Let it Snow

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It’s been a snowy winter in Washington, and a cold one. I often think of the relative connection/disconnection modern people have with nature, but winters like this remind me that no matter how disconnected we think we are, the natural world still makes itself heard – and loudly. And I’m not even talking about all the global-warming-induced weather disasters we’ve had lately, but just something as simple as a big snow.

As a science fiction fanatic when I was a kid, I loved reading Isaac Asimov, and in particular days like this remind me of his Caves of Steel, in which Earth has turned into a warren of underground life, so overpopulated that it’s just a series of giant cities in which everything is connected through tubes and tunnels. The main character in that book is a detective who’s almost never been outside, and suffers as a result from severe agoraphobia.  Part of the fascination of that particular novel was the horror it inspired in me when I thought of living without access to sunlight and the outdoors. Another, much more recent book that takes this on for kids is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau. In that one, an entire society lives underground, unaware that there is such a thing as outside.

Part of the genius of those books is taking a facet of modern society (how much time we spend indoors) and expanding it until it becomes something overwhelming and strange. While Asimov made me imagine the future, he also turned my attention to the conventions of my own society, and helped me see those with a new eye. This doubling of vision that science fiction and fantasy gives readers is one of the reasons I’ve always loved those genres. Which takes me back to all this snow, and to being in the midst of yet another snow day.  One thing I love about days like this is that they let your mind wander. The kids are home from school, the schedule is wrecked, and no one’s going anywhere. On my particular street, which is always one of the last to see a plow, we have this sense of the world having shrunk to block size. Everyone else feels miles away and mostly inaccessible. If they call in, it’s like a missive from another world. Meanwhile, the neighbors are all outside, shoveling or just enjoying the pristine view of bushes turned into plush toys and trees that have become charcoal drawings. Last big storm, I fell backward into a huge cushion of snow while talking to my friend across the street. There I was, lying on my back in the center of the road, not at all worried about anything but how long my coat would hold out against the damp. A few snow days a year, I would say, can be good for the soul. 

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The still, small voice

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“Digital Equalizer” by panupong1982
courtesy of Free digital photos.net

Human beings rely, first and foremost, on their eyes to navigate the world. I know I do — I cherish my ability to see all the beauty that’s out there. And of course we talk about seeing as believing. The powerful influence of what we see cannot be denied.

And yet, strangely, the Book Princess pointed out to me that in both Shakespeare and the Bible, seeing is not considered believing. Hearing is.

Shakespeare has great fun with this. His women disguised as men will often still telegraph the truth with words, and even their voices. In Twelfth Night, Viola, when disguised as the boy Cesario, says, “I am not what I am.” The other characters, blinded by appearance, yet do hear the truth in her voice. Orsino tells her: “Thy small pipe is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound.”

The Bible is even more replete with stories of the primacy of voice as a source of truth. When Jacob tries to deceive his blind father, Isaac, into thinking he’s his brother Esau, he puts goat skin on his arms to make him as hairy as his brother. And yet, when he talks, Isaac wonders:

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Much later, in the book of Kings, Elijah’s encounter with God makes a similar point. God sends a wind and an earthquake and a fire, but He’s not in any of them, only in the “still, small voice.”

So what is it about voice that brings us closer to the truth than other things? I can’t say I know, really. Helen Keller famously said that she would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light, presumably because the sense of hearing connects people to each other. And maybe that’s it — from sound comes language, and from language our humanity first grew. If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with that. 

Cupcakes and Storytelling

Image courtesy of piyato / FreeDigitalPhotos.net"

Image courtesy of piyato / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”

Last week my niece, who is in second grade, told her teacher that her aunt is a writer, whereupon her teacher wrote to ask if I would mind coming in to talk to the class. I said I’d love to, but was a little stumped as to what to talk about, since Zebra Forest is not exactly right for second graders, given some of its darker themes. So she asked me to just talk about what it’s like being a writer.

What’s it’s like being a writer. Well, that’s a huge subject, and one I could probably talk about for a month at least, but for second graders, I decided it would be better to talk about what you do as a writer, since that’s at least more concrete and won’t likely bring me to tears of joy and gratitude (not appropriate for a second grade classroom).

First thing I did, though, was pass out cupcakes, because when I looked at the calendar, I realized I was coming in on my niece’s eighth birthday. For me, this was a most happy coincidence, and one that also made the kids especially receptive to my talk, since who doesn’t like cupcakes?

