Last fall, social media buzzed with Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on creativity. Gilbert, who has led workshops on finding your passion, presented the flipside at Oprah’s event. While she herself has followed her passion all her life, she understands that not everyone is cut out of the same cloth. She divided people into jackhammers—those who doggedly pursue a dream—and hummingbirds—people who explore many interests.
I realized instantly which group I’m in. I have little patience for people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, students who dither over majors, or anyone who doesn’t single-mindedly follow a childhood calling. I’m tedious to be around.
If someone asks me how to become a children’s book writer, I’ll reply, “How bad do you want this?” and then I’ll scare the pants off that person by telling them to forget about going to the movies or messing around with friends or taking vacations that have nothing to do with work or belonging to organizations or even having coffee.
Once I was asked to give a writing workshop on a cruise ship. When I laid out the schedule, the director said, “People can’t do all this. They’ll want to take Pilates and go shopping.” “Pilates!” I shot back. “They’ll have work to do!” And so it’s gone my entire life–everyone else out shopping and taking Pilates while I did my work.
I mentioned the jackhammer-hummingbird discussion to my husband. “Why is it I’ve only ever been able to do one thing?” I asked. He said he actually admired my ability to stay with a passion sparked when I was seven. I’ve never quit, he said, not when I was sick, not when people I loved were dying, especially not when my career sank, more than once. “You don’t know the word ‘no,’” he said and I was stunned. It was true.
But I hate the comparison to a jackhammer with its implications of being single-minded, noisy, intrusive, capable only of tearing up pavement. Who wouldn’t want to be a hummingbird, a delightful fairy-like creature? Hummingbirds zip from one interesting flower to the next, pollinating joy wherever they go.
In my life, I’ve known lots of hummingbirds but only one other jackhammer.
When my cousin David was ten, he went with my aunt to the drugstore. David slipped behind the counter to watch Dr. Hook fill his mother’s prescription. From that day on, David wanted to be a pharmacist. He attended college and pharmacy school. After graduation he worked for pharmacies before opening his own. David had other interests, but never wavered from the dream that struck him at age ten.
I was around ten, too, when I began sorting out my own interests: watching birds, drawing, reading, writing stories. Yet I loved writing the most.
The only time my love of writing flagged was in seventh grade. Everything flagged in seventh grade. I went from a small rural elementary school to a big intermediate school. I weighed 72 pounds. I had bad sinuses. The bravado I’d stockpiled when I was ten and eleven dissipated in that new place where I had to change classes, open a locker, and, worst of all, change out in gym class.
My favorite class was three-hour ESG (English, Social Studies, and Guidance), though you’d never know it by my grades: Cs and Ds in Social Studies, and Bs in English. I adored Miss Dail. She was young, just out of teacher’s college, and pretty. She wore fashionable A-line skirts, Peter Pan collar blouses, circle pins, loafers.
I so wanted her to like me, but she didn’t because I was skinny and adenoidal and crooked-toothed and wore hand-me-downs. Miss Dail warmed to the “Annandale” girls, the cute, bubbly ones who’d traveled and were already interested in boys and clothes and make-up. I was still playing with Ellsworth and watching birds.
I tried to get her to notice me by doing long extra-credit reports on subjects like Australia and honeybees, researching in the library before school started, copying them in my neatest handwriting, including pictures, and putting them in store-bought covers.
I turned the reports in along with regular homework. And heard nothing. Nothing at all. Near the end of the year we had a unit on careers. Miss Dail set up a long box with folders on various occupations. I already knew I wanted to be a writer but was sure that wouldn’t be in the box. I needed a real job. I also wanted to be a bird scientist. I rifled through the folders but couldn’t find ornithologist. I went up to Miss Dail’s desk for help.
She smelled wonderful, light and sweet, and wore a crisp Madras blouse. I told her my occupation wasn’t in the box. “What is it?” she asked. “Or-nee-thee-o-LO-gist,” I said. I could spell the word and knew what it meant but I’d never heard it said. “What?” Now she was irritated. She wanted me away from her desk, my open-mouthed breathing away from her, my pale green face out of her sight.
She took me back to the box, ripped through the remaining folders, and yanked one out. “Here,” she said. The folder was labeled Forest Ranger. So I wrote up my occupation on being a forest ranger, picturing myself on a fire tower with binoculars, scanning the sky for birds. No wonder I got Cs and Ds. Nothing about seventh grade seemed to fit me.
On the last day of school, Miss Dail joked with the cool kids as she returned papers. She handed me back my extra-credit reports without a word. There was a check mark on the covers, but no grade, no note, only the barest acknowledgement of my efforts. I felt flattened, but decided from then on I’d please myself. Watch birds, draw, read. Write.
In high school thoughts of or-nee-thee-o-LO-gy were buried under a burning desire to become a writer of children’s books. At fifteen, I started writing for publication, submitting a picture book I’d illustrated myself in red, blue, and black ink pens, and a mystery novel that was so firmly rejected, the return envelope bore tire tracks. My mother steered me into secretarial courses, hoping I’d abandon this outlandish notion.
