June 22-30, 2010:

I have been so engrossed in working on my novel (up to 22,000 words so far) I have forgotten to do things like update my journal. But tonight–knowing I am about to go off and do touristy things with Maddison and Heidi who have just arrived–I thought I’d better do a catch up.

Books:

For a while I thought I was doing just fine on the novel. Chapters were spilling out of me. The snake-handling sect chapter seemed pretty darn good. Chilling and awe-filled at the same time. I’ve been reading three different books on the Signs Following snake-handlers. But something was nagging at me and today, as I drove to the Edinburgh airport to pick up H&M, I realized what was wrong. Not how to fix it, mind you, but at least I identified the problem. The wicked Stepmama is a construct and her nastiness is not yet making sense. And why she doesn’t kill both Summer and her father outright and get it over with is not clear. So before I can continue with my forward movement, I have to give this problem a deep and heavy think. And then go and fix it before starting up again. Sigh. I hate when that happens!

Meanwhile, I was also toying with a new proposal with Jason, called WING BEATS which will be about flying birds, their wings, and the science of flight.

And a couple of tries at some HOW DO DINO board books as well as an odd poem here or there.

And then some dynamite news: An absolute rave in School Library Journal by the always- fascinating Betsy Bird for the new picture book I have with David Small, Elsie’s Bird.

Also, Hush Little Horsie has been taken by a book club. A possible Hungarian sale of Briar Rose–possible in that I got a lovely email from the Hungarian publisher but neither my agent nor I knew anything about this. And Bob Harris and I had to go to my Scottish lawyer to get a contract notarized for a musical theater production of. . .wait, I’m not allowed to say which book yet.

Life:

*My Scottish car died, battery ran down. Fixed.

*Went to hear Professor Bob Darnton (head of the Harvard Library) speak at the St A University with friends Nora and Rob. Bob was my high school boyfriend! I think the last time we laid eyes on one another was 25 or so years ago at a Fairy Tale conference in Princeton. An said maybe three words then.

*Tea with Vanessa Samuel at the Cheese Farm. Will be loaning her my Massachusetts house for a week as her physicist husband will be at a conference in July at Mt Holyoke.

*Tea at Wayside with friend and neighbor, Robin. Alas, she and family are going off to live in California. I shall miss them.

*Friend Peter came for dinner, and we wandered around town as well.

*Did the St A garden scheme with friend Christine and her nephew Dan. Walked around the town and got into about five gardens, and enjoyed the day immensly

*Drove to Edinburgh airport and picked up H&M, they took a walk into St A and crashed early.

June 19-21, 2010:

The weather has turned gorgeous. Sun, deep blue skies, hardly a cloud, but enough of a sea breeze to keep things from being hot. There aren’t usually a lot of these kind of days in a row in Scotland, so most people make the best of them.

Me? I was writing of course. Got almost another 2,000 words forward (and a lot of back-filling as well) on the novel. Finished the Gator proposal. Started looking through more of Jason’s photos for another new project. Consulted with two friends on books they are trying to write.

And then two dear friends intervened. Marianna and Pete called me up on Sunday. They were going to visit friends of theirs who were involved in a Blebo Craigs open gardens day. Blebo Craigs. You can’t make that up! Would I like to go. . .I don’t think I let Marianna finish her sentence. They picked me up less than an hour later and off we went.

In the end, we only saw two gardens, but they were absolute opposites of one another, which made the day truly interesting. We had to park the car in the lot way to one end of town and were given a map. But it was such a lovely day, and despite the hills (“Craigs” should have been a hint!) we had a glorious time.

First garden was one of those heavily sculptured, tidy gardens, everything manicured and in its place. Some nice stone work, and the best 3/4 view in the county I would guess. It was high up on  a crag and you could look some 60 miles (it was only a tiny bit hazy) to the mountains of the Loch Rannoch region, the lower Highlands. Pete pointed out Schiehallionn (alternately translated as “Fairy Hill,” “Maiden’s Pap,” and “Constant Storm”)and told me how it has a unique place in Scottish scientific history for there Charles Mason did his experiments on figuring out the mass of the Earth in the 1770s.

