What next?

April 15th, 2016

On March 30 I sent all the interior illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING to Candlewick Press for publication next Spring.

It has been an intense and exhilarating five months creating the final art for this book: learning Photoshop, (thank you Kevan Atteberry for help with that); collaborating with my sister Kate McGee, (I did the black layer, Kate did the color), and figuring out what the art would look like.

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And now, except for the cover, it’s done.

What next?

 I am reminded of a family story. My mom and dad raised five kids.

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That meant every three years between 1962 and 1975 they joined the audience on the football bleachers at Sonora High on a beautiful June evening to watch one of their kids graduate. After the youngest, my brother Tim, was handed his diploma, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Well, Harve, what shall we do now?”

I know. It’s not really comparable. Mom and Dad worked on their project of raising kids for thirty years. Theirs was a much bigger “what next?”

LITTLE WOLF’s been growing in my mind and studio for less than a year and a half. But I did become very fond of him and will certainly miss the almost daily interaction with Kate as we worked on the art.

My cousin Jerry has a quote for times such as these. It’s advice from 1790: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell. Blake was in his mid thirties when he wrote that, and already he’d produced an impressive body of work: books and engravings, both. Clearly he leapt forward to each next task quickly and with joy.

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But I am feeling a little empty. All I could do for Little Wolf has been done, (except for the cover). His boat has sailed.

I suppose this is why some author/illustrators work on more than one project at a time: to make it easier to face the end of possibilities when you send the artwork away.

I told Bonny Becker, (fellow BATT blogger), that I was having trouble letting go of Little Wolf. She reminded me of a picture book idea I had floated awhile back, a story that started with a mouse squeak.

“Get to work,” she suggested.

p.s. Mom took up air racing.

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LISTEN

January 1st, 2016

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

August 18th, 2015

(also posted on BooksAroundTheTable, our critique group blog)

This is a story about a search for the right word, and another search, too.

At our last critique meeting, I read my latest version of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. Bonny suggested I find a new word for “twinkle” in the sentence, “They watched as the stars twinkled on and a full moon peeked over the mountain.”

I have consulted friends and Google, too, of course: blinked, winked, flickered, appeared. What is the word for that moment when a star becomes visible? Maybe blossomed? (No, a friend pointed out, that mixes the plant world and the moon’s anthropomorphic action of peeking.)

I was thinking of this “twinkled” challenge Wednesday night. All summer I have looked forward to the Perseid Meteor Showers, billed as this year’s biggest star event. Wednesday night, August 12, was supposed to be the best for viewing. The new moon would set early and the skies would be very dark. We could expect 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Talk about twinkling.

I imagined John and me watching this all from a mountain meadow, far away from the Seattle’s city lights. We’d be ensconced in our butterfly chairs that fold out into chaise lounges. Refreshing drinks would rest in the special cup holders that are built into the chairs’ arms. Our sweet spaniel, Izzi, would rest at our feet. It might be romantic.

So Wednesday afternoon we headed for the Cascades. Just as we cleared the tangle of city traffic, we realized we’d forgotten the special chairs. And the cooler.

At least we remembered the dog.

More challenges were, literally, on the horizon. Low clouds hung along the hills and a haze of smoke blew in from forest fires. After all this effort, would we be able to see stars at all?

• • • • •

Smoky winds sliced through the sliding doors as we stepped out on the balcony of our room in Suncadia Lodge. A smoky haze persisted after sundown but we headed out to find a dark spot away from the Lodge. We chose a driveway apron to a vacant lot and lay down on hard new asphalt to stargaze. Right away, I realized I could see the stars better without my new glasses, so I stuck them in my coat pocket. Several meteors streaked across the sky, but I was sure we’d see even more if we could find a darker spot. I talked John into walking another half mile down the barely lit road and following a string of bistro lights through the forest to the parking lot.

The skies cleared a little as we drove around looking for a dark cul de sac in the unbuilt part of the resort. We found the perfect spot, the kind of place young lovers seek on a warm summer night. Only it was on Rocking Chair Lane. We positioned the car so it blocked the one small streetlight and spread the dog’s old sleeping bag on the still-warm pavement. I folded my coat into a pillow and we lay down with Izzi between us to look at the now fully twinkling skies.

