It’s a matter of trust

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trust11Recently On my newsletter, Monday Motivation, I posted some thoughts about trust.

I was amazed by the number of responses I received. It seemed that there were a lot of writers out there still grappling with trust. I heard from writers at the beginning of their journeys…and some who have been publishing for a very long time. It seemed that no matter what we were working on…where we were…what kind of feedback we were receiving…trust was still an issue.

 

Here is that post.

It begins with a question:

“If you could give new writers one piece of advice, what would it be?”

My answer could not be contained. (No surprise!!!) I had a lot to say, but after a while, I could see a theme, and this was TRUST.

Golda Meir said: Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.

 

Writers, this should be our motto!

 

Trust is such a huge part of the writing process.

In the beginning, I have to trust myself to write badly, to know that even though the words I’m putting down aren’t the ones I’ll end up with, that they will lead to something.

In the middle, I must trust my vision, my voice, my friends–especially when they tell me that something is working.

I have to trust my instinct to understand my characters and their motivations. And to be brave. To write down the true story…not the one that I think will end up well.

And then I must trust my editor. I must trust that the choices we have made are the best for the story. And that I agree with them! And that even if reviews aren’t great, that it’s okay.

These days, I know a lot of writers who are tough on themselves. We get down when writing isn’y easy/when the words don’t come/when roadblocks appear in our stories or in the submission process. We think it is OUR fault. That we’re not doing enough. Or not good enough. Or that the world is simply not fair. And then we get upset when we don’t measure up to our peers in other ways–when we compare ourselves to other parents or writers or professionals.

You know what I say?

Be nice to yourself. For me, I cannot be creative unless I feel safe.

Unless I TRUST.

Trust that you are doing the right thing, that your story will find a home. Trust that your words are important. Trust that your day will come.

As J M Barrie said, “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” 

This week, look in the mirror. Pat yourself on the back. Take stock in how far you have come. Most of all, promise yourself that you will trust in your process and in yourself.

Have a great writing week!

xos

This is the kind of post you can get every week when you subscribe to Monday Motivation. Find it at www.saraharonson.com. Or sign up for a class! Sarah will be participating in a Highlights Whole Novel Retreat this September with Nancy Werlin, Amanda Jenkins, and special guest, Nova Ren Suma!

Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)

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This is Benedict Cumberbatch reading Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately you did not write Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately Benedict Cumberbatch is very unlikely to attend your next book event.

Unfortunately you’re going to have to do the reading yourself.

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But fortunately, even though you aren’t Benedict Cumberbatch (if you are Benedict Cumberbatch please leave me a comment) you can give a great author reading.

But.. but… but… many author readings aren’t great. Some stink. Forget that. Your reading can be wonderful. It isn’t hard. It just takes thought, preparation, and practice. Without further ado here are my tips for a successful author reading:

1)   There’s really only one hard and fast rule.  HONOR YOUR WORDS.

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Be proud of your accomplishment and share your pride with your audience.

How? Speak loud. Speak slow. Lift your chin and occasionally establish occasional eye contact with your audience. Enunciate. Read like you mean it.

While you’re at it, ham it up a little. Ordinary gestures look small when viewed from the audience. Ordinary enunciation sounds a little flat. Pump everything up, a little or a lot. Perform. You won’t seem ridiculous. You’ll be enchanting.

Don’t believe me? Video yourself reading with every day mannerisms, then repeat with a bit of exaggeration. The more flamboyant one is way better, isn’t it?

2)   But Also Chill

You aren’t giving the soliloquy in Hamlet. Just be you.

Watch J.K. Rowling read from her first Harry Potter book, H.P. and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a great reading but she’s not doing anything crazy. She’s just reading calmly, with color and enthusiasm, honoring her story (even when little kids run around, ignoring her.)

Some people calm down by imagining their audience in underwear (EEEWWWWW) Some people take a stiff drink (tempting but not recommended) Do whatever you need to do to settle down, whether it’s deep breathing or running in circles or shouting at the top of your lungs. Of course the best way to stay calm is to be very very very very well prepared.

3) Chose your text wisely.

Pick a lively section of your work- a section where interesting characters are doing interesting things. Make sure the scene you read is a grabber.

And here’s a secret. You can edit what you read. You can cut and paste. You can skip bits- words, sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters-  to create the ideal read-aloud portion. A story read on the page is different from one read out loud. When you read aloud your voice supplies the white space and transitions. If you need to make alterations to deliver the best reading possible go for it. Nobody’s going to sit in the audience with your book on their lap checking for deviations… and if they do you’re giving them a little “insider” thrill.

3) Two Words (okay three) Short And Sweet. Many excellent authors read WAY too many pages in the mistaken idea that they’ll impress an audience with a heaping load of steamy words. It does not work that way!

Keep them begging for more. Chances are you’re hoping to sell books, either at this event or somehow, some day, somewhere. If your audience feels stuffed and exhausted by your reading they won’t want to read the rest. Keep them hungry for more by serving a tempting morsel of your delicious work. They’ll clamor for the whole thing.

