Writing Process Blog Tour (#MyWritingProcess)

Well, it’s finally happened: my blog has been memed. (Can meme be a verb? And if so, is it transitive or intransitive? And is it irregular?)

Anyway. I have been tagged by the prodigiously esteemable Mr. William Alexander, author of Fine Fictions and Sundry Stories, and an all-around Fine Fellow. You can read about his process here. You can also browse his books – the National Book Award winning GOBLIN SECRETS , for example.

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If you haven’t read it, I insist you do so instantly. It is a wondrous strange little beauty, filled with intricate machines, beautiful baubles bent on your destruction, bravery, loyalty and dread. I just loved it. He writes short stories as well, and I’m always happy to encounter a new one. His new book is this:

 

17571252Middle grade science fiction in the vein of A Wrinkle in Time? Great Scott. Sign me up.

And since this is a meme, which means that I must pass it on like a game of Hot Potato, I do hereby name Mr. Steve Brezenoff, a writer whose books are both incisive and compassionate, who balances the highbrow and the lowbrow with deft skill and ease, and who manages to force us to remember the ache and confusion and agony of the teen experience while reminding us of the joy as well. His newest book is Guy in Real Life, and I insist that you read it at once.

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Anyway. The meme. I hope it makes sense. If not, don’t worry about it. I rarely make much sense.

Question the First:

What Are You Working on Right Now?

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Several things. My editor has a copy of my new book, The Boy Who Loved Birds, on her desk right now, and I am in a place of restless waiting for notes. This is a common phenomenon for writers: restless waiting. It is, I’ve been told, particularly unattractive. Oh well. I’m also finishing up a new book called The Sugar House - a Hansel and Gretel retelling set in Minneapolis. I very much enjoyed writing it. And then I’ll write the next book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon – which has a foundling child, a mad woman in a tower, a five-hundred-year-old witch named Xan, a poetry-quoting swamp monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon with delusions of grandeur (his mother, hoping to boost his self-esteem, convinced him that he was actually a Simply Enormous Dragon trapped in a land of giants). I am rather excited about it.

Question The Second:

Why Do You Write What You Write?

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You know, my husband asks me this all the time. Or more specifically: why don’t you write best selling series fiction that makes millions so we can retire and then you can hire recent graduates to crank out your novels on your behalf like James Patterson? And, to be fair, that is an excellent question. Alas, I can only write what interests me. I write strange fictions because I am interested in strange things. I endeavor to write beautifully because I delight in beautiful things. I write creepy stories because I enjoy the inward shiver of the macabre and the unsettling tale. I write stories about childhood because childhood interests me – how we become, how we find our feet, how we build ourselves into the people we will be, how we shape the world around us. I write what I write to amuse myself. I write what I write to heal myself. I write what I write as messages in a bottle to the lonely, hurting child that I used to be. I write for my kids. And my future grandkids. And the kids in the neighborhood. I write to share the oddness inside me with other people.

Sometimes I do all of these things at once.

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Question The Third:

How Does Your Work Differ From Others in its Genre?

Oh good lord. I have no idea. Honestly, the notion of genre in general makes me itchy. I don’t like putting firm categories on art, and feel frustrated with the increasing balkanization of literature. Since stories, once absorbed into the Self become part of our internal landscape and our external mapping – since they, once read, become seamlessly integrated in the mind of the reader (and I mean capital-M Mind) they are forever interacting and communicating with every other story that the reader has read. Which means that A Wrinkle in Time is in a lifelong conversation in my brain with Little Dorrit. And The Odyssey. And Anne of Green Gables. And The Sandman. If it were up to me, all fiction would simply be fiction, and that would be that.

I think I’ve digressed.

Anyway, how does my book differ from – not other books of its supposed genre but any book at all? Simple. I wrote mine. Someone else wrote theirs. When we sit down to work, we bring the particularities and peculiarities of our specific life experience. My family. My fears. My hopes. My nightmares. My faith. My loss of faith. My travels. My mental health. My obstacles. My reading life. My bare feet on the green grass and my fingertips in the warm mud and my lungs taking in the air around me and my eyes widening at each new blessed wonder. My books are different because I am different. You see?