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Despite the sky not being completely black, we counted 24 shooting stars over the next hour and a half. Then a local drove by to see what we were doing and we felt self-conscious lying out there in the deserted cul-de-sac on the dog’s old sleeping bag. We packed up. That’s when I realized my new glasses were missing.

Backtrack, Backtrack. Backtrack. Every place we’d been. We combed the dark roads and trails with our cell phone flashlights. No luck. We were bummed as we went to bed, the wind still whistling through the open sliding door. Then at 3 am an alarm on the room’s refrigerator started beeping. Which was annoying until we looked outside. All was calm. The night was perfectly black, the sky sugared with so many stars that it was hard to pick out the constellations. Those stars dazzled and danced. They sparkled and salsa-ed. They even twinkled.

The next morning before I got up, John went out with Izzi. He walked back to that first driveway apron and met a man working on the gate there.

“Did you happen to see some glasses around here?”

“As a matter of fact, I have them right here in my truck,” he said. “Lucky I didn’t drive over ‘em.”

Maybe now that I have my new glasses back I will see stars in a new way and find that right word. Or maybe twinkled is enough.

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John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.

LESS IS MORE

June 5th, 2015

Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the central California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers. Boots trained them to soar upward until he clapped sharply. Then they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.

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Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.

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I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.

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When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it back. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

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There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:

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TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”

ALL ON BOARD

May 1st, 2015

Recently our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, Emmett. I would include his photo here but our daughter hopes to keep his internet exposure to a minimum. Suffice it to say he is the most adorable baby ever.

For the past three weeks John and I have been in San Francisco to help out. It has been a special time and we know it. Everyday Emmett wakes up a little more to the world; his beautiful blue eyes look so intently at us. Already he smiles and responds to music.

One of our jobs was to set up new shelves in the nursery. That gave me a chance to look at the small library of board books that friends and relatives have sent to the baby. Seemed like a good excuse to check in with the board book world. I realize this sample is very non-scientific, but it does provide a nice introduction.

CLASSICS and REPURPOSED

patthebunnyI was glad to see Emmett has Pat the Bunny on his new shelf, first published in 1940 and recognized as one of the first books in this genre. He also has the classic Good Night Moon, repurposed from its initial issue as a picture book.

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New to me are board books with roots in adult fiction. Emmett’s library includes babylit: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Sherlock Holmes, by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver.

huckfinnHuck is subtitled “A Camping Primer.”  The text plucks single words from its forebear, followed by a phrase from the original. For example “RIVER,” followed by “I’d go down the river about fifty mile and camp.”

 Sherlock is billed as “A Sounds Primer.” The illustrations are dark and a little scary. The text may raise goosling bumps on the baby: “Hounds howl, Thunder rumbles, Gates screech…Doorbells ring.”

hungrycaterpilMany of Emmett’s books were first published as children’s picture books. Some seem even better in this format, like Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar, whose die-cut holes of the caterpillar munching through the pages will hold up much better in cardboard than they do paper.

areyoumymomOthers, like P.D. Eastman’s classic early reader, Are You My Mother? make me think, what’s the hurry? It is such a perfect book for learning to read. Though maybe reading it as an infant will make it more accessible later?

littlebluetruckThe Little Blue Truck, with rhyming text by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, is a board book that first appeared as a picture book. With 15 spreads, it has the most pages of the books on Emmett’s shelf but when his attention span expands, it will be a great introduction to the basic shape of a story. The LBT says hello to lots of animals, (fun animal sounds followed by “Beep, Beep), then meets a big challenge which is resolved with help of the animals, especially the littlest frog.

CONCEPT BOOKS

prbBoard books do a good job introducing concepts to our tiniest readers. As Emmett devours his little library, he will learn about colors, animals and numbers, in Pink, Red, Blue, What are You? and One, Two, Three, Play with Me. These were my very first published books and I can’t wait to share them with my own little grandson.

sleepylittlealphaHe also was given The Sleepy Little Alphabet, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, in which a reluctant group of 26 lower case letters are finally tucked into bed by their capital letter parents. Last spread: “Who’s that snoring Z z z’s?”