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4)   Practice. Read aloud. Read aloud in front of a person. Or a dog. Or a person with a dog. Get your mouth around multisyllabic words. Test pauses and pace changes. Consider when to raise and lower your voice.

When you’re practicing time yourself. Make sure your reading fits comfortably into the time allotted. Then cut the amount you’re reading by about a quarter so you have no reason to feel rushed at the actual reading. The more you practice the better you’ll feel when all eyes and ears are on you and your book.

5)   For goodness sakes PLEASE don’t read with a dialect. Ever. Assuming you’re not Meryl Streep (who, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is not going to read your book) any accent you try is more likely to offend or, at least, distract your audience than enhance your reading.  No exceptions for dialog by hillbillies, people of color, elves, or anyone else. Do Not Do This. REALLY. DON’T READ IN DIALECT IT’S ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS WITHOUT EXCEPTION AWFUL I mean you, sort of famous author. Stop it!

6)   Don’t let other authors get to you. If you’re reading in a group some writers before you will tuck their chins to their chests and speak in nervous whispers, and for a minute you’ll be tempted to copy them. Because standing proud with your eyes on your audience and your voice raised high is….. showing off! Isn’t it? No. It’s honoring your work and your words. Even more it’s honoring your audience with the reading they deserve. Don’t cheat the people who’ve come to support you. Read it like you mean it.

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7) Which brings me to my final point. Shy has nothing to do with a good reading. Good public readings are orchestrated. You don’t have to make spontaneous small talk. You don’t have to be cool. You read words off a page… and they are words you already know- you wrote them!

Practice until reading your passage feels like second nature, then pretend you’re happy to be reading in a room with a dozen or a hundred people. Or pretend you’re all alone in your bathrobe at home. After you leave the podium you can run out the back door.

Which authors do you think do a great job reading their work?

~tami lewis brown

A Shameless Plea

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As the author of a funny adventure story for middle grade readers, I’ve found myself in a sort of unusual position over the past few months following my book release. I’ve been fortunate to appear on several panels with other middle grade authors, and I have often been the only woman on the panel. (Author Anne Ursu wrote a great post about one of these appearances; you should read it immediately if you haven’t already.)

Without exception, my male co-panelists have been wonderful people, great writers, and thoughtful and funny speakers. I’ve been honored to sit alongside them, and I hope I’ll get many more chances to do so in the future. But the gender breakdown of our panels doesn’t usually come close to representing the gender breakdown in children’s publishing as a whole, or even in middle grade fiction in particular. My YA-writing friends tell me that in the world of teen lit, the reverse is sometimes true, and it’s not unusual for a YA panel to consist mostly of female authors. I’ve also seen panels about “books for girls” populated entirely by women, and panels about “books for boys” populated entirely by men; if you’ve attended a children’s literature conference recently, you probably have, too.

Lately, writers and readers have been asking for more representations of diversity in the books we read, the authors we’re exposed to, and the opportunities presented to all of us, regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or the other traits that make us unique. While I can’t speak to all of these issues in the space of this blog post, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a shameless and specific plea for bringing groups of both male and female authors to speak to kids.

Here are just a few of the great things that can happen when men and women share the stage at an author panel or school visit:

Kids see themselves in the authors standing in front of them. I love speaking to elementary school students, telling them about how I became a writer, and showing them silly photos of myself when I was their age. I do this because I want kids to know that I was a lot like them when I was growing up, and that if they want to write books someday, that’s an utterly achievable dream. Bringing a group of both male and female authors to an elementary school shows kids in a concrete way that both boys and girls can grow up to be authors—and engaging, interesting speakers, too!    

Kids learn that both men and women can write all sorts of books. There’s a general perception—more of a stereotype, really—that men write funny, adventurous stories and women write quiet, heartwarming stories. A quick romp through any library will illustrate how inaccurate this idea really is. When we include women on panels about funny, adventurous stories, and when we include men on panels about quiet, heartwarming stories, we bust those stereotypes wide open, and that’s nothing but good for the kids (and adults) who attend these events.

Kids understand that both men and women write for boys and girls. Why do we so often assume that men write for boys and women write for girls? When I visit schools, I want boys to know that it is totally okay for them to read and enjoy my books, and I want girls to know that, too. I don’t write “for boys” or “for girls;” I write for whoever wants to read the stories I have to tell. I also know that my male author friends feel the same way. Some of our books might be about death-defying adventures, and others may be about friendship or family, but all of our books are for anyone who wants to read them: boys, girls, adults, postal workers, foreign dignitaries, and swamp monsters.

The elephant in the room gets a chance to leave. When there is a noticeable gender disparity on a panel, gender suddenly becomes a salient topic, even if it has nothing to do with what the speakers are actually talking about. This can be stressful, awkward, and distracting for presenters and audiences alike. As important as it is to discuss issues of gender, most of us would usually rather get down to the business of what we really love: talking about books written by—and for—everyone.