Second garden, though, about a mile further down the road, was owned by friends of M&P’s. It was a nineteenth century cottage partially made out of the old St A cathedral stones. Perching atop a cliff, it looked down into an old quarry, now a good-sized pond filled with koi carp, duckweed, electric blue dragonflies, damsel fly hatches, and the occasional dog. The garden was an up-and- down marvel, with stone steps leading into magical wildflower patches and stone lintels that served as benches, as well as hideaways and byways, and down in the back meadow hives for bees. We only got to see a bit of it, then Pete and Marianna and I sat by the pond and had a long talk about the prolificity of Earth’s many small natures. Afterwards, we spent time in the owner’s pottery (he is a very well-known Scottish production potter), as well as time with his gorgeous garden-caring wife. This was a garden I could live in or with so long as someone else took care of it! It was certainly magic.

June 16-18, 2010:

The writing was going well. I had gotten to over 15,000 words done on the novel. Though to be honest, most of the last work was not actually moving forward. I was back-filling, interweaving, deepening characters, putting in small scenes to sharpen motive, etc. Taking stuff out and adding only a very few new things in.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I was stuck. Where to go next? Well, actually, I have the overarching plot already. The novel is based on a published short story of mine. And the short story is based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The original story, not Disney.

But where to go next in the novel?

Yeah, I was stuck.

So I did what I always do when I am stuck. (This reminds me of my father-in-law who was a great hunter in the West Virginia woods who liked to boast, “I’ve never been lost. I’ve been bothered for two or three days at a time, but never lost.”) I turned to something else, something like a palate cleanser, an “amuse bouche” in cooking terms. I turned to a different project, something smaller, that was broken into tinier pieces. A book of poems.

I turned to An Alligator’s Day. Now this is to be a companion to the recently published An Egret’s Day (Boyds Mills) with photographs by my son Jason. The format is established, but we wanted to do a book proposal. Jason had already sent me about 20 photographs. So I began. Worked on about a half dozen poems. None, of course in final form. Worked on some of the nonfictional pieces, sketches really. Wrote, rewrote, rewrote again. But this project, at least, was moving forward. Forward is good.

Then I began to think about what sort of “amuse bouches” I had done before. I realized that in the past they were often short stories. But for some reason I hadn’t written any short stories in several years. (The last was probably “The Tsar’s Dragons” which I did with Adam.) Not because I find short fiction difficult or boring. Well, maybe difficult, but I adore writing them. Not because I haven’t been invited into many anthologies. (I get invited to at least a dozen anthologies a year.) Not because I don’t have ideas. (Don’t be silly–I ALWAYS have ideas. Ideas are the common coin of writers. It’s what one does with the idea that is important.) So the answer to my own question was: I don’t know why I have written so few short stories in the last two or three years. You expect wisdom? Buy a crystal ball.

Other stuff: I gave a tea party at Wayside for 12 visiting college students and their two teachers. . Bob Harris and I spoke about history, Scotland, and writing historical novels and they seemed interested enough.

Had tea with Debby and another member of the University English Lit department at Nora’s house. Lots of book and movie talk ensued.

Dinner out with Claire and two of her friends, one a potter and her daughter a first grade teacher, so I showed off. (I hate when I do that.)

Did a bit of gardening. Enjoyed the sunshine. Walked. Exercised. Read.

June 12-15, 2010:

This past four days has been a time of contrasts. A couple of days of rain, then a few of sun, then wind, then. . .well, you get the picture. Plus errands to do with laundry and garden stuff, rescuing a young blackbird who’d gotten in the house and was desperately trying to get out through the mullioned windows of the Great Hall. Paying bills, balancing a check book and a cheque book.

