I'm cleaning, I'm cleaning again I'm cleaning, I'm cleaning my brain -talking heads, "Artists Only"
if you change "cleaning" to "writing," well, that's where i am. writing again, writing my brain. which is to say i am writing from memory a story that has been with me probably longest since i began this crazy journey. the characters came about in october of 1993 when i deliberately took 10 days off from work with the goal of writing something i'd been thinking about, beginning to end. and i did it, first draft finished in 9 days, over 260 pages of raw, crazy, impossible YA story with a LOT of problems.
the main one being that it was a sprawling road story with the thinnest of plot lines and nothing comparable to it on the market. i had no frame of reference, and no real training in writing for a YA audience, but i had some characters and situations and i felt good about it.
many of those characters and settings have run through a lot of what came after, but they solidified around another story that i'd begun in 2004 and revised in 2007. that story was my "audition" piece for admission to VCFA, and the opening pages were workshopped in the summer of 2010.
and that's where it stopped. reaction was positive, the questions posed were helpful, there was no reason why i shouldn't have picked up the ball with it and run.
but i didn't.
instead, surrounded by so much kidlit writerly energy, my brain flooded with idea that i chased down like a magpie collecting shiny objects along the highway. wanting to make the most of my workshops i produced something new and different each semester, looking to woodshed a collection of solid starts. as a final project i wrote and revised (4 times over the course of 6 weeks!) a middle grade novel that i thought was my best work. after graduation i queried that book around for the better part of a year before thinking it needed more work.
and then i kinda sorta quit writing for a bit.
I don't have to prove... that I am creative!
i started a new job, and with it i eventually found myself with a new routine: i'd commute to work early, grab a tea and a pastry and sit in the lobby of a business hotel with good wifi and wrote for a solid hour 2-4 days a week. first it was a short story (later published online) and another short story (published by One Teen Story) and in between i wrote another middle grade story.
all on my phone.
this was the crazy part, writing a couple thousand words here and there as "notes" until one day i decided i needed to maybe transfer my notes to a word file. turns out you *can* wrote 15k words on your phone. i was stunned i'd written that much of a novel, much less in the amount of time that i had and all on my phone. once finished a first draft i read it over and over and... something was wrong. i'd read enough, studied enough about writing that it should have been obvious, but it wasn't and so i set it aside because another project was itching my brain. i was barely into it when a writing group looking for new members caught a tweet of me lamenting not having a crit group. they liked me, i liked them, so it seemed like a good time and place to work out this new project of mine.
You can't see it 'til it's finished flash ahead two-plus years later and that original project was done, revised, where i wanted it to be. it took plenty of trimming after all the overwriting, but i felt good about it and was ready, finally, to share with the world. i researched a ton of great agents and sent out nearly a dozen queries, got some early rejections, but was patient. i began working on something new, and another something new, and really felt energized.
then in august of 2020 my trusty laptop did something horrible. the details aren't entirely important except to say that i'd lost a sizable chunk of the manuscript out on query as well as recent sections of other projects. gone. lost. i was depressed and not sure i wanted to write anymore. i watched rejections come it thankful that if they'd asked for full manuscripts i wouldn't have to explain that the last third of the novel they wanted to see no longer existed.
then just last month, i was gifted a new laptop by my most loyal fan, my wife. everyone had cautioned me that i needed to change my ways around backing up often and in multiple places. i agreed. and then came the question: what would i work on? i didn't have the heart to work on any of the lost projects -- not yet at least -- but more importantly, i needed to go back to that place i was, that place where i wrote with joy, without that inner voice telling me things weren't working before i'd even committed them to the page.
fun. i needed to find the fun.
so i decided to go back to my earliest characters, and that story i'd workshopped and abandoned. i knew that story cold and sat down and outlined it. all the pieces were there, all the plot twists and character development and the select details, but i wanted to make it fresh for me so i decided to ignore what came before. i sat down and broke down the major chapters and wrote key lines of dialog for each and decided that was my new road map. break scenes down cinematically, write the dialog, fill in around that. and it's been a joy so far.
it will be a loooong time before i can find the great laptop meltdown of 2020 a blessing, but i am happy to have come out the other side with a renewed sense of starting over. cleaning my brain, as it were, and starting over with fresh pages.