There’s far more to say on this subject, of course, and other smart people have already said much of it wonderfully, but I hope that all of us who write, publish, curate, share, and love children’s literature will keep this conversation going over the next few months and years. And if you find yourself organizing a panel, getting author friends together for a group school visit, or inviting speakers to a conference, please take a few moments to consider whether the authors in the group will represent a wide, diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints. It’s important, and it matters—not only to us, but also to the kids who read our stories.

A Mentor Talks About Mentoring: Kathryn Fitzmaurice

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s keynote at the Women’s National Book Association Writers Conference. Kathryn spoke eloquently about her mentor, her grandmother, science fiction writer Eleanor Robinson.

At lunch, Kathryn and I talked about how after becoming the successful author of several award winning/starred middle grade novels including The Year the Swallows Came Early, Diamond in the Dust, and Destiny Rewritten, she is now mentoring an aspiring writer.  I asked Kathryn if I could share her experience.

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Tell, me who are you mentoring and what are you working on together?

KF:  Her name is PB Rippey and she’s a member of  SCBWI in Northern California.  The title of her work in progress is “Trouble Beneath the Waves,” a wonderful story about a young girl with special powers.  I won’t say any more!

How were you two connected?

 KF: We were connected when I received an invitation from Catherine Meyers, who is the ARA to Patricia Newman, the RA for the Northern California SCBWI chapter.

 I understand this is a new program that the chapter is trying out and that you are one of several published writers who are mentors in this “digital mentorship” program. What are you expected to do?

 KF:  I am expected to stand along side her and do everything I can to help her bring her work-in-progress to a place where it is publishable.  I would like to see her obtain an agent and have the agent sell this story.

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You wrote in a blog post that there are several mentors in the program that you would have liked to have been paired with as a young writer. Who among your fellow writers would have been your dream mentor? 

KF: I would have loved to have been paired with someone like Gary D. Schmidt, who is my very favorite middle grade author.  I was able to meet him last year at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where I was on a middle grade panel with him, and Katherine Applegate, and Linda Urban.  Mr. Schmidt is so talented as an author, with one of his novels winning a Newbery Honor Medal, (The Wednesday Wars).  My favorite book he has written is Okay For Now.  Every time I read it, I find some genius page where Mr. Schmidt has made me cry, or laugh.   But even more, he is very nice.  In addition to writing, he teaches English at a college in Michigan.

 The aspiring writers had to submit several pages of a manuscript and a synopsis, and then the mentors chose their mentees based on the work. Can you remember what about PB’s story resonated with you? 

 KF: I remember when I read her pages, I thought to myself, I can see what might be missing, (it wasn’t much really), and I think I can help her bring the manuscript around to a place where we can cut some of the things that don’t need to be there, and bring in some things that will move the story forward faster.  PB is really quite lovely, she wants her story to be published and I believe it will be.  She is a hard worker.  She’s also a poet and has published a few poems.  Not every one can be a poet.  You have to understand rhythm and how words work together in a sentence.  It’s complicated to see this sometimes.  But she sees these connections.  She understands how words can be written to make the reader fall in love.

This is a one year program  in which the mentor is expected to read the writer’s entire manuscript between November and January, then do a video chat and provide a first round of editorial notes. The writer is supposed to have a rewrite by the end of March,  which the mentor then reads, and does a second video chat and editorial notes. 

Is this how the program is actually working for you and PB?

KF: After I go through her manuscript, I send my notes, (using track changes on word), to her and she reads through them.  Then we make an appointment for a Skype call and go through everything together.  We probably speak a lot more, though, than the rules say, because I have told her that she may contact me whenever she needs to.  I want her to know that I am available to her any time of day, for whatever reason she may want to discuss.  Because sometimes every author has, (including me), times when we need to discuss a very important idea.

 What do you find yourselves talking about during those Skype calls?

KF: We really discuss her main character and how she is growing, what she has learned, and how she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  Together, we do everything we can to cut out the things that aren’t working, and keep the things that are working in her story.  But honestly, her story is really very good.

What is the best part of being a mentor?

 KF: It’s always nice to help other people realize their own dreams.  I remember when my agent, Jen Rofe, of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, called to tell me she had sold my first book.  I want PB to have that same feeling.  I want her to be able to jump up and down and say she sold her novel.  That would be so wonderful!

 Lastly, I understand you’re working on a book that’s very different from your other novels. Can you give us a peek into what you’re writing now?

 KF: I’m on my third revision of a novel that I will continue to write until it is good enough to sell.  I keep going back and fixing it.  Everyday, I revise the story, so that my main character is growing, so she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  I am using a bit a magical realism, which I have never done before.  This is the part that is testing me.  I keep coming back to these sections and reworking them.

 Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your mentoring experience. We look forward to watching PB on her journey. 

 To read Kathryn’s moving blog post about her relationship with her own mentor:

http://kathrynfitzmaurice.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2013-10-26T10:53:00-07:00&max-results=7

Thanks, Papa Hemingway: A Collection of Thoughts on Writers & Alcohol

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Warning: This post may make you crave a beer.

