Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Conversation with God on Thanksgiving Day

"Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!" 
– Isaak Denison, "Babette's Feast", 1953

So I am thinking, today, of Karen Blixen, the wonderful Danish writer of royal blood who wrote under the pen name of Isaak Dinesen.

I'm thankful, in a season of thanksgiving, for Blixen's work, especially for Winter's Tales. Especially for one tale within this volume entitled, "The Young Man with the Carnation." It's about a young writer--Charlie--who is tormented by the fame his first novel has generated and is paralyzed by the fear that he will never again write anything of significance. He has run amuck at a hotel in Antwerp where he has checked into the wrong room, gotten drunk with a group of sailors and has thrown his second manuscript unceremoniously into the sea.

As a writer I can so relate to this. All of it except maybe the sailors. I especially love the conversation Charlie has with God at the end of the story:

"Who made the ships, Charlie?" he asked. 
"Nay, I know not," said Charlie. "Did you make them?" 
"Yes," said the Lord, "I made the ships on their keels, and all floating things. The moon that sails in the sky, the orbs that swing in the universe, the tides, the generations, the fashions. You make me laugh for I have given you all the world to sail and float in and you have run aground here, in a room of the Queen's Hotel to seek a quarrel." 
"Come," said the Lord again, "I will make a covenant between me and you. I will not measure you out any more distress than you need to write your books." 
"Oh, indeed!" said Charlie. 
"What did you say?" asked the Lord. "Do you want any less than that?" 
"I said nothing," said Charlie. 
"But you are to write the books," said the Lord, "For it is I who want them written. Not the public, not by any means the critics, but ME!" 
"Can I be certain of that?" Charlie asked. 
"Not always," said the Lord. "You will not be certain of it at all times. But I tell you now that it is so. You will have to hold onto that." 
"O good God," said Charlie. 
"Are you going," said the Lord, "to thank me for what I have done for you tonight?" 
"I think," said Charlie,"that we will leave it at what it is, and say no more about it."

Charlie always makes me smile. The creation of art is so rife with self doubt and raw vulnerability that we writers are continually seeking validation.

As children's writers we grow weary, at best, of all the people who think of us as a lesser breed, as though it somehow takes less craft and less dedication and less talent to write books for our youngest readers. I get mad at these people sometimes. I want to holler at them, sometimes, holler right into their red faces. Think about what this says of your feelings for children, book people! We are the ones who creating the readers of books, for crying out loud! Don't patronize!

And then a child comes up to me at a reading and asks if the character of Uncle Joe, in My Name is Not Easy is based on a real person and I sense in his question a deep longing to know, for certain, that the possibility of a person like Uncle Joe exists somewhere in this uncertain world.

And it is enough. I can hold onto this.

As writers writing from the heart of marginalized cultures we often get frustrated, at best, by those who fail to "get" our work, frustrated even by those who give us glowing reviews that somehow manage to miss the point. No! we want to holler. No, that's not it, that's not it at all. Look deeper! Look beyond your assumptions. 

And then a woman comes up to me at church and taps me on the shoulder. My book, she tells me, has healed her. "You are the anointed one," she says.

And it is enough. More than enough.

Anointed. It's so heavy with connotation, this word, so carefully chosen, I sense. There runs through it a deeper meaning which not even my wonderful dictionary of entomology can articulate.

It holds within it all I really need, I think. I will hold onto it.

Okay, I return you now to your regularly scheduled Thanksgiving programming wondering, of course, if anyone ever reads these little missives of mine, fired off at such irregular intervals. Wondering if it even maters.

Okay, yes it matters.

Leave me a note if you are inclined to do so.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The right book at the right time....

In an article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review recently, Terry Eicher talks about a  book from his childhood. He writes:
The best part of sixth grade at Grady Elementary School in Houston, in 1960, was after lunch when Mrs. Wise stood at the front of the classroom and opened a red book and read a few pages was a story about yearning, maybe even one that taught yearning. Mrs. Wise always stopped reading at the height of excitement, making a small indentation in the margins with her fingernail to mark the spot. We groaned.
It was a book that touched Eicher so deeply he spent twenty years trying to find it again to read to his own children. It was Giles of the Star. You've probably never heard of it. I hadn't.

But every writer on the planet remembers his or her own Giles of the Star. For some of us, this was the book which compelled us to become children's writers. We remembered the place it held in our hearts and we wanted to be the writer of that book. In our minds there was no title that held greater honor. People accord adult writing a higher status, but we know better. We understand from personal experience the power a children's book has to mark hearts and souls indelibly. We couldn't demean or devalue these books if we tried. We still love reading them.

Eicher started his story by talking about an article on childhood books he'd read.  In this article, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust recalls the joy of discovering a long lost childhood favorite in a used bookstore.


But what really caught my attention was what Faust said about re-reading Huckleberry Finn, a book she hadn't read since high school:
I was astonished to find how much of what I had been teaching and studying about race and slavery in American history was already there in a book published in 1884.
Such is the power of young people's literature and the lifelong impression it leaves behind.

What? You didn't think of Huckleberry Finn as young adult literature? Think again.

Eichner's memories of Giles of the Star made me remember a magical star book from my own childhood. It was given to me by the couple who lived next door. They were childless and had adopted me as their surrogate child. He was an artist and she was a dancer and I was a solitary child with imaginary friends so real family members still remember their names. Dowdy and Gwee-Gwee--he painted a mural of them on his stairwell wall and she gave me enchanted gifts--a chinese rag doll that had a blue shirt with frog buttons, a slender porcelain vase wreathed in paper thin flowers . . . and books, they always gave me books. On my seventh birthday it was a handsome volume published by Hatchard & Co. London, entitled The Daughters of the Stars, a story which transported me to another world, another universe.  It began like this:
Midway, upon the extreme edge of a great continent, there lies a huge forest. In it are more varieties of plants and trees than it is possible to imagine, more strange creatures and beings than the greatest scientist has yet been able to study or explain.....
The illustrations, by Edmund Dulac, were magical to a seven-year old girl-child.