My senior English teacher recognized my desire. After class we talked about how I’d become a writer. She treated me like a real person. (By now I weighed 98 pounds and had had my adenoids removed.) Miss Boyle lent me a new book, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She thought I’d love it, but Fowles’ story was beyond me. I didn’t want to disappoint her so I kept the book and kept the book and kept the book until near the end of the year when she asked for it back.
That spring Miss Boyle also tried to get me a scholarship at a small college. The scholarship covered tuition but nothing else. My family had no money for room and board. I wouldn’t admit that so I told her I couldn’t see how college would bring me closer to becoming a children’s writer. Between the book and the scholarship, I’d disappointed the only teacher who’d ever shown the slightest interest in me. I would follow my own path. And Miss Boyle would have new students the next year.
One day near graduation, I sat alone in our living room. The 1970 Spring Children’s Book World had come in the Sunday Washington Post. On our scratchy harvest gold sofa, I read every book review, studied every single ad with an eye toward my future. I would do this thing, become a children’s book writer, just like all these other people who’d had books published that spring. I even picked out a publisher: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard. They published the kind of books I wanted to write. At seventeen I was beginning to understand how to play the game, though I was barely in it.
I stumbled and made mistakes, but never, not for a second, lost sight of my goal. Even though I reached that goal ages ago, I haven’t stopped because there are more stories inside me. A lifetime of reading and writing has led my curious mind from flower to flower, knowledge that has been funneled into my work.
I dislike Elizabeth Gilbert’s divisive terms of jackhammer and hummingbirds. I don’t like being pigeon-holed in any way. I doubt anyone does.
Those things I loved when I was ten—art, reading, writing—I do them all as part of my work. Outside, birds flit by. Sometimes even hummingbirds.
At the writing retreat in Luray a few weekends ago, participants wanted to know where I got the variety of ephemera I use in writing-related art projects. “My Paper Man,” I said.
Since I’ve been collecting–well, anything, I’ve had a source. Bottle Man, Postcard Man, Teddy Bear Woman, Depression Glass Man. Right now the “man” in my life is John Whiting of Whiting’s Old Paper.
I stumbled on his shop in Antique Village north of Richmond several years ago and, in a way, have never left. Thanks to John’s business, I have more than a dozen suitcases crammed with ephemera.
I’ve bought vintage photographs, magazines, catalogs, books, postcards, photo albums, calendars, maps, scrapbooks, greeting cards, comics, and all sorts of oddments like a jump rope that hangs in our breakfast nook and a 1930s hairnet (for the package graphics) framed and hanging in my sitting room.
These National Geographics date back to 1916, but none with a whiff of the last 40 years.
A rack of cabinet cards among piles and heaps of snapshots.
Some ephemera is categorized for collecting specialists, like Elvis fans.
This isn’t a place where you breeze in for one little thing. You need to spend time and be prepared to dig. Though John has everything organized, there’s a LOT of paper, narrow aisles, and teetering piles.
John’s shop is on speed-dial for Hollywood props people. The 200 Life magazines that papered the John Nash’s shed in “A Beautiful Mind?” From here. Whiting’s ephemera has been featured in many movies, including “Like Water for Elephants” and “Lincoln.” John provided maps for the latter movie, and earned a bit part as Lee’s cartographer.
Those Time magazines above are small versions sent to the military during WWII.
Today I didn’t have “want” list, like going into a chocolate shop with no particular flavor in mind. But lately I’ve been interested in photos from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I have a collection of vernacular snapshots stored in a vintage 45 record suitcase (natch).
This beauty was just sitting there. I’ve been searching for a wooden photograph album. More than 100 pictures still in it (dealers often strip photos to sell separately).
How could I not have the image of this little girl with book satchel and lunchbox, gazing so earnestly into the lens?
Yesterday I discovered a new British writer whose work (what I’ve read of it) makes me gasp. Yesterday, our first real spring day with daffodils blooming and birds carrying twigs, we went to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, the second most visited cemetery in the nation ( after Arlington).
I’ve always loved cemeteries, especially ones with old headstones and unusual statuary. Hollywood is 135 acres of winding paths, old roses, holly trees, and thousands of people laid to rest. As I strolled among thickets of granite and marble, I thought about the new writer I’d discovered, Graham Joyce, author of—his term—“Old Peculiar” fiction.
In his most recent blog post, Joyce wrote:
There is a place near Leicester called Wistow. Any English place that ends with the suffix stow or stowe means “holy place.” It’s a bit special and a great place to walk the dog. It is a place with an energy, and a good energy at that. When the last eclipse occurred we decided on a whim to go there to view the eclipse. When we arrived a surprising assembly of people had already collected there, drawn by a similar unconscious force.
