Over 40 and loving it: let's celebrate fiction with positive older characters


Too many books feature sterotypical older women who can’t use phones and don’t like sex. Gransnet and imprint HQ are looking for writers to change all that

There is a passage from Jilly Cooper’s Rivals which, despite first reading it in my early teens, has stayed with me, popping into my head with increasing frequency now I’ve stepped over the threshold into the over-40 bracket. Lizzie Vereker, the curvy, middle-aged wife whose rat of a husband is cheating on her, is contemplating her misery and “feeling rather old and dried-up”.

So she rubs “skin-food into her face, only to realise she’d forgotten her neck, which is supposed to betray your age most, so she rubbed the excess skin-food down into it. Then she remembered you were supposed never to rub skin-food downwards as it made your face droop. Would her life have been different, she wondered, if she’d always remembered to rub skin-food upwards? Would James have stayed faithful to her?”

Women over 50 are the fastest-growing group of workers in the UK

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Laura Vaccaro Seeger Explains WHY? (plus a giveaway)


At the risk of dating myself, I’ll mention an old commercial tag line from the 1970’s—“when E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Well, when Holiday House contacts you and asks if you’d like to chat with two-time Caldecott and Geisel Honor book winner Laura Vaccaro Seeger, you also stop everything and LISTEN!

Laura’s latest book is a charmer, snuggle-worthy for the littlest ones. It’s titled, simply, WHY?

I met Laura last year at the Irma S. Black Award ceremony where she served as keynote speaker. She showed us her newest book at the time, BLUE, about a boy and his best friend. (Notice how the die cut on each page forms a new part of the image with each turn.)

 

Laura, you must know you are the only PB creator to make my husband tear up, as you read BLUE. And he’s never even had a dog! He was incredibly moved. How do you inject so much heart into your stories?

With every book, I try to distill the story down to its essence and I always draw upon strong feelings and beliefs while writing and illustrating.

With BULLY, for example, I’ve always felt a deep sense of empathy for anyone who was bullied or feeling left out, so it was important to me that above all else, empathy is the most important aspect of that book.

BLUE is probably the most difficult book I’ve ever created. It really comes from a deeply personal place. As a young child, I’d experienced the sudden loss of a family member—my brother—and that very complicated trauma was never really worked through. Consequently, I’ve always had an overwhelming fear and dread of loss. BLUE is a kind of therapeutic, cathartic personal exercise, but more importantly, it’s an attempt to offer comfort, as well as a starting point for deeper discussion with young children, (or anyone, really).

Your husband’s reaction truly means a lot to me!

So with your new book WHY?, what did you distill its essence down to?

WHY is a about curiosity, patience, and understanding. The little rabbit is having a bit of an existential crisis, and at one point in the book, the apparently all-knowing bear is faced with a similar crisis as he realizes that he can’t explain everything after all. Ultimately, their loving and enduring friendship is more important than anything, even when there are unanswerable questions. (I’ve always been fascinated with unanswered questions…)

Why do you think WHY? is a child’s most pressing (and frequent) question?

Well, given that children are witnessing everything pretty much for the first time, I think it makes sense that they would seek to have a deeper understanding of what they’re seeing and hearing.

I think adults often take for granted their surroundings, even if those deeper meanings were never fully explored or questioned.

Why are the characters in the book a bear and a bunny—instead of a bear and cub (or rabbit and bunny)? Why is the relationship shown as one of friendship instead of parent-child?

Ah, I thought long and hard about that.

With this book, as with many, I had an immediate vision that I wanted to stay true to. I knew that I wanted one of the characters to be very large, and one super small, which in many ways ended up dictating the decision about whether or not they’re related to one another. I also wanted them to be friends rather than relatives because friendship is a voluntary relationship, which I felt made the story more interesting in many ways.

Also, from the beginning. I’d envisioned a bear and a rabbit, but I did explore a substitute for the bear because I was worried that there might be confusion between the bear in WHY, and the bear in my DOG AND BEAR series. In the end, I felt the bear was undeniably perfect, and I was confident that the character would be distinctive in its own right.

He is distinctive! And so lumpy in a furry-cuddly way. Plus, it’s more visually interesting to showcase contrasting characters!

