The trees welcomed him. The bushes made way for him.
George Macdonald, The Golden Key
Years ago my career and I had a big falling out. I pouted for a while, then decided to leave children’s books and turn to writing adult mysteries. It was not an unfounded decision— seven of my books were canceled in one year, including a picture book at press. The reasons for the cancellations were varied, but most were due to mergers.
This was the mid-90s and mysteries were the Next Hot Thing, particularly cozies. I read several series and, like many people, figured I could do it too. I bought books on writing mysteries. I quit the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. and joined Sisters in Crime.
At my first Sisters in Crime luncheon meeting, conversation was not about growing little children’s minds, but how to poison your husband without getting caught. Murder was fun! Why hadn’t I made the switch sooner? The salad course was served, a spiced apple ring on a lettuce leaf, garnished with parsley. And there, on top of my parsley sprig perched a bright green inch worm. He waved at me.
I looked around the table. No one else had worms in their salads. Was this an initiation? To prove worthy was I supposed to flick the worm onto my neighbor’s plate? Eat it? I didn’t know what to do. At children’s book luncheons I’d never faced such dilemmas. I pushed the plate away and prayed the next course would be vermin-free.
Because I’d been publishing for 16 years, I had contacts that crossed over into adult genres. I pitched my vague idea for a series (a woman consignment shop owner) to an editor. She suggested I create a series about a female meteorologist. Alrighty-then. I went to NOAA. I bought textbooks on meteorology. I watched Willard Scott. I attended a lot of mystery writing events, like Malice Domestic, where I bought crime scene tape, a Daffy Duck private eye tie for my husband, and a replica of the Maltese falcon.
At a publisher party, I chatted up my nonexistent book to the editor and even snagged the interest of a very good adult agent. It seemed I was welcome in this world. But I wasn’t, really. That inch worm was waving me away. People were nice but I never felt at home. Worse, I couldn’t confront the work. I read and talked and went to conferences, but I did not write.
Sleuthfest, the annual Mystery Writers of America conference, was held in Philadelphia that year. I cadged a ride with a fellow Sisters in Crime member. My husband warned me not to leave the hotel, Philly was dangerous. Two seconds after I threw my Laura Ashley bag in my hotel room, I was out on the mean streets. My clothes-sleuthing nose led me straight to an Express. I bought all new outfits for the conference.
I heard some of my favorite writers, like Michael Connelly. TV producer Steven J. Cannell, all Hollywood tanned and handsome, was the luncheon keynoter. Then everyone who had had a mystery novel published that year stood while the others applauded. And that’s when a little worm in my stomach turned over. My clothes weren’t wrong—I was.
I belonged with my own tribe. At the annual Children’s Book Guild awards luncheon, my name was called every single year and I always stood proudly with other writers who’d published books while people applauded. Kids’ books had been my passion since I was 15. It was time to get over my two-year snit.
I’ve met a number of people who have confided frustration in trying to break into their chosen field. These days it’s both easier and harder to get a book accepted. Easier because so much help is available. When I began, there was Writer’s Digest when it was actually a digest, and The Writer. That was it. But it’s also harder now. Although thousands of books are published every year, there are fewer trade publishers. Of course, self-publishing, indie houses, and e-books are viable options.
In her book A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice, Jordan Rosenfeld devotes an entire chapter to pushing too hard. “Go Where You Are Welcome” explores our need to seek approval, have our work validated. She examines the fear that someone else will grab our success before we can get there. This pressure is fueled by social media and marketing—build a platform, sell huge numbers of books, win awards. But no one can “steal” your spot. Your work is unique.
When we don’t get results, we persist in knocking at a door that may be locked to us. Rosenfeld doesn’t recommend that we give up, instead apply the “rule of welcome” and reevaluate our efforts. “Quit seeking approval,” she says. “Press pause on attempts to be as others think you should be or as you feel you should be in order to achieve.”
The welcome mat will be rolled out when “you are passionate about your ideas, you commit to doing the writing no matter what, you do your research, you seek avenues that align with your work, you make true connections with people.” But I do all that, you may say. Look again at those last two criteria—are you on the wrong path? Do you really feel a sense of rightness when you talk to an editor or an agent?
I felt no sense of rightness when I was trying to enter the adult mystery field because I wasn’t passionate or serious.
Rosenfeld suggests developing synchronicity in your writing practice. When the project you’re working on is right, things happen to reinforce its place in the universe. Small things, like walking into 7-Eleven and realizing you aren’t craving that Milky Way bar in your hand, but your character is. Stay open and pay attention, Rosenfeld advises, and synchronicity will find you.
