Two years in a row, I’ve wandered through the same abandoned house in Luray, asking it to give up its story. The front door was open, but inside the walls were tight-lipped. Both trips, my photos came out smoke-grey and silent.
This weekend I found another abandoned house. I welcomed the opportunity to let my restless mind run loose off its chain. I also hoped roaming someplace new would give me the answer to a problem I’d been wrestling with.
The past three months, I’ve been trying to settle on a book to write. I’ve drawn from the well over and over and the bucket has always come up brimming with ideas.
Some of those ideas greeted me eagerly, following me from room to room and I’d think, Yes, this is the one. But then the idea would drift off and I’d forget about it. A few days later I’d wonder, What was that idea again?
Another idea was so good, I felt that old electricity sizzle in my fingertips. I know this story! I thought. Because it was mine.
I began researching the time period (sadly, my childhood is now a “time period”), made discoveries that dragged me right out of the story. My adult self couldn’t ignore what I’d learned. My childhood self turned away in disgust for ruining a perfectly good idea.
Some empty houses let me uncover the ragged, unvarnished truth and dare me to blink. How much do you want to know? they seem to say. How bad do you want this?
People inquire about my process, how I begin a new book. I open a notebook and get a dialog going. The notebook goes with me everywhere to record any stray thoughts (last summer Hollins writer-in-residence David Almond generously shared his notebook with my class–we pored over his dense notes scribbled all over the pages). But lately, after a day or so, I lay the notebook down and won’t pick it up again.
How bad do you want this?
As I wandered around the place, snapping photos, bits of its story came through.
It occurred to me that maybe this story, like that last hard-edged idea, isn’t mine to tell.
So what do we do when our stories won’t speak to us, shrug us off?
Should we keep going to the idea cupboard or grab the idea we already have by the scruff of the neck and insist it stays and behaves? Jot notes and create character sketches until we make the idea viable?
It’ s not enough to construct a narrative into being.
Do we love those characters, that place, that story? Do we think about them all the time? If I truly loved all the ideas I pulled up in the bucket, I wouldn’t start notebooks and then abandon them.
I suspect the book I really and truly want to write is an old one. I’m worried the idea is too old (first came to me in 2009), but then ideas don’t have expiration dates. It’s the one I keep coming back to. I love the place. Love the characters. Love the story that’s waiting for me.
All I have to do is open the door and walk inside.
Last weekend at my revision retreat in Luray, I remembered a dream I once had. My mind was relaxed by being in a different environment. A window-crack of space opened and a sleeping memory slipped in.
When my husband and I were first married, I was filled with dreams of our future. Some were silly, like flying to Paris on the Concorde for a café lunch of chilled white asparagus with shaved prosciutto, and flying back home on the Concorde before supper.
Then there was my dream house, a Victorian farmhouse. I built a two-story kit dollhouse with gingerbread trim and curved shutters I glued on backward. I painted the exterior sky blue and drew hearts on the backward shutters, papered the rooms in a cabbage rose print and furnished them with a miniature Hoosier cabinet and “iron” bedstead. My mother stitched tiny gingham curtains. I glued a chip of wood over the front porch that said Bramblewood Cottage, and was ready to move in.
My husband and I never shrunk to three inches and we aren’t living in a sky-blue Victorian farmhouse, but we do have a big front porch and shutters that are hung properly.
At the Mimslyn Inn in Luray, somewhere between the exercise on setting and the cookie break, an older dream fluttered through my mind. The library I was going to create, a dollhouse of a library just for children.
In the early 70s, I stumbled on the Noyes Children’s Library in Kensington, Maryland. Founded in 1893, it is the oldest public library in the Washington Metro area. Noyes became a children’s-only library in 1969. When I discovered the mansard-roofed cottage, I was enchanted. I stepped into a single room with low bookshelves filled with picture books, a rocking chair, and soft rugs on the floor. I was ready to move in.
The idea of a library just for children stayed with me for years. I dreamed of starting my own children’s library, a cozy cottage nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. The big front room would be the domain of little children, but I’d add a second room for the deep reading age of eight to eleven year olds, with carpeted levels, like a tree house, and wide windows to encourage daydreaming.
My husband and I discussed the little library in earnest. We studied floor plans and I drew sketches. When we drove into the mountains on day trips, we scouted locations. Standardsville? Crozet?
Last weekend, I glanced out the sunroom windows where our retreat was held, took in the slopes of the Blue Ridge rising behind us and the Massanutten range tumbling across the valley, and wondered where that dream had gone. It had gotten lost in thirty-five years of moves and work and losses and health issues and money troubles. I felt sad. Such a sweet dream, so unselfish, it should have materialized from goodness alone.
And then I recalled the martin birdhouse my stepfather built for me when I was ten. In Manassas, where we did our weekly shopping, I’d noticed apartment-style birdhouses for purple martins in people’s backyards. We could attract those lovely martins, too!
My stepfather constructed a huge two-story martin apartment house, painted it white, and mounted it on a sturdy pole just inside our woods. I haunted the spot, waiting for birds to move in. But they never did. Not one single bird.
Year after year the martin house remained vacant. The paint flaked. The roof peeled. It was the saddest sight, that unlived-in house, built with anticipation and hope and the best of intentions. Later I realized purple martins are aerialists, catching gnats on the wing, and prefer their homes away from tall trees.
