beginning at the beginning

Fall 1995. Frederick Community College, Frederick, Maryland. I sat at the long rectangular table with 12 other students and our teacher, a poet from Washington, D.C. named Nancy Johnson. I had been writing and submitting picture book manuscripts for years, and I had the rejection slips to prove it. This class was full of those wanting to write fiction for adults. I wanted to write for children.
"Story is story," said Nancy Johnson. So I signed up and stayed, and in this class HANG THE MOON was born. It started as an assignment Nancy gave us to list (and you wonder why I love listing so) -- list places we had lived, people we had known in those places, and I don't remember the third thing anymore.

Three columns. Then, circle one thing in each column and write a story that ties them together, a made-up story. As I did my listing, a place called to me -- Mississippi -- and a girl jumped out at me... a woman, actually, who was angry. She had a friend who was a self-proclaimed psychic living in an Airstream trailer by the side of the road. She had a boyfriend who did her wrong. She had recently pulled his sorry butt out of the lake and saved him from drowning. She thinks she may be sorry she did this.

What captivated me about this story was two things. First, its voice -- I had no idea who this young woman was, but she had my full attention. She was amazing! The things that came out of her mouth! She was unlike anyone I'd ever invented -- she had pizazz and life and needs and faults. She pushed. She lied. She took my breath away and I loved her with all my heart.

The second thing I loved was Story. This piece was my first glimpse into writing a real story. I still had no idea, really, about plot. I had setting knocked -- WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS was my go-to book for setting and I had written so many stories (all rejected, although some came close) with that feeling of place. "Quiet books," I learned to call them.

But this! This new exciting thing had the makings of a story, a real story, and I could tell it did. I just had no idea what to do with it next. I had no idea how to frame a story with beginning-middle-end, and what was all that stuff in between supposed to be?

I tucked this little story away -- it was a character sketch, really. But this girl would not shut up. She was insistent. She wanted her story told. I'd wake up thinking about her, I'd fall asleep thinking about her.. and so I got out my notebook and began searching for her.

I wrote page after page of who she might be, all the while working on nice, pretty, slice-of-life stories for children that got rejected and rejected by publishers. Eventually, as I took another class from Nancy (this one a poetry class that birthed what would become LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER), as I read and read children's literature and discovered that my heroine in my Mississippi story would fit right into the world of children's literature if I could only figure out how to help her do it, I began to write her story.

And that's what I'm about to go back to, on October 1. I could write a book on where this story has been and what happened to my feisty heroine. I made her thirteen. I named her Birdie. I gave her a cousin named Margaret. I gave her a mother named Lily Pearl who lives in an Airstream trailer on the side of the road and calls herself Madame Pearls of Wisdom. I gave her an entire family of eccentrics that I also fell in love with. I built a world for Birdie and her thirteen-year-old cousin Margaret to inhabit -- the rich, full, amazing world of 1966 Mississippi.

And then I got stuck. I'm going to detail how I got stuck, unstuck, stuck again, and the convolutions of publishing and bringing this story to life, as I begin again to write for publication what has now become Book Two of the Sixties Trilogy.

My most fervent hope is that I am writer enough to take this story in hand today and tell it. It was larger than my talent -- and my skills -- when I discovered it. Birdie came screaming off the page in 1995, running for me full tilt. She steamrolled right over me. I ran behind her for years and years. Now, in 2009 -- fourteen years later -- maybe I am running right alongside her. I hope so.

So. This morning I made my customary oatmeal -- I haven't eaten breakfast in a long time, and I need to call in all my good living and writing habits. I am doing a read-through of the novel in its various incarnations ("various" is an understatement). I've hauled out the notebooks I've kept over the years that detail this story. I'm going back in time -- my time, and Birdie's.

Years ago, writer friends and I had a running discussion about just whose story this was -- Birdie's or Margaret's. And you know... I don't know. I'll talk about that, too. I'll talk about how the story peters off before it's half through. I'll detail my progress, or lack thereof.

Putting it all here will help me keep going... that's what I hope. And I hope you'll be working on your work-in-progress as well. I hope you'll comment, if you are (or aren't). I'm looking forward to the dialogue about the creative process and just-plain-skill we're hoping to hone as we work forward.

Each book creates its own challenges, its own questions, and its own solutions. Each project demands its own time. I have learned this. I hope, for HANG THE MOON, its time is now.

wheeling out of town

I'm about to get in my snazzy little rental car and drive to Greenville, South Carolina, where I'll be speaking to booksellers at SIBA today at 3pm, about The Aurora County Shoestring Tour. Remember it?