We start with Badger opening the door to find Skunk, then slamming the door on him. This is Badger in a nutshell: gruff and quick to make an instant decision based on some fixed thinking. Skunk has arrived at the invitation of Aunt Lula, whose brownstone Badger is currently occupying in order to do his Important Rock Work. Badger would know that she'd sent Skunk along to be his new roommate were it not for the fact that Badger hasn't read the last four or five letters Aunt Lula sent him. But he must not be interrupted! he has Important Rock Work!
Yeah, Badger is a stiff old codger, and he's not interested in a roommate, much less a Skunk, much less a Skunk with a secret whistle that can summon chickens across space (and maybe time?) through a vague something called The Quantum Leap. Not just a few chickens, but HUNDREDS of them. More and more Skunk edges his way into Badger's life -- flattening boxes, making breakfast, uh, chickens -- until he breaks and finally Skunk realizes its not going to work out, and leaves Badger.
And in the quiet that follows, Badger realizes he's made a mistake, and goes on a hunt for Skunk, in the process getting a different idea of how the outside world viewed Skunk and Badger, with Badger realizing there is much he might have been wrong about.
Two opposing factions meet, they fight, they separate... will they get back together and be friends? That's the surface message, but the thing I really love here is how Timberlake presents an opportunity for larger discussions. Is Badger someone who does not like others who are not exactly like him? Has Badger become so intrenched in his Work that he has lost sight of the world outside his front door?
An Aunt gives them her house to stay in (and what animal would be the aunt of a skunk AND a badger?), a job defined as Important Rock Work, a bad stoat come to steal some chickens in order to eat them. It's the logic of the young grafted to their view of the real world, but at a remove, with animals standing in.
I've been thinking about this book for well over a week, trying out ideas for what I wanted too say, clever lines i'd want to use later (but never wrote down, so pffft!) But I keep picking up this 220-page (perfect!) book, with it's occasional Jon Klassen illustrations (including a two-page color spread), and I feel both in the moment and transferred back in time. Back to when I was a young reader and found a book that had humor and heart, that had words that sounded fancy and quirky that would turn out to be real word, that was just plain fun from the first page, a book that felt, well, just...
so it looks like you're planning on publishing THE HILL WE CLIMB, that amazing poem by amanda gorman she recited at the presidential inauguration. that is fabulous. no, seriously, the next day i was hearing about all these teachers who were going to talk about it in their classrooms. let me correct that: all these teachers were going to use the text for discussion the day following the inauguration. people connected with it so immediately, and for good reason. it was lyrical and stunning and just the kind of showstopper worthy our attention.
i was so happy to hear it would be the title of her forthcoming book of poetry... in september? no, i was not so happy to hear that part.
honestly, you can do better. and you have.
remember in olden days -- january of 1993 -- when we had a new incoming president, and another dynamic poet read at the Inauguration? on that particular day in january maya angelou read ON THE PULSE OF MORNING and people were equally agog, if memory serves. and even if my memory is hazy about the reception, there was a book. an octodecimo chapbook-looking thing that was on every bookstore counter across the country. you couldn't escape that little thing with its gold title on the cover and cream pages inside with the words that sung right off the page. and it didn't matter that it looked like something out of the 'zine scene of the time. it was poetry, and it was pocket-sized, and i'm guessing the margin was high on that stapled bit of pages.
and that little chappy? it was published and distributed -- by YOU, dear random penguin megahouse -- within a MONTH.
so let's keep this simple and not throw shame any further: you did it then, do it now. publish THE HILL WE CLIMB as a chapbook and get it out there. let it be the start of a new day for poetry, for a new generation who might be hungry for this kind of inspiration. let people hold it close to their hearts as we continue to be pandemic-struck. you aren't going to draw away precious sales in the fall when you publish ms. gorman's collection by sharing this one poem now. if anything it will be the sample that encourages a double scoop of goodness in a waffle cone down the road.
the question is something my writing group is examining this week and i've decided to think out loud and embarrass myself publicly before doing so with the people who might otherwise gently suggest i think this through first. i am doing things in reverse, not an unusual approach for me.
in art school, many lifetimes ago, the question of why was never really addressed. school was about how, about tools, about mastering the means to an end, and the end was a personal journey into expression. some were politically motivated, others had axes to grind with the world, some just wanted to make pretty decorative things. all valid approaches, as the question of why was merely swept up into the same thinking as "why climb the mountain?" well, not so much "because it's there" as "because i must."
