Friday, March 29, 2013

The Sorting and Folding of Writing

When I started writing picture book manuscripts in the late 1980s, I was fortunate enough to meet Florence Parry Heide, who authored over 100 children's books before her death in 2011.  She insisted I join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.  Desperate to see myself in print, I submitted this essay that appeared in the March/April 1992 issue, back before they'd added "Illustrators" to their banner.  Now it's a glossy magazine, but back then it was printed on colored paper, folded, and taped.  I was so very proud to be in their pages. 

Writing is like doing laundry.

I love to open my closet door and see a row of neatly buttoned, nicely ironed blouses.  I easily forget, however, that this starch-scented miracle requires trudging to the basement to sort colors, measure soap, and set timers.  And that these steps must be followed by my diligent efforts at the ironing board in order to create the perfect closet.

Writing or laundry.  I just keep doing it.

Even when the repetition is maddening.

In my beginning days at the typewriter, I imagined myself (wearing, of course,  a crisp white blosuse) sitting confidently in mahogany-paneled publishing offices in New York, holding remarkable conversations with attentive editors, having gala atutographing parties for my first book.  As I sat at my desk, fussing over the placement of a comma in an opening sentence that would surely capture the sharpest literary eye, I could hear my heels on the sophisticated cemenet of Fifth Avenue.

Little did I know.

The heels that have come to sound the loudest and surest are those of my mailman, delivering all too frequently, rejection letters.  This discovery about the down side of writing was as inspiring as the bottomless stack of dirty clothes piling up in my basement.

My husband, whose only reply when I announced my writing intentions was, "It's abut time," arrived home one evening to find me sad-eyed and sniffling, a generic "No" dangling from my hand.  Realizing a traumatic alas-and-alack monologue would emerge from my trembling lips, he said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Or turn off the iron, I guess.

That's mostly the size of it.

There is a fine pleasure in weaving a story from an unlikely set of characters or in tapping out a lovely sentence, but the startling truth that never occurs to the beginner is the chore of waiting.

And waiting.

Only to be rejected.

As an unpublished writer, I discovered all too quickly that no one on Fifth Avenue wanted to know me.

But that doesn't mean I stopped.  Anyone can stop.

I started attending area writing workshops and sat in disbelieving silence as a successsful author offered encouragement for my manuscript that had been repeatedly returned.

At writers' gatherings I listen to speech after speech about the fine authors who were turned down for years, and I know that rejection wasn't invented just for me.

Fortunately my husband continues to decline invitations to my occasional pity parties.  He smiles in the face of my doubt, handing me a new box of envelopes and another roll of stamps.

And finally the personalized "No's" have begun arriving.  A world of hope sits in the margins of those letters asking to see more of my work.

In the meantime I write and rewrite, piling up a presentable stack of carefully sorted and folded, starched and ironed stories.

Writing or laundry.  I just keep doing it.

It's that easy.

It's that hard.

Whether I ever get published or not.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Minnesota Spring

It's the first day of spring.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, the wind chill is -12 degrees.  I'm working at my desk in fingerless wool gloves, looking tragically like Bob Cratchit.  The yard's snow-filled birdbath and pot of greenery looked spirited in December.  Not now.

But it has been the site of a spring miracle.

The kind that takes your breath away.  The kind that you feel honored to have seen because you could have missed it completely.  And having seen it, I remember it on days when life feels flat, ordinary, hopelessly stuck in ice.

Ten years ago we lived in North Carolina, and spring swallowed us up in an annual spree of blooms.  We had azaleas six-feet high in gorgeous red and lavender.  Blossoming pink and white dogwood trees surrounded the house.  Purple and yellow tulips dotted our gardens.  I always say we looked like an entry in the Rose Bowl Parade.

One afternoon Maggie and I were backing down the driveway when something remarkably blue caught my eye.  It was a blue so intensely out of place that I stopped the car, knowing something was amiss.  Six bluebirds circled that birdbath.  Three pairs ruffled their iridescent feathers and surveyed the housing options on our lot.  I had never been that close to a bluebird, and now I was four feet from six of them.  They looked at me.  I looked back.  We hoped together.

Eventually a pair took residence across the street in a lovely birdhouse built by our neighbor.  We became the cafe.  Over time, I was trained to deliver mealworms at 8 am and 4 pm.  The male sat patiently on the chair outside the window where I wrote, waiting for me to bring the food NOW.  When I emerged from the back door, he flew onto a branch and waited until I left so he could eat in peace.  Maggie loved spotting him and calling out, "Mama, your blue baby needs you!"

They returned for two more springs.

One day I discovered my friend Robin loved bluebirds, too.  While I had played the obedient servant to mine, she took charge of hers, calling them by whistling.  It was like watching a Disney movie when she showed me.  Because Robin is a patient, devoted soul, they even let her hold their babies.

It is a fine thing to be trusted by bluebirds.

None have settled with us in St. Paul, but I believe the miracle of those six beautiful creatures lingers at our birdbath even now.  Despite the snow and wind, I feel their shimmering blue hope.

Friday, March 8, 2013

First Grade: My Dick and Jane Dilemma

Sometimes people ask me why I became a writer.  I have several explanations, but the clearest answer to me involves the Dick and Jane reading series that lined school shelves in the 1950s.

I worried about those kids.

Try as I might, I simply couldn’t understand why they only shouted one-syllable verbs at each other.  Nor could I see how that was “fun,” even though they insisted it was.

