Archive for September, 2012

Seed Season

September 24, 2012

Seeds are usually associated with spring, and fall with fruit. But autumn is seed season, too.

Yesterday I snipped the spent flowers from the tithonia, aka Mexican Sunflower, the brilliant orange annual we grow beside the garage. It grows to nearly six feet, and is apparently indestructible. Last year, when Hurricane Irene snapped its stems almost in two, our tithonia kept on stubbornly producing its fiery flower heads. We’ve been starting it from plants we buy at our local land trust’s yearly plant sale. But my mother-in-law wants to try it at her home in Colorado, and asked for some seeds.

Maybe I’ll keep some more myself and try it from scratch next year. We’ll see. The point is, I’m thinking about seeds.

Take my new novel, for example. The seed of the idea is still compelling, but the story refuses to grow. I have been vacillating between two desires: to submerge myself in a whole, long book, and to write a series of connected short stories, which would be easier to commit to than another big book.

When I admitted to my agent the other day that the big book wasn’t going, she gently suggested I might want try the short stories, instead. So yesterday, after collecting those tithonia flower heads, I started writing a new short story, taking the seed of my novel idea and trying it out in compressed form. We’ll see.

And then there’s that old picture book idea of mine. The one I’d set aside years ago, and recently retrieved and revised. My agent is now sending it out. And although it hasn’t found a home yet, one of the editors who read it liked my writing enough to invite me to try my hand at a picture book idea she has had in mind for a while.

I started working on it last week, and completed what I would call a serviceable first draft. I went to bed last night thinking I needed a stronger “hook,” an approach to the idea that would be fresh and compelling, something that would deepen the story, make it be about more than just itself. This morning I woke up with four ideas of how to do that. I’m hopeful and excited. But we’ll have to see how it goes.

You never know what’s going to work. At least, I don’t. At the risk of belaboring the metaphor I started with, some seeds never germinate, either because they land in the wrong soil, or they don’t get enough water, or they weren’t any good in the first place. And even when they do grow, you don’t know how they’ll end up. Some flowers are cut at their prime and brought inside to be admired, and some get left to mature and create the seeds of next year’s plants.

While I was outside collecting those tithonia seeds, I spent a while with our tomato plants. I harvested ripe fruit, removed withered leaves, propped up sagging stems, and took stock of what was left of the season. Dozens of tomatoes were still green or just beginning to redden, and a few cherry tomato branches had new flowers.

And then I noticed a fruit I had forgotten all about. It was one of our first black krims. I had waited too long to harvest it, and it had split and rotted on the vine. I had considered removing it, but it was too slimy to touch. So I left it where it was, and before long the growing vines and leaves and other tomatoes had obscured it. But now that the plant had died back, it revealed itself once again.

It was paper white, pleated and creased like crinoline, as wrinkled and puckered as a scrotum. Beautiful in a way I had never imagined a tomato could be.

Here’s to autumn, the season of new beginnings.

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Baby Lust

September 18, 2012

I read from the Prophets at Rosh Hashanah services this week. I had been practicing the portion for more than a month, learning to pronounce the Hebrew fluidly, and to chant the tropes melodically. I read the English translation and studied the Hebrew enough to know what I was saying, so I could sing with some expression, distinguishing the barren woman’s weeping from the joyous birth announcement. I wanted to give the congregation the sense of hearing a story, even if a good many of them wouldn’t be able to follow the exact words.

Some portions from the Prophets are poetry, and some are prose. The one we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is definitely prose, as classic an example of storytelling as anything in the Bible.

Once upon a time, there was a man called Elkanah, who had two wives, Peninah and Hannah. Peninah had children, but Hannah did not. Every year, Elkanah took his family to Shiloh, where he offered a sacrifice to the Lord. Afterwards, when he shared the left-over bar-b-q with his family, he would give a single portion of it to Peninah and each of her children. But he would give Hannah a double portion, because he loved her, and he felt bad that God had closed her womb. When Peninah saw what was happening, she would ridicule and taunt Hannah for being infertile, and Hannah would weep and be unable to eat.

And so it went, year after year, until Hannah finally couldn’t take it anymore. She left the family picnic and went to the temple, where she wept and prayed, vowing that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate the child to God for his entire life. Long story short, Hannah finally conceived, and bore a son (it’s always a son in these stories; I would love to read the story of the long longed-for daughter). Anyway, Hannah named the child Samuel, and as soon as he was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh and presented him to the priest there, saying, “So long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”

When I’m preparing a portion, I practice once a day, usually first thing. I find the ritual soothing. I like being able to learn without having to make any decisions. I like watching my progress, hearing the melody and the words flow more and more smoothly, and seeing the meaning of the Hebrew gradually emerge. I like having an assignment – a very specific, short-term goal I know I can reach. And although I don’t make a conscious effort to engage with the text, I like considering the questions that naturally arise.

Here’s one. How does Samuel feel about all this? Is it okay for a woman to determine her future, hypothetical child’s career based on her own frustration? Heard through the filter of today’s attitudes, with our stress on individual fulfillment and self-determination, that approach to parenting seems awfully proscriptive and restrictive.

When I mentioned this to a rabbi friend, he reminded me that Samuel went on to become a prophet of Israel, advisor to two kings. “Not too shabby,” he said. Granted. But does the fact that Hannah’s action had a good result mean it was a good thing for her to do? What if Samuel had ended up abusing his position at the temple? Would that have made the exact same action not okay?

Another question. If Hannah was so desperate for a child, why was she so willing to give him away? Introducing the portion in shul, the rabbi described Hannah’s rival Peninah as a bully. Maybe Hannah didn’t want to have a child so badly because she wanted to have a child, but because she wanted Peninah to shut up. The text doesn’t say anything about Hannah actually longing for motherhood, unless one assumes that all childless women wish they were not.

Or maybe, in the world of the Bible, the point of bearing children isn’t to create a family, but to leave a legacy.

Or maybe I’m reading this whole story too literally. Maybe, even though the portion reads like prose, it really is poetry, after all.

This portion is read on Rosh Hashanah. New Year’s Day. The Birthday of the World. Seen in this context, maybe Hannah’s longed-for baby is the same dimpled, diapered, cartoon infant we use to personify the secular New Year.

Maybe we shouldn’t think of Hannah as yearning to give birth to an actual child, necessarily, but simply as yearning to give birth. To be creative / productive / leave a mark on the world. And maybe we shouldn’t think of her as turning an actual child into an actual priest or whatever, but as dedicating her efforts to a good that’s greater than herself.

Maybe Hannah is making the same sort of New Year’s resolution lots of us make, promising, if I can accomplish this goal / complete this work / master this skill / meet this challenge / survive this ordeal, I will use my success to make the world a better place.

It’s really just a question of translation.

What I Meant To Tell You

September 12, 2012

Dear Josh,

Thank you.

I’m better at writing than at speaking, and better at showing what I mean by my actions than by saying aloud what I mean. You were an excellent reader – not just of texts, but also of people. So I’m pretty sure you got the message. But I’ll try to spell it out for you, just in case.

Thank you for being such an excellent friend, and for inspiring us to be the best friends to you that we could be.

Thank you for your stories, the stories that were true, and the stories that were truly stories.

Thank you for your extraordinary knowledge and your outrageous imagination, for you serious outlook and your superb sense of humor.

Thank you for your curiosity, and your eagerness to spark and satisfy ours.

Thank you for loving life so much, and so well. Whenever I drink Sancerre, see a play at the Gamm, jump the waves in Narragansett, listen to the Bach cello suites, or hear anyone mention the unexpectedness of the Spanish Inquisition, I’ll think of you.

Thank you for your staunch skepticism, and for your staunch loyalty to community and tradition.

Thank you for being so open, honest and articulate about the sorts of things the rest of us are too shy to be open, honest and articulate about.

Thank you for your politics.

Thank you for being such a sweetly and unabashedly devoted husband, and such a proud father and father-in-law.

Thank you for sharing our pride in our children, even when you had never met them.

Thank you for turning so many of our visits, this difficult last year, into small celebrations. By squeezing so much life and love out of these last months, you forced us to do the same. For as long as you were able, you made us leave your side feeling better than when we’d arrived. During lots of those visits, I laughed as long and as hard and as satisfyingly as I can ever remember laughing with anyone.

Thank you for weaving such a wide and strong network of friends, which connected lots of us to people we wouldn’t have met without you.

Thank you for enduring what you did for as long as you did, so you could stay with us for as long as you could, and for saying goodbye with such grace.

Thank you for bringing and keeping us close.

Construction

September 7, 2012

All we thought we were doing was making the approach to our home safer and more welcoming for visitors.

The three concrete steps between the street and our front yard were already starting to crumble when we moved in, five years ago. At the top of the short flight, a concrete path curved right, towards the wooden stairs to the porch, and left, to the side of the house, the service entry into the basement and the gate to the backyard. That path was pitted and decayed, half-covered with grass and weeds, precarious to navigate and difficult to shovel.

Weeds grew in the steps’ crevices and cracks, and over the sides, where our lawnmower wouldn’t reach and we were too lazy to cut by hand. Every spring, when the snow melted, another chunk of steps was gone.

When visitors went home at night, we would watch anxiously until they were safely out in the street. Friends who were particularly unsteady on their feet we would direct away from the stairs, down the grassy slope.

Only one person seemed to like those crumbly concrete stairs.

The kid who lives across the street from us – the only child on our short block – is a genius at entertaining himself. He can spend hours pedaling one of his many vehicles up and down the dead end, his eyes focused on some imagined vision, his lips silently narrating some.. whatever. Add puddles to the pavement or introduce a new bump, and he’ll explore and redefine the altered landscape all afternoon. When he’s not pedaling back and forth, our neighbor will sometimes sit on our steps with his buddy, their heads bent towards each other, quietly discussing…something.

At least, he used to do that.

When the contractors arrived with their jackhammer and their sledge hammer, and started breaking the old steps apart and tossing the pieces into the back of their truck, our young neighbor watched quietly. I thought he was just fascinated by the process, as kids will be. And as I was. I thought he was simply impressed, as I was, that something as seemingly solid as concrete could be so easily reduced to rubble.

The old steps disappeared into the back of the truck, along with the hammered-apart pieces of the old path. Out of the back of another truck came the three granite slabs and the pile of bricks that would become our new steps and smooth path.

I’m starting to think about what to plant at the sides of the granite steps and on the border of the brick path. I’m looking forward to easier shoveling this winter, and less worrisome farewells the next time friends come over.

Our next-door neighbors have told us they like it, and so have the couple across the street. I haven’t seen or heard from their son. But today, his mom, after saying the steps look good, told me he was disappointed.

“But what about our game?” he’d asked her.

“You can still play on the new steps,” she told him.

“But the old steps had certain … cracks,” he said.

His mom laughed as she told the story, but I felt a little bad. And now I can’t help but wonder about the invisible world I destroyed.

 Where the Sidewalk Ends

by Shel Silverstein

 

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Picture (Book) Perfect?

September 2, 2012

So I’m sitting in shul yesterday, listening to the prayers and the chanting of the Torah and so on, and I’m thinking, “What’s a verb that either alliterates or rhymes with pancake flipper?” And I’m also thinking, “If I have to be distracted, how great is it that this is the most pressing question on my mind?”

Once upon a time, I was a writer of books for children. I wrote picture books for children who were too young to read (and the people who read to tem), and easy readers for children who were just learning to translate abstract squiggles into stories (and the people who helped them become literate).

Writing for children wasn’t a conscious decision. It came to me naturally, because my own children were little, and I was reading to them constantly. The cadences of books like Blueberries for Sal and Owl Moon and The Stinky Cheese Man got stuck in my head. And when I imagined an audience, the kids who regularly snuggled in my lap to listen automatically came to mind.

Once I started doing it, I fell in love. I loved that I could read the whole story through at once, hold the whole thing in my head, grasp the rhythm and arc. I find my way into a story primary by sound, so being able to hear the whole story at once, like a song, worked well for me.

Writing well in any format means not wasting words, but this is especially true for picture books. For me, this means millions of revisions. Since I love manipulating minutiae, and generally view writing as creating the opportunity to rewrite, picture books’ stingy word-allotment suited my temperament perfectly.

Plus, it was working. Once I’d sold my first picture book, writing and selling more was easier. Or not. In fact, for every story I started, I abandoned a dozen. And for every five I finished and submitted to publishers, I sold one.

Why? Some of my ideas just weren’t developed, and others just weren’t that good. Also, my writing was getting more and more “quiet” as industry tastes moved the other way. Editors became more cautious. Publishers merged or got swallowed up. The imprints that published my first two books disappeared. And I had no one to tell me what to do.

I had had an agent, briefly. I’d sold one of my books through her, and then decided I didn’t need an agent, because I had so many contacts in children’s publishing. Then most of those contacts either left or lost their jobs. And now that my own kids were nearly grown, I was no longer reading children’s books the way I had been.

I was doing other things, like writing newspaper stories, and then editing other people’s newspaper stories. And I started writing a novel. A big one, for grown-ups. After a while, the big novel consumed all my writing energy. When it was finished, all I could think of doing was starting another one. Children’s books were something I remembered fondly, from a former life.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was chatting with my agent, the one whom I signed with to help me sell my big novel for grown-ups. She doesn’t handle picture books. But I didn’t care, because she loves my big novel for grown-ups, and she believes in it, probably even more than I do. She also understands me. When we talk, it’s like we’re old friends who lost touch for a while, and are rediscovering all the things we have in common.

So one day my agent I are chatting, and I happen to mention one of my kids’ books. And she asks, “Why aren’t you writing kids’ books anymore?”

“I have drawers full of kids’ book manuscripts,” I tell her.

And she says something like, “Why don’t you show them to me?”

So I go through all my unpublished children’s books, and I send her the four I consider my best. She hates one of them. Another she’s not sure about. She loves another, but thinks it needs work. But one – my favorite, the one about bees — she thinks just needs a few tweaks, and then should go out on submission to publishers. She reminds me that picture books are not her area of expertise, but says a colleague at her agency who knows all about them is willing to help.

The colleague agrees with my agent’s assessment. He also says that I need to cut 200 words from the bee book.

First I balk, and then I rally. I let the information simmer overnight, and in the morning I get to work. For the next day or two, I cut back and rebuild the text. I shave unneeded helping verbs and prepositions. I delete adverbs and replace them with more descriptive verbs. I eliminate extraneous details and compress scenes to their essence. When I realize that I’ve lost some crucial phrases, I put them back, and remove others that matter less.

In a picture book, the illustrations tell at least as much of the story as the words do. After an artist comes on board (God willing), more of my words will be expendable. But for now, I need to leave in enough so an editor will envision pictures like the ones in my mind.

I keep clicking “recount,” watching my progress, and I keep printing the story out and reading it aloud to myself, pacing from one end of my office to other. When I can’t find anything else to fix, I send it back to my agent. The next day, sitting in shul, I realize I need to make one more change.

“That must be awfully humbling,” a friend commiserates.

Actually not, I tell her. Mostly, what I feel is grateful. The revised, shorter text is much stronger than the original, but I couldn’t see that for myself. I am thrilled to be working with such a supportive agent, and grateful that she has colleagues she can call on for help – and that she recognizes when she needs it. And I’m gratified beyond words to have my old love for children’s books rekindled.

As for the pancake flipper, I ended up rewriting the whole sentence to say slipper fuzz, instead. When I read the new phrasing to my husband, he came up with exactly the right verb. I’m grateful for that, too.