Monday, August 22, 2011

A Map of the Writing Journey

I think when many of us start writing, we think the path to success looks something like this:

Stop #1: Write a book.
Stop #2:Find an awesome editor
Stop #3: Rise to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List
Stop #4: Fame and Fortune!

But...a lot of the time, the journey looks more like this:
Stop #1: Write a book.
Stop #2: Get married. Learn!
Stop #3: Revise.
Stop #4: Have a baby. Learn! (and love!)
Stop #5: Lose a friend to death. Learn about loss...and more about love.
Stop #6: Find a great critique group.
Stop #7: THEN find an awesome editor.
Stop #8: (Oh, yes. Revise again.)
Stop #9: Publish a book that will move hearts and change lives.

You can see that the second path is a lot more circuitous. But that really isn't a problem...unless you've got that darn map #1 in your head in the first place.

Good luck on your writing journey! (And a special thank you to everyone who is part of my Stop #6!) Remember:
"All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost." --J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday, August 12, 2011

Why Ma Ingalls and Mrs. Quimby are my heroes

Much has been said on the topic of children's literature as viable literature in its own right—not just, as labeled, for children. I agree with most of it—in fact, much of it has been said, or quoted, by me personally. But it recently came to me that there is another reason for a particular group of adults—parents—to read kids' books. To read them to themselves, for themselves, and not just to their children. And it's simple: a children's book, better than any novel for adults—probably better than any non-fiction, psychology or self-help book, either—has the ability to help us form the type of parents we want to be.

Consider your other chances to observe parenting:

Everyday life gives us myriads of examples, but they are all incomplete. Family is a private thing in many ways, and what you see will almost always be a projection of what you are meant to see. You'll learn a lot about parenting from your close family and friends if you have the chance (and many aren't blessed with that chance), but don't hope to learn much from a ten-minute trip to the grocery store.

Then we have television. Don't worry—I haven't forgotten The Cosby Show....I still laugh remembering Theo's explanation to his dad about how all he needed was some support, that there were more important things than good grades and succeeding in life...and his father's answer: “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” Best TV dad ever—even accounting for the sweaters. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much competition. The few shows about intact families tend to make a mockery of the role of parents, painting them as stupid, uncultured, oblivious and selfish, but justified by the occasional blind love for their children.

Books should be a help. But the self-help or psychology-type books are just facts and figures—they don't, they can't, show you the truth as a living, vivid thing. And unfortunately, the majority of novels with adult protagonists have nothing, or little, to do with raising a family. There's a good reason for this: the little struggles of everyday life are rarely drama-worthy compared to, say, falling in love, falling out of love, running a country, facing down aliens, etc. That is to say, it is very difficult to convey the inherent drama of family into a novel.

Unless...the protagonist is a child. Because family is the drama of childhood. Little struggles, in the reality of a child, can be gargantuan. Getting that puppy you've always wanted...overcoming your jealousy of your smart, pretty sister...wondering if your parents love you as much as they love the new baby—when seen through the eyes of a child, these are some of the most poignant dramas you'll ever read. To a child, your home is the stage on which all the conflicts in your life will be acted. Even the exterior conflicts are formed and influenced by your family life. So family will always be part of your story—even if it is present as a lack to be filled.

And that's why now, as a mother, I can turn to Little House on the Prairie for help when I feel unsure of the type of parent I want to be. When I feel overwhelmed by parenting a four-year-old with a brilliant imagination and the personality to go along with it, I have Mr. and Mrs. Quimby as my mentors. I have Coraline to show me, in its unique creepy way, that parenting is about taking an active role in your child's life. The unnamed mother in Where the Wild Things Are reminds me that being loving and flexible are just as important as being forceful—and that in only two lines of text! I could title-drop for pages: Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic—which should be much better known than it is. A Wrinkle in Time. Betsy-Tacy. The Moffats. Even the plethora of orphan books (yes, I confess to contributing to that already-full category) show me very clearly the needs in every child's heart, the needs I mean to make it a priority to meet.

And of course, for the inevitable blue day when I can't help but feel inadequate, there's always Matilda, to remind me of just how great my kids have it. :)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Best Books for the 18-24 month old

I've been on a baby/mothering theme for my past few posts (I wonder why?), so I thought I'd continue today, before moving onto other topics more specifically related to writing.