Hemingway

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
― Ernest Hemingway

I was recently inspired by Carrie Jones’s blog post on the overly-embraced stereotype that writers “never ever ever make a living. Ever.” (A fantastic post. Read it here.)

This got me thinking about my favorite writer stereotype: writers are drunks.

While Papa Hemingway is aptly blamed for this one, he was not the only well-known writer drunk. (Here’s a list of ten such infamously intoxicated authors and poets.) And while there is an uncomfortable correlation between being creative, struggling with depression, and drinking, that’s not what I want to talk about.

In fact, an astounding number of writers I know don’t even drink, and very, very few drink while they are writing. Which begs the question, why does everyone associate drinking with writing?

Oh, I know! Pick me!

At least, I know why I drink (besides being three fourths McIrish). It all goes back to a conversation I had with my mom last summer:

“Go to your Happy Place,” she told me when I admitted to being stressed.

“That’s an insult,” I told her. “My Happy Place is where I work.”

It’s true. As a writer, I spend most of my time in that joyful brainland of endless imagination, but when I come out, the real world is waiting. This is a world that costs too much darn money. A world where my two-year-old is endlessly challenging his own record of just how many times a human being can say NO in a row. (His name will be admitted to the Guinness Book of World Record soon, I assure you.)

Drinking Muppets

“The most sophisticated people I know — inside they are all children.”
-Jim Henson

For years now, when I can’t write anymore for the day, I’ve turned to projects. I quilt, paint, dabble in carpentry, play guitar, sculpt, cook, work with leathers, design clothes and costumes.

(Jim Henson’s daughter called her father “creatively restless.” Oh, boy, can I relate to that one.)

And when I can’t do a single thing more, I go for a beer.

And that’s because it is much harder to turn the creativity off than to turn it on. I gather from my mother, a counselor, that people who don’t create for a living have the luxury of “going to their happy place.” But when you work in your imagination, where’s the escape from that?

Alcohol is magic in this situation. (And no, still not talking about alcohol abuse or alcoholism.) I’m talking about a glass of wine. A beer with dinner. The slight hum of a quick numb. For me, it brings redirection. Insta-ease.

After all, it’s all fun and games until the writer in question turns into Hemingway.

Dorothy Parker

“I like to have a martini, two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”
―Dorothy Parker 

Right now I’m three months into my New Year’s Resolution to give up drinking for 2014–for the sheer reason that I like a challenge. Surprisingly, I’ve found that sobriety has led to less creative urges. I no longer craft myself into a frenzy with the horizon-perk of a beer. I’ve turned to tea instead, which is kind of a substitute. Sigh.

Perhaps the biggest bump is that I’m reading more. Before I had a baby, I read during early afternoons, but since that has turned into Sesame Street and playground hour, I’ve had to push my reading back to after my son’s bedtime. And prior to my self-imposed prohibition, a beer tended to lead me in the direction of an episode of Firefly—not to a book.

So, what’s the point of all of this? Writers aren’t drunks anymore than lawyers are liars. Think about that one for a minute. And while yes, many writers struggle with depression and its bosom buddy alcoholism, these writers are actually the exception, not the rule. (Although these authors do tend to get more media coverage.)

Fitzgerald


“Here’s to alcohol, the rose colored glasses of life.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Four Facts About Writers & Alcohol*

1. Almost all writers are not drunkards.

2. Most writers DO NOT drink while writing.

3. Many writers do not drink at all.

4. Some writers drink too much on occasion, but then, hey! Who doesn’t? (There’s usually a dance or Wine Pit involved)

 

In the end, it’s best to hand a writer a martini instead of being worried for them about it. After playing in his or her mind palace all day long, a little nip of something can be a liminal blessing in readjusting to this thing we call the Real World.

I leave you with the sing-song words of one of my heroes:

Tolkien“Ho! Ho! Ho! To the bottle I go

To heal my heart and drown my woe

Rain may fall, and wind may blow

And many miles be still to go

But under a tall tree will I lie

And let the clouds go sailing by”

–J.R.R. Tolkien

 

*My research is gathered from an observation of my peers, but hey, in the blogosphere, Opinion wears the same hat as Fact :-)

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Cori McCarthy is the author of the YA space thriller, THE COLOR OF RAIN (Running Press) and BREAKING SKY (forthcoming from Sourcebooks Fire). Her favorite beer is Guinness and her favorite mixed drink is gin & tonic with a heavy dose of lime.

You can follow her antics @CoriMcCarthy and www.CoriMcCarthy.com

Writing Inspiration

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What inspires your writing?

Hints of spring waft in the air and birds sing, and I consider what inspires me in my writing. Walking in nature is one of my favorites. Other writers a big inspiration to me, so I asked several to share what inspires their writing. I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I do.

Sandra NickelSandra Nickel

Madeleine L’Engle once said that being a writer can sometimes feel like you’re a battlefield with ‘a dark angel of destruction and bright angel of creativity wrestling.’ I think life can feel this way sometimes too. And I am drawn to write by both the dark and the bright, but especially the magic and surprise and so-very-human refusal to be less vivid just when it feels like the dark angel is about to take us down.

