Friday, October 28, 2011

Love and Magic

We partied at school today, students and teachers alike. Of course I had to try to coil a bright blue wig around a couple of paint brushes, wear my new favorite wishbone, and go as Karou. :)

I hardly do her justice, right? But I had to try. I carried my signed copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone around the halls with me, sharing the good news of brilliant Laini Taylor to all who would hear. :)

Incidentally, the Queen of the Night there, beside me, is Becky, our science teacher. Becky is the smartest person I know. How can she be that adorable AND know everything about everything? It's not fair. Stars? She knows them. Volcanoes? Knows 'em. Fishes? Knows. Physics and spiders and electricity and turtle poop--she knows about it all. I love LOVE working across the hall from her. I hear the weirdest, most disturbing stuff through her open door, especially when gerbils die, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

And since I'm sharing things I love, I have to again say that I love M. T. Anderson. I read this speech he shared while accepting the Boston Globe/Horn Book award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and I've decided I'm going to memorize it. I'm hanging the speech beside my mirror so I can ingest its wisdom and vocabulary while curling my hair. That way, when he comes back, I can say so much more than, "Thank you for coming to Wisconsin." I can say things like "fatuous emotion," "vertiginously rapid," and "vernacular of Americana."

I also read this short piece about his telling a classmate about the color of dinosaurs, and I laughed so hard I cried.

And then I found this lovely, long interview from years ago. I learned others love the M. T., too, and also that he hates the word 'slacks' because it smells of thigh-sweat.

Just passing the good word tonight--there's so much out there to love. Halloween, and amazing coworkers and characters and creators. What are you just loving tonight?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

M. T. Anderson Charms Sheboygan

Beautiful lake-side Sheboygan hosted its second annual Children’s Book Festival on October 14-16. I drove 90 minutes east on Saturday, October 15, to join 3 dozen teens and adults listen to Matthew Tobin Anderson speak on the mythology of American landscape.

We gathered at 1:00 at Sheboygan’s Mead Public Library. It’s a wide-windowed library, one clearly well-loved and well-funded. The third floor holds the children’s library as well as the Maas Teen Learning Center, a long conference-like room wrapped in aqua and cobalt blue. I studied the orange, green, and maize squares of the carpet while eavesdropping as a volunteer encouraged Anderson to order something to eat between sessions. He responded with gentle embarrassment, asking her often “Really?” and then joking of needing a filet mignon, medium-rare.

His voice, by the way, is as rich as James Spader’s. Think Steff in “Pretty in Pink.” Yet he’s funny and disarming. My god, it’s like he’s Duckie and Steff rolled into one—how’s a girl to learn anything when confronted with such a package? Especially when the package is wearing salmon-colored All Stars.

He began his 30-minute talk, and I did my best to pay attention. I was distracted by visions of my parents NOT having moved from Massachusetts when I was a baby. Then Anderson and I could have been next-door neighbors. We could have biked to the Carnegie-era brick library together and whispered among the pages of Conan the Barbarian, writing fake names in the yellowed check-out cards.

Clearly, I’m crushing on the M. T. Where is his fan page? I looked. Couldn’t find one. Seriously? No one is tracking his tours? What he had for lunch? (It was a ham sandwich.) Come on, cyber world. Start obsessing about quality, will you? There’s quality here, wearing pinkly-orange Chucks.

Okay—back to the conference room. Anderson began with a humble note that he’d had only one connection to Wisconsin—he had met our Butter Queen at a friend’s wedding. “I had expected her to be a greasier, more gelatinous creature,” he quipped, “but she was quite a lovely person.”

Landscape was his topic—our own rugged, revised American landscape. His devotion to landscape developed as a child reading adventure stories and histories that recorded folks doing on paper what largely is lost in the lives of the modern American: discovering vast, howling wildernesses. He was enraptured by the romance of geography and the mood of space.