When the cupcake eating was done, I started by asking the class what makes up a story. I got one really great response to the question, when a girl said: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Yes, definitely!

I also got some answers that spoke more to the writing process than to the content of the story, for example, the kid who said: Brainstorming and editing. (This one was on a poster on the wall, and clearly something their teacher had been stressing, which was nice to see.)

But what I was getting at, and what eventually we talked about, was that a story will have a character and a plot. They knew the word character, not plot, but one person did offer that a story needed to have a problem, which I loved, and which is exactly right. Finally, we talked about how writers use the five senses to bring the story to life. We started out by coming up with a character – a girl named Sarah – and a setting – a farm. Then we began with the sentence “Sarah got up in the morning and went to milk the cows.”

From there, I had them embroider that little bit of narration with what Sarah might have seen in the barn. They came up with a red cow with a sore leg, a horse sleeping in a stall, and a bunch of chickens and their six new eggs.

And so the scene took on something:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame. The old horse still slept in his stall, and she shooed the chickens away to find they had laid six new eggs, bright as pebbles.

Next the kids thought about what she might have heard in that barn. They had a great list:

The cow mooing;

The horse snoring;

The chickens clucking.

So the scene changed again:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and as she shooed the chickens away, they clucked and scattered, revealing six newly laid eggs, bright as pebbles.

From there, of course, we needed to know what Sarah might have smelled, touched, or even tasted. When we’d gathered those bits, we ended with this:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and breathed in the scent of fresh hay and old food, the stinky-sweet combination of the pig sty and the barn. She saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and the chickens clucked as she shooed them away, scattering to reveal six new eggs, bright as pebbles. She sat down, fingering the rusty handle of the milk pail. Soon enough, the milk splashed, and she stuck her tongue out to catch a few drops of the warm, sweet spray.

We talked, then, about the difference between a scene like this, packed with the five senses, and our first sentence, which got us into the subject of the old writer’s rule: show, don’t tell. When you show, you feel like you’re in Sarah’s story, experiencing it with her. Of course, you can’t always show. There’s a place for telling, and I asked them what would happen if we decided to do this for every moment of Sarah’s story. What if she were going to go across the country to attend school in the city, where she’d meet a bunch of new friends. Would we want to feel her walking out of the barn, getting ready, going to the train station, buying her ticket, sitting on the train, looking out the window, arriving . . . . Well, no. That would get long and boring. And so the kids began to understand that wonderful balance of scene and narration that makes up a story.

After that, we had questions, some of which were great, including this one:

Do you eat sweet things to get you to think sweet thoughts?

Well . . . I definitely eat sweet things. Let’s leave it at that.

And finally, at the end of the week, my niece arrived with a packet of thank you notes and drawings for me. They were all spectacular, but here’s my favorite line:

“Dear Mrs. Gewirtz, Thank you for the visit. . . . I wish you could visit again. With more cupcakes.”

Dedication

Last week, I got a surprise package in the mail – an early copy of the hardcover of Zebra Forest. I have several copies of the ARCs (advance reading copies), and so didn’t expect the thrill I got when I opened the package and saw my book in hardback for the first time. But there’s something about the real thing – dust jacket with embossed words, dedication in the front of the book, the whole shebang – that feels different. And the best part was getting to show it to the two people the book is dedicated to – my husband and my mother. People often say that writing is a solitary activity, and for the most part, it is. You need long stretches of silence and time to clear your head and think about things that are not immediate, that don’t relate to the logistics of life, that may end up as nothing more than a daydream. And in order to do that, you do need other people. People who give you the time, the support, and the space to think, to write and to rewrite. I have been blessed to have many people in my life who have helped me. They’ve shaped my thinking, given me thoughtful opinions, encouraged me, supported me. Of all of those, the two who gave me the day-to-day and year-to-year ability to write, and who kept that dream alive for the long time it took to come to fruition, are the two to whom Zebra Forest is dedicated. Getting to see their faces when they opened the book and saw the dedication for the first time was worth the wait.Image

Snow and Metaphor

Frosty Footpath - winter snow

Frosty Footpath – winter snow (Photo credit: blmiers2)

