Thursday, November 5, 2009

Taking Flight

As I write this, my son--the younger of my two kids, who works in the International Services Department of the American Red Cross, in DC--is embarking on his first job-related trip. A week in Kathmandu, a couple of days in Bangkok, a week in Hanoi, then home. Over the weekend, I joked with him that I was alternating between being excited for him and wondering if I'd have any fingernails left by the time he gets home. We laughed. But there was a little part of me that meant it about the fingernails.

When I first started sending out manuscripts in the late 1980s, I used to think it was kind of like sending a child off into the world. Each time, I did my Children's Writers and Illustrators Market homework, so I'd be sending my baby to a publisher that looked like a good match. I proofread carefully. I made sure that manuscript was as ready to go as possible. Still, when I handed over the envelope and my money to the post office clerk, there was always the wondering in the back of my mind: Would it be loved? Would it be treated well? Appreciated? Abused? Would anyone even notice it was there?

Even though my son has been living on his own for just about a year now, tonight I have that old feeling. I'm sending one of my most precious creations off into the wide, wide world. I've done my homework--I've printed out his flight itinerary (and written on it the time zone differences). My two-time-zone watch has new batteries. I've located Qatar, where he'll have a 12-hr layover on his way to Kathmandu. I've read a little about each of the places he's going to. He's done his homework, too, and is as ready to go as possible. I know that, because in the past couple of days I've been enough of a loving mom to ask if he had this or that, reminded him to unfold his lanky 6'6" self out of his economy-class seat and walk around now and then, and probably seemed a bit of a noodge. And he's been enough of a loving son not to say so.

When he was just a toddler, we sat together looking at National Geographic magazine and books about far-away places and watching the adventures of television travelers--Rick Steves, and the travelers on Lonely Planet, now called Globe Trekker. He'll be having his own adventures now, and blogging about his trip on the Red Cross' website. If his posts are anything like the blog he kept during the semester he spent in Switzerland his junior year in college, they should be really good reading.

As for me, I'll be having my own, smaller, adventures--finishing up a picture book, and seeing what kind of trouble the main character of my novel-in-progress can get into. And quietly counting the days until what I'm sending out tonight comes back.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Going Home

Almost two weeks ago, I was up in my hometown of Lockport, NY, for my (gulp!) forty-year high school reunion. The Class of 1969 of Lockport Senior High generally has a good time at these things, and this time around was no exception. Over the course of two evenings there was a lot of talking, laughing, hugging and reminiscing. I saw a few people I’ve stayed in touch with, and others whom I hadn’t seen in at least ten years (and probably more). My husband took a great photo of five of us who all lived in the same neighborhood until my family moved just before fifth grade (and four of the five of us had started together in nursery school!). And for the first time in twenty years, my best-friend-from 7th-grade-through-senior-year, Ginny Cook McEldowney, and I were in the same place at the same time. That alone made the ten-hour drive from Northern VA to Lockport worth it.

We did other “going home” things while in Lockport. Doug Farley, director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center, had arranged a signing for me at the Center, of my picture book Abbie In Stitches. For my birthday, my mother took us up the the gorgeous Shea’s Theater in Buffalo to see the touring company of Chicago. I spent some time antiquing with my aunt. And we had some lovely quiet, “just there” time, first in Lockport, then for a couple of days with my mother-in-law on the farm in Savannah, NY (halfway between Rochester and Syracuse). As usual, I was not ready to come back to the hecticness of Northern Virginia.

Just as it was so good to spend time with friends of my childhood, it’s also been good recently to spend some time with the books of my childhood. All summer, in among trying to keep up with all the recent books on my to-read list, I re-read many of the books I loved as a kid. Many of these had been my mother’s before they were mine, and so are even more old-fashioned today then they were never mind how many years ago. Still, they were some of the books that instilled in me the passion for reading, the love of story—books whose characters became as alive for me this summer the minute I started reading as they did the first time I encountered them. Here are some of the titles—do you know any of them?

The Oz books. We had all of them—most had been my mother’s, two had been her mother’s. Frank Baum, Ruth Plumley Thompson, John R. Neill and a couple of others (forgive my memory, please, and forgive me, too, for not running down to the bookshelves to check those last names) created a world I’ll gladly fall into anytime.