even that's not entirely true. flogging my memory i can recall those instructors who would ask me why i chose a particular tool, made a specific line, focused on a specific object. the confrontation in those decisions had to do with understanding the purpose of the approach, a re-examination of the possibility that this was the right decision on my part; did these choices really support what i was trying to say?
so art school was about the how supporting the what, sometimes the why, but never the who.
this was fine, until i shifted my focus from the fine arts into writing. within the wilderness of words i had discovered there were writers doing what i'd always wanted to do but never saw as possibilities. this discovery -- writing for children and young adults -- had come after a decade of writing for film and television. unsuccessfully, i should add, but i don't dismiss those years working on the form and craft and methods of storytelling. back then, with a different writing group, a friend had suggested we all came from a place where all out projects were centered on a singular question. jokingly, i suggested i wrote about the lies of the post-WWII american dream. it wasn't a funny joke, because i was feeling the deception deeply but was unable to connect it to more universal themes. again, i had learned the craft of how and the themes of what, but a why without the who.
working on my mfa in creative writing i found myself in the familiar territory of learning the how of the craft and the what of stories i wanted to tell, but there was a general shunning of the why to remain somewhat pure from the politics and business of publishing and, more importantly, gaming awards. it was noble to try and keep the writing isolated to the sphere of working within a self-contained story-driven world, but there was scarcely any discussion of a who beyond discussions (sometimes arguments) over whether YA was a genre or a marketing term, or YA over MG, or whether there was such a thing as a picture storybook. (this last point is an entire post unto itself, and one i'm not likely to delve into.)
however, we had a lecture once that guided us through the examination of who we were writing for, or rather, which of our own past selves we might be speaking to. every writer i've met has touchstone books, the ones that they cherish, the ones the return to, the ones that most resonate within them. through a guided exercise, we were to imagine going back and speaking to that particular person we once were. this ended up being a controversial presentation, as some people found themselves thrust into psychological territory and emotional traumas they hadn't intended or welcomed to confront.
like the wierdo, er, artsy free-spirit i can be, i found myself talking to myself at two inflection points in time, but the exercise had done what it set out to do: it helped me realize the who of my ideal audience and forced an examination of whether my writing was in service to just myself or to a broader audience.
we don't simply write for ourselves, or simply what we know -- as writing instructors and craft books advise -- but to a specific version of ourselves who may be looking for something that guides and grounds us in our world. the who is the why. for me, writing is a sort of time portal in flux; i write to travel in time and space with my other, younger selves in order to find the answers to questions i haven't thought up in advance. i write for and from the same joy i had when i was younger and books were the seeds of thoughts and ideas for a fertile mind. i write to explore, through the use of tools of craft, to climb the mountain.
...that i might as well do a full reset, get in the mental wayback machine and see how things go this time around.
there's no way to replicate "the moment," that time i was working in the newly created Young Adults section of the barnes & noble in berkeley when i was shelving this book called FEED by m.t. anderson. standing in the aisle, intrigued by the premise, i read fifty or so pages before i remembered that they didn't pay me to read at work. then, just before shelving i read the author bio and saw that he'd received an MFA in writing for children and young adults, and i remember thinking "that's a real thing?"
that feeling, that sensation, that doesn't happen often, and it isn't replicated on demand.
if the internet had been what it is today -- or, heck, what it was seven years after the moment --i'd have blogged that book hard. not that it needed my evangelism then because FEED got plenty of attention and was/is now practically YA canon.
by the time i got around to blogging -- well, after the brief flirtation with food blogging at least -- the first book i wrote up was road dahl's THE MAGIC FINGER, a book with an incredibly strong resonance to my childhood. sadly, dahl's personal life turned out to be one of those toxic soups of anti-semitism and misogyny and ugliness. he's not the first and likely own't be the last (joanne rowling is keeping the tradition alive) of writers for children with darkness in their soul. but that's not out topic here.
no, when i started, i was taking my former skills as a movie reviewer at a radio station (90.7 fm KALX) and switching over to kidlit. in 2008 kidlit was the name for the casual community of people sharing their love of books for children and young adults. librarians, teachers, writers, editors, and gung-ho wannabe novices like me just gushing over the things they'd discovered in this kidlitoverse. i made some friends who magnified my scribblings, i returned the favor, and in short order everything that was my writing life just snowballed. the blogging, the tweeting, the writing, four or five different jobs...
jump ahead a dozen years to 2020 and... covid, am i right?
new year, new me. new tech, new ideas. but where to start? that's when i got the idea...