked out and she lost my trust. I since learned that certain parabolic curves, symmetry and other aesthetics that are friendly to our human eyes make certain designs more pleasing. I would have been much more on board as a 23-year-old lukewarm graphic design student if she could have explained some science or history behind her design sense.
Luckily, I’m finding some books on the writing craft, which do just that. Though there are things about Larry Brooks’ style that are frustrating, as well, his insights onto how to structure a novel are pretty eye-opening.
Thanks for the help, Mr. Brooks. Always more to learn.