Archives for posts with tag: creative process

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY

 The child narrator of this wise and truthful story about writing identifies herself by her “nom de plume”—Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee.  Her writing process is familiar, succinct, and nurturing to those of us who write. And, at the same time, encouraging to readers who don’t yet write

“First button on your writing jacket. Then stuff your pockets with seaweed crackers. Then sit very still and think. Last but not least, choose words and line them up—like a fruit seller who choosers her best mangoes and pomegranates and bananas and puts them on display. And when you’re done—yay!—a story.

Like most writers at one time or another, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee discovers that she’s lost the fun of writing. Ideas have become illusive and the joy is gone. The cliché’ term is “Writer’s Block” but the truth is closer to “Writer’s Self-Block.” One’s internal pressures and expectations of grandeur or success can put so much attention on the final product that the pleasure of the process goes missing.

Illus. by Yumi Heo

Aspen’s gently supportive grandparents lead her to a different art form, painting pottery. Initially, her fears or “block” follow Aspen into the pottery studio. But stepping outside her primary art form and into another allows her to rediscover the truth:

“You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess.”

In other words, you’ve got to relax, experiment, and remember that puzzle of choosing which words and lining them up in which order is the part of writing we love the most.

The next time you encounter a spell of “Writer’s Self-Block” take a cue from Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee. Paint, sculpt, dance, bake, build or anything activity that helps you relax and remember that process is messy but also the fun.

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY by Lenore Look. Illus. by Yumi Heo. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

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How Listening Can Improve Your Manuscript

 “What one has written is not to be defended or valued, but abandoned: others must decide significance and value.”        William Stafford

Illus. by Feodor Rojankovsky. THE BIG ELEPHANT by Kathryn & Byron Jackson (1949)

One of the most beneficial aspects of participating in my writing group the last twelve years has been learning to share new manuscripts without being defensive. Do I hope they tell me I’m a genius? Absolutely. Do I always like what my writing group has to say? No. Do I always agree with what my writing group has to say? No. But I’ve also learned that by quietly listening to their comments I might well discover the key to making my story even better that I thought I could. If their comments do not feel helpful I can simply let them go. There is no need to prove my view is right and theirs is wrong. History also has proven that I might even end up agreeing with their assessment as I revise.

As a teacher and periodic critique-reader at conferences I am bewildered at how many people request (even pay) for an evaluation of their manuscript. Yet, they spend their allotted time telling me what I don’t understand rather than listening to what thoughts I have that might improve their manuscript. I’ve seen this cycle occur in many situations and many genres.

Who doesn’t want to have our first reader clutch the table in ecstasy and proclaim our manuscript is the best thing since the wheel? But as the emperor in his new clothes came to understand, “yes” men are of little value.

When we enter a critique situation in a defensive mode we are literally too busy planning how we will explain our manuscript to even hear the comments we have requested. Jumping to defend and explain our manuscript to a critique group or editor is ultimately about our ego, not our manuscript. Each of us must continue to choose which is most important.

Are critique groups and editors always right? Of course not. Even if their comments don’t feel appropriate, their suggestions might spark new ideas of our own. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by quietly listening without defense while our manuscript is being critiqued.

Picture Book Vitamins

Part II of II

from FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“When I am brought low by the vicissitudes of life, I stumble to my bookshelves. I take a little dose of Zemach or Shulevitz. I grab a short of Goffstein or Marshall. I medicate myself with Steig or Sendak, and the treatment works. I always feel much better.”        Arnold Lobel

One of the primary reasons many of us write is that we have experienced time and time again the medicinal pleasures of reading. We’ve read books that opened new doors. Read books that reminded us we were not alone. Books that made us laugh during a difficult time. Books that made us cry when we desperately needed release.

The following picture books always made me feel better and sparked renewed energy to write.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT by Saxton Freymann & Joost Elffers. (Levine Books, 2005): This book of literal food play always brings me a smile, and reminds me even the most ordinary object or thought can become so much more if you let you mind explore.

GOLDIE THE DOLLMAKER by M.B. Goffstein. (Farrar, 1969): I didn’t discover this book until several years after its publication. But when I did it became THE book supporting my desire for a life in the arts and continues to remind why I write.

“A Good Picture Book Should” by Arnold Lobel in CELEBRATING CHILDREN’S BOOKS edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye. (Lothrop, 1981).