And so, a LIST. (Do all writers love lists, or just obsessive ones like me?) (And what about parentheses? Can there be a parenthesis club? :) Someone recently asked me to recommend books for an almost 2-year-old, so I jotted down a quick list of our home's fail-proof books for the 18-24 month old. With the exception of Hop on Pop, which Zoe loves and the rest of us yawn through, these are the books that we all enjoy when we sit down to read together—many are still requested by our four-year-old...or her papa. :) I'm always looking to expand upon something good, so feel free to chime in in the comments with your favorites, too!

 Hand Hand Fingers Thumb, by Al Perkins (Zoe's #1 favorite)

Many of Dr. Seuss's books: Dr. Seuss's ABC's; Hop on Pop (though that one gets really old to read aloud!); Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?; The Foot Book

Kevin Henkes' books for toddlers: Kitten's First Full Moon; Little White Rabbit; A Good Day

We're Going on a Bear Hunt, by Helen Oxenbury

Each Peach Pear Plum, by Alan and Janet Ahlberg

Eating the Alphabet, by Lois Ehlert

Mo Willem's “Cat the Cat” and “Pigeon” books—and Knuffle Bunny, of course!

I Love You as Much, by Laura Krauss Melmed (my personal favorite)

Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson

Time for Bed, by Mem Fox

Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney

Goodnight, Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin, Jr.

Pretty much anything by Eric Carle, especially The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Mixed-Up Chameleon

Drummer Hoff, by Barbara Emberly

Freight Train, by Donald Crews

Curious George, by H. A. Rey

Look, Peter Rabbit! (with Beatrix Potter illustrations)

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Erin Stead

Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt

Matthew Van Fleet's pop-up books: Heads, Tails, Alphabet, and Cats

Who's That Baby? by Sharon Creech (especially if your 2-year-old has or will soon have another sibling, baby cousin, etc.)

Chickens to the Rescue, by John Himmelmann

Drum City, by Thea Guidone
This is by no means a comprehensive list...but I hope you find one or two titles you'll get to know and love!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Growing Young

Despite my occasional flippant comment, I consider myself a mature adult. I'm a wife, a mother, once a university student and now a home-educated one again as I constantly push the reaches of my knowledge and strive for learning. I can “deal” with problems, big or little, that life sends. Heck, I can even get up the nerve to make “paperwork phonecalls” (you know, the ones that used to require hard correspondence before the advent of the newfangled telephone), which was certainly a turning point in my development as an adult. ;)

So...why do I feel so out of place among the majority of people who consider themselves “mature adults”? I don't understand the glum faces and pessimistic view of the world—this, you should know, is “realism.” Apparently life is awful, the world is catapulting towards a messy end, and to think otherwise is either stupidity or naivete. I get strange looks from my “peers” from time to time...perhaps I smile too often. Perhaps it is the middle grade novel I am toting about. Or it could be the pigtails, I suppose—because it has also become a criminal offense for a woman over twenty, at least one who has children, to look under forty. Weird.

Because I am a stay-at-home mother, and spend most of my socializing with extended family, church friends, and artists or writers, I realize I'm missing out on a good deal of the “real world.” Last week I got a professional haircut (for the first time in six years!)...and I remembered why I don't like the real world very much. It...was...depressing. Women complained about their husbands in the confident tones that indicated they were sure they had a right to. When they discovered I had just had my third baby, their responses were not congratulatory, but conciliatory. They laughed uncomfortably, confusedly, as I proclaimed that I liked being a mother. They stared, boggled, as my husband grinned at me from the window as he pushed two little girls in the stroller and carried the other. When at last I found myself in the sanctuary of our little car, I finally felt as though I could breathe again—or smile without being stared at.

I've never had this experience in my writer/artist circles. Creative people expect joy—see it everywhere. They believe in wild, impossible-seeming things as a matter of course. They love children—perhaps because, even though they are mature adults, too, they haven't abandoned the children they used to be.

You can see I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I think the ability to be childlike, even in the midst of maturity, is the most important quality an artist can possess—in fact, I think it is the most important quality a person can possess, period. There's a reason we are told that “Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Children trust. They believe. They smile. And all the pessimists, excuse me—realists—in the world would do well to remember that faith and a smile will do far more to fix life's problems than all their intellectual complaining will.

I found a quote from Madeleine L'Engle which explains exactly how I feel:

"I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be... This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages...the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide... Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don't ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and *be* fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup."

I have a feeling that most of you probably feel the same way. Thanks for being my refuge from the realists.