On Gratitude

Today, the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced, which is always an exciting day in our field—like the Oscars for books. This year was no exception, with many surprises announced and, as always, my perilous TBR pile grows ever more tippity with titles. “Tippity with Titles”—alliteration fans, I am here for you.*

What was so cool was seeing book titles trending on Twitter! Yes, book titles and author names trended on Twitter! Attention: We haz control of your Internetz! Mwahahaha! Also, I can’t believe it’s January. And not even new January but a week-away-from-the-end January. Yow. When did that happen?**

I’ve been living in the Writing Cave for so long I’ve forgotten how to do anything but work. So it was such a treat to spend five days at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) earlier this month as their writer-in-residence. It was a life-changing experience for me in many ways. As excited as I was to be there, I was also very nervous. Whenever someone wants me to talk about writing, I feel a profound lack of authority on the subject. Usually, I avoid the topic by shoving food into my mouth then making “I’m sorry, as you can see, it would be rude for me to speak” hand signals. This gives me the air of a very polite psychotic. But truly, all I know about writing could probably be summed up in these profound thoughts:

  1. Sit down to write.
  2. Write.
  3. Have snacks on hand.
  4. Build a community for support.
  5. Read.

That’s it—the sum total of my advice, unless you want to get into specifics about snacks. (Morning: bagel & coffee. Afternoon: brownies & water. It is important to hydrate. And to brownie-ate.***) So I felt more than a little trepidation about standing at a lectern. At any moment, I expected someone to rush into the auditorium and shout, “J’accuse!”**** This is the Fraud Syndrome. Perhaps you have experienced this?

I wasn’t always a great or willing student. Unfortunately, a great deal of my education was wasted. This is not due to my teachers and professors who were mostly excellent. No, the fault is squarely mine. I was a doodler of pages, a looker-out-of-classroom windows, a constant daydreamer, teller-of-jokes-in-class, and, sometimes, a pig-headed arguer of wrong notions from which I refused to be separated even when confronted by evidence. Sometimes I would even argue a point I didn’t believe in just for the sake of argument. I think some of this stemmed from insecurity over feeling that I wasn’t nearly as smart as everyone else in the room. (Of course, arguing for the sake of arguing rather proves that notion.) I had a pick-and-choose game plan that involved skipping out on lectures that “bored” or intimidated me (most science and math) and sometimes not giving my all out of a fear of failure. Of course, failure and boredom and intimidation are all part of the learning process, but you couldn’t tell me that.

As a consequence of my misbegotten youth, I’ve spent a loooot of time learning how to become educated—yes, learning how to learn. I had to acquire the willingness to be taught. The willingness to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Could you please explain that to me?” A willingness to look like the dumbest person in the room. I had to develop an openness to other points of view, to the idea that that my ideas might not be as right as I thought they were and that letting them go isn’t being “weak”; it’s being smart. I began to add the words “explore” “examine” “question” “wonder” “consider” to my educational vocabulary. Oh yeah, and “listen.”

I never went to grad school, though I would’ve liked to very much. But by the time I started getting my act together, I needed to have a job and support myself and so my learning took on the patchwork quilt approach. So I decided that while at VCFA, I wanted to be open to everything. I wanted to go as a student, too, and attend everything that I possibly could while there. I did, and it was extraordinary.

There were wonderful lectures by Matt de la Pena, Betsy Partridge, Susan Fletcher, and Mark Karlins. Leda Schubert & Bonnie Christensen led a great research workshop, which included a guest appearance by the extraordinary Katherine Paterson*****. I also had the pleasure of hearing a few wonderful grad student lectures on topics ranging from the omniscient narrator to writing outside your culture, race or gender. Coe Booth and I stretched out in my dorm room and munched some snacks and talked about where we were feeling stuck with our books. And there was time, too, to hang out and get to know many wonderful, smart, engaged and engaging people.