How right and yet how surprising for me to consider America full of romance and mood. I fall into the spell—as he notes many writers do—of the magic of medieval Europe, of its henges and moors, its castles and lochs. But America is rich with its own witchery and lore. To that end, Anderson makes a point of collecting local ghost stories. Not only do they detail new, often private locations, but they poignantly display what he describes as the poetry of American emptiness—that loneliness that comes with night time walks in wide meadows and deep forests. The tellers of these tales, he says, are often more entertaining than the ghosts, themselves.

I have learned that author Linda Godfrey collected Wisconsin’s monster stories and is sharing them at the Neenah Library in a couple of weeks. My middle schoolers and I will be in the front row. How perfect an opportunity to experience local ghost stories with newly-opened minds. We will hear not only about UFO sightings and haunted locales, but we will hopefully see the landscape of our own state unfold ornately before us.

His presentation included layers of tales about a small settlement named Dog Town in Massachusetts. I suppose it would be rude for me to reproduce his notes, right? In brief, he showed pictures of the current location and told stories of the town from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The stories built up: what did happen, what happened in reaction to what happened, what happened on top of that, and then Anderson’s own jokey bits added on top of that—all of the area’s history of sadness, all of the magic of human involvement and connection, and all of the loneliness of the trees and boulders that carry centuries of secrets—these things together build landscape.

Landscape should be a more emotionally potent force in our stories than even our characters.

Now are we all in love? Because we should be. A Harvard-educated, National Book Award-winning author just shared brilliant stuff that will change our books forever, and he did it with generosity of spirit and maybe even a twinkle in his eye.

During Q & A time, an enthusiastic teen asked how in the world Anderson wrote in such varying voices. Particularly, Whales on Stilts contrasts with the sober tone of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Anderson revealed that he actually wrote those books simultaneously. Researching his 18th century story thrust him deep into that odd, stylized, gracious tone that referred to breeches, not pants, and required specific buckles on each shoe. Giving himself a holiday, he created the Pals in Peril series. Taking three or four weeks to write Whales on Stilts, he got his irreverence out, and he was ready to revisit Octavian’s sobriety.

His books were piled for purchase in the children’s library, and I picked up both Octavian Nothing and the latest Pals in Peril. I stood between a group of four teens, each holding a copy of Feed, and an area teacher carrying two or three plastic bags bulging with books. I thought it was fantastic how he so clearly delights readers of all ages.

This is M.T. Anderson NOT in Sheboygan. I have no pictures of him in Sheboygan because I was a bit too shy. But look at the socks. And read his books and website. And fall in love as you should and must.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Poetry Workshop with Ellen Kort

On Saturday, October 8, I was sitting with three dozen poets listening to the great, gentle Ellen Kort share her wisdom,

Kort was Wisconsin's first poet laureate serving 2000-2004, with Denise Sweet following her from 2004-2008. An interesting bit of dark triva: Governor Scott Walker terminated the position of poet laureate in February of this year, ending the term of our third laureate, Bruce Dethlefsen. Dethlefsen, along with the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission, is seeking to sustain the role through non-profit support.

We didn't meditate on politics together, however; we jumped right into poetry exercises. Kort's first admonishment for us was to Love Ourselves in our poems. "Don't beat yourself up," she said, "no matter where you are."

Our first task, then, was to write a poem called "Autobiography." Her challenge was for us, along with being kind with ourselves, to write as fast as we could without thinking about what came out.

We shared the resulting "spillings" as we felt moved. Part of mine reads,

I am not what you think I am.
Wide eyes suggest a cartoon-watching
cocoa-puff munching, mall-loving, hair-curling--
Okay, I do curl my hair. My spirit curls
iron, though, ripped
with muscles, reps upon reps I heave,
working out with weights of patience,
of self-sacrifice
of watching others,
and of listening.
I am leathered skin, long exposed
I am feet crusted with mud
I am callouses
and I am sweat running down a ropish neck
I am the creases between eyebrows when no guiding star is found,
and I am the start of a smile
as an evening breeze startles the wanderer
with its cooling hand.