Here are all the posts about the shoestring tour -- it was something I cooked up to do to support my books in this tight economy and see family and friends (many of whom, on this trip, were independent booksellers). I got such great support from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, and the tour was such a success that SIBA -- the southern independent booksellers alliance -- asked me to come talk about how it all came together on the road this past April and May.

So I'm heading to SIBA to see my bookseller friends and some writer friends and some of the end of September. I've stared a lot this month. I've moved slowly. I've read and read -- I've been steeped in sixties research. And I'm ready to write every day in October. (Really? Really.)

Want to write with me? You check in with me, I'll check in with you, and let's see how far we get this coming month. Even if it's fifteen minutes some days, we can do it.

I want to detail how I start a new project, so by the first of October I'll have read all current pages of HANG THE MOON (the working title of the second book in the sixties trilogy, which takes place in 1966). And on October 1, I'll begin writing in earnest.

What writing project do you want to begin in earnest? Now's the time.

butter and eggs

I know it is September because I am reorganizing the kitchen. I am dreaming about egg poachers and pasta machines. I am steaming brown rice and stirring pots of homemade polenta made with the sharpest cheddar I can find. The CSA box is full of squash and eggplant. The rains have come. And I am back to basics. It's butter and eggs time.
I've updated my online calendar. Please take a moment to look at it, if you know I'm coming to your school late this fall or next spring, and make sure I've got dates correct. I think I do, but this time of year, beginning again, it's easy to transpose or mix up. I'll continue to update as dates are confirmed.

I owe bunches of you confirmation letters. They're comin' up. I've rewritten the school visit, conference, and teaching page. Details are more clear (and much more succinct) and the honorarium remains the same.

I don't publish this page on my website, but I do send it to you when you inquire about me visiting. If you want the link to the update, please email me or post in the comments section, and I'll send it to you.

I'm butter-and-egging it in my day-to-day life as well. I'm coming off the whirlwind of the copy edited manuscript, the week at the beach, and the meeting with my editor -- boom-boom-boom!

All good, and all back-to-back, and... well... whew. I napped a lot last week. I'm forever grateful for a job (and a time in my life) that makes naps possible when they are most needed.

Now, full steam ahead. Let me know if you still need school/conference information from me, and let me know if I can answer any questions. Never hesitate to write -- I appreciate hearing from you, even when it takes me a bit to get back to you. Fall and spring are the busiest administrative times and I'm "it" right now, administratively, only one person... a person who is very glad to be partnering with you.

Want an egg sandwich?

staring at september

The day I started school, walking into a kindergarten classroom in Honolulu, Hawaii, lo these many years ago, September became the real start of my year. When I graduated high school in the Philippines, it was only a short time before I started getting children off to school in September. Now, over thirty years has passed and that part of my life is done as well.
But September is not done. Here it comes again, rolling over me with its tinge of fall in the Atlanta air, its sweet sadness as the leaves begin to color and curl on the dogwoods, and its abundance of late-summer crops from my local farmer.

I have more to say about September, but it will wait. Just as September is changing the air and earth, I am changing inside as well. I'm not sure what it's about yet, so I don't want to say too much. I'm requiring a lot of alone time right now, lots of staring time, and very little movement, so I can listen well.
The photos today are of Camp Springs Elementary School in Camp Springs, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., and right next door to Andrews Air Force Base. My dad was stationed at Andrews in the sixties and was chief of safety for the 89th, the squadron that flies the president.

I took these photos a year ago when I went back to Camp Springs to research. Today the school is a senior citizen center. Folks were happy to allow me to roam around, and I was happy to be back. Nothing is the same, of course, but inside my heart, it all came flooding back.

I came from Hawaii to Maryland the summer I finished second grade, and went to Camp Springs for the rest of my elementary school years. It's the setting for Fallout. It's the school Franny goes to. As her class is dismissed for recess -- it is fall 1962 -- Franny writes:

"The darkness of the hallway blinds me -- I am still surprised by the hallways with no windows and the closed-in way people go to school in Maryland. At Pearl Harbor Elementary School, the hallways had no walls. The classrooms had windows on both sides. Sunshine drenched everything. Camp Springs Elementary School feels like a cave."I remember that feeling in September 1962, walking through the front doors of Camp Springs Elementary School. I remember the gleaming floors and the way we had to walk on the right, single file, and the wall where we played a version of four-square at recess and the sidewalks with that tough, sticky grass, the flagpole, the grates we hovered over in winter to keep warm during outdoor recess, the Glee Club, safety patrols, art, music, French! and more.