The first snowstorm of the winter came belatedly today to the Washington, D.C. area where I live, and got me thinking about metaphor. I woke up this morning and looked to see if the storm really had come as predicted, found it pouring down outside my window, and thought the sky looked like a sheet of grey paper. In that moment, the snow itself was thin as sawdust, spilling through the tree in my front yard. So I thought – metaphors. Metaphors are a writer’s most vital tool, fueling description and the themes that give stories meaning. I’ve always thought metaphor is humanity’s most vital tool too, because without the ability to compare one thing to the next (and I’m using metaphor in the largest sense of the word, here) we wouldn’t be able to think abstractly. The first user of metaphor was the first human being as we, I think, would recognize one, because metaphor is the source of language. Putting symbols to physical things is a baby step toward metaphor, and the next step is thinking about things we can’t see, and giving names to them. To take an example, if you know about a mother and child relationship, because you’ve experienced it, and you know about families, because you live in one, a more abstract step is to see other human beings you are not related to as part of the family of humanity, and treat them accordingly, creating rules about what you can and can’t do, say, to a traveler you’re welcoming into your home. And that’s the beginning of law and civilization. Without metaphor, we’d all be stuck inside the boundaries of each moment – what we could see, touch, taste, smell and hear. Metaphor flings open the doors to the universe (another metaphor – see?) So that’s my snow day thought. And now, as I write this, the snow has thickened, and my sawdust image has to give way to feathers.

Kansas City!

Book signing at Winter Institute 8If I could go back in time and meet my 12 year old self, the girl who first dreamed of writing novels, I would have quite a story to tell. I think it would start with a ballroom. Oh yes, and the ballroom is across from an indoor forest, green that grows three stories high, with a waterfall flowing out of it. Inside the ballroom, there’s something so much better than a ball happening. It’s a book signing! Writers sit at tables piled with books, and people walk around, talking to them. And there is the grown-up me, sitting next to a bestselling (and very funny) author, signing my debut novel and hearing from people who have really liked it and are recommending it to others. Yes, my 12 year old self would have been dazzled by that story. Of course, she would likely have been stunned to know that it would take more than 30 years for it to come true, since when you’re 12, 30 years might as well be never. But in fact it’s not never. It’s now. That story came true for me this past weekend at the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute in Kansas City, where I got to find out what a book event is like minus the stomach flu. And the answer? It’s wonderful.

This adventure started with an early flight out to Kansas City on a smallish plane that I don’t think a lot of people could stand up straight in. But it was a smooth flight, and I got to watch the world turn from brown (my part of the East Coast) to white as we flew into the Midwest. At lunchtime, I met two more members of the wonderful Candlewick team, Jennifer Roberts and Elise Supovitz, who continue the Candlewick streak of only employing the absolute best people in the world. Later in the afternoon, Jennifer took me to the ballroom across from the storybook forest (better known as the ballroom level of the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City), for the book signing part of the event. I got to meet Stephan Pastis, a fellow Candlewick author whose hilarious book Timmy Failure came out today, and who, already a pro at book events, gave me some good tips. I admit I did peek over to see how he signed his books so I could figure out what I ought to do!  From then on, the day was a series of amazing moments. My fiction writing has been a private fantasy so long, I almost forget that suddenly people out there are reading my book. To have a bunch of them come up and tell me they loved it felt like I was dreaming. At the author dinner that followed the book signing, the wonderful booksellers I got to talk to asked me the most insightful questions about the novel – how I came to use the Iran hostage crisis, why I chose the ending I did, and, my all-time favorite, how Treasure Island got into the book. Which brings me back to my 12 year old self. The story would have to be told in installments, because this (I hope) is only the first chapter in a fantasy from long ago that is beginning to unfold. But if that young me would frown at the date, so far in the future, when the story begins, I think I could only shrug. She couldn’t know it then, but I do now. It was worth the wait.

Asimov the Wonderful

"Profession" by Isaac Asimov in the ...

“Profession” by Isaac Asimov in the July 1957 issue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though I didn’t read much YA fiction as a kid, I read a lot of science fiction, and the science fiction I read was mostly by Isaac Asimov. Asimov, probably one of the most prolific authors of all time, taught me about seeing things on a huge scale. His books about future history, societies, and worlds were very different from the other kind of books I loved – intimate character-driven stories — and they showed me how to think big, and keep a story moving. In Asimov’s stories and books, ideas drove the plot, and the characters were shaped by them. Reading Asimov, you felt like some kind of professor god, who knew everything at once, and saw history as a giant chess game. The ideas he explored in his short stories — the power of education, the force of social pressure, the dangers of relying too much on technology and not enough on the human brain — still inspire much of my thinking today. Later, when I grew into an interest in real history (as opposed to the made-up, future history of Asimov’s novels), I realized I’d been learning all that time I thought I was just having fun. Asimov taught me how to see the narrative line running through all things.