And as well, I have had times of utter aloneness, then dinner with Bob and Debby, dinner with Claire and crew, my friend Anne Morrison stopping over for a cuppa, tea at Janie Douglas’ with Pam Robertson who used to be a neighbor and remains a friend.

Read a good (not great) mystery quickly (a page turner) and reading friend Mira Bartok’s memoir and savoring it slowly. The first was for plot and movement, the other for its glorious writing and a startling story–she might as well have been raised by wolves. It would have been kinder and they more sane and generous.

The writing has been equally contrasting. I have gotten to 14,000 words on the novel Snow in Summer done, though am not at the stage to know whether it’s any good. Had to write an extra poem plus nonfiction material for Bug Off because Jason mis-identified one of the pictures as a stink bug. Wrote a very silly poem for the Miss Rumphius challenge. Worked on rewriting my part of the Sarah chapter for Girls’ Bible. Dealt with stuff on several of the How Do Dinos books.

However, most of the days have been spent on the novel, revising and re-inventing as I go. Some parts I like, others make me shudder and wonder what has ever convinced me I could write. And I know that, too, will pass as I find a better way to say what I meant to say–though I do like the opening part. Here’s a bit. I know there is still fiddling to be done:

I have an old black-and-white photograph on my wall of all the things Papa loved. Its edges are curling and brown. In those days in the upper hollers of West Virginia, we didn’t have cameras that could take a picture in color. I have no idea who took that photograph but I do know how it came into my hands. Miss Nancy gave it to me years after this story happened. Long after.

In the photograph, the mountains stand side by side, stiff and unyielding, like brothers who have given up talking to one another. Those mountains held bears, and coon, turkeys and partridge, as well as squirrels and greasy groundhogs that all make fine eating. “Nature’s larder,” Papa called it. And he kept that larder neat and clean. These days, though, with the strip mining and the clear cutting of trees, nothing is like it was then. There’s some good in that and a lot of not so good, too.

The snow in the picture stands knee-deep on the mountainsides. Knee-deep, that is, for a man. For a child, it is much higher.

Staring straight ahead, Papa is walking along the wintry track, oblivious of the softly- falling snow or the five-year old girl beside him, reaching out to touch his cold fingers. Miss Nancy, who had been at school with Papa, was a woman with a kind face and a kinder heart—though one cannot quite get that from the picture. She strides along on the child’s other side and it is she who is holding my right hand, cradling it in hers.

Behind us comes a long line of our neighbors, somber as their clothes. They stare ahead as if what is to come is at least as awful as what is behind. These are the folk who had known me since before I was born. Some of them even knew Papa before he was born. Kinfolk if not particular kind folk. The ones who sit on the front porch and gossip. Storying, they called it. Our lives and our stories entwined.

Ahead of us is a flat bed cart, drawn by four big black horses with crow feathers twisted in their manes. They are being led along the track by Preacher Morton, his tall black hat spotted by the snow. We are walking in the horses’ hoof prints, or the ruts made by the wheels of the cart.

On the flat bed, in a pine box, lies Mama, cold and distant with the dead baby in her arms. I knew that because I kissed them before the box’s top had been nailed down. There are tears like black stains, running down my cheeks for I must have rubbed my eyes many times in the long walk up the mountain towards the graveyard, and it looks as if the crow feathers had been used to paint streaks under my eyes. There are no tear stains on Papa’s face. If there are any on Miss Nancy’s, I can’t tell for she is not looking up at the camera but down at me.

In that photograph, on that mountain ridge, heading towards the graveyard, were all the things Papa loved then.

And later.

June 9-11, 2010:

Writing:

Two rejections, not unexpected. At least we are moving on.

A first copy of Elsie’s Bird, illustrated by the marvelous David Small (Caldecott winner) which arrived in the final box of stuff Heidi sent on. It looks fabulous.

And what a week of writing.

I sent off the (last, I hope) revision of  Curses Foiled Again. Within days got a lovely letter from the editor pronouncing it fine.