123peasAnd Keith Baker’s wonderful 1 – 2 – 3 peas, which is animated by a cast of 100 peas in the most amusing ways.

HELLO WORLD

Then there is the bunch of books that will introduce Emmett to his world. This includes the board book that was my daughter’s favorite when she was a baby, All Together, as well as the inimitable Lucy Cousins’ Garden Animals, Country Animals and Farm Animals. I am intrigued by one that is illustrated with photos of babies, Global Babies, put out by the Global Fund for Children.

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INTERACTIVE BOARD BOOKS

goodnightconstructI’m especially looking forward to sharing Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. While I read Emmett the simple text, he will be prompted by icons to push one of five buttons that provide the sounds of the big machines settling down to sleep. No wonder it’s been on the New York Times best selling list for over 80 weeks.

peekazooAnd I know we’ll have a great time peeking our way through Nina Laden’s Peek-a Zoo, and lifting the flaps in Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo.

presshereThe low tech of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has lots of simple appeal. As the title suggests, each spread invites the reader to “press here,” the result being a turn of the page to find what the pressing caused. This, too, has sat for months on the New York Times best selling list. Seems we like that return to the wonder of the page turn.

STAND OUT SERIESES

oxenburyThese books from Helen Oxenbury are especially suited for reading to babies. They each have four spreads, their format is larger, (8 x 8”), and the illustrations of babies are big and bold. Emmett’s two-year old friend Darwin noted: Dear Emmett, My favorite part is the “All Fall Down.” And (on Tickle, Tickle) “Dear Emmett, This one is funny.” Nice to have recommendations from the toddler set.

yummyyukyLeslie Patricelli made her name as author/illustrator with her first board books in 2003. Emmett’s going to love BIG Little, Quiet LOUD, and Yummy YUCKY and the funny big-headed baby who stars in each book.

moobaalaLast but not least are titles by the amazing Sandra Boynton, queen of the humorous, rhyming board book: Snuggle Puppy and Belly Button Book! I will be sure to read him my favorite of hers, Moo, Baa, La la la, as well. Each Boynton book is full of love and good funny rhymes.

••••

I was forty when I turned toward becoming a children’s book creator. My kids were about grown, the oldest heading off to college.

Part of what attracted me was a desire to have my work be part of that circle of reading to a child again: to sit in the big chair in the lamplight, the kids fresh from their baths, their heads damp against my chest; the quiet of the neighborhood settling around us, the warmth of their small selves as we open the cover of a book and enter a story together.

This little shelf is where the newly-expanded family will begin. Together they’ll read board books that offer snippets of story, or the simple naming of things in our world, or concepts like colors and numbers, and – always – warm humor.

We overheard Emmett’s parents reading to him in the nursery as we left last night. I love that our wee grandson already knows the circle of love with his parents and a book.

DESIRE

April 12th, 2015

Ah, Spring. Everywhere I look it’s the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Nature has sensed the void she’s said to abhor and is filling her incompleteness with trilliums and trout lilies, spidery maple leaves and daphne odora variegata. Bare branches fizzle with chartreuse fuzzies and soft blossoms.

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It seems a feeling of incompleteness is part of the human condition, as well. And like Nature, we attempt to fill this void. We fall in love, create children’s books, play with a dog, watch a sunset. All these solutions work to some degree. Other times we try to fill the inner void with music or religion, or running, or drugs, alcohol, sex, or chocolate. Stories even. Yet the void persists.

The open palm of desire wants everything. It wants everything.
It wants soil as soft as summer and the strength to push like spring.

– Paul Simon, ‘Further to Fly’

I think it’s this incompleteness that beloved writer Norma Fox Mazer pointed to as a main character’s necessary “deprivation.” As sure as Velcro hooks grab Velcro fuzz, characters hook readers through their incompleteness. Because we feel a lack in ourselves, we have a ready place to hold a character’s longings and out-of-balancedness. “Deprivation” has many guises. For example, the children in Sarah Plain and Tall’s yearning for a mother, or Peter Rabbit’s need to get into the vegetable patch, or even Olivia’s out-sized dream to be the Queen of the Trampoline – all incompleteness and desire.