 

Question the Fourth:

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

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Not very well, I’m afraid. I am a chronic destroyer of my own work. My newest book, The Witch’s Boy, was fully erased and given up on, I’d say eight times. I slash and I burn, and my soul burns with it. So this is how it works:

1. I get a notion of a story – sometimes it is a little knot of text that occurs to me while I’m running. Sometimes it is a very clear idea for a character. Sometimes it is a very particular moment. In any case I will will not start the story. I will just start thinking about the story. For a long time. (To put this in perspective, The Girl Who Drank The Moon - the story I’ll be starting this summer – I have been thinking about for about two years. The book I write after that – Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Doctor Otto van Drecht - I’ve been thinking about for three years.)

2. I get a box. I’ll put scraps into the box from time to time – little note cards, ripped out pieces of paper, articles, pictures, bits of string that I can’t remember what I was thinking of putting it in there, but there it stays. Baubles. Notions. Knick-knacks. Whatever. Things accumulate in the box.

3. I start to write. Longhand. I am a big believer in writing longhand. The problem with this is that I am not very organized and am prone to losing said notebooks. For The Sugar House, I have lost my notebook at the playground, at my kid’s school, at a coffee shop, at the gas station and in a public restroom. Fortunately, each time I’ve lost it, I’ve found it again. So far. But the future is wide and wild and scary and anything can happen.

4. I give up on the longhand. Eventually, the story starts moving in two directions at once, and I need to fix the beginning in order to re-do the end. Or I am just moving too quickly to be able to keep up. So far, I’ve only been able to maintain my longhand-only insistence for about 3/4 of a draft. When I start to move to the computer, each section goes into depth and breadth. So fifty pages in the notebook often translates to ninety pages on the computer. Each sentence is a jumping-off point.

5. I erase everything. I give up. I wonder why I ever started writing in the first place. I say mean things to myself.

6. I confess my erasing to my writing group who tell me to knock it off already. I get back to work.

7. Steps five and six repeat a bunch of times.

8. I read the book out loud. I realize it’s not as bad as I thought. I read loudly, dramatically, and with gusto. My neighbors think I’m nuts. They are not wrong. I edit as I read. I repeat this process about ten times.

9. I send it out. And I collapse:

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10. And the process starts over.

 

 

 

Feral Children

A typical scene on my block.

A typical scene on my block.

The other day, I had my writing group over for dinner so they could eviscerate discuss my new book The Boy Who Loved Birds, which I am still considering erasing forever. It was one of those perfect evenings in Minnesota – pleasantly warm with a gentle breeze, all blossom and fragrance and birdsong and green, green, green, green. My back yard bumps right out onto park land, so from the table on the patio, you look out onto a green slope and a green field and a tangle of woods and a swollen creek with a charming footbridge arching prettily over the water. If you look up idyllic in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it says Kelly Barnhill’s goddamned patio.

Anyway, somewhere between the tortellini and the wine and the orange popsicles, a scene unfolded before us – familiar enough to me, but my comrades were stunned by it. A troop of shirtless boys – a couple with hand-torn strips of cloth tied around their heads in makeshift headbands – came tramping down the hill, passing by the yard and heading over to the fallen down willow tree by the water’s edge. The boys in my neighborhood call it “The Fort” or “The Village”. The girls call it “The Fairy Tree”. Obviously, the girls have the correct name, but we try not to make the boys feel bad about it.

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Two of the littler girls trailed behind. To the untrained eye, it looked like they were tagging along. For those of us in the know, it is clear that they are there to a.) be in charge and b.) collect evidence for future tattling, blackmailing or politicking. They stopped on the hill to roll down it – boys and girls together. When they got to the bottom, they stood as if this was the most normal way possible to travel downhill, and proceeded to march across the field.

“Hey kids!” I called out to them.

“Hey Kelly,” the kids called back. Or some of them did anyway. My son ignored me entirely. They tramped by and disappeared into the green.

My writing group turned to me.

“You live in a damn Norman Rockwell painting,” they said.

“Is it like this all the time?” they wondered.

And the thing is? On my block, yes. It is like this all the time. Kids wander this way and that – from back yard to tangled wood to alley to bridge to riverbank to field to garage to basement to somebody’s kitchen to back yard and back to the field. They travel on bikes, on scooters, on roller blades, on skateboards and on foot. When the field floods they bring out paddle boards or kayaks. Sometimes they try to wrestle giant carp swimming in the shallow waters covering the grass. From time to time, parents will text or call with the whereabouts of this child or that child. If I am looking for my son, for example, I’ll check with the parents across the street, and if they don’t know, I’ll ask the parents next door to them, and if they don’t know I’ll check with the family down the block, and if they don’t know, I rely on the fact that I can call out really really loud (it’s one of the perks of being a former singer – I project) and eventually my son hears me and comes home.

