Posts Tagged ‘essays’

The Post – A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

February 16, 2008

Before I start talking about the Under the Pier process, I need to address the one side that calls to me in a big way – essays. I’ve sold a couple already and I yearn to do more. While this blog is a collection of all the bits of me, perhaps the one area of my soul most fed, is the ability to “speak in essays.”

I have spent most of my time over the last 12 years calling myself a children’s writer, though I have noticed that a lot of my focus is geared toward adults. Is this a contradiction or betrayal of a certain writing path? I don’t think so. Perhaps Madeleine L’Engle handled it best. She used to hate it when she was referred to as a children’s writer, as if that was all she was or it was a special category considered “not quite a writer.” She insisted on being referred to as a writer and considered her children’s writing just one aspect of her career, though certainly not the easiest or least important. Her observation there was: “If I have something that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”

So in the same vein, I am first drawn to writing for children as there is the very alive open child within me who wants to speak. However, like everything else in my life, I do not fit neatly into categories. The label “children’s” writer is not totally accurate because I find, I just write. Who it fits, I leave for the readers to determine.

As to my essays, they run the range – spiritual, humorous, nature-based, flippant. One current essay is a list I keep of irreverent things to put on my tombstone: “But it was HER fault, really!” “But I had the right of way!” or “But the bus NEVER came up this far on the curb before!” – the last one from a moment at Colonial Williamsburg where my husband and son expressed concern at how close to the bus stop curb I was standing. When I reassured them the bus never comes that far up, they offered to put that one on my tombstone. 🙂

I love to write essays because my right brain revels in being able to take a single quote or line of dialogue, a comic, photograph, painting or a life question, and just write. Something that starts in the specific and ends up at a universal truth. A journey where I start with the concrete and wander around always surprised where I end up, usually someplace emotional.

In a lot of respects, though I’ve started this blog in the midst of writing a novel for upper middle-grade/Young adult readers, a lot of it so far has been more essays, journaling, unearthing the soul of the writer, rather than a lot about the Children’s Writing business. That’s okay. I need to have that soul of the writer to do that novel. The reality is, that novel has been a journey to answers in life. Maybe in a way, novels are just one long essay because the characters in those fictions worlds still ask the same life questions we all do.

This blog is also my “raw material” that I can mine at will for whatever projects come along. It’s my toy box of thoughts that I can spin into something for adults or children. Truth, is truth.

My “internship of the essay craft” has involved continuing education classes at nearby Duke University, as well questions. Always, questions. They are the catalyst for life, for growth, for wisdom. At least to me, if I stop asking questions, I stop growing. I lose the path to peace

The internship has also included reading countless books. Fiction, philosophy, spirituality, nature guides, and of course, books on essay writing. One in particular is my favorite, and has been the most useful for seeing how to first collect, then transform life experiences. I recommend it highly:

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal – The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories, by Alexandra Johnson. She teaches memoir and creative nonfiction writing at Harvard and has been published extensively. The book is divided into three parts. It’s possible to only use one of the three at a particular time in life, or ever. The first is about having a journal – creating one, the various types, what raw material to collect; the second part is about transforming your life – finding the patterns and meaning in what you’ve collected; the third section is called “Crossover: Moving a Journal into a Creative Work.”

Whether you just collect raw material, mine it for meaning, or use it to create fiction and nonfiction works, the process changes you. Like that overly used cliched example of a rock thrown in a pond, change one thing and it touches places unseen. Even keeping a list of favorite phrases over a lifetime does something deep inside to your soul and alters your outlook on life.

So I am a writer for all ages. I love to write essays, whoever reads them. They are my journey to answers. They are the playground of the right brain, and the compost pile that fertilizes the rest of my works.

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The Post: Finally, I Graduate to Stage Two – Focusing the Lens

February 15, 2008

 

I knew Phase II had arrived. Its symptom was unmistakable. I was tired. The amount of work coming from the dictionary job ran up against the short-term deadlines and heavier workload from the ethics board. Family needs took up more time. The ethics board work increased even more. And then there was the point of it all, my writing projects. I realized that I not only couldn’t keep spinning 20 plates on sticks forever, but I didn’t want to. Where some people revel in that level of activity or that challenge, I did not. That, in itself, was telling.

Going back to Mr. Shulevitz’s advice: “You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self . . . learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love.” My husband’s reminder felt viscerally real: I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed to stop trying to be what I was not.