The Secret Garden
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
The Secret Garden
The Little Bookroom (wonderful stories by Eleanor Farjean)
Little House on Wheels (Marjorie Hayes)
Mary Poppins
Understood Betsy (Dorothy Canfield)
Jack and Jill (my favorite Louisa May Alcott book)
Thornton Burgess’ animal stories
The Five Children trilogy (E. Nesbit)
The Cammie books by Jane McIlvaine. (The books I thought of when I learned, five years ago, that we were moving to Virginia. Alas, I fear that most of Cammie’s Virginia has now been paved over…)
National Velvet (rivaling The Black Stallion and Black Beauty as the ultimate horse book)

I re-read all of these this summer. And it was good to go home.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Turning Out The Light

Those who know me well know that, for a long time, two of my primary vices have been really good dark chocolate and the daytime drama, Guiding Light.

As an all-knowing teenager and an oh-so-wise twenty-something, I looked wa-a-ay down my nose at soaps, and swore I would never get involved with one. Then, in 1978, on route to another program, I stumbled upon the last five minutes of GL. Hmm, thought I--intriguing. I stopped by the next day--and the next, and the next. Gradually, the tv got turned on a little earlier and a little earlier. By the end of two weeks, I had to admit that I was hooked. And so began my 31-year through-the-tube relationship with the citizens of Springfield--a relationship that came to an end today, as the longest-running drama in broadcasting history (72 years, between radio and television) finished today's episode with "The End" written across the screen.

Why am I discussing a soap opera in this blog which is supposed to be about writing? Because I learned a lot about writing from Guiding Light. I learned about story, about pacing, character development, and how to end a chapter with a good hook. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years, much of the show's writing gave some lessons in how not to write, as long-time characters acted out of character, history and backstory were often ignored, and plot threads--sometimes complete story lines--did U-turns or were dropped altogether, leaving characters (and viewers) hanging. This past week, though, the writing redeemed itself. Characters were true, emotion was real, nods to show history were made, and--at least for me--the ending was satisfying, especially since the final shot was of Reva and Josh, the show's longtime on-again-off-again couple, together. (Yeah, I'm a sentimental softie...)

So. Thank you to Guiding Light writers from whom I learned. And thank you, too, to the actors who brought those words, those stories, alive--Kim Zimmer, Robert Newman, Grant Aleksander, Tina Sloan, Ron Raines,and all the others, past and present, who made Springfield the place to be for so many years. I'll miss you.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Doing The Blogger Grovel

I knew this would happen. I got going great guns with this blog. Then came a week's vacation, followed by a week-long virus, followed by doing a lot of groundwork for a new novel. Then the dog ate my homework. And I had to visit my relatives. And I fell asleep--couldn'tr find my pen--left my blog in the back of the cab. You get the picture.

So. As the lyrics to the old song say, I'm going to pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.

For tonight, here are a few of the books I've read recently:

Shiver (Maggie Stiefvater) I don't usually gravitate towards werewolf stories, but this tale of Grace and yellow-eyed Sam grabbed me and didn't let go. YA

The Boy On The Lion Throne: The Childhood of the 14th Dalai Lama (Elizabeth Cody Kimmel) I've always admired this man--even more now that I know what his young years were like. Fascinating, dramatic, couldn't put it down. YA

Jumping Off Swings (Jo Knowles) One incident, one girl's decision, five points of view. These characters stayed with me long after I finished reading. YA

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap Of Faith (Deborah Heiligman) He was a scientist, she was deeply religious. A well-researched, engaging portrait of Darwin's work and the effect his marriage and family life had on it. YA

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Katherine Howe) Two stories going on in this historical thriller: that of Deliverance Dane, accused of being a witch in 17th century Salem, and that of Connie Goodwin, a grad student in 1991, solving the mystery of a book written by Deliverance. I've read reviews that point out flaws in this book, but--quite honestly--I got too caught up in the story to notice them. Adult

Monday, August 3, 2009

Edible Revision

Revision has crept out of my writing and into my kitchen.

Corn season comes much earlier in Virginia than in upstate New York, the place I still think of as ‘home’. Up there, corn comes on sometime in July; here in Virginia we started seeing corn at the local farmers’ market in late June.