Wrote either the final or the next-to-final retelling of a story for Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts.

Sent off the last poems and tidyings from my side of Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs with Pat Lewis, and the editor says it’s ready for the final edit. Hurrah!

Got to see another ten pages of paintings for my graphic novel The Last Dragon by Rebecca Guay, which are truly glorious.

Wrote (after a month of dithering) a possible sequel to Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters, called Scaley Monsters, Sail-y Monsters: A Sea Chanty. In which the monsters meet pirates.

Finished revising (for me) the poems and non-fiction bits for Bug Out: An Insectopedia because Jason had sent the last few pictures.

Wrote a possible poem for the animal families book Jason and I are thinking of doing.

Tried several adult poems, failed at them all. Yeah–sometimes the magic doesn’t work!

Really spent most of my writing time on Snow in Summer, the short fantasy novel. Got up to 9,000 words and realized I had some major and serious problems with it being too slow and not character-driven. No explanation of who the wicked stepmother is at all, though she is the heart of the story. Had a long talk with Debby Harris (my go-to person for this sort of thing) and she suggested  multiple narrators which I resisted until I got home and actually tried it. Things began to work swimmingly from then on. I am the kind of writer who needs to feel the story unfold beneath my fingertips. Of course, I had to totally rewrite about five-six thousand words, but was able to save huge swaths of stuff, and am now up to 11,000 words of a 35,000 (probably) word short novel.

Other stuff:

Granddaughter Maddison made High Honors again for the year. Yay her!

I had friend Christine over for tea, went to the movies (“Letters to Juliet”) with Nora. The movie wasn’t great but re-kindled in me a desire to go tootling around the Italian countryside with someone. Any takers?

Still reading the amazing Mira Bartok memoir, The Memory Palace. Doing crossword puzzles. Doing minor walkabouts. Watching Wallendar, an interesting Swedish mystery series.

And loving Scotland.

June 5-8, 2010:

What a social butterfly I have been these four days: a day out in Edinburgh with a chum, riding the gondola up the ski hill, driving around the outskirts of the Old Toun, walking about three hours on the streets, a lovely dinner in the South Queensbury Inn where Davey Balfour set forth on his journeys. Sunshine all day long.

And Sunday a brunch with friends and some interesting conversations about giving speeches and birdsong. Then afterwards palling around with my friend Peter who drove up from the Borders, driving around on a serendipity trip, and paying off a bet with him that I’d lost by taking him out to dinner. (It was a political bet–about British politics. Never make a British political bet with a gentleman who has served in Her Majesty’s government if you are a Yank! Lesson learned.)

Then Monday instead of working (I only got 200+ words done on the short novel, bringing me to over 8,300 words) I went off with Debby to meet Elizabeth Wein for lunch at the antiques mall and then we wandered around, buying a couple of things and getting home around 5, too late for any writing.

Tuesday, a tiny bit more on the novel, and then retelling the final (or so I thought!) folktale for Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts until Heidi called to tell me there was yet another one to be done. After that, turned my attention first to a meeting with Bob Harris about a book proposal we are working on, and then to my first carving up (just a bit as the editor felt I was almost there) of the revision of Curses, Foiled Again. She’d been very specific about what still needed doing but of course as I read through the mss. there were a few other things I felt had to go in or come out or be adjusted one bit more. I can never stop noodling.

The day is finishing with dinner with Debby and Bob and, I hope, early to bed. Am tired from all my socializing.

May 30-June 4, 2010:

Writing news:

A picture book sold, a picture book rejected. (Not the same one, of course.) Karmic balance. The sold one is A Bear Sat On My Porch Today to Handprint/Clarion. Happy dance!

Also I wrote about 6,000 words on the novel Snow in Summer, bringing me to chapter 6.

Heard that the revision on Curses Foiled Again was excellent and only a very few things left to do on it, which I shall get done by early next week.

There were more poems to write for Bug Off!  Done. Jason sent some more interesting bug pictures.