The kids here. They run wild. It is good that they run wild.

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“Do you want to just tell your kids that they’re not allowed to grow up to be messed up? Do you tell them look at what we have provided for you! It’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, even the most idyllic childhood doesn’t rescue us from having our own dark nights of the soul. Pain – physical, emotional, spiritual – is inevitable. We were born broken. We will die broken. We will be broken along the way. However, I like to think that this little kid paradise tucked into Minneapolis will give them something special as they muddle their way through the perils of childhoods into the skins of the men and women that they will become. I hope that the wild children that they are right now remains an essential part of who they will be. I hope that, even when they are old, that their souls are still muddy, grubby, grass-stained, sweaty, hard-muscled, bright-eyed, and still utterly, utterly wild.

One of the benefits of the feral childhood – because, let’s be clear. That’s what they have. Sure they brush their teeth when they are told and do their homework on command and clean their rooms when under duress and come in for dinner after only the seventh or eighth warning, but they are far from domesticated – is that they have this opportunity to claim the world that they inhabit. This is a powerful thing for a child – something unavailable to them when they’re at school or baseball practice or church or grandma’s house. When they roll down the hill and tramp across the field, there is no rule that they do not negotiate and agree on among themselves. There are no clocks or watches. There are no gold stars or percent marks or work books. Heck, there aren’t even shirts half the time.

In the green world, there is only now.

In the green world, there is only us.

Here are my hands, the children say. They belong to me.

Here is the grass, their voices shout. It belongs to me as well.

Here is this stick. It was made for my hands. Here are my arms. And my muscles. They were made to wave this stick around. There is no truth but motion. There is no rule but play. There is no reality outside of myself and this stick and this mud and this tree and this water and this green. This is the only world that matters. 

Here is this field they say. It belongs to us. Here is the creek. It also belongs to us. And so does the sky and everything under it. How good – how very good it is to be THIS boy. And THIS girl. This very one. 

There is no greater thing on earth than a child in motion.  Bless you, my children. Bless all of you. May you own the world forever.

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The Mountain Dew Guy, the Snickers Guy, the Hot Cheetos Guy, the Taquis Guy

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My daughter’s school, like many others, has banned the sale of junk food on the premises. This astonishes me, given that she goes to the same high school that I went to, and I can’t imagine my high school career without the rush to the pop machine after third hour in hopes that you might be able to drop your quarters in and snag a soda AND eat your lunch in the same twenty minute time-squeeze they called a lunch period.  I can’t imagine a South High experience without those gooey chocolate chip cookies that they were always selling four for a dollar, which tasted exquisite for the first bite or two, followed by a mournful compulsion, followed by nauseous regret.

I mean really, how can one experience the true euphoria of post-track-practice -high without the requisite bag of Funions or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Is it even possible? Kids today live lives of deprivation and woe, and I am sorry for it.

The pop machines were the first to go. The candy machines followed shortly after. And high school, for a very little while, became a very sad place.

Today, I was Target with my fourteen year old, shopping for god knows what.

“Mom,” she said. “Mom. Mom. Mom.”

“What, what, what,” I said, as I was trying to catalogue the entire contents of my fridge and pantry in my head, and plan for the meals for the next few days, and curse myself for not thinking ahead and writing out a damn list.

“Mom. Mountain Dew. It’s on sale. LET’S BUY SOME.”

I stopped in my tracks. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “You’ve never had Mountain Dew in your entire life.”

“Shows what you know,” she said. “I have it every day.”

“How?” I asked.

“The Mountain Dew Guy.”

“I hate that kid.”

“HE’S THE BEST.” She nearly shouts this. In the middle of Target. People turn and stare and wonder if my kid is crazy. Yes, I want to assure them. Very much so.

The thing is, I already knew about the Mountain Dew Guy. Ella’s spoken of him frequently. With the elimination of the vending machines in an effort to make our kids more healthy and whatever, an underground economy quickly sprung up in the halls of South High, and I’m guessing other high schools as well. A cottage industry of sorts. Or a backpack industry.