Speaking of your art, it’s gorgeous, full of depth and texture. Can you tell us a little about your illustration process for WHY?

Sure! With each book, I try to envision an art style that will match the text I’ve written. Hence the multiple, various art styles over the years.

With WHY, I envisioned a softer style, unlike any of my other books. It’s been years since I’ve worked with watercolors, and I had such a great time painting the art for this book!

So, I began each painting with a pencil drawing, and then I painted over the drawings with watercolor paint. I repeated this process lightly, many times, which gave the art depth and a layered feel, without any thick paint or brushstrokes. This way, the softness was retained and the pencil lines showed through.

Once all of that was done, I still felt it needed something – a bit of grittiness and a little more depth. I wanted it to feel more organic.

So, I finally broke out a fabulous gigantic Japanese brush I’d bought a few years ago in Singapore and I soaked it full of water so that it was completely saturated. Then, I brought it into my backyard where I dipped the sopping wet brush into India ink and flung it at watercolor papers. When I was finished, I had a huge stack of paper, each sheet full of splotches, spots, drips, etc. I created so many sheets because I didn’t want to repeat any of the elements.

Then, I scanned my original watercolor paintings and all of the “splotch” art sheets. For each painting, I overlaid several different “splotch” art sheets, I isolated the splotches, and I either lightened or darkened those areas on the original paintings.

Your process is fascinating! I love the thick and chunky Japanese brush!

What’s so lovely about the illustrations is that they feel soft and safe for a young child who is asking WHY, who is questioning the world around them. What do you hope that young reader will take away from your story?

I think with WHY, I’d love to encourage curiosity and the freedom and “permission” to question absolutely everything, which ultimately I believe, would encourage independent thought and informed decision-making. I also hope WHY is an example of patience and understanding, for sure. And lastly, I hope that young readers understand that not all questions have immediate answers, and that’s okay.

What a wonderful take-off point for a meaningful discussion between adult and child. 

Thank you, Laura, for giving us a glimpse into your creative process!

WHY? is available from Holiday House on August 13…or you can win a copy here.

Leave a comment below and someone will be randomly selected to receive a copy in a couple weeks.

One comment per person, please.

Good luck!


Laura Vaccaro Seeger is a New York Times best-selling author and illustrator and a 2-time winner of the Caldecott Honor Award, winner of the New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Best Picture Book, and a 2-time winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award. She is also the recipient of both the Massachusetts Reading Association and the New York Empire State awards for “Body of Work and Contribution to Children’s Literature.”

She earned her BFA degree at the School of Fine Art and Design at the State University of New York at Purchase. She then moved to Manhattan and began a career as an animator, artist, designer, and editor in network television. She created show openings and special segments for NBC and ABC for many years and won an Emmy Award for an opening animation for an NBC Special.

Laura and her husband, Chris, have two wonderful sons, Drew and Dylan. They live in Rockville Centre, New York. She loves painting, writing, surfing, boating, tennis, running, playing the piano, and spending time with her family and friends. 

Visit her at www.studiolvs.com.

 



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The Ultimate Magic Convention: All About the CC Summit 2019


  The Conjuror Community Summit August 23 & 24, 2019   In 2015, the CC Summit magic convention happened for the first time. Today, four years later, this magic conference is known as one of THE most uniquely amazing magic conventions in the world, attended by a rare max of seasoned professionals, amateurs and magic […]

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How Tammi Sauer Wrote a NUGGET & FANG Sea-Quel (plus a giveaway)


by Tammi Sauer

In the spring of 2013, two unlikely friends swam onto the picture book scene—Nugget and Fang. From the start, Nugget & Fang, written by me and illustrated by Michael Slack, did really well. I was proud of our standalone. It never even occurred to me to write a sequel.

Then in 2017, my new editor at Clarion, Lynne Polvino, asked if I’d be interested in revisiting a certain underwater world.

Now, all these years later, my favorite fishy friends are back in the SEA-quel, NUGGET & FANG GO TO SCHOOL.

When Fang the shark is invited by his friends to attend Mini Minnows Elementary, he thinks it’s a great idea! But then his first day of school arrives . . . and suddenly, he’s not so sure. He’s not very good at reading or math. He doesn’t exactly fit in with his classmates. And the teacher looks crabby! Can Fang’s best friend, Nugget, and the other minnows help him discover that school really is FANG-TASTIC?

