Monday, December 22, 2014

A Ramble: The Elements of Writerly Talent and Improvement

"A writer needs three things:  experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner

A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently:  How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control. 

First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of:

Imagination:  The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth:  a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful:  Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new. 

Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well.

Dramatic Skill:  The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people:  Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere. 

Writing Craft:  The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard. 

All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development:

Unconscious Reading:  Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better. 

Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to:

Practice:  So. Much. Practice. "I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it:  "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins:  You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice.

Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well:

Conscious Reading:  Separate from the Unconscious Reading above:  This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category.

Cultivating a Process:  Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work.

Choosing the Right Material:  In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge:  She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg. 

So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.) 

Cultivating a Purpose:  Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.) 


Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around.

If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is:

Perseverance:  Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between. 

Writers, readers, reviewers:  Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer? 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Quote File: Talent

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." -- Thomas Jefferson 

"The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck." -- Hector Berlioz

"Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except the best." -- Henry van Dyke

"The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Talent develops in tranquillity, character in the full current of human life." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage." -- Sydney Smith 

"Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential." -- Jessamyn West

"If you want to write anything that works, you have to go with the grain of your talent, not against it. If your imagination is inert and sullen in the face of business or politics...but takes fire at the thought of ghosts and vampires and witches and demons, then feed the flames, feed the flames." -- Philip Pullman

"Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him." -- Mel Brooks

"The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved." -- Marge Piercey

"Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline." -- Andre Dubus

"Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so." -- Doris Lessing

"True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius." -- Felix E. Schelling

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A New Episode of the Narrative Breakdown & My NYPL Panel on Native American YA Literature

Guess what? Those two things in my subject line are one and the same thing! We have a new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up, which also happens to be a recording of a panel I mentioned many moons ago:   me, fellow editor and publisher Stacy Whitman, and our authors Eric Gansworth and Joseph Bruchac, respectively, discussing their books If I Ever Get Out of Here and Killer of Enemies, respectively. It was a really great, meaty, interesting conversation (IMO) about how Stacy and I came to edit these books, editor-author relationships in general, writing YA, privilege, and cross-cultural publishing. And now you can see a writeup of it from Publishers Weekly at this link, and listen to the full recording here. Thanks for checking it out!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Registration Open for Spring 2015 NYU Editing Class

I'm delighted to say that I'll again be teaching a Book Editing Manuscript Workshop in Editing Children's and YA Novels at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, starting in mid-February 2015. I had a ton of fun putting the course together and working with my students this past year, and I'm looking forward to getting to know a new group of aspiring editors next spring.

(And I should say this course is very much intended for publishing professionals who want to know what goes into editorial work or get ideas for developing their own editorial work -- editorial assistants or aspiring assistants, agents, fellow practicing editors. Writers might get something out of it, but the focus is entirely on on how to be an effective editor for others, not on how to improve your own novelistic craft.)

Here's the course description in full:

Calibrating a characterization. Structuring a plot. Developing a theme. Polishing the prose. And bringing all of these elements into perfect balance to help a book become what it should be. In this eight-week course, we’ll learn how to practice these editorial skills, with special attention to the particular requirements of the child and young-adult audiences, and discuss the creation of the right public image for a book through its flap copy, cover, and editorial presentations.
If you're interested, you can see more details and register here, and I'd be happy to answer any questions in the comments. Thank you!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Win an Hour's Editorial Consultation with Me!

I will read a portion of your manuscript or your synopsis, offer advice on agents or the market, critique a query letter, chat about plot or character or world-building. . . . In general, my brain will be at your service for pretty much anything literary- or publishing-related for an hour, and all for a good cause:  my dear Park Slope United Methodist Church. 