SELMA by Jutta Bauer. (Kane/Miller, 2003): This miniature picture book honors those who find contentment in their daily lives.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf. Illus. by Robert Lawson. (Viking, 1938): Quite simply, this classic reminds me that all I have to be is exactly who I am.

THE TREASURE told by Uri Shulevitz. (Farrar, 1978): This beautifully written retelling of a folktale affirms honoring our dreams, the journey, and the reality that our greatest treasures our within our daily lives.

No matter what picture books are in your literary medicine cabinet, the reasons they are there remind us of what our young audience wants. Support, not scolding. New experiences, not lectures. And always, a sense of connection, not division.

Picture Books and Gardening


What writer hasn’t felt like the little boy in THE CARROT SEED? We start with the tiniest seed of an idea and a wish. We endure the “kind” chants of doubters from within and without. But if we keep working, keep tending our seed we may well reap an amazing harvest.

One chant our doubters (including ourselves) share is: “It’s been done before. Done better. Why even try?” The “why” is because each planting, each garden is different, and all have value.

My first garden was a clump of wild violets given to me by the gardener next door. I was five, and planted them with amazement. That experience eventually became one of the seeds for my SEEDS illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (1994). Here are five picture books that explore gardening each in a different way.  As you write and garden this season remember to be open and aware. You may be living the vital seed for your next picture book.                  

FLOWER GARDEN by Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Harcourt 1994. 

Gardeners know the enjoyment is in the doing, the planning, and the tending regardless the garden’s size. Bunting’s brief, rhythmic text celebrates an urban flower box garden.

FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER  by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1972.

Toad discovers what many gardeners know, that the hardest part of gardening is waiting for the blooms. He even reads them a story so they won’t be afraid of the dark, and they’ll start to grow.

PLANTING A RAINBOW by Lois Ehlert. Harcourt, 1988.

A child’s voice shares the yearly rhythm of how she and her mother plan and plant a garden rainbow. Ehlert’s vibrant paper cut illustrations leave the reader eager to plant even more species and colors.

PLANTING THE WILD GARDEN by Kathryn Galbraith. Illustrated by Wendy Halperin. Peachtree, 2011.

Not all gardens are planted by people alone. Galbraith’s lyrical text leads us through never-ending cycles as wind and water, birds and animals, plants and people work together to plan the wild meadow garden.

ZENNIA’S FLOWER GARDEN by Monica Wellington. Dutton, 2005.

Gardening is a science as well as art. Wellington successfully blends these two aspects as she shares a girl’s delight in growing her garden.

SEEDS illustrated by Steve Bjorkman. Houghton, 1994.

Story is Story is Story

Kukla, Fran and Ollie

I have never understood writers who proclaim, “I write for myself not the reader.” If they only write for themselves, why do they bother jumping through knotholes and hoops to get published? If they only write for themselves, why don’t they burn what they write as soon as it’s written? Sharing stories is part and parcel of being human. It is one of the vital ways we connect with others through time and space.

Studying picture books and the many wonderful books about creating picture books is always wise and beneficial. But it is also valuable to look beyond our particular genre. Traditional storytelling and the theater focus on sharing stories (journeys of action, emotion and change), but because they deal with an immediate, breathing audience there is no way they can proclaim they only write for themselves.

As David Mamet states in THEATER, “If the audience members didn’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. If they didn’t gasp, it wasn’t surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats, it wasn’t suspenseful.” As picture book writers we have much to learn through the immediacy of theater.

Let yourself roam through the library and grab any book that relates to story in one form or another: theater, acting, film, art, or graphic novels. You’ve got nothing to lose, and much to gain from learning how others not only connect with their audience, but keep them engaged.

Here’s a brief list of books that have recently given my brain and writing a welcome buzz.

THE ACTOR AND THE TARGET by Declan Donnellan. Theater Communications Group, 2002.

ARTISTOTLE’S POETICS FOR SCREENWRITERS by Michael Tierno. Hyperion, 2002.

THEATER by David Mamet. Faber and Faber, 2010.

Revision:

Like the Sun is Coming Up

THE NEW YORKER

On the very rare occasion our first draft brings perfection like a turbo-charged magic wand. Done! But most often (as in the cartoon above) we know we need to try it again. And again. I believe the need to revise is actually more beneficial than a magic writing wand. The process of revising provides our manuscript a chance to deepen. A chance for it to become more than we first imagined. Revising also offers new opportunities to learn our craft.

