Show Your Work


“Show your work.” When I was a teacher, I must have said those exact words a million times. Easily. There are a few reasons I wanted my students to show their process, rather than simply writing down an answer.

By looking at a student’s work, I, as the teacher, could identify much more easily the concepts with which he or she needed extra help. I could also give a student credit for any work that was done correctly, even if the answer was not right. Showing the steps of the process can actually help a student get to an answer, because it breaks down the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks and gives the student a place to begin.

Most importantly, a person who writes and shares his or her process becomes more aware of it, and more reflective about it.

The night I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I was so jazzed to get started that I couldn’t sleep. Sure, revealing my efforts and work at all stages of the process is a terrifying prospect. By doing so, I hope to become more aware of my process, to reflect more about it, and to be a little less lazy. Nothing like announcing to all your friends and family that you’re writing a book to motivate you to write the book. We all behave better when other people are watching.

I’ve written before about how much Kleon’s work has inspired and motivated me. I’m grateful for his brief, powerful, practical books that have had such an impact on my creative journey. And perhaps that is truly the most important reason to show one’s work.

The Jacket Copy Assignment

Last Saturday was the first class in a 2-month long novel writing course at Portland Literary Arts, taught by author Emily Chenoweth. Other than those two facts, I know very little about what to expect from this experience. That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Before heading out, I had the usual first day of school nervousness: Will they like me? Will I like them? What should I wear? Where is the bathroom?

I haven’t done something like this – something completely new, completely on my own – in quite a long time. It’s exhilarating.

Emily sent the class an assignment to complete before our first class. She asked us to read examples of jacket copy from any novels we had close at hand, then write copy for the jacket of our own book. It was an interesting experience, writing jacket copy for a book that’s not yet written. I re-read my first attempt, and realized that I was still focused completely on the concept, rather than on what actually happens in the story. Understandable, given the fact that I haven’t written the story, and have very little idea of what will happen.

So, I started again. As I was writing, I realized: Emily’s tricking me into writing an outline! In the past, I’ve written scenes more or less at random, figuring out later how to string them all together. The problem with this, of course, is that I find myself with large gaps, and no ide how to fill them, or I write myself into a corner and end up having to throw out large amounts of writing. I know that throwing out work is always part of the process of creating. But, I wonder if better planning might help me to throw out less. As I wrote my jacket copy, I found myself making decisions, changing my mind, rewriting. And since I was only working with three paragraphs, rather than three pages – or three hundred pages! – the process of playing around with the story felt fun rather than painful, doable rather than overwhelming.

The jacket copy assignment is helpful for those of us reticent about outlining, but hoping to get a little clarity about an idea for a novel. It might even change my mind about planning in general.

Here’s what I ended up with for my work-in-progress, titled Nana’s Bikini.

 

Ginny had been looking forward to her trip to Italy for months. She planned on two weeks of sunning, eating gelato, and making out with boys named Fabio. She certainly didn’t plan on going to Italy with her dour, old Nana.

Now, Ginny’s dream trip is more like a nightmare. Nana walks for miles a day, barely needs to stop for food, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for stained glass! All Ginny can think about is how to ditch her grandmother and have a real vacation.

It’s not until the travelers get on a train going the wrong direction that the trip starts going right.  In crumbling hotels and beach-side shacks, Ginny sees glimmers of the adventurer that Nana could be. The trouble is, she’s buried beneath layers of cardigan sweaters and sensible shoes, and Nana seems to want to keep her that way.

Nana’s Bikini is a story about mis-matched travelers, about growing up, about letting go, and about gelato. Lots and lots of gelato.

Since writing the story, I’ve tried a few different methods to help me plan Nana’s Bikini. Which does beg the question: Is planning the new procrastinating? Or, an extremely valuable use of time that will pay off in clarity and focus down the road? In writing, it’s not clear what will work, what will benefit the story, what will benefit the process. And that’s part of what I like about it. Making an outline might help. Staring at the trees might help. As I become more prolific, I’m figuring out what tends to work best for me, but writing a story is still a magical chemistry. I’m always tinkering with the balance between the ingredients: the practice of discipline and living with a wide-awake mind.

The Transplant

When I see my new house in Portland for the first time, it’s something I’ve only heard about, and viewed through pictures. It’s a familiar stranger, a storybook character come to life. My eye looks for and finds little things that are amiss, not how I imagined. For one thing, the temperature is chilly, until the heat kicks in and blows hot dry wind into my face, drying my skin and leaving my throat parched. The paint on the walls is erratic, with scuffs and mismatched colors. The electrical system is nothing short of bizarre. Lights that should all be controlled by the same switch, or, at least, by switches on the same plate, are instead controlled by switches located on opposite sides of a room. Half of the switches in the house are an old-fashioned push button style that I’ve never seen before, and the fact that each room has at least twenty outlets raises my suspicions about previous activities on these premises.