It didn’t take us long to find the Iron Dog, one of the most popular attractions in the cemetery. The grave of the three-year-old girl, who died in 1862, is shrouded in legends. Caretakers have claimed the iron Newfoundland moves. Others have seen the girl and the dog playing at night.
There is a depression in the field outside the church where St. Wistan’s blood was said to have flowed, and one day of the year, you can actually see Wistan’s hair grow from the grass. I’m told this is a rare grassy herb and not hair at all. But it’s a good story.
Forsythia makes my heart lift. We had a huge forsythia bush by our driveway when I was growing up. I’d cut branches and bring them in for my mother. When we moved to this house nineteen springs ago, I planted a forsythia bush. It died. And so did the lilac and Rose of Sharon bush. Any dirt that can’t sustain forsythia is mighty poor.
There are 52,000 graves in Hollywood, including two presidents (Monroe and Tyler, three if you count Jefferson Davis), two Supreme Court justices, and, this being Richmond, twenty-two Confederate generals and more than 18,000 Confederate soldiers. Since I grew up and still live on former battlefields, I’m familiar with the anguish of war beneath my feet.
If you half close your eyes and let your imagination run free you can watch another remarkable historical event unfold in front of that same church where Wistan was put to the sword. You can see both King Charles 1st and his military commander Prince Rupert galloping past and up to the mansion hidden by trees just a hundred yards or so from the church. Their army has just been routed by Cromwell at nearby Naseby and they desperately need a change of horse in order to get to the safety of Leicester. In their haste they change horses but leave the royal saddle behind. I’ve seen the saddle. It is crimson and silver and enormous. A thing of great beauty.
The cemetery is bounded on one side by the James River, an ancient waterway that has carried soil and stones from the western mountains for eons. Clack. Clack. Clack. Below a coal train rolled slow as a funeral procession, each car mounded with black gold blasted from those same mountains. The train, pulling at least a hundred cars, snaked past the city, bringing power for lights and laptops, leaving behind a blighted moonscape. Warm breezes brought out VCU students who lolled on blankets with their devices.
So maybe it’s just a grassy field. But, with the weather being high, we took a rug and a picnic and settled on the bank of the river for a lazy afternoon. The Sence bubbled away gently, flowing as it does towards the River Soar and into Leicester in the distance.
The sun made me sleepy. I wanted to stretch out in grass speckled with bluettes. Maybe next to an angel who would guard my dreams.
If you’re prepared to put your head down on this grassy spot, you are of course courting ghosts. As the clouds drifted by overhead something glooped in the water of the Sence and I let my eyes close.
Despite this perfect day, I felt vulnerable and uncertain. Where was my work headed? After all these years writing for children—all I’ve ever wanted to do—would I only leave behind a pile of books? Nothing I’d written is that good or important. It would be so easy just . . . to stop.
I put my head down and gazed up at the clouds and thought: why would anyone want to die? Then my old friend the Heron flew up from the river. Did it fly from right to left or from left to right? Oh, let’s not get into that. It’s just beautiful.
What would be written on my tombstone? I’ve often joked it would be “She Wrote the Boxcar Children Series.” Too bad it won’t be “She was a good writer and a good friend.” But a spider claims that elegy. At lunch earlier, I told my husband the dream I’d had the night before. In the middle of all the chaos was a kernel of something wonderful. At least I thought so. Like most people, my husband wasn’t keen on hearing my rambling dream.
Even though much of my writing has the flavour of dreams I rarely describe a character’s dream. The act of writing is not dreaming. In any event, when you’ve had your go at analysing the dream all you’re left with is the shiny pelt of a once-beautiful creature.
Hollywood Cemetery is so peaceful, I told my husband it was the perfect place to be buried. Much more atmospheric than modern Stonewall Memory Gardens with its flat bronze plates that tractors can mow over. My husband, not surprisingly, quoted Socrates: “Is life better than death? Only God knows.”
I did dream and I had the notion that something was speaking to me, only to wake and find that a dragonfly with a wingspan the size of my hand was buzzing my ear. As I blinked up at the sky that buzzing turned into an aeroplane’s drone, high, high, in the blue. I wondered where those people were going for their summer holidays. Oh this mysterious life, full of cloud formations and dragonfly language and the auguries of herons and aeroplanes and the kingdom of dreams.
Over the river, a burst of seagulls caught the sun on churning white wings. I watched their flight. Angels are always present.
It’s not the diagnosis of cancer that will shock you, though that is enough. It’s the shocking clarity you are left with about life. And if a dragonfly buzzes my ear like an aeroplane I’ll still be going, ‘What did it say?’
Actually I know what the dragonfly said. It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.
I thought about the wonderful kernel of my dream and decided to keep it close for a while but not bury it. I shut my eyes and saw its wavering green shape, its clean gold lines. And when I opened my eyes again I saw my husband, sturdy and steadfast.
And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?
These excerpts are from Graham Joyce’s last blog post, dated August 7, 2014. He died on September 9, 2014, of complications from lymphoma.