Sandra can be found at http://sandranickel.com

Robin Prehn  Robin Prehn book cover

Reading other books definitely inspires my writing; not only do I want to take certain stories in a new direction, but I also feel that excitement of discovering a new world and want to create my own.  Being in nature also inspires writing, mostly because I let my mind wander as I walk and enjoy the sounds and sights around me.  My thoughts will touch on this and that, and often, a story emerges.

Robin can be found at http://robinreadsnwrites.com/

Rose Green Rose Green

As to inspiration, the biggest thing that inspires my writing is probably places. I’ve lived in 22 different houses spanning 9 states and three countries, and both the geography and the culture of all those places provide tons of writing fodder. A recent book I wrote was inspired by watching my in-laws’ bicultural prowess between rural mountain Idaho where they came from, and wealthy urban southern California where they’ve spent the past 40 years.

Rose can be found at http://rose-green.blogspot.com

Sandra Tayler  Sandra Tayler

Everyone needs stories, but not everyone has the skill to tell them. The moments which most inspire my writing are the ones where I am able to give words to a story that someone else needs.

Sandra can be found at http://www.onecobble.com/

Katherine Cowley

Katherine Cowley

I try to notice things around me, and put myself in situations where I will learn or do interesting things that will inspire me. I’ve received story ideas from Baby Animal Days, visiting the aquarium, indulging myself with a trip to an art museum, traveling to exotic locations, and becoming friends with people who are completely different than me. I also try to read widely: classic novels, science news, and history books on very specific subjects, like batteries. Most of the time there will be one or two ideas that stick out to me which I’ll record and stew over until I find the right match for a story idea.

Katherine can be found at katherinecowley.com

Christy LenziChristy Lenzi

Sometimes the books I read provoke questions, which spark my imagination. When questions from my fiction and non-fiction reading find their way to each other, that’s when the sparks start a fire. “What the heck is wrong with Heathcliff and Cathy? How would it feel to be slightly unhinged, like her? And what if, instead of the moors, I lived in the Ozarks during the Civil War? What would happen if the revivalist preacher wanted to save my demon-possessed soul and marry me, but the only person who understood me was this outlaw, hated and feared by everyone else?” My questions and curiosity inspire me to find the answers within the pages of my own book.

Christy can be found at http://christylenzi.com/

Melodye ShoreMelodye Shore

My writing is inspired by sunlight and shadows, though not in equal measure. I’m drawn to birdsong and rosebuds, and the skirted palm trees that rise from the desert floor, fronds lifted toward an impossibly blue sky. But I’m intrigued, too, by the mysteries that lurk just beneath the surface of things…the soul’s desperate yearnings, whispered secrets in the dark.  Writing invites me to stay fully present for (in) all of this—to appreciate each moment for the miracle it is, and to bear witness to the truth as I see it.

Melodye can be found at http://melodyeshore.com/

Thank you to all these writers for sharing what inspires their writing. Their inspirations reinvigorate me and feed my creative energy. Feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to read your comments about what inspires you.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Story: Humble (Even When Digital)

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Those of you who have read my posts know that I depend on digital tools, such as Photoshop, to create my picture book illustrations. After the publication of my first book last May, I also spent a lot of time and energy learning about using social media, such as Facebook, Goodreads, and Pinterest to promote it. I’m not sure any of those efforts actually helped me help my publisher (Holt) market my book, but they only cemented my feeling that I am a digital person.

So at the end of 2013, when I’d accepted that it was time to move on from “One Bright Ring,” but with no contract in sight, I asked myself, “Now what?”

Since September, I’d been playing with the idea of applying for a tenure-track position teaching digital art at Skidmore College. The application deadline was January 15, 2014. On the one hand, being a professor at a really good liberal arts college has been a dream of mine for decades. The only thing I wanted more was to be a published author-illustrator. Also, it was time to get a real job.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to apply to Skidmore. Not that I would have gotten the job anyway, but I realized the idea paralyzed me because I didn’t relish a life devoted to teaching Photoshop, that my favorite activity is reading fiction, and that although I haven’t written very successfully I have invested a lot of time in learning about it, and so I have the right to choose that path rather than the teaching-digital-art one.

So I made a bargain with myself: I don’t have to apply for this great job as long as I write. But I can do it this way: First, concentrate on story rather than writing. Writing, to me, is scarily aesthetic, whereas story connotes a humble and achievable everyday activity – something we can all do. Then see if I can use digital media to tell stories, because, like it or not, that is the way of the future.

So since round about mid-January, I’ve been researching both story and digital storytelling, and I want to pass along a couple of things I’ve discovered. The first is a book called “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” by Jonathan Gottschall. I recommend it to anyone reading this post. The title says it all, but it’s worth reading every detail of Gottschall’s argument. He contends, in an engaging style, that stories permeate human lives, that we are made for story, that we in fact evolved for it.

He also talks about how stories are always and only driven by problems. That’s what story is. Well, I was taught that in my MFA program, but it’s useful to have this information separated from the art of writing. For me, anyway.