In college, I had the rare privilege of working, briefly, as an intern at Analog Magazine, which helped launch such science fiction greats as Asimov, Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. By that time (in the late 80’s), Asimov had set up his own magazine, which had offices next door to Analog. I was always hoping to catch sight of him some time in the office there. Sadly, I never did. I would have liked to thank him for being such a big part of my childhood. Then again, back in college, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the nerve to say a word. Still, I have ever single paperback of his science fiction I ever bought. They’ve followed me through several moves, and, in part, helped inspire my son to love science and space, so that he’s now on his way to becoming our own, home-grown Rocket Scientist.

Really, thank you, Mr. Asimov.

Coaching

Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds...

Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds after his 100m victory at Beijing Olympics 2008, breaking the world record. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about the value of professional coaching. Written by a surgeon who wondered why more people in his profession didn’t employ coaches to help them keep honing their skills, he described two discrete attitudes about training: one found in sports, another in music. We expect athletes to have coaches because the understanding is that to sustain high athletic performance, you need someone who keeps you at your best. On the other hand, here’s what the author, Atul Gawande, says about how musicians train:

“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself. This is how élite musicians are taught. Barbara Lourie Sand’s book “Teaching Genius” describes the methods of the legendary Juilliard violin instructor Dorothy DeLay. DeLay was a Perkins-like figure who trained an amazing roster of late-twentieth-century virtuosos, including Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, and Sarah Chang. They came to the Juilliard School at a young age—usually after they’d demonstrated talent but reached the limits of what local teachers could offer. They studied with DeLay for a number of years, and then they graduated, launched like ships leaving drydock. She saw her role as preparing them to make their way without her.”

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande#ixzz29TNw7RsL

Now, as a writer, I see the benefits of coaching every day. Not only do I rely on a small group of colleagues to help me “hear myself” better, but there is of course my wonderful editor, who offers another great model of professional coaching. But what this article actually made me think of first was parenting, and whether it’s more of a coaching-style role, or, as with musicians, a launching effort, where you get in all the training you can for a precious few years, and then your little birds fly.

It seems to me that American society has a prejudice toward the musician style of training for parents. I’m always reading one article or another about kids who fail to launch, with some vague sense of blame for their overindulgent parents. But as I prepare for the wedding of my son this summer, I’ve been thinking about this question – what is the role of a parent of adults?

My parents were definitely coaches. Though my father died ten years ago, I still think of some of the best advice he gave me, long after I was married and raising kids of my own. It still works. As for my mother, who lives close by, I’ll refer to her here as the Wise Admiral, because she’s wise, obviously, but also because she’s always known how to run a tight ship. She continues to be a font of very practical coaching for me as a parent and as a human being. The crucial thing about good coaching is, you know when to step back. As my editor said to me recently – in the end, it’s your story.

In the end, each person writes his or her own story. But that doesn’t mean that when you hit eighteen, or go off to college, or graduate, or get married, it has to just be: well kid, it’s been swell. Goodbye and good luck.

We can all benefit from a couple good coaches in our lives.

The Joys of Rereading

Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

There are certain writers whose voices never stop echoing in my ears. At the age of 12, I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the seventh grade, and realized, suddenly, that people could make magic with words. I’d always loved stories – my father used to sit in the doorway to the bedroom I shared with my sister when I was little, and read by the light in the hall. Sometimes he’d read mysteries – Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys – doling out chapters like candy — (just one more, please!) until either he or we fell asleep still wanting more. On the best of those nights, though, he would tell his own stories. And those stories planted the seeds of a writer in me.

But it was not until I read Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird that I learned the magnetic power of voice. That novel gripped me from start to finish, and I remember thinking, right when I finished it: Wow. I want to do that.

I never stopped thinking that. And that’s because something about Miss Lee’s voice just kept echoing and echoing. I loved it so much I returned to it again and again over the years. I think I stopped counting when I’d read the book about 13 times. I read it first just to be back in that place, with those people. She’d made them all that good. But after a while, when I’d begun to study writing in earnest, I read it to understand how she put things together, how she achieved what she did. I’ve never gotten tired of it yet.

I wish she’d written another book. But that one has kept me for a lifetime.