Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

The Quiet Books

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithHow delicious it can be to pick up a book without any expectations. No rave reviews or weeks on the bestseller list setting up high expectations. No preview for the upcoming movie playing in my head.

I knew nothing about I Capture the Castle before I read it. I don’t even know why I bought it, except that I liked the title (I’m a sucker for titles). The cover art on my edition of the book, unlike the romantic scene on this book, wasn’t the slightest bit appealing, nor did it reveal anything about the story. But I did pick it up, and within the first pages I was lost in the beautiful ruins of an old English castle with the most wonderful narrator, teenaged optimist Cassandra Mortmain.

Cassandra lives with her family in dire poverty, in the crumbling, cold remains of a castle. Yet Cassandra is far from depressed. Her romantic and rosy view on life stems from her love of her family, her love of the castle, her love of words, and her bright intellect. The book is her journal, which she keeps so that she can improve her writing, and in which she is constantly seeking to capture these fleeting moments of her life, and to set down on the page the exact ways in which they happened. She also sets down her own responses to life, which are sometimes funny or touching, and always interesting.

Cassandra’s older sister Rose does not accept their poverty so lightly and, when two wealthy American brothers move into their town, Rose is determined to marry one of them.  While Cassandra can’t stand the girls who are always talking about finding a man to marry (she mentions her annoyance with the fictional Bennett sisters, which is humorous because she and Rose remind me of Eliza and Jane Bennett), she understands that such a marriage could make her sister happy – and that it could, even, improve the situation for them all – and so she decides to help. As she is pulled deeper into her sister’s plans, Cassandra’s own feelings develop with a power and intensity that surprises even her. She tastes for the first time the sweetness of love, the bitterness of disappointment and heartache. All the while, her voice rings with honesty, and Cassandra continues to take great pleasure in the world around her, particularly in those simple childhood pleasures that are already colored by the knowledge that they are almost at an end for her. This is the start of growing up.

I loved this book, and felt drawn to pick it up anytime I didn’t have it in hand. Granted, there were no scenes of high action. There were only two kisses described throughout, and these very chaste. It was set in a quiet place, narrated by a quiet girl who mostly did quiet things. This was a quiet book, and it made a huge impression on me nonetheless.

A friend of mine wrote a manuscript that we workshopped in our critique group. It was a lovely book about a young girl whose family is broken, a girl who has very few people on whom she can rely. Yet the story is full of light and hopefulness. The main character, through her generosity, her loving acts, and her humor, pulls a makeshift family around her. Even though my friend already had one novel published, her agent wouldn’t send this book around, saying the story was “too quiet.”

We don’t live in a time of quiet books. Many of the most popular YA books take place in a time of post-apocalyptic intensity, feature superhuman heroes, and deal with questions of life and death. And I like those books. But, I also like the quiet ones. As a child, I adored Anne of Green Gables (and all the other books by L. M. Montgomery). I sobbed over Where the Red Fern Grows. I read the Little House books, the Boxcar Children books. Without these books, the landscape of my reading life would have been barren. It makes me sad to think that today’s children might be missing out on some of these quieter stories.

Quiet books whisper in our ears, touching our hearts, suggesting new ways of looking at our own very plain and quiet worlds. Let’s make room for the quiet books on our shelves, and listen closely to what they have to say.

 

Me, Refocusing

When the writing is hard, and nothing is flowing, and I’m tired down to my fingernails, so tired that I can barely make a sensible thought much less translate a thought into a beautiful sentence, it seems so much easier and much more fun to check and see what kind of pictures my friends have posted of their vacations and their babies. Maybe I’ll see if my favorite store is having a sale. Then I will check a few other stores just for good measure. These are also the times that I wonder what that actress from that one show has been in before, or it might drift across my mind that I always meant to buy that album by that band that was hip back when I was pregnant.

It seems kind to give myself those distractions. I encourage myself – “You’ve worked hard, you’re tired,” I say – and forgive any guilt as I turn off my mind and indulge in mindless browsing of materials and information.

But it’s not kind. There are so many challenges to my writing, so many obligations and projects vying for the moments of my day. What business do I have squandering the precious few moments that I have set aside for my work?

I recently heard an interview with Walter Dean Myers, replayed this summer in commemoration of his life, and every syllable he spoke in his rich, deep voice was full of love for his work. Hearing him speak was inspiring, and reminded me of why I want to write.

Laurie Halse Anderson writes on her blog, “If you don’t write, you will one day die. If you write, you’re still going to die, but you will have disturbed the universe in the best possible way. You will have explored your heart more fully. You will leave behind your stories. The ripples of your creativity will touch countless lives and butterflies will sing your praises.” I’ve had that quote on my desktop for a long, long time.

I say it to myself something like this: Do you want them to say of you that you could find a really great bargain? Do you want your legacy to be that you always knew the latest gossip, could recognize celebrities with accuracy?

Because, I continue, I think you want it to be about the work. I think you want it to be about the words on the page and the magic of making the fiction so true that it becomes real. And, if you want that, which I think you do, there is only one answer when the work is hard, and turning away would be the easier option. You must breathe and go on.

I mean, duh.

Also, anyone seeking inspiration for a creative life, have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about creativity? Watch. Be inspired.

Book Notes: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell“If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.” Eleanor, from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

If Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s joke about the fickle nature of love, Eleanor and Park is Rainbow Rowell’s testament to its power. From start to finish, the book is a heartbreaking, passionate song about and for love.

Eleanor and Park is an unabashed romance, and falling in love is the central plot. Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus, though they, unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, do not fall in love at first sight. Park thinks Eleanor is weird, chubby, and pathetic, and knows with certainty that associating with her would crush his carefully constructed, under-the-radar existence. Eleanor lumps Park in with the other mean kids on the bus, though she has bigger problems to deal with in her troubled family life. These two fall in love the way real teenagers often do – bit by bit, then all in a rush. They also talk and act the way real teenagers do. They tease each other, piss each other off, get jealous, and feel insecure. In the safety of their love, they explore this unfamiliar emotional territory, and, as they do, they grow into their real selves. They become stronger where they were weak, and vulnerable where they were closed off.

This novel is a great read for teens because it respects and celebrates authentic experiences and voices, not characters with airbrushed personalities. In Rowell’s book, even the minor characters are dealt with honestly. The parents, teachers, and fellow students live on these pages in all their imperfect humanity, sometimes acting so horribly that I cringed, and other times showing compassion and understanding. The story is entertaining and funny in moments, deeply romantic in moments, and also deals with real hardships. Many adult readers will also enjoy Eleanor and Park, especially since this story is set in the 1980s (though not aggressively so). Any readers for whom cellophane-wrapped Maxwell tapes, bangs arranged in high fans, or Walkmans prompt a sense of nostalgia will likely recognize some aspect of their high school experience in Rowell’s descriptions.

Rainbow Rowell writes about falling in love from deep inside our brains and bodies. The natural, flowing cadence of her descriptions and dialogue ring with the truth of the way first love awakens and changes us, right down to our nerve endings. At one point in the book, Park looks at Eleanor and tries to remember how he felt about her at first. It seems impossible to him that there was ever a time she was a stranger to him, and that he didn’t love her. What a simple statement, and so very true. It’s one of the miracles of being alive, that someone we once didn’t even know becomes the person at the very center of our universe, at the heart of our heart.

Once there was a day when I hadn’t read this book. In the span of a day, the story and its characters went from being strangers to me to being in my heart, nestled deep among my very favorite literary loves. Eleanor and Park broke my heart again and again, and I loved every minute of it. A miracle.

Possible Magic

Each project teaches me something.

When I wrote Weaving the Sea, I learned to go to my writing every day. That one lesson took me a long time to learn. About four years. Over the course of that time, I lost momentum, I lost my bearings, I lost hope that I would ever finish the story. But, then I found myself a writing group, and they inspired me to pick up the thread. I re-read what I’d written, I got myself excited again. And I began to write. I pushed myself to write every day, even for a little while. After some time, I didn’t need as much pushing. It was just habit, and the practice of daily writing kept me profoundly connected to the world of the story in ways that paid off in the quality of my writing.

Now, I’ve just finished Nana’s Bikini. It’s a draft, and to call it rough would be like calling a roller coaster curvy.  It’s ROUGH. Flimsy and thin, too, in parts. But that doesn’t bother me, because the story is out of my head and onto the page. A story in my head, that’s hypothetical, that’s what-ifs and half-remembered dreams. But a story on the page is something I can work with.

I finished the draft of Nana’s Bikini in nine weeks, over the course of a writing workshop at Literary Arts, taught by Emily Chenoweth. The workshop was key. Knowing I had to share work with a bunch of writers kept me accountable. I divided my story outline by the number of weeks in the workshop, and came up with my weekly goals. Before the workshop, that would have sounded like an overly analytical approach. Shouldn’t I write because I’m inspired? Yes, and no. I am inspired, but writing is hard. So I decided that I would write like it was my job. It worked for me. I kept going back to the story, kept plugging away. Enough of that, and eventually there are thousands of words in a document. About 50,000.

I’m exhilarated and proud. And, I’m eager to begin on the work at hand. Because now I know that I can do this one kind of magic, I can create a story where there was none before,  and I have to learn the next spells. I have to take these rough, flimsy words, and tease and polish them into a story that matters, that has the power to move my readers. It sounds like magic, but I know now that it’s a possible kind of magic. Here goes.

 

Acceptable Forms of Cheating

A novel is a big project, is what I’m learning. Overwhelming. Unwieldy. And, sometimes, wickedly elusive.

I suppose this is why, until I finished the draft of my first YA book, my notebooks and hard drives were a graveyard of half-baked ideas, fragments of scenes, and chapters that never saw the light. I didn’t have the stamina to see a novel through to the end.

In finishing the draft of Weaving the Sea, I learned a couple of things. First, I learned to write, even when I didn’t feel like it. Even when I was 100% certain that everything coming out of my pen or keyboard was pure, unusable garbage. This was harder than I thought it would be, but my critique partners helped. They were my cheerleaders, and believed in my project even when I did not.

Another thing I learned is that sometimes, when my novel gets particularly cantankerous, I have to put it away and do something else. I admit it: I cheat on my novel.

There are unacceptable forms of cheating, distractions that become almost irresistible when my mind is grappling with a story problem. The Internet calls – loudly – to me in those moments, and that is a dark form of cheating that takes all the wind from my writing sails, and robs me of precious work hours.

Other forms of cheating do the opposite. Doodling, painting figures, writing a short story, writing a poem, writing a blog post, and playing with an idea for another project all give me new energy, new oxygen so that I may submerge myself back in the world of my novel.

I cheat with a deadline. After a few juicy hours (or days) of cheating, I feel warm and fuzzy toward my novel. I can be kind toward it (and myself) again.

Six Words Stories

The other day, I came across a collection of short stories written by Sherman Alexie. Really short. Each one was only six words long. Here’s one example from the collection, called “The Human Comedy”:

Me ex-wife. My brother. They eloped.

I thought Alexie had made up this brilliant form, but, with a little digging, I found that there are whole websites and books devoted to the six-word story. There is even a legend, largely discredited, that Ernest Hemingway wrote the first six-word story: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Whether or not Hemingway wrote the above story, it’s worth studying merely for the fact that it shows the wonderful power of the written word to evoke an emotional response. The pair of shoes in the story could be unworn for any number of reasons, yet the author suggests – with the choice of shoes as imagery, the use of punctuation, and the choice to place “Never worn” at the end of the story – a much more dramatic narrative.

Ever since I heard of the six-word story, I’ve been obsessed. Here are a few that I’ve written myself.

Husband snored. He’s dead. Jail quieter.

Wait for me. Just a year.

 I should have believed you, then.

Bed too full of empty space.

Giants extinct. Killed by common cold.

Tangled in sheets, I find socks.

 Try it, it’s not as easy as you might think! Some six-word “stories” posted on the websites are actually just pithy phrases or sayings. Even if they are lovely writing, they are not stories. The challenge is to try to hold a sense of a dramatic story arc within those six tiny words.

This could be a very fun and useful exercise of a writer’s group. Everyone gets 15 minutes to write one or two, and then shares his or her best story. The group examines what works and what doesn’t.

Call me crazy, but I’d also love to have a six-word story reading club. At least no one would have to be embarrassed that they didn’t read the whole thing before the meeting.

Book Notes: Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

When we meet thirteen-year-old Theo – Theodora Tenpenny – she is grieving for the loss of her grandfather, and puzzling over his cryptic last words. “Look under the egg… There’s… a letter. And a treasure.” A treasure is exactly what Theo needs to support herself and her eccentric mother, since their last few dollars are quickly dwindling. When she finds a hidden painting in her grandfather Jack’s studio, she begins an investigation that leads her on an art history adventure through Manhattan’s museums, libraries, auction houses, churches, and even hospitals. This adventure is the main plot of a wonderful debut book by Laura Marx Fitzgerald called Under the Egg.

This is one of those rare books in which the reader doesn’t have to choose between plot, character, and heart; it has it all. Theo and her new friend Bodhi are smart and resourceful. They captured my curiosity and imagination as they followed lead after lead around the city, the mysterious painting bumping along behind them in a rolling suitcase. In Theo’s story, paintings are not simply oil and canvas, precious and untouchable. They are artifacts of an artist’s life, and they can have a life – and journey – all their own.

Theo’s character is lovingly written and realistically complex. There is much about her that is old-fashioned: her handmade clothes, her discomfort with technology, her cans of preserved food, her handiness with tools. Yet these are the product of her self-reliance, not nostalgia for another time. Because, Theo is also thoroughly at home in modern Manhattan. The twists and turns of this mystery would not be possible without the serendipity and the chance encounters that happen so frequently there.

When Theo sets out to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s painting, she sees an opportunity to support herself and her mother, to keep their life going. Solving the mystery also gives her a way of keeping her grandfather with her just a little longer. And this is the gift that the mystery brings to her. It gives Theo her grandfather back for a while, and lets her know him in a more real way than she did, even in life. Solving the mystery also shows Theo that, though she thought had next to nothing, she actually has everything that she needs. She will be okay.

Under the Egg isn’t just a story about a girl who solves an art mystery. The love between Theo and her grandfather is at the very core of this book. These two characters understand each other, the way soul mates do. And, in solving her grandfather’s mystery, Theo finds that her world has grown, magically and without her realizing it, into something that she can hardly recognize, a world that is full of possibility.

What a pleasure to read a beautiful book. Even greater pleasure to read a beautiful book by a friend! Congratulations to Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Back when our kids were in music class together, I didn’t know you had Theo in your brain!

Readers, this book reminds me of another favorite middle-grade book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, which also features a grandfather-granddaughter relationship.

Writing Critique: The Good Questions

Responding to writing is something I know a thing or two about. During my years as a teacher, I conferred thousands of times with young writers about their work. I taught workshops for teachers about how to teach young writers, and I contributed to books about running Writing Workshops in elementary school classrooms. Plus, I have my own experience as a writer of stories for children, giving and receiving feedback in critique groups. With all of this in mind, I’ve started a list of some of the most helpful questions (and comments) a writing partner can contribute. These are the questions that can crack open a story and give it room to grow.

  • “I’m not clear what’s happening in this part.” Almost always, when someone says this to me in a critique, it’s about a part of my story in which even I am not clear about what’s happening. One of the most helpful things a critique partner can do is shine a light on a part that the writer wishes could be left alone, in the dark (because it’s so much easier that way!). These are the parts that the writer doesn’t know what to do with, and that’s why the light is so important.
  • “What does the character want?” All the beautiful prose in the world will not save your story if the character is not searching for something, whether it’s the answer to a mystery, a priceless work of art, comfort, or all of the above. The character has to want something.
  • Note whether there is balance between the action, the backstory, the dialogue, the inner dialogue, the setting. Often writers are really good at some of these things, but completely forget about the others. For example, I tend to write stories that start off with some action and lots and lots of dialogue. I need a critique partner to remind me to locate the characters in a specific place, and to give a little backstory.
  • “The character(s) isn’t consistent across the story.” If the character is super shy for the first half of the story, and then suddenly turns into a social butterfly, it won’t sit well with the reader unless there is a good reason for the change. The story I’m working on now has a character who flies into a rage quite frequently during the first chapter. Then, in the second and third chapter, she becomes very easily placated. Since I’m still at the beginning of my writing process, I’m still casting around for the shape of her personality. It was good to hear that feedback during my critique so that I can keep that in mind going forward. By the way, secondary characters should also feel like real people who behave with consistency.
  • “The metaphors aren’t working.” A reader will likely lose interest if your metaphors are forced, or don’t match your story’s tone. The language in general should match the story’s tone and subject. Your language creates atmosphere and setting for the book, and gives the reader countless clues about the book’s meaning.
  • “This scene isn’t carrying its weight.” If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, or contain a significant revelation or reversal, cut it out. Or, if it’s a great scene with a great setting and it’s important for another reason, make it count by adding a transformation or reversal.
  • “What are the subplots (or what are they going to be)?” I’m still mastering the fine art of the subplot. What I do know is that they are the harmony to the main plot’s melody. They are absolutely necessary for your story to be complex enough to hold a reader’s attention. (On the other hand, your critique partner might point out that there are too many subplots, and it’s making your story overly complicated.)
  • “Have you considered reading your dialogue out loud?” In my writing workshop yesterday, one member suggested to another that he read his dialogue out loud, to hear the spoken language. This is something that I’ve heard from several other authors, and that I’ve tried myself. It’s a powerful revision tool, and not just with the dialogue parts.
  • “Do you think you could start the story any later?” The story should start as close to the action (inciting event) as possible, especially for anyone writing a book for children. Too much backstory up front can kill a story’s momentum. One can always weave in backstory later, but, as a rule of thumb, you actually need much less than you think.
  • Turn any of the above critiques around to make a compliment! Writers need praise, and lots of it! Praise – the honest variety, please – encourages us to keep going, and it also shows us what is working. Sometimes this is the best feedback of all. If a writer knows what is working, she can use that awareness to fix up another part that isn’t looking so hot. So, by all means, if the dialogue sounds natural and the metaphors are hauntingly beautiful, and the character is rich and consistent, do not leave that out. It’s almost hard to give too much praise.

Another thing that I often include in critiques (because a critique partner once said this to me, and it was so lovely) is: “Your book reminds me of [title of a wonderful book that is similar in tone or subject to the manuscript at hand].” An unpublished writer is usually hoping to one day be published, and it does feel ever so nice to have one’s work compared to a book that is already out in the world, occupying shelves in books and libraries. It’s a reminder that all books start out as nothing more than a bundle of marked up pages.