I’ve heard it said that 90% of children’s literature is about belonging or searching for home. Maybe that’s what our own incompleteness is about, too.

What a ramble. But it’s spring and the garden calls. And if I may paraphrase what Rene Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire, the garden completes me. At least for awhile.

p.s. Here’s the Dylan Thomas poem referred to above:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

QUALITY WORDS

February 20th, 2015

Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” Perfect word.

Could Boredom Become a Guilty Pleasure?

January 16th, 2015

We once went to a Guilty Pleasures holiday party. My husband wrapped up a pack of Q-Tips for the gift exchange. Another guy brought one of those Safeway roasted chickens in the tinfoil pack. My favorite was a pair of giant underpants that had four leg openings. The guy who unwrapped it said, “Guess I’ll be carpooling home tonight.”

My guilty pleasures are simple: relaxing in a hot bath while watching an episode of Friday Night Lights on my iPad, or listening to an audio book on my iPhone while gardening away a Saturday, or even just playing WordsWithFriends and checking email on my phone while waiting at a traffic signal.

I know it’s wasting time, but I didn’t realize there was a bigger cost to my technology-filled approach to downtime. That’s because I didn’t know about the correlation between boredom and creativity.

I learned about it Monday on NPR. In a segment called Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out, New Tech City’s Manoush Zomorodi reported on “studies that suggest we get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and let ourselves get bored.” In fact, one study showed that subjects who were assigned the most boring task – reading the phone book – came up with the most novel ideas.

Manoush spoke with cognitive neuro-scientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood who studies the relationship between mind wandering and creativity. “There is a close link between originality, creativity and novelty on the one hand and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are resting,” he said. In short, he said creativity is dependent on daydreams which are dependent on boredom, the default resting state of the brain.

When you turn to your phone to avoid boredom, you also miss out on the creativity that bubbles up from your resting brain. Further, Smallwood said, when we use cell phones to fill every moment of spare time, we don’t have a chance to “see and learn where we are in terms of our goals,” what scientists term “autobigraphical planning,” a form of positive, constructive daydreaming. Without sufficient autobiographical planning, people get stuck in a rut.

The New Tech City podcast is aimed at cell phones, perhaps the most harmful interrupter of boredom. Who is not familiar with what Smallwood calls the “easy, lazy junk food diet of the phone?” I’d include its hussy big sister, the iPad, so seductive with NetFlix and audio books and games. I realize I often scroll and swipe to fill the silence in the nooks and crannies of time that used to be prime for daydreaming. There was a time when it was pleasure enough to take a hot bath, or weed and spread compost, or drive along the coast without connecting to the internet. Was I more creative then?

Luckily, the folks at New Tech City are leading a program to help people rediscover the art of spacing out, by decreasing their cellphone use. I am curious to see how it might impact my creative life, so I signed up.

And I made a resolution for 2015: Get bored more. I think I’ll start with a hot bath…

• • • • •

You might like to listen yourself: Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out. http://www.wnyc.org/story/bored-brilliant-project-part-1/

NOTES FROM THE IDEA FARM

December 29th, 2014

(reposted from WriteAtYourOwnRisk, the faculty blog of Vermont College of Fine Arts)

Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout “I belong in a story?”

Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is: “that belongs in a story.”

We writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.

We snap mental photographs that hold story. Like mine of my friend Margrit quilting in a circle of lamplight, an image that speaks her specific tenderness. Or Izzi’s evening vigil by the gate, her fur backlit by the sun, doggedly awaiting John’s return. Or the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown. There’s story there.

Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The squeaks and pops of the elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.

Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like that of three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”

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Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. That’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they serve a story. We savor little vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day. Or: “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” (According to my notes, this is something children’s author Eve Bunting’s dad said to her.) Or: What’s the worst thing that could happen?