When a publishing house asks you to write a sequel, please know this situation comes with advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

  • You already know your characters.
  • You already know the tone.
  • You already know the style.
  • You already know the voice.
  • You already know the general setting.
  • You already know the basic pacing.

Disadvantages:

  • The book needs to be written.
  • The book needs to be at least as good as the original, preferably better.
  • The book needs to appeal to fans of the original as well as to people who have never read it.
  • The book needs to meet a deadline.
  • The book needs to get approval from the publishing house, and, if the book does not get this approval, you can’t submit it elsewhere. Plus, you, um, still have to write a sequel that gets approval.
  • The book needs to be similar to the original. Oh. But it needs to be different, too.

But how do you actually write a sequel????? In my experience, such a task involves gallons and gallons of tropical tea, endless quantities of chips and salsa from Torchy’s Tacos, and a critique group that reminds you that you can do this.

These are the three things that were most helpful to me as I wrote Nugget & Fang Go to School:

  1. I read the original. Then I read it again. And again. And again. After that, I read it again. This not only helped me to dive back into Nugget and Fang’s world, but it helped me to rediscover the rhythm of their story.
  2. I typed out the text of the original and paginated it. This gave me a clear and concise visual of my pacing and page turns. I kept the paginated text of book 1 right next to me as I worked to create the text for book 2.
  3. I played with words. (Book 1 incorporated lots of wordplay so book 2 had to have that as well.)

First, I compiled a list of the wordplay that I had used in book 1:

  • Holy mackerel!
  • Swim for your lives!
  • Sounds fishy to me.
  • Oh, my algae!
  • I feel seasick!
  • Have you lost your gills?
  • Catch of the day
  • Fang’s heart sank.
  • You’re fintastic.
  • Fanned his gills.
  • Wrung his fins.

This served as a cheat sheet. I knew what wordplay absolutely could not go into book 2. I then wrote a long list of different potential wordplay to use in the sequel. These are the items that made their way into book 2:

  • Other fish in the sea
  • Oh, my starfish!
  • Swim for cover!
  • Cool as a sea cucumber
  • School of fish
  • Crabby
  • Sea of faces
  • Fang-tastic
  • Best friend in the whole underwater world
  • Made a splash
  • A fish out of water
  • There was nothing fishy about that.

Having lots of new wordplay to choose from allowed me to give book 2 a similar feel to book 1, but it helped me to make the new book fresh as well.

Overall, writing a sequel is quite a challenge, but, if my editor asks me to write another book about Nugget and Fang, well, wild seahorses couldn’t pull me away!

Luckily, wild seahorses aren’t pulling away our giveaway—a copy of the chummy SEA-quel to one lucky blog reader. Leave a comment below to enter. A winner will be randomly selected in a couple weeks!

Good luck!


Tammi Sauer is a full-time author who presents at schools and conferences across the nation. She has 28 published picture books with major publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin Random House, Scholastic Press, Simon & Schuster, and Sterling. Her book Your Alien, an NPR Best Book of the Year, was recently made into a musical that is currently touring planet earth. (Well, the United States anyway.) Visit her at tammisauer.com and follow her on Twitter at @SauerTammi.

 

 



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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Thomas Wolfe told us that you can never go home again. But you can do some re-reading, as Diane Cano explains:

Re-reading in my ninth decade a book I first read as an adolescent: Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe. Even as an adolescent I thought of it as a novel especially suited for young teenagers, full of enthusiasm and new pain. It is still racist and misogynist and full of (glorious) lists, but I am no longer the indignant girl I was. Now I just relax into the tolerance of knowing, with Auden, that Time “worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives”. Oh, how Wolfe throws those words up, around, over and through – everything.

Perhaps because I feel that social media today plays the role that chemicals play in that novel: it opens up a dark side of us that can roam around in the dark, anonymously, doing as it pleases. The issue now, as with the novel, is that hidden never really stays hidden, does it?

So many interesting stories, connections, insights and so easy to relate to where we are now as a global population. Shows how things ebb and flow over time – our current “reality” isn’t fixed in stone.

