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.