The auction runs through November 14. To bid, click here.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Terrific Panel: "The Importance of All Children Seeing Themselves in Literature"





In mid-August, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on diversity in children's literature with four wonderful authors: Lisa Yee, Sonia Manzano, Sharon Robinson, and Varian Johnson. There was one embarrassing slip-up from me that I'll let you all discover for yourselves, and otherwise, a lot of wise things said about reading and writing books in general -- not just books with diverse characters, or by diverse authors. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Some Wise Words from Kirk Lynn

One of the most thought-provoking plays I've seen this year was Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, by the playwright Kirk Lynn. The theatre distributed a printed Q&A with Mr. Lynn after the show, and I've kept it for several months because there's a lot in the following that really resonates with me about art and life:

Q: You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?
A: ... The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these. 

When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles. 

If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in. 

I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even. 

So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—

—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.

We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?

Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery.  It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—

You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three-year-olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five-year-olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.


I think what I really appreciate and admire in this are Mr. Lynn's ideas that there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that don't resonate with you at all, about how art is made or how lives are lived. And how he decenters himself repeatedly, first from a universal absoluteness of meaning in language (meaning that all meanings would be dictated by him), and then from his daughter's life -- recognizing that she's her own person, doing her own thing, at age three, and finding that beautiful and sacred. To read the entire Q&A, click here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Plot Master Class in Brooklyn! A Podcast on Queries! And a Panel on Native Lit!

On Saturday, November 8, I'll be teaching my Plot Master Class as a one-day workshop to benefit Park Slope United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York. The Master Class forces you to take an in-depth look at the plot of your manuscript through the pre-class homework; then I dissect all of the elements of plot in the course of the workshop; and then we put everything back together again by the end, at which point you should have plenty of knowledge about making plots operate effectively, and a number of tools to strengthen your own. It's the most popular course I offer, as I've taught it both online and at multiple locations around the country, and while it's always an intense* day, it's always a lot of fun too.

And this edition is truly for a good cause, as all proceeds will go directly to Park Slope United Methodist, my lovely, progressive, inclusive, social justice-minded church in Brooklyn,** which will also host the event. As this is being independently organized, you do not have to be a member of SCBWI or any other writers' group to attend; all you have to have is a manuscript in mind, a curiosity about plot, the fee, and the ability to get to Brooklyn on Saturday the 8th. Please check out the registration page here, and if you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me through that page or leave them in the comments below. Thank you!

Oh! And while I am here and talking publishing:  The newest episode of The Narrative Breakdown features me and Katy Beebe -- also known as KTBB among commenters here, also known as my best friend -- talking about query letters. Katy wrote the original Query Letter from Hell that appears in Second Sight, and anyone who can parody something better know her subject inside and outAnd indeed, Katy also wrote an impeccable query letter for her picture book Brother Hugo and the Bear, which was published by Eerdmans earlier this year.


We discuss both of these queries in the course of the episode, and throw in some advice on copyright, synopses, and effective summaries besides. Please check the show out!

Oh! Part Two: On October 4 at 2 p.m., authors Joseph Bruchac and Eric Gansworth and their editors -- Stacy Whitman of Tu Books and moi, respectively -- will gather at the New York Public Library at 42nd St. for a public conversation with Betsy Bird about the writing, editing, and publishing of Native American YA fiction. I'm super excited about this panel, as I learned a great deal from working with Eric on his terrific YA novel IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE, and it's rare to get an opportunity to talk about those lessons and share those experiences. Please check this out too!

_____________________________
* Read:  slightly brain-melting (but in an enjoyable way).

** If you want to take the Master Class but for some reason you object to the funds going to a church, let me know, and I'm sure we can work something out. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Ramble: Ferguson, President Obama, Diverse Books, Time and Space

Earlier in this week of awful news out of Ferguson, in my home state of Missouri, my friend and colleague Rebecca Sherman commented on Twitter:

I do too. That speech remains the best speech I've ever heard a politician give in my lifetime, both honest and inspiring, both personal and national in its implications. It acknowledged the complexities of Mr. Obama's candidacy, of his relationship with the Reverend Wright, and indeed of the whole history of race in America after slavery. Rereading it now, I was astonished to see these lines:
We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.  
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.  
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.  
. . . What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them. But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it — those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations — those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.
This anticipates nearly everything in Ta-Nehisi Coates's brilliant article "The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic earlier this summer -- except, of course, Mr. Coates's conclusion, which is that Congress should investigate the idea of reparations for African-Americans. Rather, Mr. Obama describes this legacy of pain as an opportunity for all Americans to come together, first to listen to and acknowledge each other's sufferings across racial lines, and then to work to address that suffering:  the lost jobs, the lack of health care, the poverty and poor education that afflicts the 99% (to draw on another political metaphor). The speech received near-universal acclaim, and while politics, being politics, quickly reverted to the usual game of sound bites and wins and losses, it did create a quiet moment in the hullaballoo of that 2008 campaign, a moment when most people heard what Mr. Obama said, and glimpsed that opportunity, even if we did not take it . . .

Like Rebecca, I wish very much that Mr. Obama had the time and courage and clarity and political daring to make another speech like this in the wake of events in Ferguson -- to be our storyteller-in-chief of sorts, to help one part of America listen to and understand the anger and fear of another, and to point the way toward dialogue among and a shared mission for all our citizens. I am sorry that he doesn't make this a priority, because I think perhaps he could do some good. But in his absence, we have to do that work.

I am moderating a panel this Tuesday for Scholastic's Teacher Week -- a conversation with Varian Johnson (The Great Greene Heist), Lisa Yee (Millicent Min, Girl Genius), Sonia Manzano (The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano), and Sharon Robinson (Under the Same Sun) about diversity in children's literature and the need for all children to see themselves in books. There are a lot of dimensions to the diversity conversation, but the moral use of such books (and the moral necessity of publishing them) is fairly straightforward:  More than any other media, a book allows a creator to control and tell their own story, to reveal the world they see in all its joys and sorrows, complexities and nuances, and to have that story be heard. For readers, books provide that opportunity to step into someone else's story and hear it -- to be affirmed by the story if some part of it speaks to your own experiences, emotionally or racially or religiously or physically, to know that you are not the first to go through this; to learn from it, both intellectually and emotionally, if it does not match your experience; to be challenged by and grow from it all around. (I wrote more about this, and the moral and sociological necessity for diverse books, in the opening of this talk.)

And I can't help thinking:  How different might Ferguson have been if all the policemen had read Walter Dean Myers's Monster? Or Fallen Angels or Sunrise Over Fallujah, for something closer to their own quasi-military experience? Or Ta-Nehisi Coates's article, or The Beautiful Struggle? Or even listened to the "This American Life" stories on Harper High School -- about a very different place than suburban St. Louis, certainly, but unforgettable in showing some of the pressures on young black men? Or best of all, if the policemen had heard the stories of the people of Ferguson as individuals? If they had shared their own?

Perhaps nothing would be different. These can be seen as highly naive and facile questions, given the money and history and societal factors that went into the making of this as-yet-ongoing tragedy, and I acknowledge my highly privileged role in asking them. But I also believe that books, stories, do what not-yet-President Obama did with his "More Perfect Union" speech:  They reveal the complexities, allow us to see things as both individual and universal, make other people real, open up space for dialogue -- if we'll take the time to listen and talk and learn. I wish we could find more of that time and space.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Quote File: Energy

“Life begets life. Energy becomes energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.” — Sarah Bernhardt

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” — Duke Ellington

Twin Mystery

To many people artists seem
undisciplined and lawless.
Such laziness, with such great gifts,
seems little short of crime.
One mystery is how they make
 the things they make so flawless;
another, what they're doing with
their energy and time.
— Piet Hein

“Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you. I believe the greatest characteristic of genius, is, above all, force.” — Gustave Flaubert

“Genius is mainly an affair of energy.” — Matthew Arnold

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that's as unique as a fingerprint — and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.” — Oprah Winfrey

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. “ — Martha Graham

"We all need to look into the dark side of our nature — that's where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we're busy denying.” — Sue Grafton

"Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal." — Albert Camus