She suggests keeping a synchronicity notebook in which you record all the little coincidences that enrich your project. “The more you track these events and situations, the stronger your lens will become to look for signs you’re moving in the right direction, and the more likely you will feel motivated rather than discouraged.”
And you won’t need a little green worm in your salad to send you down the right path.
Yes, you read that right. I’m taking a typewriter to Hollins University. Not a display piece to hold photographs, but a working Smith-Corona Super Sterling in its original case. Its walking papers state it was purchased new in December, 1967. Now it’s mine.
Two things spurred me to buy another typewriter. One, a vague unease about composing on the computer, even after more than thirty years of “word processing.” The monitor shows nearly a full blank page, cursor urging me to start stringing words. It occurred to me that lately I’ve been trying to fill that page. A paragraph or partial page seems incomplete. I have to cover that white space.
And two, I bought a typewriter because of Barbara Kingsolver’s bobcat in the window.
Kingsolver is best known for her prize-winning books such as The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, and Flight Behavior. She also writes crackerjack essays. “Knowing Our Place” (from Small Wonder) opens with, “I have places where all my stories begin.” She’s not referring to the places in her novels, but where she actually works.
Kingsolver lived part of the year between the mountains of southwestern Virginia and the rest in the “narrow riparian woodland stitched like a green ribbon through the pink and tan quilt of the Arizona desert.” [Book jackets forever declare that such-and-such author ‘divides his time’ between New York and Paris. If I ever get famous, I’m putting on my book jackets: She divides her time between Willow Springs and Scrabble, Virginia.]
Kingsolver’s cabin in Appalachia was built from chestnut logs. She hung out laundry, read out loud, weeded the vegetable garden. But mostly she wrote. “I work in a rocking chair on the porch, or at a small blue desk facing the window. I write a good deal by hand . . .”
In Arizona, she lived a house made of sun-dried mud, surrounded by mesquites and cottonwood that grew along an oasis of a creek in the Sonora desert. “I work at a computer on a broad oak desk by a different window, where the view is very different, but also remarkable.”
It has been my policy, ever since I became a full-time writer, that my work station face something dull—a closet door, a blank wall. Windows would prevent me from distilling scattered thoughts into pure, crystalline words (still waiting for that to happen).
One day in her Arizona house, Kingsolver sensed a presence over her shoulder. “I turned my head slowly to meet the gaze of an adolescent bobcat at my window.” She looked “straight into bronze-colored bobcat eyes” until he broke eye contact and walked away. “Some part of my brain drifted after him for the rest of the day . . . It’s a grand distraction, this window of mine.”
My window is behind me. Sometimes I glimpse wrens flitting by or wasps rappelling down the screen, but I have to turn my head to look. Sinking the hook, Kingsolver quotes Annie Dillard: “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
After I read that essay, I thought about Barbara Kingsolver writing on her porch in the mountains, or typing by the bobcat window. I’m not the type to take my laptop outside. Truthfully, I hate my laptop. The monitor is too small, the keyboard too flat. I use it at Hollins in the summers, at Bell House, and researching in libraries. That’s it. When I plugged it in after months, it required one hundred updates that took two hours to chew through. I felt like a bad laptop mother for neglecting it so long, but also annoyed.
I remembered the days before computers, when I rolled a piece of paper into my typewriter and just wrote. Somehow Kingsolver’s bobcat, her porch rocker, the one hundred updates, and the cold computer screen page coalesced into an image of myself sitting on my porch writing on a typewriter.
Not an electric typewriter, though I was tempted by an IBM Selectric (I got rid of two of those gorgeous machines when we moved here 20 years ago). I love the technology, but its cartridge ribbons are hard to come by.
After studying the best and most reliable machines, the Olympia SM9 came up. I looked across my desk, past my Dell internet computer and there, on a $9 typing table, sat an Olympia SM9 with a 13-inch carriage. A German workhorse I already owned. However, it’s a semi-portable, which means it’s heavy, and it needs a new ribbon.
I found a Smith-Corona Super Sterling in working order with a brand-new ribbon, in a shade hovering between turquoise and cornflower with cream-colored keys. I fell hard. $75. Two days later, Margie Irene arrived (I named it after my mother) with case, papers, and all. I loved it on sight.
I’m not throwing my computers out. But I am writing first drafts on the typewriter. There is no impatient cursor, no cold page to fill at once. And I’m not alone. Many writers are drafting old-school. British novelist Will Self switched because, “I felt oppressed by the distractions of digital media and longed for a certain level of clarity that the typewriter afforded. The Internet is of no relevance at all to the business of writing fiction directly [italics mine], which is about expressing certain kinds of verities that are only found through observation and introspection.”