I let go of the dictionary work. While it was a good job, I wasn’t meant to be a lexicographer. I throttled back on the ethics board work. It was time for that directive: “Be alone with yourself . . . Achieve inner silence.” In my case that came partly from renewing my dormant practice of meditation and prayer, as well as just, being alone. You can’t run from yourself. To be a writer, if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you must learn your own truth. And it’s only in the quiet moments that the voice within can be heard.

For the first time, I stepped back from my work and took a look at the big picture. I listened to Mr. Shulevitz and sorted out the voices without and within, I looked to see what themes kept repeating themselves in me and my work. That’s when things started to come clear.

I love nature. I loved being 10 and climbing trees and fences and running free in the neighborhood – that time of childhood where you are most capable, where adventure and innocence are at their crest, before the trials and tribulations of adolescence set in. I love castles, the Revolutionary War, diners and the sixties and the blue collar, ethnic world I grew up in. And mythology.

I noticed that I collected, and still do, every silly, touching or factual story about nature, animals, and zoos. I kept a nature journal of our backyard bird feeder and the pond area and collected 3 years of information. I identified with creatures either too small or too much in the background to get noticed, and I was that nature-geek, driven to learn about every tiny sea creature that lived under the ocean pier.

I also knew I’d probably never draw comic strips, or write romance novels, science fiction, or true crime. Nothing against any of those genres, by the way. In fact I am fascinated by the genres of comics and romance novels – they are unique worlds and they seem cool and fun. They just aren’t my talent. And no, I will not try to write any more picture books. In truth, my husband has that voice.

I started to define the projects that were me:

A mid-grade novel set in Williamsburg Virginia during the Revolution. A mid-grade novel set in a 1960s blue collar ethnic New England town, of course, set in a diner. A historical fiction set in 1200s England on the Welsh Marches borderlands. A chapter-book of Greek mythology stories. A fantasy trilogy involving the world of a groundhog living at a highway rest stop, who faces the battle of ultimate evil, personal despair, loss, and emergence into wisdom. And a present day Tween novel of a girl above the pier, in another diner of course, and a hermit crab below the pier.

There is also a love of tweaky, short non-fiction articles about history and . . . nature. I rediscovered a love of and need for essays, which I will write about separately.

I started collecting reference books for all of these projects. Nature guides. Historical fiction. Topographical and historical maps of England and Wales. I made a plaster of paris model of the castle that my lord built, incorporating the latest high-tech gadgets of the early 1200s.

I pinned my project papers everywhere – the study walls were covered on one side with the pier story – maps of the fictitious town, topographical maps of Narragansett Bay, schematic of the diner of my dreams, the one I’d have if I had the money. The other side of the study has the groundhog world – map of the rest, deep woods, nearby farms. The hallway, spare room and stairwell have 1700s Williamsburg, while the den downstairs houses maps of England, schematics of the castle, and the castle model itself.

I even have two webcams up on my computer that allow me to step into 1700s Williamsburg whenever I want. I can see the view down Duke of Gloucester Street or watch the goings-on at the Raleigh Tavern any time day or night. I even had a lobster-cam until that one broke. So I had to settle for the DVD, Realm of the Lobster, that has footage of the undersea world of the lobster in the Gulf of Maine. I found that in this cool marine store store, Hamilton Marine, up in Searsport, Maine. Great website and catalog! Everything from diesel boat cabin heaters and EPIRBS, to cold-water rescue suits and ship’s bells. My next purchase from them will be a hand-crafted wind bell that sounds like a harbor buoy. They even give you the choice of 13 different bells – each one sounding like a buoy in a different place – Bar Harbor, Portland Head, Camden Reach, Outer Banks, etc. I use anything that puts me in the place of my stories.

I started painting again and even did one for the pier story. I bought a new digital camera and started shooting pictures . . . once I stopped being afraid of the thing. It only sat in a box for 2 years. In both painting and photography, I noticed the themes of nature, broken things and overlooked things.

And the words mosaics and broken bits, kept surfacing.

Finally, exhausted, I left the ethics board job. It had gotten to be so much work I was too drained to write. Besides, it was no longer who I was. Revisiting Stage One, I collected outside information as it applied to the projects I wanted to do, from sources like Writer’s Digest magazine, The Writer, countless writing newsletters, market guides and writing books.

All of this I did silently. Alone. Immersed in my own world. And I came to accept that I will work alone. Others can prepare you, teach you, assist you, but when you finally stand at the edge of that dark forest- your own inner world – you must face that one alone. It’s that line from the movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is about to enter an area of the swamp where evil lives. He asks Yoda what is in there. Yoda’s response: “Only what you take with you.”