I've always remembered one scene in this book where the mother and daughter find a silver dish of raspberry ice, buried in a cloud. Imagine traveling through a starlit sky bound for adventure, stopping only to nestle into a cloud and eat raspberry ice...

This memory somehow became entangled with memories of my grandmother Meg--we always called her Meg--who used to play a bedtime game with me.

What color is your cloud? Meg would ask.

We always tried to outdo one another in picking unusual colors for the clouds we were going to ride to sleep on. Pigeon Berry. Butterscotch. And one time--I was especially proud of this one--Merthiolate. 

(Yes, I'm dating myself. Merthiolate was a mercury-containing germ-killer that came in a small brown glass bottle with a clear glass applicator attached its lid. Maybe you remember it, too. Applied to a skinned knee it had a wonderful pinkish tinged orange color that seemed nearly neon, the same color you sometimes see on teenaged hair these days...and once in a blue moon, on clouds.)

When my oldest granddaughter began talking, I remembered Meg's game one night as we lay in bed after reading a story. But the game had changed. What flavor is the ice in your cloud? I found myself asking her.

I had strong, creative women in my life, women who raised me to believe I was bound for greatness, women who compelled me to raise the children in my life the same way.

Recently, I read the forward to The Daughters of the Stars for the first time:
Readers of fairy tales and other romantic fiction will have noticed before this that the Mothers of the heroines are seldom featured. One would imagine that the effort of producing a female child destined to adventure was too much for the average Queen or Princess, since, if she has not already expired before the story opens, she usually manages to to pass away before its close.... Thus it will be seen that, from the first page to the last, Astrella is never permitted the slightest excuse for decease...Which is surely not unreasonable, inasmuch as the death-rate of actual Mothers does not appear to be alarming; and we could name more than one beside whom our fictitious lady is but a delicate shadow.   
This book was written in 1939, but I read it in the late fifties and rode it into the sixties. I think it colored how I've raised my children.

Because this is the truth. Children's books have made us who we are. Their words and images and worldviews live within us and continue to inform our responses to life in ways we may only begin to suspect as we grow older.

I think about this as a school board member, the one who always talks about reading. The one who grows increasingly weary of those who think they can turn children into readers and writers with computerized phonics, scripted reading programs and prescriptive reading standards, the kinds of things that tear a book apart into so many unrecognizable bites of stuff.

You can take the bird apart to see what makes it fly, but it will never fly again.

Some children will become readers despite these things. Many more will be driven away from reading altogether. And we will continue to wonder why our educational system falters and our kids don't read.

All it takes to turn a child into a reader, writer and lifelong thinker is the right book at the right time. All it takes is a a teacher who loves to read and models it in her classroom, an adult who gives the gift of a good book, a library with one good librarian....

Monday, April 1, 2013

Writing Across Cultures

This is a topic I have thought a great deal about throughout my writing career. I'm even teaching a class on it starting this week at

I, myself, was born into a Minnesota Norwegian family, learned Norwegian attending school in Norway, and have lived for the majority of my life within the Inupiaq culture of northern Alaska. I learned both the Norwegian language of my ancestors and the Inupiaq culture I am married into through a powerful immersion process. I wanted, through my writing, to approximate this experience for my readers.

I think of German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser who proposed a new field of inquiry he calls “literary anthropology,” a field which starts, as he describes it, with the question of how “literature—in relation to history or society—reflects something special that neither philosophies of history nor sociological theories are able to capture.”

It's captured through immersion, literary immersion. We readers know all about it. We have craved it, constantly, since discovering that very first book, the one that enfolded us into an unimagined world and kindled a lifelong passion for literary exploration. Within the pages of books, we are able to assume the worldviews of others—to become other. Understanding worldview is at the core of good writing. It's core to understanding culture, as well—culture in the broadest sense of the term.

People sometimes say that I write outside of my own culture or that I write through a borrowed culture. I can't imagine consciously doing any such thing. If you understand the worldview of your characters and write from within that worldview you are not writing outside of anything and you are not borrowing—you are immersing yourself within. Does your own individual perspective on life bleed through? Sure. But you are aware of this and you control it—not as a bad thing, but as a conscious thing.

People want to know what constitutes authentic writing from a cultural perspective. They want to know how to tell whether the books they are reading or writing are authentic to the cultures they represent. A good part of this comes from recognizing your own cultural bias. As Anne Lamodt writes:
“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
In thinking of this over the years, I've come to realize something important. It's actually something that's pretty basic, as well. All writing is about crossing boundaries. Good writers learn how to inhabit the skins of others--even those whose life experiences are very different from their own. So, in a very real sense, the skills you need to successfully write across cultures are the same skills you need to master in order to be a good writer regardless of your subject.

Because let's face it: we live in an increasingly multicultural world and if we are to write within this world, we must learn these skills. How can we possibly write of a world in which all  characters share our own cultural perspective? Jane Austin might have been able to do it from a comfortable perch in her country parlor but we, in today's world, cannot. To do so, we would have to lock ourselves in our writing rooms and never emerge because today's world is everywhere reflective of a multitude of cultural perspectives. And it's not our job to amalgamate these. It's our job, as writers, to mine the gems we find there and let each shine of its own light.

I'll be talking about this a lot over the next eight weeks at Join me.

PS. It's August and this class is over now. Great class! I wanted to add a post script, though, because I was recently reminded of a guest post I did on this subject over at Cynstations.