Sharing our spillings brought the group close--some stumbled as they read their scribbles, others read strong, tight pieces that felt fully-formed.

We were all encouraged to start with spills. That's how most of Korts poems begin, she confided. She said she thinks to herself, "Oh, I should write about that," and she spills. What a good reminder for us future NaNoers, yes? Just spill.

Next, we were encouraged to think about where we are in our family. She read her poems "Seeing Is Believing" and "Drumming," and then"First Ties: The Father in the Mirror" by Bill Meissner. Here is a portion of Meissner's beautifully captured image:

Nothing to a tie, he said.
For those few seconds, his big arms were my arms--
I watched his thick fingers
working the tie,
each time a little
too short or too long.
He leaned his face alongside mine,
And I smelled a sharp scent of Old Spice, heard the hiss of sighs
through his nose, like a car tire losing air,
as he focused on the broad, wrinkled pillar
that would not tie.
Arms that hadn't surrounded me for years
now wrapped me like ribbons. I couldn't pull away
from the rough kiss of whiskers
against my smooth cheek.

The last exercise was the most difficult for me to participate in, but the most enjoyable to listen to. Kort read three poems, each personifying an abstract noun. She had Commitment wearing sensible shoes; Pleasure was underestimated--laughing too loud and drinking too much; and Imagination--oh, what was she like? I think she wore yellow.

We were asked to choose an abstract noun and personify it, and boy, my brain just shut down. I tried giving Truth an irridescent coat that winked new shades as one walked near him. I let Criticism feel tired, wearing sweatpants, looking expectantly out the window for someone who never comes. I couldn't make it work. But my classmates! They blew me away! Modesty wore sweeping skirts and never asked questions, but a silver toe ring and an emerald pendant flashed at a careful watcher. Curiosity was a three-year-old, sleeping nightly on a soft pillow of no judgment. Betrayal met a girlfriend for coffee, warmed her into confiding, and then stabbed her friend's back while hugging her goodbye. Certainty mowed his yard at right angles and wakes late at night but won't talk about it. Contradiction was that uncle--not the favorite one--who started fights at family dinners. They were so fantastic. How I wish we could get a compilation of those poems--a little keepsake from sharing a bright blue October morning with some gifted writers.

Some last words of wisdom that Kort shared were
Don't justify what you write to yourself or to others.
Do not whine about not having time or energy.
Do not repeat a line at the end in attempt to add weight or significance. Let the verbs and nouns you've used throughout the poem do that work.
And do not undercut a fine poem with a last line of humor. Good funny poems are a joy; but tacking a joke on the end of serious poem rarely works.

What a morning of wisdom! Thank you so much, Ellen Kort, for passing your knowledge and experience on to us. And thank you to the FVUUF for hosting the workshop. It was a truly inspiring morning.

I'll end with a poem by Ellen Kort.


She didn't talk to him
for an entire day
lost herself in a book
to avoid looking at him
and when he asked why
she told him to leave her alone

He slammed the cupboard doors
flipped through the TV channels
looking for football wrestling
NASCAR He turned the volume up
hoping she'd come downstairs
so he could tell her
he was pissed really pissed

She took the dog for a walk
He fell asleep in the chair
She took a long hot bath
He smoked a cigarette
She made herself a salad
He friend a hamburger
They moved in and out
of the kitchen careful
not to brush against each other
She ate at the table a candle
burning in the center
He at in the living room
by the light of the television

And the anger was delicious

Saturday, October 1, 2011

When Wishes Come True

Here's what mine looks like:

On Tuesday, September 27, my sister Jen and I drove from Neenah, WI, to Chicago to hear Laini Taylor read from her newest book Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The trip could have taken 3 1/2 hours, but we did it in 5. :) One tricky exit and several wrong turns swooped us around Oakbrook Center until finally a tollbooth lady saved the day. Grace in a glass box, that's what she was, giving directions to two tired and hungry Wisconsites.