When we moved into this house, I hung a birdhouse from a hickory tree branch, never dreaming any self-respecting bird would move into a gaudy ornament from Lowe’s. Imagine my surprise last fall when I was raking leaves and glimpsed sticks poking out of the hole. Some bird family had actually nested in it!
Recently the Universe sent me something I didn’t know I needed until it was in front of me: a photo essay by Rob McDonald called “Birdhouses.” McDonald photographs spaces, like the homes of famous Southern writers and the more humble abodes of backyard birds. I was drawn to his images of miniature houses set at the edges of fields, made by hand, put up with the best of intentions.
When asked why he kept building birdhouses that were never used, one man told McDonald, “I guess I just like the idea of birds.”
I will never make the cottage children’s library happen. Yet now I can let the idea fly away knowing it’s okay to dream small dreams while tending the bigger ones.
It’s enough to face each day with anticipation, waiting for the flash of a bluebird as I take up my current project. I’m building a new place there, a new world to move into, in the hopes my readers will want to come, too.
I am waiting for a pen to come from Japan. Not a fancy pen. Not a rare, expensive pen. I’m waiting for a Kuretake Zig Letter Pen, body in Strawberry Pink. You buy the body of the pen separate from the refill. My friend Donna put me on this pen, which she read about in Uppercase magazine. I tried hers and agreed it was the best writing pen ever.
Ordering the $5.00 pen and its $5.00 refill (shipped on a slow boat from Japan) went along with discovering a new type of notebook in New York last weekend. I was attending the SCBWI Mid-winter conference. The conference coincided with a fabulous exhibit at the New York Public Library, “ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.”
The exhibit made me glad I was a children’s book writer. Button-busting proud to be in the field. The original manuscripts and art reminded me why I loved books like Harriet the Spy (celebrating its 50th anniversary—I read it new) and The Cricket in Times Square.
I stopped, entranced, by a Mary Shepard illustration for Mary Poppins A to Z. I leaned forward, pressing myself into the glass case, trying to enter that cozy scene. I used to do that with all the black and white drawings in my beloved middle grade novels as a way to extend my reading experience. I didn’t just read books back then, I lived them.
On my way out, I browsed the gift shop, almost the best part. I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a delightful map-making kit called Make Map Art: Creatively Illustrate Your World, and an odd little notebook by Apica, captioned a little weirdly as, “Most advanced quality gives best writing features.”
Back in my hotel room, I started writing in that little red unassuming notebook and nearly swooned. My extra fine Pilot pen swanned across the smooth paper. No ghosting, no bleed-through. The paper made me slow down and write neatly, which in turn made me slow down my thinking.
The combination of the Kuretake pen and the Apica notebook sent me in a tizzy. I would be a much better writer with these tools! I’ll pitch my composition notebooks with chintzy paper that always bleeds through. I’ll order new colors of ink refills and different nibs for my new pen! Get the big Apica notebook with 96 pages instead of 28!
But none of this will make me like Jack Gantos.
Jack Gantos was the first keynote speaker at the conference. Nearly 1200 people were in the audience, eager, expectant. Jack is great speaker, funny, irreverent, smart, self-deprecating. I’d already chatted with the attendees in front of and next to me—they were new to the field. I envied them their fresh start on their journey.
I opened my notebook (composition with bleed-through paper, sigh) and took notes. Jack Gantos offered a great deal of his process in his slide presentation, along with excellent take-away tips. Everyone around me roared with laughter (I laughed, too), but they didn’t take notes.
What did I learn from Jack Gantos? Lots of things, but what struck me most was his work day. He gets up and packs his lunch. He stows his lunch and supplies in an L.L. Bean boat tote (complete with monogram) and off he goes to the library. Not just any library, the Athenaeum in Boston. He climbs what looked like five flights of spiral stairs to “his” table.
He unpacks his bag: a laptop that looked similar to my 2005 laptop, an older clamshell cell phone, a big plastic file with his notes, another plastic file with his project in progress. That’s it. On a good day, he works eight hours.
So why can’t I be like Jack Gantos? I even have a monogrammed boat tote to carry my lunch and supplies in. But I don’t know of a library near me that doesn’t have patrons tracking back and forth like turkeys and people yakking on phones.
However, I do have a nice office in my house so I don’t really need to go anywhere. More than location, it was Jack Gantos’s example of setting daily goals and ignoring distractions that hit home. He uses old-fashioned methods—writing drafts in longhand, for instance—and equipment that is hardly state of the art. He gets the work done without the frills.
That evening, I copied my scrawled notes from my composition notebook into my new Apica notebook. I wrote neatly and felt virtuous. I can’t wait for my new Kuretake pen to show up in my mailbox—my words will glide onto the silky paper. But will a new pen and notebook make any difference in my work? Will they make me write like Jack Gantos?
“Most advanced quality may give best writing features,” but stories come from the heart, not a special pen nib. New York was good for me. I met interesting people, heard wonderful speakers, saw gorgeous art. Best of all, what I heard and saw gave me back my ten-year-old self, the person I have to please first in my work.
Back home, I started putting into place some of the tips Jack Gantos generously gave us. I’ll never be Jack Gantos, but maybe I’ll be a better version of Candice Ransom.