Another book on my current landscape is Jason Ohler’s “Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity.” Not that this title will necessarily be of interest to the Tollbooth audience, but I mention it because Ohler makes a point of not privileging sophisticated technology but rather story. He discusses various methods for teaching kids how to execute stories using technology, but story always comes first for him. I find that exciting.

And I find it sensible. e-this and e-that freaks people out as harbingers of upcoming cultural losses. But as long as you can tell a compelling story, you’re fine, and real stories will always have the same ingredients, starting with a character and his or her problem.

Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Day 2 With Dana Walrath

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Graphic Art by Walwrath

 

“Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.“   Dana Walrath

 

 

Dana, let’s talk a bit more about the graphic novel versus the novel, and the verse novel versus the prose novel. It seems you just listened for a way in and found it, rather than imposing form from without. Any advice for artists wanting to blend their work in this way?

I believe that each story has its own form and its own voice and that I found these unusual forms because these were the ones to use for these particular stories. I came to both comics and poetry very late in life. I was poetry phobic as a teenage and bristled with embarrassment with my inability to interpret it to the satisfaction of my teachers. Karen Hesse’s verse novels opened the world of poetry for me.

In terms of comics, I liked Mad Magazine but Archie, Marvel and the like, left me cold, even made me mad. But when I discovered the form in 2009, I was hooked. Masterpieces like Maus, The Fun Home, Persepolis and American Born Chinese showed me that this form was perfect for complex, multilayered storytelling. I was a visual artist long before I discovered writing, and graphic narratives gave me a way to use pictures to tell stories and to tap into my subconscious. It is funny that my first two creative works to be published are not in standard prose. Prose is where my writing began. I have a number of prose pieces in various states of revision that I hope will be out in the world before too long.

Cover Art Aliceheimer's

I was really interested in how collage entered your work, and how your work seems to be a collage of your life (and you “collage” various art forms in a sense as well). Do you find this has any connection for us, considering our lives today? We’re often scattered and fragmented it seems, yet you were able, with your paint, pen, needle and awl, to make these bits into something whole. How can we as artists and writers best learn to embrace this sense of connection with the past, with our families, in our work? 

What an interesting observation! True that collage provides a medium for simultaneous reference and a way to integrate disparate elements. I first got into it big time, back in the dark ages, in college, when I studied intaglio printmaking and loved chine-collée, a method for bringing torn paper into the print, fusing the pieces of paper together as they run through the press. After that, I was away from printmaking/artwork for 20 years but went right back to using collage elements the second I returned. Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.

I think that the route to embracing a sense of connection with the past, our families and our work involves finding ways to tap your subconscious as you work. It’s all there in that compost heap in a non-verbal form. For me, turning to the visual, going back and forth between the visual and verbal lets this happen, but one doesn’t have to be an artist to use the visual.  Let yourself do some free, uncensored drawing, with your eyes closed even. Don’t underestimate doodling. Another lovely way to access the subconscious is to let naps be a part of your writing process. Often when I am stuck in a story a certain kind of exhaustion comes over me, and if I just give in to it, sleep brings things up from my subconscious that un-stick me.

How do you handle the violence in your stories (emotionally and craft-wise). I’m thinking of the emotional violence of your mother’s illness, and the violence of the genocide. Of course it’s important to speak about these realities, but any advice on what to leave in, what to leave out? How to give the reader relief? Why violence is important to include?

LikeWater_jacketI addressed some of this above but this is so important that I am glad to return to it. With my mother’s story, the violence/unhappiness in our relationship predated Alzheimer’s disease. The sickness gave us time to process our relationship and to heal. Finding common ground at last made it possible to feel at peace with losing her and for her to be free to die in peace. I wish this for every being. In terms of craft, the form of short individual pieces let some of them hold more pain and others more relief. The tough stuff came out in precise bursts that kept going deeper once the reader knew that they would be held after each bit of pain. Repeating visual and verbal motifs kept these pieces that varied somewhat in tone, unified and knitted together as one.

With Like Water on Stone I was determined to honor the truth of the events, which meant including harrowing details. These details were documented by hosts of neutral eyewitnesses at the time, through census records, through confessions, through the stories of survivors. Even heaps of bones in the desert have not been enough to stop policies of denial. I brought in specific details judiciously but with absolute clarity, protecting the reader through the character of Ardziv and by the fierce love Shahen, Sosi and Mariam had for each other. With each peak of violence one of them would take on the role of protecting the others, and in the process keep the reader safe. People survive extreme violence and pain often through magical thinking. Ardziv, a magical creature, was the embodiment of their strength. I was also determined to lay down paths toward forgiveness so that Shahen, Sosi, and Mariam could survive these horrors with their spirits intact instead of consumed with revenge, unable to ever move on.

You are a wonderfully gifted artist, poet and writer. Yet publishing today doesn’t always embrace the spare, lyrical author of serious works. Can you speak about your journey and how you stayed the course?