Revision exists on at least three levels. 1) Our approach or attitude, 2) words & mechanics, and 3) structure.

Attitude: For some reason people of all ages tend view the need to revise a manuscript as an act of failure. They’ve made mistakes. Yet these same people do not experience failure when they alter a drawing, add more spices to a recipe, or decide their work refurbishing a car needs more work. Relax. Revising IS writing. And, the act of writing is why we write.

Words & Mechanics: It is so easy to cling to our first draft. Cling to the “perfect” words we’ve selected. Cling to the sentence that will most certainly make our readers gasped in awe. Get over it. The perfect word or sentence mean nothing if they do not serve the story as a whole. One of the first people to see Rodin’s clay sculpture of Balzac kept commenting on the magnificent hands. Rodin chopped them off because they’d become distracting. They did not contribute to a unified whole.

Try this. You’ve nothing to lose but an improved manuscript. Put your current draft in a drawer. Take a break. Then WITHOUT referring to that draft, compose a new draft. Tell the story again. Do not worry about what you’ve written before. How are you telling the story THIS time?  Let it evolve. Take chances. This exercise is not about ego; it is about the story you want to share as effectively as you can.

Structure: Beautiful words and perfect punctuation do not a story make. If you or others still feel something is lacking in your picture book story, dig deeper. It’s time to re-examine the spine of the story and the contributions of each scene. It’s time to apply the basics of fiction and drama no matter how short the story may be. Have you been clear about what each characters wants? Are your characters and action active or passive? Does each scene propel the story with a “Yes, and then…” contribution?

When I work with children I show them a folder of very messy drafts of a particular story. We discuss how the pages may be messy, but they contain no mistakes because each draft is a process of making it better. And, making something better is never a mistake.

To assure the disbelievers, I ask them how they feel inside when they are getting better and better at doing something. Responses are typically: Good. Great. Happy. Several years ago a young girl at a school in Hong Kong answered with a poem: “I feel like the sun is coming up!”

Happy revising as you feel the sun coming up.

Is it Worth It?

"Pierre Writing" Renoir

“Remember, that writing is translation and the opus to be translated is yourself.”      E.B. White

A former writing student feeling very weary of rejections recently asked me the classic question: “Is it worth it?” The question is a big one, and one I’ve wrestled with it at least once each year for over 30 years. Most writers I know are in the same boat. The vital thing is deciding what “worth it” means for you. Each writer is likely to have a slightly different answer. And, that answer may change over a period of time.

If one defines “worth it” as getting rich or even being able to support one’s self with writing, then the answer is probably no. Like most people in the arts, very few writers are able to make a solid living by their writing alone. I can’t.

If one defines “worth it” as enjoy the brainstorming, the writing, the revising–the process of creating, then one is far more likely to find the time and effort worth it. The value and satisfaction are in the effort, in the doing. Damn right, that getting published and earning a bit of money would make it even better. We writers cannot control reviews or sales.  But we can control (or attempt to control) our definition of “worth it” and our pleasure in the process.

Writing to explore our lives and passions is the dual gift of our efforts, indeed all the arts. We experience “the worth it” as we create. We experience “the worth it” as we translate our selves as a way to connect with others. And, whenever someone connects with our writing, we experience “the worth it ” in yet another way even though we rarely meet our readers.

So, “Is it worth it?” Only you can decide.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

III of III

 “People read biography for the same reason they read fiction; not to find out, simply, what happens next, but to figure out how people live their lives, how they solve their problems,”

Marnie Jones. THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. Winter 1984-85

Each life is story of problems to solve. How one addresses these problems, or decides if it is even a genuine problem that needs to be solved is how people live their lives. In other words, the way one interacts with the world. The actions in their lives.

Though these four picture book biographies on Georgia O’Keeffe are different in many ways, they all share the primary chords of this painter’s life. They share a focus on how she lived in the world.

* A preference for and ease with solitude

* An uncommon child with an uncommon dream (for her time)

* An individual who followed that dream throughout her 98 years

* Her love of nature, shapes, flowers, sea shells and bones

* The three primary landscapes of her life and work: Wisconsin prairie, the New York skyline, and the wide-open spaces of the southwest.

* She was dedicated to her work and that work included how she lived in the world.

* And because of that, she continued to explore

Winter’s MY NAME IS GEORGIA is the only volume that makes a reference to O’Keeffe’s relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. And that is only a single, small image of a white haired man seen through a window of O’Keeffe’s Manhattan studio. Some might say an artist’s adult relationships have no place in a picture book biography. Other might say to leave out such information is a lesser or distorted representation.

