Words are on my mind. That might not seem surprising coming from a writer, but this time the concept feels broader than usual.
I’m traveling in Italy, partly for pleasure but mostly to participate in Bread Loaf in Sicily—a writing program that takes place in the far northwest town of Erice. Travel to any country where you’re not a native speaker can’t help but get you thinking about words, and these past days that I’ve spent in Palermo and Siracusa have heightened that sensitivity.
When we speak our native tongue, it’s so easy to take for granted that we can make ourselves understood—well, at least if we’re not discussing politics these days or other controversial topics. But even with a rudimentary working knowledge of another language, that baseline pretty much disappears. My Italian is improving, yet my most productive and satisfying conversations seem to occur with the small children of the owners of albergos where I’m staying.
At breakfast, I listen jealously as my hotel hostess seamlessly shifts from Italian to English to German to French. I think about so many writers who have written in more than one language—to someone in the midst of linguistic struggles, an unimaginable prospect. I think about my own Polish grandfather and the many U.S. immigrants who must make a new life with a new language—a necessary undertaking rather than an avocation.
And yet there’s something so alluring and powerful about words I cannot read. The posters, graffiti, even the shop and restaurant signage. Maybe it’s my background as a visual designer that lets me look at these as something intangible and beyond meaning. Something absolute, which lifts the burden of significance and allows me to simply enjoy their secret beauty.
In my writing group, we often share ideas and thoughts on where our stories come from and why we’ve chosen to write about certain subjects. Carmen Bernier-Grand, one of the wonderful teachers in the MFA Writing program I attended at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts gave me great advice which I have taken to heart and never forgotten. “People will tell you you can only write about what you know,” she said. “Don’t listen to them. Instead, write about the things you want to learn.”
This has been on my mind these days because I have a middle grade novel that which has two protagonists, two different girls who tell parallel and intersecting stories 30 years apart. One girl is white, the other black. And I suspect there are some who may say, should I really be writing from the POV of a little black girl? Well, for that matter, should a white male author ever write from the POV of a woman? Should an adult ever write from the POV of a child?
My answer would be yes. Writers write about the human condition, human emotions and struggles that are common to all people. It’s when we begin to divide and segment humanity into narrow little slices that we start to get into trouble. Segmentation is for databases and mailing lists, not writers and readers.
Perfect chapters don’t just happen…I know that. But I just finished reading one that I like to tell myself did—Chapter 3: “The Possum Wars” in Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. The writer sat down one morning in her usual writing space, cup of tea or coffee at her side, cat curled sleepily near her feet. She opened her in-progress manuscript to where she’d left off the day before, took a deep breath, and wrote a perfect chapter.
So, what makes it perfect?
There’s a speciality group for everything these days. I was googling for information on “gammer,” an old English term for a countrywoman when I misspelled and links for “grammar” popped up. Being as easily distracted as I am, I began reading. One link caught my attention: The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, founded by our very own SCBWI member Martha Brockenbrough, editor of the Chinook Update and author of Things That Make Us [Sic]
SPOGG (I kid you not) sponsors National Grammar Day (March 4), and the Grammar Girl website, which I’ve actually used in the past, and their blog is a hoot. Rooting around some of the lesser links brought up some lovely examples from church bulletins. Thank God for those church ladies with typewriters! Read and enjoy.
- The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been cancelled due to a conflict.
- Don’t let worry kill you off – let the Church help.
Last night at Secret Garden Bookshop in Seattle, Patrick Jennings one of my favorite kids’ authors gave a reading from his newest book Guinea Dog. Guinea Dog is a middle grade book for 8-12 year olds and it’s my kind of book. It’s the story of a boy who desperately wants a dog. But his dad says oh,no. Dogs bark and whine. They gnaw. They bark. They scratch, beg, and drool. So his mom offers a “think-outside-the-box suggestion” and brings home a guinea pig. But this guinea pig thinks she’s a dog. She barks. She bites. You see where I’m going with this….. Continue reading
ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense [look again or repeatedly (at)] ): from French réviser ‘look at,’ or Latin revisere ‘look at again,’ from re- ‘again’ + visere (intensive form of videre ‘to see’ ).
I’m beginning a final revise on my YA manuscript Chasing at the Surface in preparation for making it submission-ready for my agent. This is a story I began writing in 2007 and I’ve kept print-outs of each set that I thought was “finished.” Pulling the latest version out this weekend got me thinking about how often and how extensively we revise our work.
Or more pointedly, how do we learn to “look” at the stories we’ve written and what do we see when we do? Continue reading
SCBWI Notes IV:
A follow-up session to Mitali Perkins presentation on race was Seattle author Sundee Frazier’s talk “Creating Believable Boys.” Sundee’s session was attended by a good number of men as well as women. On a side note, this year there was a significant increase in men at this year’s conference. With children’s/young adult books being a strong part of the publishing market, could it be that they want a piece of the action? 🙂 Continue reading
SCBWI Notes III:
Mitali Perkins, a Bengali-born author whose family came to the United States when she was seven years old, presented a session entitled “Straight Talk on Writing Race.”
I attended this session with particular interest since the middle grade novel, Breathe to Both Sides, which I completed last August for my MFA thesis at the Whidbey Writing Workshop, is the story of a twelve-year old black girl who discovers a whites-only swimming pool that residents of her small Mississippi town buried in the 70s rather than face the prospect of integrated swimming.
As I was writing this story, it raised many questions amongst my colleagues and friends. Continue reading
This past weekend I attended what I think is my fourth SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) regional conference here in Seattle. My first one, four years ago was a one-day affair and a very different experience as a newbie writer. They’ve also expanded from a one-day affair to two days. There are pros and cons to both of their scenarios, not the least of which is if you’re going to hold a two-day conference, PLEASE DON’T SERVE THE SAME LUNCH TWO DAYS IN A ROW! Continue reading
I’m guessing that one portion of every writer’s bookshelf is reserved for their (probably extensive) collection of books on the craft of writing. This might even be true for devoted readers. Before I really seriously considered pursuing a writing life, I already owned several I’m sure. Sitting on my shelf now is an assortment ranging from Maira Kalman’s illustrated version of Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” to “You CAN Write Books,” from a series entitled Valuable Instruction at a Great Price.
But recently, there have been two books that I’ve leaned on to help me make the transition from student to part-time writer: Elizabeth George’s “Write Away” and Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Word Work”. Okay, a confession. I met and had the privledge of working with both of these inspirational writers at the Whidbey Writers Workshop, so perhaps I am biased. But perhaps not. Maybe they’re just darn good books. Here’s why. Continue reading