Ration books, Time and Tide magazine, sitting in a cold cellar waiting for the all-clear siren, tennis parties, wartime wedding cakes with cardboard imitation icing, seeing the newly released Disney films Dumbo and Pinocchio at the cinema, billeting evacuees, fear or Goering’s plans but spirit of the Blitz.

A bitterly hilarious, brutally truthful, elegantly incisive collection. Wonderful, just a brilliant, up-front, trusthworthy voice. One which does not overstay its welcome, nor get too repetitive meandering between stories.

The sense of growing unease is palpable. I like the way Roth explores events – mainly a growing wave of anti-semitism in an isolationist America in WW2 governed by a right wing president – through the experience of a really well-defined young Jewish boy and his family.

I’m not really one for reading non-fiction but this is brilliant – so well written, smart, funny and humble (so far).

A childhood in the 1920s, a saintly hero brother who disappears too soon, Catholic dreams in a Massachusetts winter, survivor guilt and a family struggling with mourning.

There’s a different kind of Kerouac energy here; introspective, spiritual, angelic and natural. The ghosts of the great wanderers float through these words – William Blake and Walt Whitman, with the touch and feel of sad autumn leaves. There’s that strange melancholy of a dying season, disappearing like smoke from a slow burn bonfire. A haunting and beautiful small book, about the biggest of subjects.

There is a certain slow burning intrigue about this book. The location adds an immense amount to the story and covers for the times when not much happens. It develops nicely into a really enjoyable novel. I have read the first two and will endeavour to read the rest of the series. Funnily enough I have never managed to sit through a whole episode of the TV show.

In March 1893 the Torrens, “one of the most famous sailing ships of its day”, set sail from Adelaide, Australia on its return voyage to London. On board was a wealthy young English barrister who had been travelling round the Pacific. From shipboard he wrote to his mother about meeting a remarkable man, the ship’s Polish mate:

“A capital chap, though queer to look at; he is a man of travel and experience in many parts of the world, and has a fund of yarns …. He has been right up the Congo and all around Malacca and Borneo and other out of the way parts…”

From Tel Aviv with love: Leonard Cohen’s letters to Marianne have just been sold at auction.

The “strange story” of a secretive award funded by the chairman of Barnes & Noble.

James Campbell on John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman at 50.

A literal (cartoon) rendering of David Berman’s poetry.

Paul Ewen in solidarity with the illegally detained writer Behrouz Boochani.

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Critique: 4 Ways to Write Gripping Internal Narrative


internal narrativeThe old joke about how “the book was better than the movie” is a reflection of several attributes written fiction offers over visual fiction. One of the main ones is the ability to get inside characters’ heads via internal narrative.

Narrative, by its very nature, is narrated by someone. Usually, that someone is the protagonist. The “deeper” or “closer” the POV, the more important it is that narrative choices be crafted to reflect the narrating character’s internal landscape. Even in distant or omniscient POVs, in which the narration doesn’t pretend to issue from the characters’ heads but simply observes and/or reports, readers are still given at least glimpses of the characters’ interiority.

In many ways the subject of internal narrative is also the subject of POV (point of view). And POV, as any student of narrative fiction knows, is often one of the most difficult subjects for writers to understand and execute.

Today, I want to largely divorce internal narrative from the bigger questions of POV (e.g., “when and how is it okay to use different characters’ thoughts in certain POVs?” or “what are the nuances of writing a close versus a distant POV?”). Instead, as part of our ongoing series of “excerpt analyses,” I want to explore some common challenges writers face in trying to write internal narrative that is both functional and engaging.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the fourth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Darrell Ferguson for sharing the following excerpt from his portal fantasy Escape From Paradise. Let’s take a look! (The bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.)

Frozen in place, Adam drew a trembling breath.1

“Come on, Adam! You can do it!” Jimmy shouted from the water below.

From atop the waterslide, Adam looked down at the neighborhood pool. “I’m coming!” He sounded braver than he felt. Jimmy had a way of inspiring courage, and Adam was eager to impress his big brother.2

“I just need a second,” he whispered to himself, trying to calm his racing heart. A deep breath, then another. I can do it. All I have to do is … let … GO!

Adam released his death grip on the rails, his stomach pushed up into his chest and he became weightless, falling more than sliding. I don’t want to do this! Too late to change his mind.3 He braced for impact.