Thank you. True that it has been a slow journey toward publication. The thing that kept me going was always doing the work. I think if I hadn’t immersed myself in a series of projects while waiting for one of these tough topics to stick, I would have lost faith.  Along the way, I consciously began a piece that is more of a madcap romp to give myself some respite. Even with that story, The Very Long Days of Arden Hose Stoopnagle, the serious questions have been finding their way in as they do in all the books by others that I love, such as Holes.

Writing, reading, drawing, working, turning to humor and to short pieces where appropriate also helped me stay the course.  Staying in touch with other writers and artists and exchanging work with them kept me a part of a supportive community and ready to continue. I even taped bits of encouragement, things said by writing mentors, above the screen of my computer to keep me on track. Publication tales filled with countless rejections for fabulous books, such as Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running, also served as inspiration.

Graphic Art DWalrath

Always interested in edges, margins, and connections, Dana Walrath weaves many distinct threads through her work. After years of using stories to teach medical students at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, she spent last year as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds upon her award winning graphic memoir series Aliceheimer’s about life with her mother Alice, before and during dementia. She has shown her artwork in a variety of settings in North America and Europe.  In the fall of 2013, she returned to Armenia to give a talk at TEDx Yerevan that integrates Aliceheimer’s with her Fulbright work, and for the launch of Part I of Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (Harvest 2013). Her verse novel, Like Water on Stone, is forthcoming from Delacorte Press the fall in 2014.

She earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania; an MFA in Writing Vermont College of Fine Arts; and a BA in Fine Arts and Biology from Barnard College, Columbia University, and is a co-author of one of the leading college textbook series in anthropology. Spanning a variety of disciplines, her work has been supported by diverse sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Centers for Disease Control, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Vermont Arts Council.

                                                                                                               –Zu Vincent

 

Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Dana Walrath’s Two New Novels

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Cover Art Aliceheimer's

“This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her [my mother’s] humanity with every image.”  Dana Walrath

 

I remember seeing Dana Walrath’s early art about life with her ailing mother—now the poignant graphic novel Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass—when we were working together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency one summer. You entered her room and were immediately drawn to her work, tacked along the bookshelf like newly inked pages of fresh newsprint. Amazing images that drew the heart and inspired the mind. And like her work, Dana is brilliant, funny, inspiring and down to earth. This two-part interview is a look behind the scenes at how her alchemy of art, writing and anthropology emerged into print.

VCFA grad Dana Walrath is a writer, artist, and anthropologist. She spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds on Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013), her award winning graphic memoir series about life with her mother, Alice, before and during Alzheimer’s disease. Her first novel, Like Water on Stone, set during the Armenian genocide, is forthcoming with Delacorte Press in the fall of 2014.

Dana, you’ve spoken elsewhere about how your art is informed by life and how, conversely, your life informs your art. Many writers struggle with the question of how to write about their own lives (especially because of what their families might say). Yet you’ve successfully used autobiography in works such as Aliceheimer’s, and what’s more, been able to speak eloquently about a difficult last journey with your mom. Can you speak to how and why you approached this painful journey?  

I came to writing late and had never kept any sort of personal journal. Anthropological field notes were as close as I could get. While my memory for the specific details of my life has always been imperfect, I am all too aware of the emotional and physical sensations of this life. I worried about my imperfect memory, my aches, and my un-writerly habits until I read Robert Olin Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. Butler says that writers must let go of specific experiences and instead, let them flow into an internal subconscious compost heap in which experiences ferment and recombine and become stories. Suddenly I could reframe what I had seen as a deficit into a fortuitous process.

Graphic Art WalrathAround the same time that I read Butler—my first or second residency at VCFA—Marion Dane Bauer said in a lecture that if you are a woman, everyone will assume that everything you write is autobiographical. This differential treatment of male and female authors clearly derives from constraints imposed by gender roles established in a patriarchy, and in a funny way this assumption liberated me. That people would assume that I was writing from my life no matter what, gave me permission to use my life as I wished, without a burning need to stay close to any specific “facts” or details that could constrain the storytelling.

But more than just general comfort with writing from life drives me. For my forthcoming verse novel, Like Water on Stone, a powerful need to tell the story of how my mother’s parents survived the Armenian genocide of 1915 stems directly from the official Turkish policy of denial, and the lack of recognition of the genocide by other governments such as our own. In a briefing paper prepared for the US State Department in 1996, Gregory Stanton describes denial as the final stage of genocide (see http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/8stagesofgenocide.html). In other words, until denial ends, genocide is ongoing.

LikeWater_jacket

For my grandmother, I had only a single haunting sentence of family history to draw upon: That after her parents were killed she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night hundreds of miles from their home to an orphanage in Aleppo. So many survivors were too traumatized to share the details of their stories with their families, though witnesses and generations of scholars have amply documented these events. Knowing the scars the experience has left in the survivors and their descendants let me tell a story that was grounded in personal emotional truths and accurate historical research.