If it was just me here, I’d spend as little time as possible in this empty, depressing house, where there is not so much as a single comfortable seat in which to rest. I’d figure out the bus system, not caring how long it took, as long as I could read a book or look out the window to get familiar with the neighborhoods in my new city. But it’s not just me. There are two little ones, and the baby is waking me up at four a.m. because his strict bio-rhythm (a drill sergeant!) dictates that, despite the pitch black, this is definitely the time to rise. The rest of the day, we are all wrecked, but at least the baby goes down for naps. During these naps, Thing One and I knock around the bare, echo-y walls looking for something to do. We try to make the place a little homier. We hang Christmas lights from the porch, but I’ve never done this before and so I don’t quite have the knack. What looks inviting and warm on our neighbors’ porches looks bedraggled on ours. We make paper snowflakes and a gingerbread house. All of this is more exhausting than satisfying, but, still. It’s done.

Having heard the tales, I ready myself for the onslaught of neighbors. They will come, I’m sure, bearing casseroles and cookies. Their children will clamor for play dates with mine, and we’ll be forced to initiate the rite of suburban basement play dates. Though the intrusions will border on annoying, we’ll be glad to connect with the people around us. We will be rescued from our solitude.

As hours and then days pass, we wonder, where is everyone? Winnie wonders the same thing, aloud, and repeatedly. In Brooklyn, we had a dozen casual encounters each day, with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances whom we just happened to meet on the stoop or on the street. Here the homes look vacant, except for those movie-set-perfect lights on the porches. Days go by in which we see not a soul.

I feel like a heart that’s been transplanted to a new, foreign body. Everything about the place is strange, from the smell of the air to the cadence of the speech. At first, I feel like this new place is rejecting me. Then, little by little, glimmers of welcome shine. Strangers surprise me with their helpfulness. One, then two, neighbors knock on the door. There aren’t casseroles, but there are donuts and chocolate wine. An acquaintance makes wonderful efforts to connect, and quickly starts to becomes a friend. It’s the few people who make the most difference.

This body is not as inhospitable as I once thought, but if this transplant is to be successful, I will have to make my own adaptations. I’ll have to forge my own connections, and adjust my own rhythm. I’ll have to come out of my new, imperfect home rather than sitting inside and waiting for the knocks on my door.

I plan to make my own cookies and casseroles, and invite my neighbors to share them with me. I’ll do it, I swear. Just as soon as it stops raining.

Book Notes: The Fault in Our Stars

This book came from a friend with this warning: Don’t read it in public (unless you like crying in front of strangers).

I expected a book about kids with terminal cancer to be sad. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be so irreverent, truthful, hilarious, smart, and universal.

Hazel is dying, and she knows it. Although a miraculous cancer drug (imagined by the author) keeps her cancer under control, she lives each day with the knowledge that this drug merely extends her life. The fact that her cancer is incurable informs everything that she does. Or does not do. Hazel is waiting to die, and while she does, she is trying to minimize her contact with the living.

Hazel and Augusts meet at a cancer support group. Living in the moment takes on a very literal meaning. They get through the physical and emotional pain in their lives by fiercely loving the people, books, sunshine, trees, and laughter that life also offers. Hazel and Augustus quote from their favorite book: “Pain demands to be felt.” John Green’s book shows us that love demands to be felt, too. Hazel and Augustus could deny themselves the pleasure of the other’s company, but they could no sooner turn off their feelings for each other than they could choose to make the sun set at will. Many things in this life are out of our control, and must be accepted. Green’s characters live with that vivid reality more so than most of the rest of us do.

“The world is not a wish-granting factory,” Hazel and Augustus remind each other throughout the book, a joke referring to the “cancer perks” that kids with cancer receive. No number of perks can take the sting out of the injustice in their situation. Hazel and Augustus have experienced a life’s worth of grief and disappointment in their short time, and it has made them honest in ways that I can only describe as brave, even though Hazel and Augustus would both roll their eyes at my use of the “b” word.

The title of the book comes from a Shakespearian line: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.” No, argues the fictional author Peter Van Houten in a letter to Augustus, “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.” Our stars are flawed, our stars are beautiful, and these two qualities are very much dependent on the other. Life – whether it is a minute or a century long – demands that we experience both. And that we learn to trust in our own strength, and in the strength of those we love, to get us all through.

