to be of use


I've been sailing toward the end of the year, riding on the page proofs of the good ship Revolution. We went to Charleston the day after Christmas, as usual. I put most photos of the holidays and the trip to Charleston on Instagram, as I'm experimenting with that platform, so I'll direct you there for photos today. I want to leave you with a poem by Marge Piercy called "To be of use" --

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
*     *     *
That's my hope for 2014. For work that is real -- the work of the world that is common as mud and that must be done. I want to do good work in the world. I want to be peaceful. I want to learn to love.
Happy new year. Love and light to all.

what makes writing good

I've got a Pinterest board called "Good Writing and Storytelling." 


 My description: "There's great storytelling and/or writing on this board, and there's some that borders on dreadful, but there's a reason to examine each of these. I found them interesting in the way they fulfilled their purpose... or didn't."

Here's my latest pin on that board: "'Atlanta's Turner Field is dying -- and American Sanity is Dying With It' by Will Bunch at philly.com. Good Storytelling. The writer's passion and indignation are front and center along with impressive statistics and a fresh way of showcasing them. The quality of the writing lags behind the impressive persuasion, but the persuasion trumps the writing here. Well done."

Here's a link to the story itself

I started this board on Pinterest as a way for me to examine what makes writing good -- it's what I teach, and it's what I'm always trying to learn. I'm very selective about the links I pin here, so the board has grown slowly. Looking at it now, though, I smile at my own remarks (click on the links below that will take you to each individual Pinterest pin, and then click on the image if you want to read the article that I -- ahem -- assess):

-- Overwriting at its finest. Superlative cliches. Still, I appreciate all the information about Osage Farms in Rabun County, Georgia, as I want to go there soon, and at least this writer's report is thorough.

--  I like this piece in The Atlantic by Michael Agresta, because it's enlightening and informative in its assessment of the failure of The Lone Ranger this summer as well as its tie-in to the Western genre, and the Western's place in American film, myth, dreams, nostalgia. Nicely done.

-- Washington Post to be sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon - The Washington Post. Very well-written in that it gives the reader solid background about both Bezos and The Post, and puts the history of the Post and its sale into context. It also presents the facts of the sale in a cogent, readable fashion. Well done, even though I am bereft....

-- "You kids today have got it too easy. You’re spoiled rotten! You guys wouldn’t have lasted five minutes back in 1980!" hahahaha. 1980. sheesh. But I like the comparisons and the voice. It's not great writing, but the voice and energy carries this little piece about how good kids have it now, compared to the '80s, written by a thirty-something.

And on and on. I hadn't realized that I'd gathered such an eclectic mix on this board until I looked at it of-a-piece today. You can see them all, right here, along with each pin's description, from"Meeting Joan Didion" in The Paris Review to a review of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London, to a video clip of Petula Clark singing "Fill the World With Love" in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (and my assessment of how this is great storytelling).

I guess I'll keep it up. Every time I find one of these gems, I learn something. And that's the whole point. I am ever the student.

ncte, stories, and song

I posted this note to my facebook author page -- I just discovered I had a "write a note" function -- who knew? -- so I practiced. I want to put it here on the blog as well. I'm not sure how I will end up using the fb author page along with the blog... I'm experimenting.

This is my last week home before the last of the year's travel. 2013 is coming to an end. I'll be in the D.C. area for a few days next week, and then in Boston for NCTE. I'm signing Countdown at Scholastic's booth on Friday (Nov. 22) from 3 to 4. There may be a little sneak-peek giveaway for Revolution, at my signing... wheee! I love watching a new book being born.

I speak at NCTE on Saturday at 2:45 as part of a panel called "Meaningful Literacy Learning With Short Texts: An Inch Wide and a Mile Deep." I'm working with two amazing (truly) Mercer University professors, Jane West and Emilie Paille. I'm so looking forward to teaching with them -- I appreciate them including me and my "organic" way of teaching writing. They will couple it, in their seasoned way, with their expertise and strategies and we'll have what we think is a session with excellent tools for you to take back to your classroom, to teach writing. You'll find us in room 108 at the Hymes Convention Center (level one).