Plunging into the muffled depths, his flash of regret gave way to exhilaration. That was so scary … and fun! I’m going again!4

Adam smiled under the water. There was nothing he enjoyed more than going to the pool with his family. Being under water on such a hot day felt good. Adam took a moment to enjoy the cool refreshment before he started swimming toward the surface.

Wow, this pool is deeper than I thought. His arms strained against the water as he pulled himself upward. Why was it taking so long to get up? He swam harder. I need to breathe! His smooth stroke turned to a panicked dogpaddle. He had never been under water this long before. His thinking became cloudy and he could feel his consciousness beginning to slip away.

Finally, he broke the surface with a splash and gulped in the precious air. He was so relieved to have made it that it took several more breaths before he realized, Something’s wrong with this air. It seemed thin—even worse than times when he and his dad had climbed at high altitude. This air wasn’t just thin. It was … empty.

Most of what we’re seeing in these opening paragraphs is internal narrative. We are in the protagonist’s head, seeing and experiencing what he sees and experiences. I’m going to talk about some of the specific ways the internal narrative could be tightened for a stronger effect, but first note how much more immediate and intimate the final paragraph is compared to what comes before. This is because the final paragraph uses almost all the techniques we’ll talk be talking about.

4 Tips for Internal Narrative That Grabs Readers

The broadest understanding of internal narrative is that it is any part of the story that “takes place inside your character’s head.” In short, internal narrative is your character’s thoughts.

But it can be more than that too. The technique of the deep POV is designed to create the impression that the story is being told by (first-person) or from (third-person) the narrating character. When done well, this technique removes as much distance as possible between the narrating protagonist and the reader, allowing the reader full immersion in the story and encouraging total identification with the narrator. Most genre novels these days are written in deep POVs, of varying degrees.

When writing from a deep POV, it can be useful to think of the entire narrative as internal narrative. In most stories, this won’t mean the character is literally thinking every word shared with readers. But even in dealing with non-thought aspects (feelings, intentions, reactions, observations, etc.), the narrative will be crafted in such a way that readers always feel as if they are seeing everything through the narrator’s eyes. As we’ll get into in a bit, one of the best ways of achieving this effect is by creating a recognizable and consistent voice for your character/narrative.

In our last critique, I talked about common “show, don’t tell” mistakes. I also talked about how the art of “showing” is really the entire art of narrative fiction. What this means, of course, is that much of the art of dramatizing a character’s interiority overlaps considerably with smart “showing” techniques.

Lively narrative voices are those that show readers what the narrator is experiencing, rather than simply reporting it back. If you can master the basics of internal narrative, you’ll have taken a huge step on your way to engaging readers in your story.

Let’s take a look at four important components of skillful internal narrative.

1. Use Your Narrator’s Voice to Influence Every Word Choice

The key to leveraging internal narrative is to use it to both power your narrator’s voice and to infuse that voice into every moment of the story. (This is true even if you’re using a distant narrator who presents the effect of observing the characters’ actions rather than participating in them.)

Optimally, your narrative’s voice must simultaneously and subconsciously signal several things to readers:

1. What person is this story being told in? (Third-person, in the case of our excerpt.)

2. How deep is this POV? (The POV in the excerpt actually feels quite distant and on-the-nose due to all the direct thoughts, but probably was intended to be deep in light of how much time we’re spending explicitly in the character’s head.)

3. Who is this character? (The voice presented in the excerpt, starting with the opening line, creates a feeling of observatory distance from the protagonist, which both prevents the effect of readers seeing events through the character’s eyes and skips the opportunity to immediately introduce the character via a potentially engaging inner voice.)

Until you’ve found your character’s voice, it can be difficult to pull off seamlessly engaging internal narrative. But once you have, the narrative will often write itself.

2. Use Irony and Subtext at Every Opportunity

How can you create a voice that conveys your character’s personality and interiority in every line of your narrative?

One of the single best ways to create and infuse voice into a narrative is to use ironic subtext. Straightforward narratives that spell out everything for readers often comes across as dull, even when trying to convey thrilling action. Mostly, this is because straightforward or on-the-nose narration offers only a single character dimension.