I came away from these experiences with new insights, with a new way of seeing my writing. Honestly, my synapses were firing like the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks display. It was like all of the hamsters in my brain who usually lie around on the carpet with empty pizza boxes while watching infomercials on ShamHamsterBalls suddenly went from “ ‘sup? When’s din-din?” to “Holy Edification, Batman! We are receiving pellets of wisdom from the mothership! To the wheels! Fly! FLY!”******

After Susan’s lecture, I went back to my room and cut several passages from the third draft of DIVINERS. They were sentences that I could now see were lazy or not as strong as they could be. My verbs needed some jazzing. (Another educational moment: I remember reading Jane Yolen’s THE SWORD OF THE RIGHTFUL KING in which every single one of her verbs socked me right between the eyes—nothing passive about them—and I thought, wow, I really need to up my verb game.) Matt’s talk about patience and taking your time was fantastic, and I looked back at places where I had been in a hurry and had not drawn out the action in a satisfying way. Thanks, Matt. Again and again, there were moments like this. And in round-table (well, oval-table, really) discussions with students over food that was…well-plated…it was brought home to me the amount of thinking and rethinking that goes into writing a book.

Being a student was wonderful. I guess that’s the thing I’m trying to say here: We’re always learning. There is never a moment where you say, “Well, I’ve got this writing thing down.” I left VCFA with even more questions about DIVINERS. And so, new books were procured. I put in a call to my amazing research goddess, Lisa Gold, and asked for some leads on my rather specific questions. The stalwart Tricia Ready and I will head back to the MTA Transit Museum this week for another round in the archives. I will keep digging—into the research, into the work, into the lives of the characters; I will keep thinking, keep the channels open for something I might learn that will change how I see. And so it goes, to quote the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. But I also left Vermont with a sense of gratitude—for the chance to be a storyteller, for the company of people who love books, for the educational opportunity. I’ll be honest with you: I also left feeling a little scared about the work ahead of me. But scared is good. Scared is the enemy of complacent. I always want to be a better writer than I am. I want to find the best way to serve the story I’m trying to tell. I have a lot to think about.

This past year has been a tough one, writing-wise. Fracturing both elbows back in March put me waaay behind on the writing and even the reading. (Holding a book when you can’t really move your arms without pain—not conducive to a nice reading experience.) At times, I thought I would lose my mind both from the dizzying pace and from my inability to make the various puzzles of the book intersect and work as they should. I am not a linear writer, nor am I particularly good at organization, including outlining. I tend to write madly, stop suddenly with a “Wha????” look on my face, and, in a last-ditch act of desperation borne of utter confusion, try to outline or organize the various threads/character arcs of the book. Usually, I get to about number 14 on my bullet pointed “(p)outline” before I am seized by a new idea at which point I abandon the outline and start writing until, maybe one hundred or one hundred-fifty pages in, I’m forced to reorganize. Lather, rinse, repeat. Amazingly, it all works out in the end. Or, as my friend Bill would say, “The worst thing that can happen is that they take us out into a field and shoot us.”******* Bill plays piano and sings in a lot of NYC bars. His sense of what’s a problem and what is not is finely honed.

And so I am back at it, still searching, still thinking, still learning, still writing. Fortunately, I have friends and brownies both at the ready. And when I’ve put this baby to rest—or the production team wrestles it from my grasping hands—and before I dive into the research on DIVINERS #2, I look forward to reading from that stack of award winners. I’m sure I will learn something there.

*Tippity Titles does sound like a children’s book heroine. Or a porn star.

**It happened right after December, Libba. Keep up.

***Brownie-ate should absolutely be a word. “Dude, it’s four o’clock. Time to Brownie-ate for sure.”

****I really don’t know why the villains of my nervous daydreams are always French.

*****Seriously, this woman is amazing. If you ever have a chance to hear her speak, go at once. Or, like, whenever they open the lecture hall.

******The hamsters in my brain don’t get out much.

*******This is good perspective. As opposed to, “OMG, THIS IS SO TERRIBLE THAT AN ANGRY MOB WILL CHASE ME INTO THE FOREST WHERE I WILL BE FORCED TO LIVE THE REST OF MY DAYS SURROUNDED BY DISGRUNTLED FOREST ANIMALS WHO WILL GRUMBLE ABOUT MY ADVERBS!” That is lacking in perspective. And possibly sanity. 

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