Monday, July 28, 2014

BOXES AND MORE BOXES

I've been silent for a long time and, if you ask why, I can tell you in a single word.  PACKING.  

Rick and I have lived in our home for 17 years, a record for both of us and we have the "stuff" to prove it.  Now that we are moving, we are forced to confront those boxes we stuffed in the basement and the attic so many years ago, thinking we would get to them later, when we had more time.   Does anybody ever have more time?

We have cleared the attic and disposed of as much junk as possible out of the basement.  I have discovered treasures such as my father’s Army uniform and my mother’s Red Cross uniform.  They met at Fort Bragg when my dad came home from World War II and were later married in the Chapel on post.  They have both been gone for more than 15 years and it caused a tug at my heart to unearth these reminders.

I also found things I cannot believe have been saved for so long, including a letter to my grandfather from some public safety “official” in Florida reporting that the dog which had bitten him while he was on vacation had been released “in good health.”  The letter was dated November of 1961. I have no idea why we saved it or what it was doing in my basement.

When I finished my last job for the school year, a day of Professional Development for teachers in Braxton County, WV, I decided I needed to set a goal for the summer, so the move did not completely consume my life.  I vowed to write every day with the target of having a completed first draft of a new novel by the day we move.  So far, I’ve managed to stay on schedule.  Some days it’s pretty tense and there have been days when the final work for a given day was not completed until after midnight.  But, having this daily "assignment" saves my sanity and keeps me engaged with my characters and their journey.  I can tell you with complete honesty, that there have been days when escaping into the world of my novel has been a welcome refuge from the other work required on that day.  Did I mention how many boxes of books I’ve packed?

I have reached the point where I celebrate the discovery of a box of something which has been rendered completely obsolete by the passage of time.  Fifteen year-old highway maps, for example.  Hooray!  These require not one scintilla of thought or emotion.  I can toss them (recycle, actually) with abandon.  What a relief.


Most discoveries are far more complicated.  This afternoon’s find, for example – a poem written by my cousin when she was in grade school.  My aunt had apparently sent it to my father years ago and he had saved it in a special leather box he kept on his desk.  This one’s a keeper.  I'm going to send it to her today.  It’s a lovely poem.  I want to know when she wrote it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

DIVERSITY IN ALL THAT'S MISSING

Like every writer, I am incredibly grateful for readers.  There is no better feeling than when a writer reads a review of her work in which a reader points out exactly a detail or theme or circumstance that the writer was hoping to achieve.  Of course, ultimately, the responsibility lies with the writer to create the world she envisions effectively enough for the reader to see it as the writer imagined  it.  Nevertheless, nothing feels better than positive confirmation that a reader "got" what you were trying to do.

When I wrote ALL THAT'S MISSING, one of my goals was for diversity to be a given in the lives of the protagonist and his contemporaries.  This reader’s words from a Goodreads review give me permission to believe I may have succeeded. 

Read-alike to "Higher Power of Lucky" in that it's about a boy's search for a family as his sole-provider grandfather sinks into dementia. I liked that some characters were African-American, but it was such not a big deal that it took a while to figure out.”
  
Thank you, dear reader!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

LETTER FROM A READER

Recently, I received an email from someone who had listened to the audiobook of All That’s Missing read by MacLeod Andrews. 

Your audio book was truly remarkable,” she wrote. “I could not wait to listen to the next part.  I felt as if I were with Arlo every step of the way, and with his friends, and family members, Grandmother Ida and Poppo. I am going to recommend this book to my grand-daugther, age 9, because I think she'd love it too.” 

As I face down another birthday later this month, I have to say that email was the nicest gift I could imagine. It’s true what they say about writers.  You’re always wondering who is reading your work and hoping desperately that they enjoy it.

 
This listener also wrote, “What I particularly liked was your mentioning the work of the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner.  I did a brief internet search on him, and was struck both by his courage and the luminosity of his painting.” 
I was struck by these things too and was only too happy to offer further reading selections in response to this reader’s request.  In fact, it is my fervent wish that lots of people find out more about Henry Ossawa Tanner after reading All That’s Missing.  That would be fabulous. 

For young people, a good place to start might be Faith Ringgold’s picture book biography, Henry Ossawa Tanner:  His Boyhood Dream Comes True, published by Bunker Hill in Pierpont, NH in 2011. 

Then there is the beautiful book produced in conjunction with the 2012 exhibit, Henry Ossawa Tanner – Modern Spirit, published by the University of California Press.

Or, you can simply go to the website for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts here.    

Enjoy!

Sarah

Friday, May 2, 2014

THE WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR



WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR

There’s a movement afoot in the writing community.  It’s called the Writing Process Blog Tour and it’s an opportunity for writers to share their thoughts on the writing process. One writer answers four questions about her process and then tags two writer friends to answer the same four questions the following week.  Bethany Hegedus tagged me and I’m grateful for the opportunity to pause and reflect.  Sometimes you can learn a thing or two if you stop and think about what you’re doing. 

Bethany and I were classmates in the Class of 2005 at Vermont College.  I’m thrilled to see her amazing book GRANDFATHER GANDHI out in the world.  It deserves every bit of buzz and praise it is receiving. She’s a wonderful editor and teacher, as well as a gifted writer, so it’s appropriate that I should be prompted to reflect on craft by her.  If you would like to read Bethany’s answers to these questions, you can find them here.

And now, on with the tour . . . .

What am I currently working on?