But when the narrative is as much about what the character isn’t saying or is creating an ironic juxtaposition between what the character is saying and what the reader understands as the subtext—wowza! Suddenly, great things happen.

Sarcasm is an easy example of ironic subtext. But even uncomplicated subtext can add layers to a character’s internal narrative. This happens when readers are shown for themselves why something is so, rather than being told, as they are in the excerpt’s third paragraph: “Jimmy had a way of inspiring courage, and Adam was eager to impress his big brother.”

We’re told Adam has a motivating connection with his brother, but because it’s spelled out for us, it lacks emotional resonance. We’re told what to think, rather than being shown by first being drawn deeply into Adam’s interiority.

3. Choose Indirect Thoughts Over Direct Thoughts 99% of the Time

Okay, so I pulled that percentage out of my ear. But you get the idea.

Direct thoughts are distinguished from the rest of the narrative, usually by being presented in first-person and present tense, but also sometimes by being punctuated differently (italicization being the most common and, for my money, most functional approach). We see direct thoughts peppered throughout the excerpt, including the fourth paragraph with the protagonist’s panicked, “I don’t want to do this!

Indirect thoughts, by contrast, are phrased to flow with the rest of the narrative, usually by being presented in the same person and tense. The excerpt follows up the above-mentioned direct thought with a good example of an indirect thought: “Too late to change his mind.”

The great benefit of direct thoughts is the immediacy they provide. But their great drawback is that, used too often or too inconsistently, they can actually pull readers out of the narrative rather than immersing them more deeply. By contrast, indirect thoughts masquerade as part of the main narrative, which strengthens the effect that the entire story is being filtered through a single narrator’s experience.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

The amazing versatility of internal narrative makes it one your best tools for powerfully showing readers what your narrator is experiencing. However, it can also be easily misused as a shortcut for telling readers what to think and feel about the story.

The excerpt’s sixth paragraph offers two different examples of telling. The first sentence starts with a bit of showing that uses strong verbs, adjectives, and nouns (“plunging into the muffled depths”), but then gives way to telling readers what the character is feeling (“regret gave way to exhilaration”) instead of evoking empathetic feelings. (You may remember from our last critique analysis that you should “never name an emotion.”)

The second sentence in this paragraph offers direct thoughts: “That was so scary … and fun! I’m going again!” In a way, the direct thoughts are “showing,” since they directly dramatize something that’s happening. However, because the content of the thoughts is on the nose, the effect feels more like “telling.”

In essence, readers are being told the slide was scary. This bit of internal narrative is not only unnecessary in light of the “showing” in the previous paragraph (“his stomach pushed up into his chest and he became weightless, falling more than sliding”), but also contributes to a stiff internal voice.

***

At the end of the day, great internal narrative is simply great narrative. As such, it’s no wonder internal narrative is one of the most complex and challenging techniques for writers to master. So many different tricks and tools come into play, all of which must be mastered to pull off a seamless effect. When you do pull it off, the result is an immediately recognizable “it factor” that will be spotted by any reader browsing your pages.

My thanks to Darrell for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the key to great internal narrative? Tell me in the comments!


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature


From acorn to wren, a vibrant encyclopedia of enchantments reweaving our broken web of belonging with the rest of nature.


The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf’s melodious voice unspools in the only surviving recording of her speech — a 1937 love letter to language. “In each word, all words,” the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot writes a generation later as he considers the dual power of language to conceal and to reveal. But because language is our primary sieve of perception, our mightiest means of describing what we apprehend and thus comprehending it, words also belong to that which they describe — or, rather, they are the conduit of belonging between us and the world we perceive. As the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer observed in her poetic meditation on moss, “finding the words is another step in learning to see.” Losing the words, then, is ceasing to see — a peculiar and pervasive form of blindness that dulls the shimmer of the world, a disability particularly dangerous to the young imagination just learning to apprehend the world through language.

In early 2015, when the 10,000-entry Oxford children’s dictionary dropped around fifty words related to nature — words like fern, willow, and starling — in favor of terms like broadband and cut and paste, some of the world’s most prominent authors composed an open letter of protest and alarm at this impoverishment of children’s vocabulary and its consequent diminishment of children’s belonging to and with the natural world. Among them was one of the great nature writers of our time: Robert MacFarlane — a rare descendent from the lyrical tradition of Rachel Carson and Henry Beston, and the visionary who rediscovered and brought to life the stunning forgotten writings of the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd.