Through his empathy and imagination, John Green understands what it might be like to face one’s own death before having had the chance to experience so much of what the rest of the world thinks of as life. The truly genius thing about this hopeful and surprising story is that Green shows how we each have the opportunity – each day, each moment – to live. Hazel and Augustus don’t so much inspire as instruct us to start now.

This post was first published on the Girls Leadership Insitute blog.

This Little Life

A news story caught my attention yesterday, a startling story about a group of Taliban soldiers who dressed as Americans in order to penetrate a U.S. military base. As I stood at the stove cooking dinner for my kids, I couldn’t fathom that something like this had really happened. The event sounds more like a movie, or a dream, than real life. Real life – my own life – is the furthest thing from a violent, dangerous event like that.

I struggle, sometimes, to envision a world in which the whole spectrum of experience coexists. How can it be that I am making a vegetable saute while another mother is watching her son leave the house for the last time? We’re all the same, tiny vessels of emotion and intellect, roughly four and a half cubic feet of hormones and synapses, bones and sinew. Each of us is consumed by our own worries and desires, so consumed that it’s hard to have perspective about whether our pursuits are important or meaningful. If I had such perspective, would I still feel anxious that dinner was late to the table? Or that the countertop in our new house might need replacing?

Our lives are all, by definition, small. Our days are tragically short. Our hands only reach so far. Yet, some lives seem smaller than others. As I listened to the world news on the radio, usually not much more than a bit of background noise, I realized that my mind has lately been occupied with issues that are unique to myself and my family: our son’s birth and infancy, our daughter’s needs and schooling, sick relatives, my friends, moving to a new city, finding a house. Big things to me, yet irrefutably small, in the scheme of the world.

I can’t live the life of an Afghan or anyone else. I can only live the life I’ve got, and I am grateful for and baffled by the blessings I have. That can’t be the end, though, to just feel grateful and go on with the vegetables and the countertops. I can only live my life, yes… can only reach my arms so far, yes. But, perhaps they could reach just a little farther? Perhaps my life, while it will always be small, could be just a little bit bigger?

It seems to me that we who are born into a family – or a country, or a time – with so many advantages and opportunities, have more of a responsibility than others do. A responsibility to use whatever meager time and talents we have for something bigger. Sadly, it sometimes feels as though the opposite happens. We who are born into lives of ease, we take it easy. Let others stretch and struggle.

I am grappling with this. It’s easy enough to say, reach. But how?

Book Notes: Bitterblue

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore has beautiful woodblock-style illustrations, maps, and decorations throughout.

Queen Bitterblue is no ordinary girl. She is, after all, the ruler of Monsea. Yet, compared to the protagonists of Kristin Cashore’s previous novels she’s practically run-of-the-mill. Unlike Fire and Katsa, Bitterblue has no superpowers. Of course her life and her role are uniquely privileged and burdened with responsibility, but Bitterblue is a real girl, someone to whom I can truly relate.

In Bitterblue, we find ourselves eight years after the end of Graceling. Bitterblue has become the queen of Monsea, a kingdom broken and suffering from the legacy of her father Leck’s cruelty. Barely more than a girl and still suffering herself, Bitterblue struggles to understand her people’s problems while her advisors keep her out of the city and all evidence of the city out of the palace. When, finally, she decides to educate herself about the land she governs, she finds an alarming state of violence and deception. She also begins to find the strength that she needs to pull her people through this state.

Bitterblue is amazing in part because of the threads that Cashore expertly picks up from her previous two books. Somehow the characters that we revisit such as Katsa, Po, Giddon, and Fire all seem true to their original selves while at the same time we learn more about them because now we see them through Bitterblue’s perspective. For example, while she loves Katsa and Po dearly, she occasionally feels excluded when she’s around them because of the intensity of their connection. This doesn’t make me dislike Katsa and Po, it only makes them more faceted. Bitterblue is so recognizable in these moments. Like all of us, she sometimes feels self-conscious and lost in the world, sometimes longs for the bond that others have and doubts whether someone could love her that way.