This is how it works: There are kids at school with suspiciously overstuffed backpacks. They sit down in the lunch room – or anywhere really – with the backpack sitting next to them, unzipped, the merchandise visible, but easily hidden from the adult gaze by the quick application of a math book or whatever. The independent vendors have their particular specialties. There’s the kid who sells Mountain Dew (“You want to get that right away in the morning, because it’s not cold anymore by third period,” Ella explained.). There’s the kid who sells Bugles. There’s the kid who sells Snickers. There’s the kid who sells Skittles. There’s the kid who sells protein bars. There’s the kid who sells Coca-cola. There’s the kid who sells Gatorade. Each one has a single item specialty, though there are a few who cycle through different products depending on the day.

Kids sidle up. They already know the price. Everything is one dollar. No one decided this, of course, but it is the easiest denomination to scrounge for the high school consumer. “Anyone can find a dollar,” Ella explained. “And sometimes we pool our coins together and share the Mountain Dew.” Which explains why her entire lunch table all succumbed to Strep Throat in the exact same week.

“Mountain Dew is really bad for you,” I told her. “You really shouldn’t drink it.”

“I don’t do anything else bad for me,” she countered.

“This is true,” I said, “but I’d rather you choose something good. Like French chocolate. How about you get hooked on that?”

“Is it a dollar?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Well then.”

She picked up the twenty-four pack of Mountain Dew and gave me the giganticest smile in the world – all braces and pink cheeks and hope. “Please?” she said.

“Not in a million years.”

“You’re not as nice as the Mountain Dew Guy, Mom,” Ella said, walking dejectedly behind me, appearing to all who noticed as the saddest fourteen year old in all the land. “You are not as nice at all.”

“I know, buddy,” I said.

And so afterwards I took her out for lattes. Which are somehow better for her, though I haven’t yet figured out how. Reasons, I expect. They are better because of reasons.

Regarding BEA, the Kids Author Carnival and other NYC shenanigany stuff.

This weekend, I had a whirlwind, didn’t-see-90%-of-the-people-I-hoped-too-but-still-saw-SO-MANY-GOOD-FOLKS, magnificent visit to good old New York City in order to participate in Book Expo America, or BEA for those who know the publishy-lingo. I went because my book had been chosen as a Middle Grade Buzz title, which was a huge and astonishing honor. My publisher, then, was kind enough to introduce me to lots of librarians and book sellers, and to make a goodly stack of the ARCS of THE WITCH’S BOY available for those who wished to read it before the book came out.

A lot of people wanted it, apparently, because within the hour, the goodly stack was a memory of a goodly stack and all the books were gone. This was surprising to me.

Anyway, some day soon I am going to write a love poem to my publisher, Algonquin, who is filled with wondrous, magical and fiercely intelligent people that I absolutely adored meeting and talking to and getting to know. Meeting the whole team was nothing short of a joy. Plus they made this cool poster for the books – both for kids and adults – that are coming out soon. See?

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Anyway, I am still processing much of the many wondrous conversations I had over the course of the long weekend, and I am still rather jumbled up, I’m afraid. Instead, I will have to provide a List of Highlights. Ahem:

 

1. Meeting my beloved editor, Elise Howard, for the first time.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

Seriously, you guys. She is amazing. I have been telling people for the last year and a half how much I have treasured my experience at Algonquin, how my editor’s insight and intelligence and her knack of seeing not only the bones of the story, but its sinews and connective tissues – the chambers of the heart, the connections in the brain, the ineffable soul (all of it; she sees all of it) – have pushed me into a space in my writing, and a level of artistry,  that I never would have reached on my own.  And I am forever grateful. And I absolutely LOVED meeting her and hanging out and picking her brain and listening to how she works and even chatting about random things – kids, other books, goofy goings-on in NYC. The whole bit. It was most grand.

2. I lost my phone. Three times. And found my phone. Three times. Which was a blessing.

3. Bringing my husband along. I have never done this, actually. And, as it turns out, it was the first time we were away from our kids since 2003. For those of you doing the math at home, that was . . . some years ago. In any case, there is nothing like getting organized for a panel – a Buzz Panel, no less – and seeing your favorite friend in the audience.

speaking of . . .