Troubled by this loss of vital and vitalizing language, MacFarlane teamed up with illustrator and children’s book author Jackie Morris, who had reached out to him to write an introduction for a sort of “wild dictionary” she wanted to create as a counterpoint to Oxford’s erasure. Instead, MacFarlane envisioned something greater. The Lost Words: A Spell Book (public library) was born — an uncommonly wondrous and beguiling act of resistance to the severance of our relationship with the rest of nature, a rerooting into this living world in which, in the words of the great naturalist John Muir, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” just as each word is hitched to all words and to the entire web of being.

While children’s experience is at the heart of this quiet masterpiece, MacFarlane and Morris intended the large, lavishly illustrated book for “children aged 3 to 100” — a book “to conjure back the common words and species that are steadily disappearing from everyday life — and especially from children’s stories and dreams,” a book “to catch at the beauty and wonder — but also the eeriness and otherness — of the natural world.” What emerges is a lyrical encyclopedia of enchantments, radiating the sensibility of classical natural history illustration but illustrating a more natural future for the generations ahead.

Each word occupies three lavishly illustrated spreads: a poetic “summoning spell” in the form of an acrostic to conjure back the lost word in a rhythmic incantation composed to be read aloud, a wordless visual eulogy for its vanishment, and a typographic botany of letters spelling it “back into language, hearts, minds and landscape.”

Half a century after Rachel Carson painted in the opening of her epoch-making book Silent Spring a dystopian future bereft of birdsong, MacFarlane opens with an image of a world — this world — bereft of the words for birds (and plants, and other beings), and thus bereft of the regard for and concern with them:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and in appearances. It is told in gold — the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms — and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.

Complement The Lost Words, the splendor and enchantment of which no digital screen can convey, with Susan Sontag on the conscience of words and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit the lovely Lost in Translation — an illustrated dictionary of beautifully untranslatable words from around the world.


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How John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s Pioneering Intimate Partnership of Equals Shaped the Building Blocks of Social Equality and Liberty for the Modern World


“Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.”


How John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s Pioneering Intimate Partnership of Equals Shaped the Building Blocks of Social Equality and Liberty for the Modern World

Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.

In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”

John Stuart Mill (National Portrait Gallery)

In his autobiography, Mill painted a stunning portrait of Taylor:

In general spiritual characteristics, as well as in temperament and organization, I have often compared her, as she was at this time, to Shelley: but in thought and intellect, Shelley, so far as his powers were developed in his short life, was but a child compared with what she ultimately became. Alike in the highest regions of speculation and in the smaller practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle. The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as her mental faculties, would, with her gifts of feeling and imagination, have fitted her to be a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would, in times when such a career was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind. Her intellectual gifts did but minister to a moral character at once the noblest and the best balanced which I have ever met with in life. Her unselfishness was not that of a taught system of duties, but of a heart which thoroughly identified itself with the feelings of others, and often went to excess in consideration for them by imaginatively investing their feelings with the intensity of its own.

Harriet Taylor (National Portrait Gallery)

In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.

Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:

My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.

A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.

[…]

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.

They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)

With an eye to the perilous erasures with which history is often rewritten — history, I continue to insist, is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — Gopnik points to the curious disconnect between Mill’s own repeated affirmations of Taylor’s supreme influence on his ideas, and subsequent warpings and appropriations of their story:

After [Mill’s] life, generations of commentators — including Friedrich Hayek, who unfortunately edited their letters — aggressively Yoko-ed [Taylor], insisting that poor Mill, wildly intelligent in all but this, was so blinded and besotted by love that he vastly exaggerated the woman’s role, which obviously couldn’t have been as significant as his own. Fortunately, newer generations of scholars, less blinded by prejudice, have begun to “recover” Harriet Taylor for us, and her role in the making of modern liberalism seems just as large and her mind as fine as her husband always asserted that it was.

Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:

What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.

They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.