Perhaps because I lived there so long -- seven years is a long time for an air force kid to live in one place -- or perhaps because I was ages 8 through 15... at any rate, these memories of place are so strong -- what it looked like, smelled like, felt like, sounded like, tasted like -- I remember it as if it were yesterday.
So... I wrote about that. All my books are in some way autobiographical, but this one is the most so. I held back nothing. I poured my ten-year-old self into this book -- a book of fiction, to be sure, but my story as well.. that inside story of what it felt like to be alive in the early sixties, living in that place, within that family and that community, a child of a military family during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a child who, like other children, wanted to belong.
It has been like my little secret: this town, this school, this family, this time period... this book. I've been nurturing it along since 1996. On some level it's surreal to see it beginning to take shape with a lush, full story, copy edited and almost ready for page proofs, with cover comps and inside art and other people's eyes upon it -- other people saying good things.

If I think about it too long, I'm overwhelmed. Maybe that's part of why I need to be so still right now. Come May and publication, there will be no sitting still! And that will be fine -- I will be excited to support this book that is so much a part of me, that has been so lovingly co-created by so many folks in so many departments at Scholastic.

Several of you have written me asking about my editor meeting: it was good, thanks for asking. Very good. We have been inventing a new language for these three books about the sixties -- books that include newspaper clippings, song lyrics, recipes, photographs, and more.
So far, we've been using the terms "scrapbook," "interstitial" and "distillation" to refer to various elements of the book. On Sunday we came up with another new term: "documentary novel."

It seems I've written a documentary novel. Who knew? My editor has been using the term for some time now to describe the novels in the sixties trilogy, and I'm going to try it on for size as well.

I'm not sure what I think about it yet. I'll let you know. But I do have a question: what does it conjure up for you -- documentary novel? Just wonderin'.

I'm going back to my staring now. The work ahead is on my mind. I've got a draft of the 1966 novel, but it needs so much work. And Scholastic would love to have it in February. Maybe that's another reason I need to sit and stare. February! It's just around the corner, really.

I'm re-entering the time of September, when traditionally I sit down at my desk and begin the work ahead with fresh pencils, a rested mind, and the optimism of a new year. That's worth contemplating.

our regularly scheduled program

Home, friends. I am home. There's no place like it, and I'm glad to be here. Thanks for coming to the low country with me. I had no words last week, but I loved reading yours. Thanks for all the lovely mail. I savored every word.
And now... a return to our regularly scheduled program. I have breakfast with my editor this morning (Sunday). He's here for the Decatur Book Festival, so we will take some time to be together this morning, to meet face-to-face for the first time, and start getting to know one another in person.

If you've been reading One Pomegranate, you'll know that I lost my long time, beloved editor, Liz Van Doren, in early 2007 -- a devastating blow. We had worked together for 12 years. Over time, we had learned to complete each other's sentences as we talked about stories. We challenged each other. We made good books together.

Kate Harrison became my editor at that time. Within the year, she left Harcourt for Dial/Penguin, and I landed at Scholastic with Kara La Reau and David Levithan. The plan was that I would work on the first of the sixties trilogy with Kara, but eight months later, Kara was laid off, just as I was nearing the home stretch of a complete draft of book one.

David and I began working together less than a year ago. In that time I finished the draft, finished another, and another, and have gotten to know David through phone calls and email. He's a good editor. I don't know him well yet; we are learning to work with each other, and I understand that good working relationships take time and trust. It's not necessary for us to become friends, although that would be nice, but we are already colleagues in book making, and I am delighted by that.

At any rate, it will be good to have met face-to-face as we come into the home stretch of putting this novel to bed. There are a million things to talk about, to ask about, to learn. And to share. Many of them have nothing to do with books. I'm looking forward to breakfast. It's good to be home.

As for Charleston: we'll be back. It was good. Very good. And... I have a prompt for you (and your students):

Take a digital camera with you and take photos on a given day of objects that tug at your heart. Don't think too hard about why they tug, just trust your gut. Take as many photos as you want.

Then, take a look at your photos and select the four or five that can tell a story of that day in one word. That one word will be a theme, if you will. Let that one word title and those photos help you tell a story wordlessly. Let them evoke a memory, an emotion, a mood, a narrative. See what you come up with. You can use my posts from last week as a model or guide. This should be creative and fun -- and full of good ways to think about story.

I'd love to see what you come up with. It could be a notebook exercise. The photos, printed on computer or photo-quality paper, could be pasted into your notebook with your one word as a heading. (Conversely, if you are keeping a blog as scrapbook (One Pom is part scrapbook), you can easily construct this as a blog entry.)

So. Personal narrative in photos. I'd love to hear the discussion this engenders, too, and the ways that you adapt it for your own purposes.

And now: What to wear to brunch? It always comes down to the practical considerations, doesn't it?