I’ve always cooked corn the way my mother did, in boiling water, and it’s always been good. This year, after reading about grilled corn someplace (probably in the summer edition of Menu, the wonderful magazine put out by the Wegmans’ grocery chain), we’ve been cooking it out on the grill. It’s easy—pull back the husks and remove the silk, replace the husks, soak the ears in cold water for about 20 minutes, then put them on the grill for about 20 minutes (ten on one side, ten on the other). And it tastes so much better—fresher, sweeter. Impossible to resist.

When I talk to kids about writing, I always ask, “How many of you like to rewrite?” And always, hardly a hand goes up. When I ask why, they tell me that rewriting’s boring, not fun, too much work. I tell them that I used to feel that way, too, but that I discovered a secret: I stopped calling it “rewriting” and started calling it “revision.” That usually gets a few raised eyebrows, and at least one ‘huh?” So I ask, “Who knows what ‘re-‘ means?” They all know it means ‘do it again.’ Then, “Who knows what vision is?” That gets more than raised eyebrows—it gets a “what kind of idiot are you?’ look, and someone says “Seeing.” “Great,” I say. “Now put them together. Re-vision: seeing again.”

Re-vision. Seeing again. Looking at my writing again, from a different angle. It’s kind of like grilling corn: pull back the layers, remove what’s not needed, let it soak for a while, then put some heat under it. Unlike the corn grilling, it’s not always easy. But it always results in finding a way to make the work fresher, sweeter. And—with any luck—impossible to resist.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Bit of Bright Light

More often than not, my husband is the one who sees things first. A hawk in a tree, deer in a field—he’s just faster to see them.

Last night, we went out to a nearby spot where there was a good view of the sky, watching for a swiftly-moving bright light--the Interational Space Station, with the shuttle Endeavour docked to it. A tiny article in the paper had said it was due to pass overhead both Saturday and Sunday, and it had rained Saturday night. So there we stood, with fingers crossed.

We knew it would be a long shot. First of all, we weren’t quite sure where to look The paper had said it would rise in the north-northwest, travel the southwestern sky near the new moon, and head south. The window of opportunity would be brief—approximately five minutes, from 9:26 to 9:31. And the sky was clouding up.

My amazingly resourceful husband had brought his compass, so after he got us oriented, we had a pretty good idea of where to look. There were still large areas of clear sky,since the clouds were patchy, and while there were moments when the moon was obscured, we knew where it was, and I—equally resourceful—had brought my binoculars and focused them on it. So we waited and, however childish it might seem, deep inside, I wanted to see it first.

9:26 came. Nothing but a few stars. 9:27. A few more stars, nothing else. Wait—is that it, I asked, pointing to a bright light moving beneath the moon. No—it was going in the wrong direction, and it was blinking. Just an airplane. We watched the plane disappear. Wait—look. I pointed up. Husband wasn’t sure. I looked through my binoculars. That had to be it, I said, handing them to him: it was big, at least as bright as Venus, non- blinking, and moving fast. After a moment, he agreed (and the little kid inside me shot her fist in the air, yelling “yes!!!”). We watched it pass the stationary stars, until it disappeared in the clouds.

Sometimes I think my mind is like that sky, studded with ideas rather than stars, each shining with its own level of brightness. Every now and then, though, something special streaks by, brighter than the rest. Its window of opportunity is brief, and it can vanish before I even see it. But if I’m alert and look carefully for it, I just might see it—and it will be worth remembering.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Sudden Shower

When I went into Target this afternoon, the sun was shining. When I came out, fifteen minutes later, the skies had opened and rain was pouring down. It was one of those sharp, sudden showers with huge drops that bounce up off the pavement. I had parked some distance from the store, thinking I’d get a few more steps into my day’s total, and it was obvious that, whether I walked or ran back to the car, I was in for a good soaking.

Usually, I would have taken a deep breath and sprinted. Today, though, something in me shifted, and I decided to walk—and I didn’t hurry. I took my time, and let those big ol’ drops land all over me. When I slid in behind the wheel, I was indeed soaked. And it felt good.

As I drove home, there were moments where the drops came down so hard and fast that I could hardly see. But by the time I pulled into the garage, the splattering had changed to plipping and the sun was breaking through the clouds.

