The Stories that Remain

The island of Ortygia is both the symbolic and literal heart of Siracusa (Syracuse), the largest city on the eastern coast of Sicily. The streets are rich in medieval and Baroque palaces, one of the most light-filled piazzas in Italy and equally poetic wrought iron balconies bright with flowers and linen fluttering in the wind.

And water.

Ortygia is a small enough island that almost every turn opens out onto views of the Ionian sea, and the few enclosed narrow lanes that do exist seem to compensate. One of the city’s two main piazze features the Fonte Artusa (Arthusa Fountain), depicting the nymph Aretusa who, when pursued by the river god Alpheus, took refuge on the island of Ortygia and hid by changing into a spring. Though surrounded by the sea, the island’s drinking fountains built into walls run with fresh water.

Ortygia’s second public gathering place, Piazza d’Archimede (Archimedes Piazza), tells the story of the famous geometrician Archimedes who was born in Siracusa in 287 BC. Archimedes was so absent-minded that he would frequently forget to eat, drink and bathe. His servants needed to drag him to his bath, and it was there where he discovered his principle: any body immersed in water loses weight equivalent to the water it displaces. So delighted by this discovery, he jumped out of the bath and ran naked through the streets of Ortygia shouting “Eureka!” (I have it!)

Archimedes was also instrumental in defending Siracusa against the Romans by setting fire to the enemy fleet by focusing the sun’s rays with a system of mirrors and lenses. His concentration was so great that when the Romans succeeded in entering the town anyway by surprise, he didn’t hear them and a soldier ran him through with his sword.

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Words

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.

Why Write?

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.

Reading Out Loud

Some picture book writers say the only way they can “test” their manuscripts is by reading them aloud. I’d venture to say this holds true for any manuscript. Reading your work aloud allows you to hear the nuances of sound, dialogue, voice, and helps you pick out awkward structured passages and transitions. This has been on my mind recently because I’m taking up learning a second language (once again). It’s something I’ve always wanted to commit to, but have never had the chance to do it the right way, ie, go live in the darned country and learn to speak! Reading out loud in another language, especially with earphones on so that you’re entire family won’t make fun of you, puts a whole new spin on diction and word choice. It’s got me thinking about how babies learn to speak, and kindergartners learn to read, and of course, how writers learn to write. Every word…every phrase…chosen and hand-picked. Deliberate and delicious.

The Stories We’re Meant to Write

Where do the particular stories that each of us write come from? What enables them to rise above the others to engulf us? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially after hearing Mitali Perkins and Sundee Frazier’s sessions last weekend’s at the SCBWI conference. Why are there certain stories and themes that pop out from everything else that we could possibly be writing?

I used to think that the one common element in my stories were that they started from some kind of kernel of truth. I’d latch onto it and go from there. For a long time, I thought this was all there was to it. But I’ve been rethinking that. Continue reading

SCBWI Conference Notes

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

Post-MFA Life

I swore it wasn’t going to happen to me. I wouldn’t be one of “those” writers who graduate after having worked hard for two years to earn an MFA only to return to their pre-MFA life complete with some of the same woes and insecurities intact. Surely, after two years of rising at 5:00 am to complete assignments before heading out to the workaday world, there was no chance I would fall back into old habits! But as in any story, transitions are one of the hardest parts to smooth out.

The world loves students. When you’re in graduate school, you’re proving to the world (and to yourself) that you’re no slouch. If you live with someone, you might notice them starting to pick up after themselves more than they usually do; your kids might volunteer to make dinner one night a week; at the very least the dog will be willing to get up as early as you do to keep you company. Continue reading