Bitterblue’s story is not a romance in the way that Katsa’s and Fire’s stories are. There is a romantic element, but the relationships that matter most to Bitterblue – that ultimately support and save her – are her friendships. Bitterblue has not had much trust in her life, and we see the damage that this has done to her as clearly as we see the broken down buildings that Cashore describes throughout the city. Bitterblue could not trust her father, and even developed intricate mental exercises to protect her mind from his influence. Bitterblue learns that she can not trust the people who are supposed to be her advisers. Even the tentative friendships that she forms with a group of rebels in the city are founded on deceit. As Bitterblue begins to shape her rule in earnest, trust and friendship are the are the balms that mend her wounds, and those of her city.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says that  a writer must “spend it all.” Cashore spends it all in Bitterblue, as she does in her previous novels. Reading it, I got no sense that she held anything back – not the beauty of her language nor the twists of the plot, both of which make Bitterblue a compelling story both as an emotional journey for the characters and as an exciting adventure. All of the characters and plot turns unfold in their fullness and feel powerfully, satisfyingly complete at the book’s end. This is what I truly appreciate about Cashore’s writing. She doesn’t manipulate or tease her reader, leaving cliff hangers or unnecessary complications designed to make us hunger for a sequel (something that more and more writers are doing these days). Instead, she trusts her work to recommend itself. Which it does. Just as Bitterblue finds trust to be essential in her relationships, readers find a mutual trust with Cashore. She will continue to write heartfelt, complex, exciting stories. And we, of course, will continue to read them.

Playing with Dolls

Two rather serious looking character dolls.

On Mother’s Day, Win presented me with a kit for making wooden figures. She hovered as I unpacked the teeny wooden dolls and acrylic paints, eager to get started. I decided to indulge her; clearly, this was a gift she’d given me with her own enjoyment in mind.

Win had no shortage of ideas for her doll. In fact, she painted it quickly and started on another. Soon, a small flock of wooden figures accumulated on the table, while I was still starting at one bare wooden piece. Finally, I conjured an image of Marin, the main character of the Young Adult book that I’m writing.  I dipped my brush in brown paint and started with the hair.

I have been writing the novel, called Weaving the Sea, for two years. I thought that I knew what Marin looked like. I knew that her clothes would be the plain, rough peasant clothes she chooses over the splendid finery that would be more appropriate for a girl of a noble family.  I knew that her hair would fall in unruly curls.

But, there were other details that I didn’t know until I began painting. For example, I didn’t know that she would wear a red cape, which had, of course, belonged to her father. More interestingly, I didn’t know that her curls would be streaked  with thick ropes of silvery white, a physical manifestation of the mysterious magic that hums through her.

This was such a fun way to explore and discover my character that I repeated the process with Brocht, another important character from the same story. I found that, similarly, there were details that I knew would be present (his dark hair) and others that I hadn’t expected (his bright blue military uniform and his general emo look).

The Marin and Brocht dolls have become an inspiring presence on my writing desk. The characters feel real to me now in a way that they didn’t before because making the dolls forced me to make choices about the characters. And, even though the process felt too playful to be called work, the dolls have moved my writing along in important ways.

I went to the craft store and bought more paints and more dolls so that I could bring this project to my writing group. If I was still teaching in a classroom, I would do this with students, too. I’d ask them to make dolls of the characters in their own writing and of the characters in the books they read, as a creative envisioning practice. It might not be a powerful tool for every writer, but approaching a story from a different direction, and in a different medium, will at the very least give the writer a break and a fresh eye on her work.

My Girl

I am looking at a picture of my daughter. In this picture, we are on vacation in Mexico, and she is playing on the beach. The game she is playing is one that she made up, and she calls it “Beach Kung Fu.”

She is lying down in the sand. Her eyes are closed. Her arms are flung in opposite directions. Her legs are splayed. She looks as though she might be dancing, or practicing a swim stroke. Or simply making sure that there is sand stuck to every inch of her skin. Only she knows that what she is doing is practicing her “Kung Fu.” Though now that you know, I think you’ll agree that it’s really quite obvious.

My girl is content, and contentedly oblivious. She looks ridiculous, but she doesn’t care. She will certainly have sand lodged into the most uncomfortable places, but she doesn’t care. She will need to take a shower and people are probably looking at her. I’m not sure whether or not they were, because I didn’t care about them any more than she did.

When I read Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother, I noticed the many times that she talk about her children’s bodies. In particular, she talks about the “buttery” feel of her babies’ thighs. I thought that I probably should be annoyed, but I get it. Our children’s bodies are wonderful, wonderful things to touch and hold. I remember how Win’s body felt in my arms at every stage. The babies are buttery, all right, but I look at this picture and I know that my daughter is well past butter here. She’s steaky. Her legs are solid. Everything about the way the way her limbs look, feel, and move is confident and strong. Whether she is dancing or scooting or doing beach Kung Fu, she moves for the pleasure of the moment.

I hope she grows up with this certainty about her physical self intact, but I know that she probably will not. At some point, we all become aware of and concerned with how others perceive us. We think about the consequences of our actions, including whether or not the sand will be itchy and whether or not we’ll find it in our hair for days afterward.