I always have several projects going at once.  It’s nice to have an alternate project to turn to when you get stuck.  At the moment, I have a full draft of 2 realistic middle grade novels.  They are in various stages of revision, but each time I go back to them, I recognize there are issues I have yet to resolve. (e.g., see above – “when you get stuck”) 
I also have the first 40 pages of a new middle grade novel which has elements of fantasy and magic.  It’s where my heart is at the moment. I can’t say too much about it, because talking about a project takes all the energy out of it for me.  I need to save every crumb of creative mojo for the work itself, at least in the early stages. 
After the fourth or fifth draft, I may be willing to share. For now, I look forward to settling into my favorite red chair and slowly pushing forward, one faltering step at a time. 


How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I suppose every writer hopes that she has a voice which distinguishes her work from that of other writers.  People tell me that I tend to tell stories with a  lot of heart.  If my work has one characteristic, I would be happy for that to be what it is.  I gravitate toward books with deeply flawed, but sympathetic characters, Richard Russo’s novels, for example.  I love Sully in Nobody’s Fool. More recently, I loved the title character of Gabrielle Zevin’s latest novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikery

Place is also an important element of a story for me.  I can’t write the book until I have a clear picture of details of the setting.  I need to know about the way the air smells, what kind of trees are growing in people’s yards, what kind of birdsong they hear when they wake up in the morning.  I need these things to help me find the right tone and rhythm.  My latest book, for example, is set in a small town in the Tidewater area of Virginia.  I like setting stories in small towns, perhaps because that is the sort of place I have lived most of my life.  Every small town has its own unique “characters,” oddballs or eccentrics who are beloved and tolerated by their friends and neighbors alike.  Those are the sorts of characters I like to discover inhabiting my novels and I enjoy meeting them in the works of other writers.

Sound and rhythm are important to me too.  That’s why it was such a joy to write about two musicians as I did in PassingThe Music DownI love it when the rhythm of the prose somehow matches the subject of the book.  That opportunity doesn’t present itself very often, but when it does, it’s great fun to work toward something that organic.

Why do I write what I write?
Usually, when I am asked this question, it is intended as a “polite” version of “when are you going to write for grown-ups?”  With the exception of Passing The Music Down, which was based on two real musicians, my stories start with a fictional character whose voice comes into my head.  At the beginning, I do more listening than writing. I try to find the dreamspace in my mind where the voice originates.  Unfortunately, there are usually just enough snippets of conversation or interior monologue to ignite my curiosity.  Nothing more.  Then the work begins.  I am compelled to search for the rest of the story. There are lots of false turns along the way.  But, I don’t know how to avoid that.

I think those kinds of slender beginnings are really the nugget of emotional truth which is intended to be at the core of the book.  I suppose if you want to consider the psychology of this, it probably springs from something in my own life that I am wrestling with.  One of my advisors at Vermont College, Jane Resh Thomas, famously said that writers are always “writing behind their backs,” meaning that, if you look beneath the surface of the story you’re working on, you will discover that you are secretly struggling with some issue from your own life.  We tell stories in order to make sense out of life.  It’s as simple as that.  The odd thing is, we may not be aware that we're doing it.  

Even if the story you’re writing seems to be about someone else’s problem, your protagonist is probably struggling with an emotional issue that is deeply concerning to you as well.  If I am faithful to my initial nugget of truth, I am likely to discover a good story.  If I try to force a plot on that initial vulnerable voice, the story probably won’t work. 

That’s about as much as I understand about the process.  There is a fair amount of mystery to it and I’m happy to “let the mystery be,” as Iris DeMent sings. 


I believe stories are a gift from the universe.  They enable us to process tragedy and misfortune.  They help us stay connected to the rest of humanity, even when our personal histories might cause us to feel we do not belong.  Without them, we become less human. 

How does my individual writing process work?
To be honest, I don’t fully understand it myself, except that it works best when there is not too much going on in my life.  I need lots of time to daydream, to let my mind drift and mull over connections between things.  It’s been difficult lately because my husband and I are moving from West Virginia to Virginia.  It’s much better if I can write at least a little bit every day.  My mind can stay rooted in the world of my story.  As it is, I try to make use of my time on the road by mulling over story ideas and figuring out what my characters really want.

With middle grade fiction, I normally have the beginning of a story.  There’s a character and I know exactly what’s happening to him or her for about 30 pages.  Then the well runs dry for a while.  I can imagine the next scene, but it often feels forced.  I have to keep sitting down at the computer and trying, until finally the creative side of my brain becomes unjammed and the story picks up where I left off.  The middle is the hardest part for me.  By the time I get there, I usually know how the book will end and it’s a relief to work on the final third of the book.  As may be obvious from what I’ve described, plot is the hardest part for me.  I really struggle with it.

I’ve tagged Madelyn Rosenberg and Kelly Bennett to follow me on this Writing Process Blog Tour. 
        
 A former newspaper reporter, Madelyn Rosenberg is a now a freelance writer in Arlington, Va. Her books for children include Canary in the Coal Mine, Happy Birthday, Tree and The Schmutzy Family. along with Dream Boy (coauthored by Mary Crocket, July 2014), How to Behave at a Tea Party (September 2014) and Nanny X (October 2014). She coaches rec soccer and serves as advisor for an elementary school newspaper. She has learned on school visits that if a kindergartener is waving her hand wildly, it may mean she has a question, but more likely it means she has to go to the bathroom.  Read more about her at www.madelynrosenberg.com

Kelly Bennett is an award winning author of books for children—mostly picture books. Her stories, recently Vampire Baby (Candlewick Press, 2013), Not Norman: A Goldfish Story, One Day I Went Rambling, Dad and Pop, Your Daddy Was Just Like You and Your Mommy Was Just Like You, and Dance, Y’all, Dance celebrate imagination, families, friends, pets… all that goes into being a kidVisit her at www.kellybennett.com.

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