4. THE BUZZ PANEL! It was awesome!

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Despite various snafus regarding microphones (which is why I am standing at that podium instead of facing the people I was actually talking to) we actually had a great conversation. I enjoyed the heck out of all of those people (and Rob and Kat, your books are currently being read to pieces by my kids. So.)

5. THE KIDS AUTHOR CARNIVAL! Also awesome! Thirty-seven kidlit authors and an army of bloggers and great crowds of book-loving kids! And how great was it to hang out with hordes of kids swarming the halls of the Jefferson Market Library (which, by the way, looks like Hogwarts), with a bunch of my kid-writer buds that I’ve known for months or years online, but only just got to meet in real life. This whole thing was organized by Claire LeGrand – who is just as amazing in person as she is on the page – and it was a huge success. I had no less than twenty parents come up to me and say that this MUST happen next year. And I agree.

6. Catching up with my beloved Genevieve Valentine, whose new novel, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB (a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” story in 1920’s Manhattan) (I KNOW! I think you should read it too!) releases tomorrow.

7. LIBRARIANS! SO MANY LIBRARIANS! I met children’s librarians and teen librarians and regional librarians and school librarians and legal librarians and scholarly librarians and possibly-nefarious librarians.

(“But,” my son asked. “Were any of them ninja librarians. Or secret-super-hero librarians?” “Yes, my darling, ” I told him. “They all were.”)

8. The food! The best part of  any NYC visit is the food. And yes. I am still full.

9. The books! I have three tote bags full of books that I managed to haul all the way back home. My arms hurt. And my eyes are tired because I stayed up too late reading. There are worse problems to have.

10. Standing for an hour chatting with people at BEA, signing book after book after book until my hand started to shake, and meeting people that I have had lovely and heart-felt exchanges on Twitter, and seeing their beautiful faces and hearing their beautiful voices, and realizing that social media – despite its capacity for silliness and cruelty and infantilized blatherings posing as profound – really does bring us together. It truly, truly does. To those of you who I met for the first time, but have known for far longer than that, I’d like to say this: thank you. Thank you for stopping by. Thank you for lending me your time and your spirit. Thank you for existing in the world. Thank you for your continued conversation with me about books and culture and race and gender and childhood and teenhood and growing up. About the world and everything in it. About the universe we know and the universe beyond. Thank you so much.

Okay. Now to get back to writing. Because this book isn’t gonna write itself.

 

“Where do your characters come from?”

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I’m sure I am not the only writer that gets this question. Usually it’s about halfway through the question and answer period after a reading, or during a school visit. The hand goes up. I know they’re going to ask it before they do. I brace myself.

“Where do your characters come from,” they ask. And I wince.

Because I seriously have no idea how to answer this question. At least not in a way that makes me sound sane.

But it shouldn’t sound insane. Not really. This is something that we do – all of us, all the time. We create characterizations out of nothing. We see people walking down the street and we make thousands upon thousands of assumptions about them, without even realizing that we are doing so. Our brains are built for narrative. We think in narrative, understand in narrative, process memories in narrative. It is the structure in which we organize information and construct truth. We may be walking down the sidewalk and see a broken bottle in the grass, and then go a little bit farther and see a cast-off shoe, and then go a little bit farther and see a bare spot in the boulevard, or some trampled flowers, maybe, and we start to connect the dots. We start writing a story. We can’t help it.  It’s our brains, you see?

Similarly, if I sit down on the bus, and the man who sits down next to me has a very long beard and very callused fingertips and hand-patched jeans and a tattoo that says “meat is murder” with a drawing of a pig wearing a crown of thorns (this happened to me once; I stole the tattoo and put it in one of my books)? Well. I start inventing all kinds of stuff. It’s a long bus ride. What else am I going to do. And by the time the bus ride is over, I already know that a woman named Elsie broke his heart and that he plays his guitar every night, trying to find the memory of her voice in the harmonics between the strings, and that his grandmother always called him by a name that was not his own and never explained why and that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in six years, even though she leaves a message on his phone every single day that says the exact same thing, “I’m just thinking about you and I love you. Call when you have a sec.”

He hasn’t told me any of these things, of course. And the character in my head isn’t him. Of course it isn’t. It’s just someone like him. It was my brain connecting the dots. It was my brain doing the work it is built for, which is to say, stories.