But, this picture represents one of the many ways that I will remember my girl. I add it to the other memories like charms on a bracelet: the infant sleeping on her father’s chest, the toddler blowing out birthday candles, the kid going off to school for the first time, meeting her baby brother, drawing in her sketchbook, making friends. And beach Kung Fu.

Beach Kung Fu

Book Notes: Animal Family

Books call us. They find their ways into our lives when we need them, like children or friends, though we might not realize until later exactly why.

Several months ago, my sister the wondrous children’s librarian gave my family The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. I love her, love her taste in books, and loved the sweet small book. For some reason, though, I put the book on the shelf and left it there.

Then, on my way to bed a few nights ago, my eyes already at half mast, I reached for a book of poetry from the shelf. My hand veered of its own accord, traveled down a few spines, and came away with this instead.

I read it to myself over the next day, savoring the strange story of a lonely hunter who meets a mermaid. Jarrell does not writes of anything as typical as love or passion. Their mutual fascination comes through in the way that they learn bits of each other’s languages and histories, trying to understand the perceived oddities but, eventually, simply accepting them. “The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.”

The hunter begins to long for a larger family. He brings home first a baby bear, then a baby lynx. Later, the lynx and the bear find a baby human. There is little sense of a typical family hierarchy; the bear, lynx, and boy don’t belong to the hunter and mermaid, even though the hunter and mermaid do typically parental things like make sure the young animals stay safe and fed. Jarrell only uses the word “father” once, on the second to last page of the book. Rather, all the characters belong to each other, and to the family. Somehow the family achieves a sense of absolute belonging and intimacy while still allowing all the members to lead their own lives and follow their own dreams. A bear needs a very different life than a mermaid. Yet, in this family, neither gives up what is important. The bear hibernates, the mermaid goes for visits to the sea. Being loved has nothing to do with being controlled in this family, which is an idea that is both strange and fascinating to me. I’m still mulling it over.

On the same day that I read this story, Maurice Sendak, who illustrated this text, passed away. His black-and-white drawings are spare and evocative, the perfect companion to Jarrell’s simple prose. Of course that is nothing more than coincidence, but Sendak’s death at that time contributed to the feeling that the book came to me via serendipity. As I said before, books often do feel this way to me. Or, at least, the best books do, because the writer manages to both tell a wonderful story and tell a truth that the reader recognizes and relates to. Jarrell’s homage to familial love is such a gift.

I noticed later that my sentiment was echoed in the quote on the back cover: “I had not known that I was waiting for The Animal Family, but when it came it was a though I had long been expecting it.” P.L Travers, The New York Times Book Review

Thank you, universe or book gods or fate or serendipity. Thank you, sister.

Making Do

I take pride in making do. As if it is a testament to my inner iron, or to my frontierswoman spirit, I proudly go without. Who needs a dishwasher? I’ve got hands, haven’t I? A car? An elevator? See, I’m just fine without all that stuff that other people think they need.

Ah, but I’m not bragging. There’s danger in all that pride I take in my own (perceived) virtue. See, sometimes I go without things like sleep. Or time to myself. Or the help that I can’t bring myself to request. And who does that serve? No one. Sometimes I’m so busy being fine that I forget that being fine is not the point. The point is to flourish.

And, in order to flourish, I need to give myself permission to want and need and dream and demand. To be the happy and creative and balanced person that I am at my best, making do won’t do at all. The list of things that I need is not long, but it’s also not negotiable: Time. Space. Sun. Rest. People (the right ones, of course).

Starting this month, I have been attempting the radical. Instead of being so busy and put-upon that I can’t engage in anything exceptional or creative, I’m going to prioritize my creativity and let the rest slide.  I’m making fast, simple food. I’m dropping off the laundry. I’m turning off my internet connection more often. Rather than making do, I’m making myself do.

The other day, I walked in the park and couldn’t stop noticing the trees. They are a gorgeous sight this time of year, with bright green leaves unfurling and buds of every hue opening like eyes waking to the new morning. The branches reminded me of a particular hand position that a yoga teacher taught me a long while ago. The palms face up and fingers extend, signaling openness and readiness for giving and receiving. As I walked I felt my fingers mimicking the trees’ gestures, turning toward the sky, opening to possibility.

So far, I’ve been surprised how even the slightest shift in attention and effort reaps rewards. I’ve arranged for some additional child-free hours, which frees my schedule to focus on my creative projects. I’ve joined with an excellent writer and awesome person in a writing critique partnership, which gives me the motivation to work on my book every day. Time, space, sun, rest, and people. Opportunities abound, and my palms face the sky.