They looked like they were capable of more.  They just lacked imagination.  I searched the pictures for a hint of something better, a possibility they couldn’t see.  I knew their lives could be improved.

Every morning in first grade we sat on tiny wooden chairs circled around the teacher who called us up, group by group: Red Birds, Blue Birds, Yellow Birds.  That puzzled me, too.  Why couldn’t we ever be: Pandas, Parrots, Porcupines?  (I’ve yet to meet anyone my age whose reading group was allowed to be anything but primary-colored generic birds.) I always volunteered to read first to get it over with so I could peek through the pages, searching for an upcoming story of adventure and mayhem for Dick and Jane.  Surely the teacher saw me, but she never said a word.  Other kids got in trouble for doing the same thing, but I escaped such reprimands.

Fortunately, I married an elementary education major who has translated the mysterious aspects of my early school years.  He asked if I remembered vocabulary flash cards.  I did.

I told about the early September day when Miss Long turned quickly through the cards.  We raised our hands if we knew the word.  I still remember the moment a new and very different card was presented.  It was not the cat-sat-rat stuff.  I knew this word, but I worried because no other hand was raised.  Something about her manner told me she wasn’t surprised, but before she could return it to her deck, my hand rose slowly.  She looked at me doubtfully.  I said, “Floor,” as politely and quietly as I could.  She stared.  The class turned.  That was my Get-Out-of-Jail card for the rest of the year.

That’s why she called my house.  That’s why my mother took me to the library.  That’s how I discovered Curious George.

Now there was a character with a life.  I remember looking at those movement-filled pages and wishing I’d see Dick and Jane with him.  I was desperate for them to visit the zoo.  I imagined their antics.  They’d finally have real fun.  The reading bird groups would have fun, too.  We’d laugh and cheer and smile in our circled chairs.  We’d want to be friends with Dick and Jane.  We’d want to turn the pages eagerly.

That’s how I knew the right story could change everything.  And I wanted to write it.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dancing at the Children's Literature Prom: Continued

See me smiling in the group picture from the previous post?  Midwestern nerves of steel.  A whirlwind was afoot in the back story for this day.

Maggie, the Sweet Moon Baby herself, was in her school’s entry in the Minnesota State High School League One-Act Play Contest.  Because they won at sub-sections (Hurrah!), they moved to sections (Oh, no!).  This meant her performance in Milaca and my CLN event in Plymouth were both scheduled for February 2.  Because they drew an afternoon slot, I had a small chance of making it, but I almost never drive anywhere successfully the first time.

I left early that snowy morning with pages of MapQuest directions.  Somewhere in Minneapolis, a passing car splashed my windshield, and I discovered I had no wiper fluid.  Driving practically blind, I missed my exit.  Finally realizing I was lost, I pulled into a convenience store, where both teenaged clerks were baffled.  I cleaned my windshield and raced to the next store where a clerk my age understood panic and directions, explained my error, and warned: “Don’t go into the tunnel again!”  Dodging all passing car splatters, I arrived at the hotel with little time to spare.

Nancy Loewen, who I’d met at another CLN event, gladly distributed my table tokens; a gracious CLN volunteer fetched my gift basket from my car; and Michael Hall, sensing my nervousness, promised it would be a friendly audience and that I would be just fine.  I drowned my stress in coffee, only to realize a restroom call was necessary.  The line was long, so I sprinted back to the ballroom as the podium turned empty.  Everyone waited for me.

Clipping down the aisle, I climbed the steps and struggled to catch my breath and talk at the same time, not easy to do at my age.  (My speech is in the previous post.)  More and more people spoke longer than the allotted two minutes.  I feared I’d never make Milaca because I still had the wiper problem to solve. 

Then the last words were spoken, and we went to the signing tables.  Seated by Sheila O’Connor and Lois Walfrid Johnson, I explained my dilemma.  They looked at the clock and said I truly needed to go NOW in order to see the play.  Torn about leaving my post, Lois took my hand and whispered a lovely prayer.  Sheila, who had met Maggie at another author event, declared her “magical” and urged me to support her.  (Later she admitted to almost offering to trade cars to help me!)

As promised, the dedicated desk clerk had printed directions to the nearest gas station.  Fearing it wouldn’t have an attendant on duty, I appealed to Steve Palmquist, who said he could add the fluid if I returned to the hotel.  I set off.  No attendant.  But at the neighboring Jiffy Lube, they discovered the fluid was frozen, and understanding my time frame, three people with hoses and picks descended beneath the hood.  When I tried to pay, they waved me away, shouting, “Drive, lady!” 

I reached Milaca with twenty minutes to spare.  It was their strongest performance yet.  They won.  Maggie had never received a medal for anything, and I was there to see it happen.

Because of the kindness of many. 

I’m waxing thematic here, but my adventure to Milaca, was not unlike the journey in my book.  Goodness and inexplicable magic saved the day—in China and Minnesota.  Fate does not turn with this kind of precision without angels a’plenty. 

For books I didn’t sign, I apologize.  Something larger called. 

On that February day, more than I was the author of Sweet Moon Baby, I was the mother of the Sweet Moon Baby.

End Notes:
The cast went on to receive a Starred Performance, the highest possible rating, at State.  Congratulations.
The fabulous people seated at my CLN table that morning gave me a great idea for my next picture book.  Bless them.