And some poems for the revision of the revision for Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs. Did my part. Now it’s J. Patrick Lewis’ turn.

Otherwise very quiet in Publishing Town.

What Am I Reading?

Finished an Ian Rankin non-Rebus mystery I quite liked.

Now into Mira Bartok’s memoir, The Memory Palace, which is heartbreaking, brilliant, a compulsive read. She and her sister escaped a parnoid schizophrenic mother after basically raising themselves. And then Mira was in a horrible car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury that took away much of her memory and language  and she had to retrain herself when all that was left to her were fragments of both. Luckily, as an artist, she had visual cues to help. I happen to know Mira, and this memoir is a visceral body blow, gorgeously written.  But one need not know her to be stunned by the beauty of the book.

Scotland, Scotland, Scotland:

A few rainy bits, but lots of brilliant sunshine. I have had dinner with dear, dear Debby and Bob Harris, tea and breaking waves over the seawall with Christine and John, tea and laughter with Janie Douglas, a formal dinner with interesting people at Grant Milne’s house in the town center, and a dinner tonight still to come with Elaine.

A new tv box installed, another go-round with a whonky Internet connection, and the discovery that a good deal of money was stolen from me, I believe it happened when my bags went through the Continental security check since they were constantly with me everywhere else.

Flowers are blooming beautifully in the garden, though the heavy and unexpectedly snowy winter killed my big rosemary bush and my lavender plants. So Wednesday I must go and restock.

Interstitial Moment:

Yesterday I was sent a very interesting letter from a fan who gave me permission to post parts of it: “I wrote to you almost three years ago when I discovered your poem, “Fat Is Not A Fairy Tale”. . . I wanted you to know that I loved it so much I wanted it printed on my body. Your words were such a part of me that I wanted them on me for the rest of my life. . .I have a few other tattoos, words of Socrates and Thornton Wilder, and now you. I feel so blessed to have read your poem and to add it to my “collection” of words and thoughts which are indelible to my soul, and so I chose to make them indelible on my body as well. 

The tattoo itself isn’t finished, the first several lines are not complete, but I wanted to attach a picture so you could see it. Thank you for making an impact on my life and understanding something (and putting beautiful words to it) as I believe few others can or ever have.” She included a photograph of her back, which is almost fully covered by my words. (You can read the entire poem online at Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 site.)

It has made me think about the relationship between author and reader, usually a tenuous one from the author’s point of view. After all, we cannot possibly be friends with everyone who reads our words. For one, we do not hear from all of them. But more importantly, most writers write because there is a story or a poem or some other thing stuck in their heads. Not to please an audience which is–after all–to diffuse a target to hit.

From the reader’s point of view, it is a much closer and intimate relationship. Often people tell me that I have articulated their  private thoughts, or that I have changed them unalterably, or I have actually saved their lives, and other things that may sound like hyperbole but feels authentic to them. As a reader myself, I have had such moments with writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, James Thurber, Isak Dinesen, and Ursula LeGuin.

Would I tattoo my body with their words? Definitely not. But I might buy a tee-shirt or mug or a piece of jewelry saying “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” or “Slit from his guggle to his zatch.” Honoring a writer or poet’s words is how readers let us know how much our work means to them.

But there is a thin line between that kind of honor and. . .stalking. Stephen King’s Misery taught us well. And I have heard of  fans who ask an author to sign their book with blood (Clive Barker) while pulling out a knife and cutting a finger for the red ink. Or a woman who asked an author (Neil Gaiman) to sign her breasts. And while these reports may be urban legends, there really are crazies out there. I just happen not to have come across any. Though I have to admit, the Internet is beginning to introduce me to some over-the-top fans.

So to Paula FS, thanks for loving my poem that much. But just as the words of my poem will live only as long as they are printed and read, so your skin and its message will eventually lose its elasticity and readability. Poems like people have a sell-by date. But as long as you live, that poem lives in you. And on you. I do feel incredibly honored.

 

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