The leaves in Atlanta are showy and fall-y and drifiting in waves with every breeze that tugs them from the trees. The carpet below my feet is beginning to crunch. There is a fire now, almost every day, in the fireplace by my writing chair. Soups and stews and root vegetables are in constant rotation. Friends come to share food and fire and songs. We break out the banjo, the guitar, the melodica, the kazooo!, and laugh and send up another old tune.

Someone -- a young college student whose grandma has just died -- suddenly lifts his voice in harmony to an old Methodist hymn. Everyone in the room, without moving or uttering one spoken word, gathers that young man's heart together and brings it to the center of our attention, in that ancient, communal embrace of song.

I want to take that feeling with me into the world today.

my wacky, beloved SIBA is at it again

Wanda Jewell, Nicky Leone, and the good folks at SIBA -- the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance -- are at it again. Here is "What's a book? Why a book? Three dozen authors read from Lane Smith's popular story 'It's a Book!' (Macmillan Publishers) about the advantages of (print) books. Recorded at the 2013 SIBA Trade Show in New Orleans."

Love.

the way it was





After two back-to-back weekends of travel for work, it took four days last week for my mind to come back online enough to tackle the copy-edited manuscript, and it was due on Friday last week. I asked for the weekend and promised it first thing Monday morning.

I had felt so smug, the week between the travels. I had addressed all of the copy editor's queries and had begun the read-through. Piece of cake! I'll get it back early!

Well, no.

I constantly have to re-learn a Mandrian Truth:

It is what it is; it's not the picture in my head of what it's supposed to be.

In work and in life. In all things.

The weekend became an exercise in having faith in my process and being steadfast in my commitments.

On Friday night, after a quiet date with my husband, I went back to work on the manuscript. This work involved cutting, smoothing, clarifying, adding a line here, choosing the better word there, shaping and thinking in a linear way about the story at hand, moving carefully and deliberately through the manuscript, page by page. This will be my last opportunity to revise. The next time I see the story, it will be in page proofs. 


On Saturday I attended a rain gardening class all afternoon at the Oakhurst Community Garden taught by Daniel Ballard of Edible Yard and Garden. I went to the farmer's market and restocked our almost-empty fridge with fresh vegetables. I was tired -- my mind was tired. I went to bed early without having made any novel progress.

On Sunday I had over 300 pages to finish, three songs to swap out because they cost too much or we couldn't get permission (Sam Cooke's "A Change Gonna Come" being the one we were denied permission to use), and snippets about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Vietnam War to provide for the last two scrapbooks... I had run out of steam and had sent the manuscript in without those snippets on my last revision round. Now I would have to put in the work to create them and source them.

And I'd have to work hard to find some songs in the public domain, if possible -- freedom songs, protest songs, folk songs that matched the era and the scrapbook they were anchoring -- to offset what we were finding to be the prohibitive cost of some of our song lyrics. I reached for my headphones, began my search on Google and YouTube, strapped on my long-distance writer shoes, and went to work.

I had the day -- and the night -- to finish. I also had a concert/recital by a friend of mine that I had promised (and wanted) to attend, a phone texting/television date with my sweet cousin that I did not want to miss, and a lentil loaf I wanted to make, not to mention apples and tomatoes to dehydrate or make into sauces. I wanted to do it all.

And I had promised Scholastic a 90-second video of me talking about Revolution. Well!

It is what it is. What it is is what I had to work with.

The lentils got cooked and stayed in the pot. The apples and the tomatoes still wait for attention. The video got done, and it was filmed in the most inventive way:

Whenever I took five from the painstaking work with the manuscript, I did one thing, i.e., I scripted myself. I washed my hair. I dried my hair. I practiced my script and timed myself. I dressed up. I practiced with the flip camera. I erased that try. I practiced again. And again. I memorized the script. I figured out the best arrangement for the camera... and for me. I laughed myself silly trying to film and write, film and write.

Jim came home from his Sunday brunch gig at Einstein's, and I was ready for him to press record on the flip, which he did. Three takes later, we had a 90-second video fit to send in. It took me another hour to try to figure out how to upload it to Scholastic's FTP site. I ultimately sent it to them in an email.

I still had over 200 pages of Revolution to finish. I went to my friend Katherine's recital. I sat near the door so I could scoot out before my 8pm date with my cousin. I was so moved during the concert I couldn't hold back tears. I dashed home, wiping my eyes and texting my cousin at the longest stoplight: "Almost home."