Working on a typewriter is different. I’d forgotten the apostrophe is shift 8 and when the bell rings, you must return the carriage. But as Will Self noted, “…the computer user does his thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head.” Writing a misspelled, missing-letters first draft is not the end of the world. I’ll re-key it into the computer, effectively doing a simultaneous second draft.
For morning porch sessions, I bought a Korean War-era field typing table (no casters). The table and Smith-Corona are both coming to Hollins. I’ll set them up by the open window of my apartment. Soon sounds no one has heard in years—some have never heard—will float across Faculty Row. The ratchet of paper rolling into the platen, the clack of keys, the ding of the bell, the satisfied sigh of pages piling up.
When I come home, I’ll move my typewriter in front of the window and be present for acts of grace. Atticus will stand in for the bobcat.
Is there anything worse than being flattened by sickness in summer? An eighteen-wheeler virus Jake-braked through our house and left both me and my husband in the ditch. During conscious moments, feet snugged under a hubcap of a cat, I read the latest issue of Orion. The magazine subtitled Nature, Culture, Place invites the finest writers and I was delighted to see a piece by Robert MacFarlane.
MacFarlane, British nature writer and national treasure (like our Wendell Berry), mentioned he has been collecting words from old places used by crofters, farmers, colliers, shepherds, poets, walkers, and “unrecorded others for whom particularized ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception.” Wonder-words, MacFarlane calls them, like pirr, from the Shetland Islands, which means “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on water.”
He began collecting these near-forgotten words back in 2007, about the time he glimpsed the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words were conspicuously missing—acorn, beech, bluebell, buttercup, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, mistletoe, otter, pasture and willow, among others.
Nature words had been yanked like rotten teeth and replaced with shiny modern terms like attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail. You’ll find Blackberry instead of blackberry. The Oxford University Press admitted it had been under pressure to purge entries no longer relevant to techno-savvy children.
What will kids call those yellow flowers that sprinkle spring lawns like gold coins? And those large blue-gray birds that stalk frogs in shallow creeks? And what will they rake in the fall along with oak leaves . . . No, wait, they don’t rake any more, they’re indoors tweeting celebrities. They don’t even need a dictionary any more, there’s spell-check.
In fourth grade, I received my very own Thorndike-Barnhart Junior Dictionary. It cost $2.50 and I remember the exact moment Mrs. Stann placed my copy on my desk. The cover was red cloth with gold lettering. Black labeled indents made navigating the thick book easier. I opened it immediately, eager to meet all the words in the world, and carried my Thorndike-Barnhart with me every day. I read it like a novel.
Four years before, when we moved to our new house in the country, I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of our long gravel driveway to the highway. I was afraid of the trees, the woods that drew close like giants.
My stepfather let me tag after him as he did his chores. He answered my hesitant questions and taught me the names of things. Not just an oak tree but specifically black, red, white, pin, or chestnut. After a while I could identify pin oaks and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. By learning their names, I realized that trees weren’t scary but had their place in the world. I became less afraid and began to take root in my new place, entwined with its spirit through language.
The new words in dictionaries are mostly retreads, truncated terms, or composites: “twitter,” “app,” and “Instagram.” We aren’t richer for them, especially if we’ve lost “acorn.” As MacFarlane’s article states, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.” I suspect the game is up for nature—and language—everywhere. Now we have smarter-sounding terms for nature, like environment and ecology.
In their sterile Common Core writing samples, students will likely define environment as “the surroundings in which a plant or animal operates.” Can we picture such a thing? We can picture an acorn. Emerson, one of America’s greatest nature writers, was a stickler about “fastening words to visible things,” just as my stepfather was a stickler about the exact species of oak.
As Robert MacFarlane traveled the far corners of the British Isles, he collected linguistic gems as ammil, a Devon word for the “thin film of ice that lacquers leaves, twigs and grass when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.” One exquisite word to describe a fleeting spectacle.
MacFarlane’s new book, Landmarks, about the reclamation of place-based language, will be published in the U.S. in September. I can’t wait to get a copy. I want to know more about Aunt Julia who was so rooted in her native Harris Island that she “came to think with and speak in its birds and climate.”
And I can’t wait to learn more wonder-words such as smeuse, “the gap in the base of the hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.” As a kid I used to follow those little woods trails, trying to blend in with the brambles and bushes so the animals would think I belonged.
Now that I’m better (finally!), I’m taking a sharp look around, my feet planted firmly on the ground, careful to pin the right words on the wonders I see.