In a similar vein, a desire to support people with dementia, their caregivers, and to help re-write the dominant narrative about dementia and aging led me to share our family’s experience in my graphic memoir, Aliceheimer’s. Stigma and silence and a discourse of pain and loss surround dementia and other permanent, incurable problems of the mind. The dominant story is a scary zombie story of bodies without minds, loved ones experiencing only loss and valiant researchers searching for an elusive cure.  As a society, we are so fearful of mind loss and death that we leave families in isolation, without a roadmap of how to handle a host of daily challenges. Of course there is loss, but if we accept the loss and share our stories this can be a time of magic and laughter and healing. A lifetime with my mother made me certain that I could share our story respectfully, that her story could contribute to restoring the humanity of those with dementia.

Can you talk a bit about the differences in approaching your two books—from verse to graphic novel? Are there different emotional and/or craft considerations you could point to?

Considering the scary subject matters for Like Water on Stone and Aliceheimer’s—genocide and dementia—I knew I had to find ways to make these topics safe.  They found entirely different forms due to the sources of the fear and the reasons for bringing the issue into the open. With Aliceheimer’s my mother, a life-long reader, was the driving force. When she lived with us, she still read each day without the benefit of a short term memory. Watching her eat up every graphic narrative that came into our home made me certain that I wanted to use a form that someone with dementia could access.

Graphic Art by Dana Walrath

As people lose language they revert to the preverbal stages of life when we were experts at reading visual and other cues. My mother also loves to laugh and she led the way to laughing at her loss. Subconsciously, we associate comics with laughter. The medium grants us permission to laugh. Laughter is respite. It opens up new ways to cope. Comics also let simultaneous realities co-exist on a single page, mirroring the conflicting realities of people with dementia and their caregivers. This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her humanity with every image. And the book began as a series of comics-style drawings, each of which went on to inspire another layer of story.

For Like Water on Stone, I wanted to show the truth of genocide in such a way that it was undeniable, but that readers would not be so overwhelmed that they would have to turn away from it. The language and story came to me in fragments as the painful truths grew on the page. Though I generally write in prose, line breaks and spare language were integral to this story. The character of Ardziv, an eagle, a guardian spirit who protects the three siblings as they travel, also appeared as part of making the book safe for me as I wrote and for the reader. My job was to make it safe enough for a reader to truly know the horror.

Next: Dana talks about graphic novels, comics, collage and staying the course to publication.                                                                       –Zu Vincent

Conveying Emotion Through a Powerful Object

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 Today the Tollbooth welcomes writer Mary Cronin who posts about the emotional significance that two objects possess for the main character of her work-in-progress. 

“What if there’s no novel yet?” That was my main question when I won November’s “Fantastic Tollbooth  Contest” hosted by VCFA faculty member Garret Freymann-Wehr. Garret had asked for entries about an object of emotional significance to a character. My entry, about a boy named Tom and some of his beautiful treasures, was chosen as the winner.

But there’s no novel. Yet. A title, yes. Tomfoolery. And a notebook.

I’m a huge fan of pre-writing. So I have a notebook filled with character sketches and maps and anecdotes and family trees. About Tom, his best friends, his feisty grandmother, his itinerant musician mother, his job in a vintage clothing store. Most importantly, I know what Tom lacks.

Some of the college courses I teach in Early Childhood Education feed directly into my writing.

Maslow

So I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to figure out what assets my character has in his life, and what he lacks. Maslow’s Hierarchy serves as an inventory of sorts, about areas of strength in a character’s life, but especially about areas of need—what I think of as the “pot holes” in a character’s life. Using this tool, I can pinpoint those pot holes (basic needs like shelter?  A sense of belonging?), and how my protagonist has attempted to fill those pot holes. Have the “patches” been successful, or not?

Once I truly understand these things about my character,  I have compassion for him. And when I write from a place of compassion, the words flow.

swizzle

I picked up a swizzle stick a few years ago when I had the best gin and tonic ever at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. Some time last year, I stuck that swizzle stick in my pencil case. I knew it was important to Tom, just like the tea tin with the picture of Princess Kate on it that sits in my kitchen cabinet.

tea tin

I knew this because Tom lacks his mother, and Tom longs for beauty in the way a young artistic soul thirsts for it when he is deprived of loveliness. The beauty, the glamour, the royalty: these are the patches he has used to try and fill the empty place his mother left behind, the “pot hole” in his sense of security. Once I know what my character longs for, I begin to understand what objects might have almost magical meaning for him. And there was that lovely swizzle stick.

I encourage all the writers I work with to use Maslow’s Hierarchy to understand their characters, just as I advise my teachers-in-training to use it as a tool to understand the needs and motivations of their young students.

Thanks to Through the Tollbooth, and Garrett, a little bit of fairy dust was sprinkled on my Tomfoolery notebook, which will indeed grow into a novel.

I think Tom would approve.

Mary E. Cronin

 

Mary E. Cronin graduated from VCFA in January 2011. A resident of Cape Cod, she teaches Early Childhood Ed. and English at two Massachusetts colleges. Mary is currently revising her middle-grade time travel novel and polishing a few picture book manuscripts; Tomfoolery is waiting in the wings.