We watched our hour of television together -- our weekly ritual, she in Mississippi, me in Georgia. I couldn't resist Boardwalk Empire with my sweet husband (everybody is sweet at this point).

Then I got back to work. I pulled an all-night -- there is something thrilling about a deadline all-nighter, actually, especially when you know you can sleep the next day. 

In the quiet wee hours, I went back in time. I sank into 1964, I was there. I was Sunny Fairchild, telling her story to young readers. I made sure my mind was clear and my heart was open. I gave everything I had in me to the reader.

I remembered I was a writer, too. Where there was a disconnect, I added back in material we had cut earlier -- just enough for clarity, a line here, a word there. I found my snippets and sourced them properly. I found three new songs in the public domain and swapped them for the ones that were too rich for our budget. I decided I liked them even more than my original choices.

I wrote a short note to my editor as the sun rose. I uploaded the 482 pages with songs, photographs, documents, archival materials, newspaper clippings and Sunny's story, to sendspace and I sent the link and the note to my editor. It was 6:39am. The heat had been turned down and I realized I was cold. I was also triumphant.

I took an extra quilt with me as I tiptoed down the hallway to the bedroom. "Now I can sleep," murmured my husband. I crawled between the covers. I was asleep as my head hit the pillow.

That's the way it was. Not the way it was "supposed" to be. And it was good.

and now, november





Whew. And now, November. Halloween has long been my favorite holiday, way back before it became commercialized, in the days when Franny in Countdown worried over her costume, and that costume was thrown together -- like everyone else's was -- from scavenged bits and pieces and a lot of ingenuity.

When I was a kid, a neighbor lady sat outside at a card table, at the top of her front walk, wearing a witch costume complete with hat, and utterly silent in the dark. The candy bowl was on the card table. You had to brave the walk and her silence in order to get to the treats. She never moved as you approached, but you got the feeling that she might, any minute, reach out and grab you. I was terrified and awed by her and have never forgotten the delicious thrill she gave me and the neighborhood kids each Halloween.

Now I'm grown up. In an effort to emulate my witchy neighbor and expand on her generosity, we've made a fire in our driveway for over thirty years, where we've welcomed trick-or-treaters and their parents and our friends, where we've sipped cider and dished chili and hot dogs and stories.

We've watched people come and go from around that fire. We've watched our kids grow up. When my kids were little they made tombstones and "dead" people and we played spooky music, long before you could find it in the stores or online -- there wasn't an "online."

I am so glad for those memories, and those families, and their kids, and those moments, crunching through the fallen leaves, running from house to house, everything looking different -- both scary and somehow comforting -- in the dark.

Now I make a fire at the new house in Atlanta. Friends still come and sit and swap. I didn't see my grands on Halloween, but I have pictures of all three girls in their costumes -- I make beautiful grandgirls, don't I? I'm glad to see the scavenged tradition lives on! If you look closely, you can see my granddog Wesley's mohawk. He was with us all evening, and wanted more than anything to be right in the thick of it all... and he was.

The day after Halloween at our house is traditionally for roasting the pumpkin seeds, making a comforting meal, and getting back to work. I'm at the halfway point with the copyedited manuscript for Revolution. My goal is to have it finished and on my editor's desk by Monday morning. This is Saturday. I can do it. It's November.


going and coming: keene


The first fire of the season, and the copy edited manuscript for Revolution, book two of the '60s trilogy
After a trip to the north Georgia mountains to bring back apples and the last of the year's tomatoes
preparing for the trip
a stop along the way
David White, the founder and organizer of the Keene State Children's Literature Festival, with writer and artist Eric Velasquez
Jon Muth speaking
Lita Judge and David Judge, two of my favorite people.
David and Lita talking with Brian Lies at the end of the day
reception winding down after a long and lovely day of speakers and presentations
working on a hat while flying home on Sunday
Here's an experiment in forms. I took all photos with my new phone, an iPhone 4s, and used the blogger app to pull photos from the camera roll on the phone as well as from my Instagram app on the phone, so it looks like some photos are different sizes... the Instagram photos look smaller to me.

