Last week, my friend Brian Yansky wrote a blog post about how writers must write even we are stuck.
I agree one hundred thousand percent.
Today I am stuck. Well, not stuck exactly. More like I am staring at my middle grade novel, reading over scenes, trying to hold the whole thing in my head so I can see where I’ve dropped threads or over explained something or wandered off track. It’s a bit grueling this staring and holding and balancing.
But I must do it. Even if we’re not writing, per se, we have to show up. Every day. Scribbling ideas in the margins, drawing long looping arrows from one block of text to another, even correcting grammar and changing the order of sentences is writing. Besides if we don’t show up, we won’t be there for when a scene tumbles out of us.
Writers write and we must show up even when we are stuck.
Kumquats come to mind. But not much else. Mostly when I hear the word bittersweet, I think of time and place: Leaving someplace you love after having had a really good time. Labor Day weekend was always bittersweet: leaving summer and the beach to face the uncertainty of a new school year.
I love summer time.
Many years ago, on June 21, I sent everyone I loved a picture of a peach
and wished them a wonderful summer, juicy and dripping with sweetness.
Peaches are summertime. Soft, warm skin. Plump and full. Bursting with juice. And oh the smell. It is all the early spring blossoms fully opened. No wonders the bees hover above the orange pink flesh, close so close, daring themselves not to get their wings caught in sticky sweetness.
Labor Day is the official end. Though schools start earlier (arrgh, don’t get me started on that bad idea), Labor Day is usually the last summer trip. The last bit of indolence.
While I was reading Tyrell, a friend sent me this video. Except the sound on my computer was turned down so what I saw was a cameraperson walking on the edge of a cliff. The jerky movements looked like he could slip and fall to his death at any moment. As I watched, the video felt like Tyrell’s life and the fine line he is trying to walk to keep his family together. Just like the video, I couldn’t look away or stop turning the pages of Tyrell. I was rooting for him. I was holding my breath. I didn’t want him to fall and with each step he took in the novel, I kept saying, “Careful, careful.”
Tyrell is fifteen. His father is in jail again. His mother’s refusal to work and her stint with welfare fraud have forced them into homelessness and life in a roach-infested shelter in Hunts Point. At the shelter, Tyrell soon realizes that his attraction to another resident, Jasmine, could derail his dreams of a future with his girl, Novisha. Torn between the needs of the women in his life and his seven-year-old brother, Tyrell is determined to stay clean as he agonizes over creating a new life for his family.
If the plot weren’t riveting enough, Booth’s street language and understanding of her character’s world fill out the harsh realities of Tyrell’s world on the gritty streets of New York City’s South Bronx. As he struggles to escape this circle of poverty, he must also battle dual temptations of sexual frustration and the easy money he could make as a drug dealer. The heart of the book is the painful choice Tyrell must make as he realizes the effect of his mother’s failure to do right by their family.
Reading Tyrell is like walking behind a cameraman on the edge of a cliff, wondering when or if he will fall. One might think Rick James’ Fire and Desire (a song that Tyrell loves) might be the right soundtrack for this book but somehow hearing the plaintive whine of Neil Young’s vocals was perfect accompaniment.
Whenever I finish something, whether it is my newly minted MFA degree or a book or a play or an article, the inevitable question people ask is: “What’s next?”
This question used to bug me. It seemed to miss the point of gloriously finishing something. You know, the basking and lolling part of the process. It seemed to poke a hole in my bucket as if anything I do (or did) would never be enough.
And then I realized I was holding the bucket all wrong.
First of all, people ask the question because they are interested. That’s all. If I ascribe a bunch psycho personalizations, I am digging a big hole for myself.
As a dear friend once said, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Next, my job as a writer is to begin again. That’s what we do. Every day. We wake up. We put words on paper. We tell the story. Again and again.
One of the smartest books on advice to writers is a little one called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It is cult classic with good reason. This is not a book about finding your inner child, this book about the real challenges artists face everyday when they get up and face their easel, their keyboard or their wheel.
One of my favorite quotes from the book is: “Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is doomed to fail. Quitting means not starting again and art is all about starting again.”
“Art is all about starting again.” Think about that next time you are gnashing your teeth about your next project and wondering whether it will be a success. Just start. You must start. Be curious.You won’t know what that story will be if you don’t start.
When the sun comes up, start. Life is all about starting again. And again.
Children who grow up in severely dysfunctional, alcoholic, drug addicted homes have trouble growing up to be plain old responsible adults because 1) they don’t see a role model of that kind of an adult and 2) they grow up wanting to save these people who really do love them even though they can’t make breakfast, do the laundry or pay the bills. These children grow up believing in and wanting to be superheroes so they can save the people they love. I think that’s the way those children survive a childhood surrounded by erratic behavior.
The trick of course comes when they have to grow up and be adults and pay their own bills. When capes and Ka-pow no longer save the day or get them through the dark nights. In the children’s book world, we don’t write about the adult part of the equation. We reel the story back to the time and place where the child tries to hold their world together because the adults in charge have let go.
Heck Superhero is the story of one young boy trying, trying, trying to find his mother so he doesn’t have to go to a “frosty” house. It is beautiful, unflinching look at five days when 13 year old Heck is searching everywhere for his mother, trying to survive and cover up the fact that he is homeless. Heck wants to save his mom.
This magnificent book is written by Martine Leavitt and was published by Front Street Press in 2004. Leavitt is on the faculty at Vermont College of FIne Arts.
L2-Writing Right Now
In a way, reading a writers’ blog is a bit like looking behind the wizard’s curtain. You get to see where my ideas come from, who inspires me, how I think and what I care about. If you want to know what I’m thinking about, please subscribe to my blog below.
A Tree grows in Sedona
Because we work by ourselves, writers and illustrators often feel alone. We aren’t but sometimes we need to be reminded of all the great resources around us. Here are a few that I rely on for classes, news and general good thinking: