The Garden (The Stories) in Winter

I have committed raking. I spent all day Saturday outdoors, rake in gloved hands, collecting the fall leaves and depositing them on the garden beds. I love the meditative quality of raking, and my neighbors love it that I rake at least once a year. On all sides of my house I hear leaf blowers on Saturdays, and lawns have a picture-perfect quality to them. "I'm a yard man!" says my neighbor Pat.

My yard remains coated with leaves until some warm January morning, when I pick up a rake and give myself permission to take all the live-long day to put the front yard to rights. Pat still likes me. What he and Clarissa and Scott and Elizabeth and even toddler Emma, who is quite my gardening friend, don't know yet is that I plan for the entire yard to be a garden one day, with pea gravel pathways winding around the bee balm, the yard art, and the benches.

Until that day, I dream, and January is perfect for dreaming. I'm dreaming about color choices for the house (see my shutters? You can also see how the carport enclosure is coming along), I read cookbooks in bed and dream about recipes I want to make (this is how my Lively-up Yourself Lentil Soup came out -- it was delicious; you can compare my version to Holly Swanson's at 101 Cookbooks)...

...and I dream about the stories I want to write. I moved to this house in Atlanta in June 2004. I came with files, notebooks, and boxes of stories, some of them published books, some of them half-finished orphans, some of them just sketched-out ideas or half-pages of notes. I've added to this stash in the years I've been here. So this week I decided that, in this January dreaming month, I would open my story cupboards and make a list of what I had, so I could get what I still needed as recipe ingredients in order to turn these partial ideas into full fledged stories.

Or not.

I mean... sometimes you find that you no longer want to write about The Incredible Hulk or gumshoes named Mud, don't you? If I was no longer interested in a topic, out it went, like the moldy corner of cheese still in the dairy drawer of the fridge. But if I got a tiny tingle when I read through the pages of research, the failed drafts, the snippets -- and especially, if it made me laugh when I read it -- I rinsed it off at the sink and I kept that story, tidied it up and gave it a folder all its own, labeled and ready for my attention.

I used a sketch book and colored pens to list all the stories. I didn't go in any particular order, just grabbed pile after pile of papers, and I didn't color code anything; when one marker didn't suit me (or when I got interrupted and came back to my chair), I used another. I drew lines and circles and doodles as I made connections. For instance, I've got one snippet that reads, "I have an office. My associate sleeps at my feet. Her snores are a rhythm I depend on." It made me laugh. I've drawn an arrow from that snippet to this one: "People smell. Have you noticed this?" Ha! This dog (whom I've named Buddy, it seems) also says, "I don't understand fried okra." Who knows what this might someday mean, but I remember when I wrote the second snippet. It was during a freewrite, in Vermont, on retreat.

Have you ever pulled all your work together from wherever you've got it stored, and listed all of it in one place, in one notebook? I filled five pages of my (large!) sketchbook with lists of snippets, ideas, drafts, work-in-progress, rejected stories that I still love, and more. Five pages! I look at these five pages and see that I have been much more productive than I have given myself credit for.

How do you track your progress, in writing? In life? What does success mean to you? Not so long ago, success was survival, for me.

To be able to sit here, in a home of my own, and look out the windows onto a world of my own making (see the unraked yard?) seems like success enough. To look at these five pages of story ideas -- all of them with potential, because all of them hold a piece of my heart or they wouldn't be on the list -- I think I am rich! I have just needed to rake them up, these ideas, to put them in one place together, in a sort of garden-in-winter, in order to see how hard I've been working at telling my stories, and how much I have done. These ideas aren't going anywhere; they are waiting for me to return to them, waiting for inspiration, enthusiasm, hard work from me. Waiting for me to stop mixing gardening and cooking metaphors, maybe.

And now what? What do I do with this list? I gave each story a folder. The snippets I put in a folder called "new work." All folders are in one big file drawer now, all together. The research that won't fit into folders is on one shelf, each bit labeled appropriately. That in itself is satisfactory to me. It's satisfactory to create, to organize, to try my best to finish something using all the skills I possess, to revise, to improve, to revise again, to weather rejection to try again, to be finally lucky enough to put a story out into the world, to find readers. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

I did this story gardening work on Monday, January 14, the day of the ALA award announcements. I knew ALL-STARS was not on the list, as I had not been notified, and I stayed away from my computer most of the day and immersed myself in my own stories.

And. you know... part of me had wished, from time to time, for award recognition -- it would be human, of course, and hard not to get swept up in the hoopla for a book that made so much noise in the world and that my publisher (Yay, Sweet Harcourt!) and booksellers, teachers, librarians, readers worked so hard to promote (I guess I did, too!), a book that got such wonderful reviews and such kind attention from readers.

And, if I'm being honest about it, which I'm trying to do, financially it would mean a few years more off the road, too -- a while longer to work at what I love and not take on the proverbial day-job to support the writing (something I've put out there as a goal), and the ability to continue to publish (I have opinions on this, too, but for another time). So, I'll admit that I looked at the possibility, when I looked at it, with more of a practical than emotional eye.

I used to wax romantic about writing and publishing children's books. No longer. This is a business. Years ago, children's publishing occupied a benign corner of the adult publishing realm, where it was patted on the head and not expected to turn a profit. Not so today, of course. The pressure inside publishing houses is intense, and the pressure that writers feel as a result... well, it's a hard business sometimes, and it's best for me to remember that it is a business, and that I am trying my best to make a living and grow a career.

Still, I have steadily learned, in these past few years, to disconnect from the award aspect of publishing and to focus on the page. And I'm healthier for it. I really do know what's important and what feeds me artistically, emotionally, spiritually, even physically... it's time, space, quiet, home, routine, love, family, kinship, peace.

I need these things most of all, in order to create, to be healthy, to live well. So. I wasn't disappointed on Monday: I am making a living in the arts, I am writing well, I am being published, and I have readers, solid reviews, good sales figures!, a great big cheering section, and lots of possibility ahead of me.

What I was on Monday, was curious. Hmmm... and I suppose it's arrogant (I'd prefer to think it's hopeful or naive) to even assume ALL-STARS had a chance for that recognition in the first place. It's all such a puzzle; there are so many good books out there, and I actually have lots of trouble with the whole notion of awards and prizes and bests, being an inclusive sort of gal.

At any rate, I didn't plan (and certainly don't write) for awards. I planned for an introspective, inward-looking, homeward-bound, good-writing year this year (for the first time in seven long years!)... and I will have it. When I came back to my computer at the end of the day, Monday, I found an email about ALL-STARS from an adult reader, an engineer, who I bet has never heard of the the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Printz, and other ALA awards. But he has heard of ALL-STARS:

"I was emotionally connected from beginning to end. True to theme, just about everything in the book resonated with me. Even the Redbug catcher seemed eerily familiar. As a kid I lived and breathed baseball. Played every day until dark; knew all the major leaguers - my favorites being (of course) Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra, and the rest; - had all the baseball cards; knew all the statistics, etc. My brother and I would lie in our bunk beds at night, room all dark, and quiz each other, What was Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average?, How many home runs did Mickey Mantle hit in 1952?, What is Ted Williams' nickname?

"Early in grade school my teacher took us to the school library and told us all to find a book to read. I wasn't interested. Up until then, reading had just been a rote exercise like spelling or adding and subtracting: Look Dick, See Jane, blah, blah, blah. My teacher, Miss Tremarene (who was also my next door neighbor), said, "Read about something that you are interested in." The concept sort of blew my mind. I said, "Can you do that? Can you read about anything you want to?" She said, "Sure." So I said, "I'm interested in baseball." She helped me find a book. The first book I ever read was The Pee Wee Reese Story! Weird, huh? It changed my life. I've read
non-stop ever since."

Just think: a book (and a teacher) that changed someone's life. It could be any book. It could be the book you write. It needs to be the right book for that particular reader. And the right book for one reader is not necessarily the right book for another.

I asked Kate DiCamillo once, if she'd meant it when she said, at the end of her Newbery acceptance speech for DESPEREAUX, "I know I don't deserve it." Absolutely she meant it, she said. And we talked about how you just never know: who's on the committee, what do they love, how do they interpret the criteria, what can they agree on, and more... it's all so arbitrary. And yet it's not, Kate. I think good work rises up, like cream. I have to believe that. And yet, I get it. There are many good books out there. Many good books in this season alone! There are so many stories. It's a wonder and a treat for readers... I'll never get to read them all.

So I look at this year's awards list and I grin. I like it. What I like best about awards is that we get to celebrate our common community, our business of writing and publishing books for young people -- we get to celebrate all our stories.

Then I turn to my notebook listing my five pages of stories, and this time a slow smile spreads across my face. Here are the stories I have control over. Here is my garden. Here are my ingredients. Here is my future, a work in progress.

Time to get to work.