About a dozen folks gathered on the second floor of Barnes and Noble at 7. A beautiful blue-wigged bookseller passed out turquoise-feathered masks to those of us who blogged about books, and then she introduced Laini.

(And this is where I want to gush, but it's probably too much, too weird, too strong, so I'll put it in parentheses to lighten it up. But I absolutely felt like Amy from The Big Bang Theory. Socially inept Amy who girl-crushes on pretty Penny, and badgers her with titles of Bestie and BFF, wishing for sleepovers and hair-brushings. I absolutely wanted to share BFF necklaces with Laini and brush her pink hair. But, you know, I played it cool. Except for when my eyes were shining with I-love-you-so-much tears.) :)

Laini began by telling us where Daughter of Smoke and Bone originated. I think we may remember this, we followers, we familiar to the 'shiny new idea.' (Didn't we call it slutty, too? The delicious idea with that 'come hither' smile?) Hitting walls and grinding dry on a post-apocolyptic novel, Laini gave herself a day of free writing. A scene between a blue-haired daughter and her monster-dad bubbled up, and with it bubbled dozens of questions: Why did this monster raise a human girl? Why is he wearing a wishbone? And why is his shop filled with teeth?

She finished her original novel before returning to her blue-haired heroine. That original novel hasn't been touched since. Writing about Karou and Brimstone totally jazzed her, she shared; blooming their story brough tremendous wish fulfillment for her.We heard her read Akiva's attack on Karou--that important moment of his soulless eyes staring at Karou as she cocked her chin to the side in wonder--that breathless moment of a killer's hesitation.
And then she opened up the floor for questions. One woman asked about how art and illustration influenced her descriptive writing. Another commented on how hard writing a review about DoSaB is since the story is propelled by secrets and timed reveals. Laini talked about illustration for a while, mentioning (I hope these notes of mine are accurate!) not only her original graphic novel with Jim that led her to Prague for research but also a new 8-page graphic novel that Jim designed for the U.K. promotion of DoSaB. I wish they would make that available here! She also agreed that the book is hard to describe. The jacket summary took some serious work for everyone, she told us, to interest readers without giving away too much.

I asked abou Zuzana, my favorite character. ("Ooh cake. I'll take cake. But not pocket cake, because yuck.") Laini shared with us how Zuzana was important for levity and warmth--how stories without those moments of joy were a struggle for readers to return to. My sister Jen whispered "The Hunger Games," and I couldn't help but agree. Luckily, fans of Zuzana can look forward to seeing her again.

And then it was time for book signing and pictures.

And more gushings want to pour out here, and not even parenthetical ones, because it's just such a lovely moment to experience a wish coming true. How I've wished to meet Laini. Stopping short of rubbing my head onto hers, I've wanted to see how I could press some of her creativity and her energy into my own spirit. I've found so much inspiration in her blogs--how much more magic could she pass through smiles and eye-contact, laughs and eyebrow waggles and nods? And of course, words and wisdoms? I've thought of flying to Portland--maybe during CthuluCon?--and sitting at Slappycakes until she and Clementine come by.

But no need to lurk behind delicious pancakes. I've met the loveliest writer, and I've bottled up her magic. I'll mix her inspiration with a dash of my own courage and get back to my writing my own dark, beautiful stories.

When wishes come true, hearts burst with gratitude. My thanks to beautiful Jen for facing rush hour and wilty salads with me on our 12-hour adventure. I know you've fallen in love with Karou, too, and have reminisced your trip to Prague. I'm so glad you're a part of the fan club. :)

Thanks to the dads and grandma who made it possible for us moms to run away for a day. Thank you again, tollbooth worker, who guided us out of neverending I-94. And thank you, Laini, for your gorgeous, elsewhere stories and for sharing them with us in person, and in polka-dots.