I urge you to look again. O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz was based in how she lived with the world, and that is the rich distillation these four books offer to children.

 Picture Book Biographies Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

II of III

 

biography |bīˈägrəfē|

noun ( pl. -phies)

an account of someone’s life written by someone else.

• writing of such a type as a branch of literature.

• a human life in its course : although their individual biographies are different, both are motivated by a similar ambition.


By definition a biography is not required to stretch from cradle to grave. A biographer might elect to focus on only a portion of “a human life in its course.” Such is the case with our third and fourth picture biographies of Georgia O’Keeffe.

In GEORGIA’S BONES Jen Bryant focuses on her subject’s early years: childhood through her initial experiences and paintings in New York and New Mexico. Kathryn Lasky’s GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE describes a typical day in O’Keeffe’s life at an advanced age in New Mexico. While they focus on opposite ends of a life, both texts are reflective in tone. They also both attempt to slip inside O’Keeffe’s mind and thoughts, a style that is as much historical fiction as biography.

Lasky’s “Author’s Note” actually identifies her manuscript as “historical fiction” because it blends events and chronology. Bryant’s narrative voice blends comments by O’Keeffe herself with her own ponderings as to what O’Keeffe might have thought.

GEORGIA’S BONES

“She didn’t know why they [bones] pleased her so.

Perhaps it was the quiet way

they did their work – the years of being invisible,

and then, when everything fell away,

they appeared, pure and beautiful.”

 GEORGIA RISES

“The sky is purple now, and a slice of silver moon still sails over the desert. She looks down at the path. A bone gleaming white sits as pretty as angle wings just ahead. Georgia likes bones. She picks up the bone and holds it high and closes one eye. The moon skins its top. She tilts the bone and captures the moon for one brief instant.”

Each of these four picture books is as interested in how O’Keeffe lived her life as much or more than the chronology of her life. A chronology is merely a list of facts. The “who we are” and “how we live” creates the story.

“People read biography for the same reason they read fiction; not to find out, simply, what happens next, but to figure out how people live their lives, how they solve their problems,”

Marnie Jones. THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. Winter 1984-85

Next: Finding the primary chords in a life stretching 98 years.

Picture Book Biographies Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

Casting Your Picture Book Story

THE NEW YORKER

Directors of all media know that who they cast in a role is as vital as the actor’s talent. Imagine Sophia Loren as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC or Julie Andrews in PULP FICTION. Selecting the cast or species can be equally significant in a picture book.

Arnold Lobel often spoke about how the natural expressions of frogs and toads helped create their contrasting personalities. The casting of a frog and toad was also a wonderful match for the setting and tone of Lobel’s stories. FROG AND TOAD stories are garden or pastoral stories. Though Frog and Toad may be wearing pants they still exist in their natural environment. Recasting the stories with Dingo and Jackal would be disastrous.

When James Marshall cast hippos as George and Martha he was also matching cast with tone, albeit in a different way. A significant part of the humor comes from massive hippos engaged in daily, dainty activities. Imagine George and Martha as mice, and the comic energy drops.

Mice, however, were an inspired choice for Leo Lionni’s FREDERICK. Mice are natural gatherers and nesters. They are small and share intimate environments. Whether one wants them in the house or not, they still have a coziness about them. Recast Frederick as a rat, and the story changes. Recast Frederick as a hippo, and the story is all but lost. Why? Hippos are not gatherers. Nor do they have to worry about surviving winter’s cold.

When we work on an anthropomorphic story we wise to serve as casting agent. Rather than grab the first species that comes to mind or the one we think is the cutest, audition several species. What does each one add or detract from the theme and story you want to share.

As the Charles Addams cartoon above demonstrates, casting can make all the difference.

Play Time

Explore the picture books listed below, and ask yourself how the cast or species serves the story and how. Is the species inconsequential?  Or perhaps undermine the story.

DANDELION by Don Freeman. Viking, 1964.

HILDA MUST BE DANCING by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Suzanne Watts. McElderry, 2004.

THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz. Annick, 1999.

POUCH by David Ezra Stein. Putnam, 2009.

SHELLEY, THE HYPERACTIVE TURTLE by Deborah M. Moss. Illus. by Carol Schwartz. Woodbine, 1989.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.