All that was left now was to pick which project came up on deck first. My groundhog story was fairly well outlined. The 1700s Williamsburg novel had some drafts done, characters fleshed out, rejection slips collected. The Under the Pier story had an equal amount of journaling, drafts, and character work finished. The other projects were much further back in the data collection and journaling stages. One day in confused desperation I asked God to please “pick a nipple for me.” A few days later we stopped at Science Safari, a tweaky science store for kids. Sitting atop the discards pile on the sale table outside, was a stuffed hermit crab. My husband and son spotted it. I knew who sent it, so I bought it. The answer had been sent: Start with Under the Pier.

UP NEXT: A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

THEN: Phase Three: Coming Into My Own – The Evolution of a Novel.

 

The Post – Stage I: Apprenticeship – The Early Part

February 13, 2008

In 1995 I left Glaxo to create my own freelance writing business. So, you leave a good job, a steady paycheck, dig up the information to set up a business in your town, file all the forms, and then, voila, you’re in business. Now what? When does the money come in? And, small detail – from where? Isn’t there some boss who’s supposed to tell you what to do next? On the last – look in the mirror. That’s where the buck stops, or starts.

Of course I knew I wanted to write, but what? Articles? Essays? Short stories? Novels? Picture books? Yes. That was my answer. Yes. All of it. Of course, I would do it all. And succeed. Within the next few months. . . . right. I had to. I had to have that income. That’s probably the same answer anybody gives when they decide “I want to write.” The “I’ll write it all . . . and I’ll succeed.” So you sit down, write a bunch of stuff, send it out, and . . . get rejection notes. There’s a surprise. 🙂

I did have the advantage of having this dream since I was about 10 and tried to write my own Nancy Drew books. I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club in the 70s when it first started – I’m probably one of the earliest members – and I even read some of them. This gave me some working knowledge of marketing and what it was I was supposed to do to submit. I’d even managed to collect a few rejection notes over those years, so I at least had a “glimpse” of what I was up against. Even so, I had to live it, to learn it.

After a number of rejections, it dawned on me that I wasn’t destined for instant stardom and I did the equivalent of that line from the Apollo 13 movie: “What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good?”

Taking stock, I looked at where could I come up with the quickest income. Given the medical background, I could do medical writing and editing. I had the experience. It would have paid well. And I would have choked. I JUST did NOT want to sit there doing SOPs, business writing, and ripping my hair out while I tried to figure out how to format chemical formulas in my computer complete with all the raised and lowered numbers you see – C6H12O6 and 1.65 x 106 (that’s 10 to the 6th power by the way, not 106) moles . . . as you can see, I still haven’t figure out how to do that. I hope I never do. I wanted to write stories – things with heart, not chemistry. Besides, I’d already done that.

My actual, very first publication ever, had been about 20 years earlier. It was a chapter in a medical Microbiology book, on a then relatively unknown bacteria called Campylobacter. Actually, it WAS known, but as the genus Vibrio. However, the taxonomists decided that certain species of Vibrio really WEREN’T Vibrios at all, and hence needed to have their own genus. That’s what taxonomists do. Change classifications and create new names for bacteria. My job was to write a chapter summarizing all this.

As an aside: If you ever have nothing better to do, check out a book called Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology. It has almost EVERYTHING you ever wanted to know, and more that you didn’t want to know, about how to classify various bacteria. Not only that, but every few years the taxonomists change their minds about what boxes to put all the bacteria in and what names to give them, so they come out with a new volume. If you’re REALLY hard core about bacteria, get the Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology. It’s a THREE-VOLUME set, soon to be FIVE volumes after the next revision. An editorial review of just the second volume says: “Satisfyingly heavy and a pleasure to handle Volume 2 of the Second Edition of this highly respected work boasts a combined weight of more than 7 Kg. Their sheer size is a testament to the quantity of information contained inside.” So, for all the bacteria geeks . . . or people who need satisfyingly heavy doorstops.

Anyway, I wrote this chapter summarizing all that was known about the appearance, biochemical characteristics, and pathogenicity (how well it causes disease) of all the known Campylobacter species in 1975. If you’re that interested, see my Author journey page for a reference. I’m sure I’m no longer in the book. Some other poor soul has no doubt, long since revised it. Bless them.

It was a fine enough debut for my writing. After all, how many college juniors can say they’ve been published, much less in a respected science reference series? While my appetite was whetted for the world of publishing, I just did not want to write science journals or textbooks.

So what do you do when you have left your job, you don’t want to write science, you’re running low on money, and all your fiction gets rejection slips?

You be realistic and go back to science, but you find something in science that is writing-related, and engages your heart. You also refuse to give up your dream.

COMING UP NEXT: Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over