All these glittery bits, some as brief as a word, offer inspiration. Like this list near the path at a coffee plantation in Hawaii which suggests an alphabet book about ways to move:

walkthisway

It is not unusual to meet a word that inspires a story – snarky, hunched, snick – or a word that fits into a work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.

Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.

Anecdotes can get me going, too. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.

Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.

wayorbeach013

I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged, cobwebby hall. Golden light streams through clerestory windows and falls on a particular item, suggesting it. I start to write. That bit seems to attract others and they begin to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.

When I work with material that has the supercharged quality – the “I belong in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be.

Those are the best days, right?

 

AUTUMN DUET: 1979 SONORA / 2014 SEATTLE

October 4th, 2014
In 1991, the singer Natalie Cole created the album Unforgettable: With Love. You have probably heard of it, since eventually it sold over five million copies. The title track featured her singing a duet via electronic elaboration with her father, Nat King Cole, who died in 1965.

In a similar spirit of collaboration, I wrote today’s blog with my dad, Harvey McGee. It’s based on Dad’s account of autumn in the California foothill town of Sonora, where he was editor and publisher of the Union Democrat from 1959 until his death in 1998. His part appeared October 2, 1979, as his Sierra Lookout column. My part – an account of early autumn 2014 in Seattle – is in italics.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWEET, mossy smell of summer no longer drifts up from the creek in the late afternoon.

Twice now, the ravines have been flooded briefly with the sharp scents turned loose by moisture on brown grass. But it was only light rain, and the fields still crunch underfoot.

We’ll have to wait longer for the deep, heavy aroma that rises when the year’s buildup of twigs, pods, leaves and seeds is brewed by a soaking downpour.

Meanwhile, the light scents will do, especially when mixed with crisp mornings, soft yellow afternoons and blazing sunsets.

foxlogoTHE SWEET, piney smell of sunsoaked Douglas fir no longer flavors my late afternoon walks.

Twice now, rain has pounded our metal roof with downpours worthy of Hawaiian monsoons, releasing the heavy scent that rises when the summer’s buildup of twigs, pods, dry grasses and seeds is brewed by a drenching shower.

 (I love that there’s a word for this aroma: “petrichor,” the scent of rain on dry earth, a word constructed from the Greek, petros, meaning ‘stone,’ and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. Even in Seattle, a rain elicits this lovely fragrance at summer’s end.)

The sun slants low at the end of day, flooding the garden with golden light.

(I just learned today that the Japanese have a word for sunlight shining through leaves of a tree: komorebi. This time of year the angle of light in the Northwest is prime for komorebi.)

autumn light

logo guy2.fhTHE MOSQUITO that whined in the bedroom all summer as soon as the lights went out has now gone. He’s been replaced by a buzzing, hopping creature that disappears when the lights go on.

And the weekend traffic lined up at the stoplight has changed again. Summer’s stream of family-loaded station wagons has trickled away, and now the lineup is dominated by pickup-campers, their cabs filled mostly with men and rifle racks.

foxlogoTHE DISTANT whine of power washers and weed-whackers yields to the hum of leaf blowers.

Streets fill with yellow school buses again. We hope the traffic snarls caused by summer road repairs will soon be over.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWIMSUITS draped on the back porch railing have been dry for weeks, and I can drop onto the nearby lounge chair without first removing a soggy mound of towels.

The ivy bed is reviving, now that the dog has stopped sleeping away his afternoons there. All that lush poison oak has retreated down its long stems in preparation to burst forth with even greater viciousness next spring.

foxlogoTHE GARDEN has its last hurrah. We harvest beans and tomatoes and plant kale, lettuce, spinach and garlic for winter crops while the dog snoozes under the camellia.

logo guy2.fhTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and straining log trucks.

All that remains of the grandchildren’s vacation visits is an occasional plastic block, left for painful discovery by a barefoot grandparent.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

foxlogoTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and planes flying overhead.

The grandnephews are back in school. All that remains of our Camp Runamok campfire is the charred spot on the driveway gravel.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

 (I think I’ll give Natalie and Nat King Cole the last word: It’s Unforgettable.)


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