I remarked to someone a while back that, for the first time since I started writing 23 years ago, I‘ve been feeling discouraged. I’d gone from a six-year period where I’d sold a book a year—a couple of times, two—to no new book contracts in the last five years. I’d completed a project I’d worked on (off and on) over the course of ten years, and learned that I’d essentially shot myself in not one, but both feet—not only was the book historical fiction, but a sequence of short stories for middle graders. Editors told me short stories won’t sell. Even my agent told me he couldn’t sell them. I've kept writing, but I've felt lost, as if I’ve been working in a void. It’s been harder and harder to put my butt in the chair, let alone keep it there. I’ve felt my creativity drying up, and my internal editor—what I’ve always seen as a big black bird perched on my shoulder, croaking insulting remarks about my writing—has taken up a more insidious method, whispering , “perhaps you’ve peaked—perhaps you’re finished.”

I was starting to believe him. Then something changed. Earlier this week, I went through an experience that caused a definite emotional and mental shift. It was as sudden and sharp as this afternoon’s shower. And in the past few days, I’ve had a downpour of ideas, more than I’ve had in the past year or two. The sun’s breaking through. It feels good. And I’m nowhere near finished.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering Frank McCourt

Just a year ago, as a participant in the annual Southampton Writers Conference, I was at sitting in a classroom with thirteen other people, waiting for our teacher to join us. When he did, he took a few moments to organize himself, then looked at us and asked, “Who do you think you are?”

That teacher was Frank McCourt.

Frank’s pre-conference assignment gave an inkling of what was in store. He gave us a list of four names--Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and Jesus—and asked us to write a short commentary on some aspect of contemporary society (it didn’t have to be negative) from the point of view of the person we chose. I chose Moses, commenting on today’s ease of travel. (Imagine if he’d had a GPS…) And when I got my paper back and saw that he’d written on it that he’d enjoyed it, that I had “an intriguing way of looking at things”, I practically danced across the campus.

In our morning sessions with him over the ten days of the conference Frank challenged us, pushed and prodded us. He didn’t stand there and give step-by-step instructions on how to write a memoir. Instead, he told us his stories, and asked for ours. He asked us questions, and had us ask questions of each other and of ourselves. When one of us read an assignment aloud, he listened intently, sometimes pouncing on a detail he liked, saying, “There’s your story.” He had the ability to draw from you more than you thought you’d tell—sometimes more than you wanted to tell—and it was all right.

The writing community has lost one of its own—our Teacher Man with the quizzical blue eyes, wry wit and perceptive observations on life and the world around him, who led so many people to discover that they have a story worth telling. We mourn our loss, and say a prayer for him and his family. And when the tears have dried, we can raise a glass in celebration of the time he was with us, saying, “Slainte, Frank—and thanks.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Vote for me!!!!

Two days ago, I received a lovely e-mail, informing me that my picture book, Rain Play (Henry Holt, 2008; illustrated by Javaka Steptoe) is a finalist for the Library of Virginia's Whitney and Scott Cardozo Award for Children's Literature. The e-mail went on to say that the Cardozo Award recognizes excellence in Children's Literature for ages 3-8, and will be given out at the 12th annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards Celebration on October 17th, 2009 in Richmond.

I love this book. (I know, I say that about all my books.) It was fun to write, bringing to mind all the different kinds of things a kid can do in the rain, and it's the shortest book I've ever written--I think the word count comes in somewhere around 125. Javaka Steptoe's illustrations are amazing. Every time I look at them, I smile.

The voting for the Cardozo award is going on now, through August 7. I would appreciate it so very much if anyone reading this would go to the voting site: and cast a vote for Rain Play.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Getting Started

Sometimes it seems as if I spend an inordinate amount of time writing things down. Stories, poems, lists, reminders to myself, a gratitude journal, a "bitch" notebook. So why would I want to take on another writing chore?

I guess because it's not a chore.

For a long time, I've had piece of paper taped over my computer. On it is a quote from one of my early writer friends/supporters, Robert Cormier. It says, "...what would I do if I couldn't write? Where would my thoughts go?" I think if I didn't write, my head would fill to the point of exploding, and then the question would be, "Who's going to clean up this mess?"

Most of my writing here will be about writing--both in general, and my own. I know other things will creep in, too. But sooner or later, it will come back to the words. One after another.