At any rate, welcome to the smart phone world, Deborah Wiles, and a new way of communicating via photos. I left the cozy fire and the copy-edited manuscript of Revolution behind (well, the CE ms went with me on my laptop), left the apples and tomatoes that were almost ready for attention, and prepared myself for a weekend of newness -- people and talking and traveling and negotiating a new place... and it was marvelous.

The Keene State Children's Literature Festival is in its 37th year. I presented with Jon Muth, Eric Velasquez, Brian Lies, and Ruth Sanderson. We rocked. hahahaha. The audience was utterly amazing, the kind of people who want you to do well. so send you good vibes, all day long, so you stand up a big straighter and bring your best game to the room.  There were lots of knitters, too, including me.

The speakers bowled me over. All of them illustrate but me, although I did show a slide of the map I drew for the inside front of Love, Ruby Lavender, so there. ha! Not quite on the same par. And the conversations we had together! Mind-stretching, thought-provoking, belly-laughing stuff. That's the best kind of togetherness.

I saw good friends, I made new friends, and I was sad to leave them all. Thank you to David White, who organizes this festival every year (the art gallery of original children's book artwork at Keene is worth going to see, even when there is no festival to attend), and thank you all the helpers at Keene (Hey, Pru!), to everyone in the audience, and on the podium, for embracing me and making me feel welcome.

Even when I'm sad to leave, I'm overjoyed to be home. The apples and the tomatoes wait patiently. The firewood is delivered this afternoon. The rain drizzles outside my window. The coffee is hot. The chair is comfortable. The stillness and the silence is essential.

I have four days to finish my last pass through Revolution before I can make no more changes. I have addressed all my copy editor's queries, and now I'm reading for story and flow and language and rhythm and clarity... that sort of thing. I love this part. I'm on page 58 of 482. eeep.

And, at the same time, my five-year-old laptop is literally falling apart -- now the screen is separating from the body. I've saved the copy edit to a thumb drive. I hope the computer allows me to finish my work on the novel before I need to replace it. And so it goes...



curating a life






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I wrote a tome about why I (once again) deactivated my facebook and twitter accounts, but it doesn't feel important, compared to the life happening all around me.

October was full of cookie baking, 5K walking, visiting grandgirls and celebrating birthdays, journeying to the north Georgia mountains in search of apples and the last of the season's tomatoes, speaking at the Keystone State Reading Association, and visiting friends along the way.

This week I'll can tomatoes and make applesauce. I'll order firewood. I'll get the car repaired. I'll make headway on the copyedited manuscript for Revolution. I'll work on a revision of a book about Bobby Kennedy that I've sold to Scholastic.

Then I'll travel to Keene, New Hampshire to speak at the children's literature festival there. 

I do okay on facebook and twitter for a while, but I feel so naked. Why is that? Maybe because, as much as I like seeing what's happening with everyone else, it's just. so. noisy. And I like being quiet. I need the quiet. It feeds me (until it doesn't).

So I'll let go of facebook and twitter and I'll keep blogging, where it's nice and quiet (ha!), and I'll keep hanging around on pinterest, where I archive my research and keep track of what interests me. When I get a smartphone I'll probably check out instagram. I think I have it figured out, finally.

I'm curating my life through these various online sources, I see that now. I'm investigating ways to remember, ways of seeing, ways to archive, and ways to hold on to the days that slip from my hands so quickly. That's my purpose in having an online presence. I try to be clear with myself, so I can be honest about what I do and why I do it.

I can't hold on to the days, of course. It's all an illusion. But I like the illusion. I like it as much as I like quietly walking through the days, with a sense of wonder and gratitude, trying to be present. I look at these photos and realize how lucky I am, and how full is my life, and how essential it is to have good work to do.

No matter what, though, I always return to the center of things. I like being still. I like listening to the birds begin their chatter in the morning as the sun rises. I like the wind through the pines. I like the lacy curtain of leaves that drifts through the day. I like walking out into my day or cozying up to the fire with a blanket and a book. I like to work hard.

I like to come tell you these things and I'm not sure why. I don't even know who you are, but this kind of communicating feels quiet and authentic and okay to me. Not naked-making. It's my space, and I'm happy to have it. Happy to share it, too.