In that singular Gopnik fashion, he then inverts the telescope, turning from the cultural perspective back to the intimate microscopy of this uncommon bond between two uncommon visionaries. Between their ideals and the their vulnerabilities, he locates one of the largest truths about love:

Theirs is one of the most lyrical love stories ever told, for being so tenderly irresolute. Recognizing that intimate life is an accommodation of contradictions, they understood that political and social life must be an accommodation of contradictions too. The accommodation was their romance. That meant that social accommodation could be romantic, too. Love, like liberty, tugs us in different directions as much as it leads us in one. Love, like liberty, asks us to be only ourselves, and it also asks us to find our self in others’ eyes. Compromise is not a sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience. It is a sign of its strength, for there is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too. A compromise is a knot tied tight between competing decencies.

[…]

The great relationship of [Mill’s] life would be proof of his confidence that true liberty meant love — relationship and connection, not isolation and self-seeking. What we want liberty for is the power to connect with others as we choose. Liberalism is our common practice of connection turned into a principle of pluralism.

When Taylor died of a mysterious malady only seven years into their marriage, and nearly thirty years into their partnership, the devastated Mill erected a monument to her, made of the same Carrara marble as Michelangelo’s David and inscribed with these words:

HER GREAT AND LOVING HEART

HER NOBLE SOUL

HER CLEAR POWERFUL ORIGINAL AND COMPREHENSIVE INTELLECT

MADE HER THE GUIDE AND SUPPORT

THE INSTRUCTOR IN WISDOM

AND THE EXAMPLE IN GOODNESS

AS SHE WAS THE SOLE EARTHLY DELIGHT

OF THOSE WHO HAD THE HAPPINESS TO BELONG TO HER

AS EARNEST FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

AS SHE WAS GENEROUS AND DEVOTED

TO ALL WHO SURROUNDED HER

HER INFLUENCE HAS BEEN FELT

IN MANY OF THE GREATEST

IMPROVEMENTS OF THE AGE

AND WILL BE IN THOSE STILL TO COME

WERE THERE BUT A FEW HEARTS AND INTELLECTS

LIKE HERS

THIS EARTH WOULD ALREADY BECOME

THE HOPED-FOR HEAVEN

Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities is a worthy read in its entirety, drawing on the personal to illuminate the political, clearing the clouded lens of the past to magnify the most pressing questions of the present in order to answer them with equal parts reasoned realism and largehearted idealism. Couple this particular fragment with Jill Lepore on how Eleanor Roosevelt revolutionized politics, then revisit Henry David Thoreau, writing in Taylor and Mill’s era, on the long cycles of social change and the importance of not mistaking politics for progress and Thomas Mann, writing in humanity’s darkest hour, on justice, human dignity, and the need to continually renew our ideals.


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Kahlil Gibran on Friendship and the Building Blocks of Meaningful Connection


“In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”


Kahlil Gibran on Friendship and the Building Blocks of Meaningful Connection

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” the poet Adrienne Rich observed as she contemplated the art of honorable human relationships on the cusp of the Internet revolution that furnished the commodification of the word friend. “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled two millennia earlier in his meditation on true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” But how does one refine the ponderation sieve through which one admits into one’s soul the few who count?

Perched in time and sensibility between Seneca and Rich, the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) examined this question in a few short, exquisitely insightful verses from The Prophet (public library) — the 1923 classic that also gave us Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love and what may be the finest advice ever offered on the balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

In his narrative poem, when a youth inquires about the essence of friendship, Gibran’s prophet answers:

Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside. For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.

Diagram from my taxonomy of the four levels of platonic relationships.

More than a decade before the brilliant and underappreciated French philosopher Simone Weil considered the paradox of friendship and separation, Gibran offers assurance that absence is only a clarifying and fortifying force for the bond:

When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

In a sentiment C.S. Lewis would come to echo in his poetic insistence that friendship “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival,” Gibran adds:

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

Gibran ends the fragment on friendship with a vital reminder that the measure of closeness is not the magnitude of intensity and the heaviness two people entrust in one another but the ability to dance across the entire spectrum of being with equal ease:

In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

Complement with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship, her contemporary and almost-friend Ralph Waldo Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of soul friend, then revisit Gibran on authenticity, why we make art, and his gorgeous love letters to and from Mary Haskell, who was his primary financial and spiritual succor as he found his creative voice and without whom The Prophet would not have come alive.


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