“Where do your characters come from?” they ask and I always want to shoot back, “Where does anyone come from? Your teacher, your friend, the guy who opens your drains, the meat inspector with the limp, the check-out clerk at the gas station with a wad of gum the size of a golf ball. Where do any of them come from?” And how can we separate what we know about the people we meet with what we invent? I don’t think we can. I think the creation of knowledge requires imagination. And that the world that we live in is largely imaginary. We invent the world around us and the people in it, again and again. We weave the known and the unknown into an experience that is uniquely ours. And we don’t even know that we’re doing it.

Instead I just say that I go fishing. I cast my nets into the sea of the mind and pull in a character. I don’t do this at all, but it is a quick and easy way of answering the question.

I get asked a lot which character is me. “Are you Jack?” they ask. “Are you Wendy or Violet or Cassian? Are you Ned or Aine or the horrible King Ott? Are your Sister Witch or Uncle Clive or Aunt Mabel? Which one are you exactly?”

The answer, of course, is none of them. And all of them. But mostly none. These characters have elements in them with which I identify, but they are not me. They are themselves. I met them one day and I got to know them, and I lived with them for a while. And I loved them. Each blessed one. They were like those roommates that you have in the crazy living situations that you get into those post-college ennui years when your life hasn’t quite found its feet. Those people that you stay up with until the sun rises talking about books or politics or music or whatever. Love. Loss. Love again. And you love them. Profoundly. And then their lives take a turn, or your life takes a turn, and they slip into the wide world and do not look back.

All you have then is a story.

The fact is, the world is filled with deeply interesting and broken and brave people. I have never turned anyone I’ve met into a character in my book. But I have honed in on the strange gifts of Self that people offer to me. I have kept little bits with me from my conversations and connections that never go away. For example: Once, when I was in my early twenties, I worked at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. It was a great job for an insomniac because I had to be there at quarter to five in the morning, when I was already up and fussing, and it gave me something else to fuss about. And I met a lot of interesting people in that job. For example:

The city inspector who would get really mad when people would ask if that little child was his granddaughter. He was sixty. His wife was twenty five. Every time someone said “granddaughter” his face would go red and his lips would suck in and he would hit the nearest table with his fist.

The lady who insisted that we call her “Mrs. Q” – I never learned her actual name. She was incredibly old – a body diminished to sticks and feathers and rice-paper skin. She had deep folds above her copper-colored eyes. She came in every day for a decaf latte that she would never finish. And every day, she would take out a yellowed sketch book. She never drew. She just looked at the pictures. I never knew why.

The guy who sold his zine (remember zines?) every Saturday from one of the back tables. No one bought them, so he started handing them out for free. He had been born a girl, and his wife had stayed with him loved him through his transition. I had never met a transgendered person before, though I know many now. I remember reading his zine – and he was very frank in his discussion of the trans experience, as well as his call for trans acceptance and the rights of all individuals across the gender spectrum – with a hunger for understanding. It’s not every day that someone gives you an open door to their experience, you know? He loved old band tee-shirts and he had very small feet, but large hands. He also had begun to lose his hair – an effect of hormones, he told me. “You don’t know before you start all this if you’re the guy who’s gonna go bald,” he said sadly, running his hand through his thinning hair. I told him it made him look distinguished. And I meant it.

And Horst. Oh, Horst! I’m pretty sure he was in the country illegally. He had been a student at the University of Oregon, but that didn’t work out, so he moved north to Portland. He always paid in cash, and said he avoided bars because he “didn’t believe in photo identification”. Horst was in his late twenties – blond, tall and narrowly built. He had high cheekbones and profoundly blue eyes. He asked me out every single day. Sometimes more than once a day. He knew I had a boyfriend (though I never said boyfriend. I said partner, because we were modern and forward in our thinking. And then people played the pronoun game, trying to pin me down as to which kind of partner I had exactly.). Horst was always cheerful about his lack of chances. “Make sure to tell me the second you’re single,” he’d say, giving a gentlemanly bow. The last time I saw him, it was December, 1998. I was twenty-five and recently pregnant, though I didn’t know it yet. Horst shows up in a long wool coat, covered, I remember, with tiny drops of rain, each shining like a jewel. He removed his hat. He had a purple, handmade scarf wound many times around his neck, and his face was so pale, as though he was made out of milk. He bowed again.

“I must bid you farewell, dear lady,” he said. He was always talking like that.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“I am taking my Volkswagon and traveling the width and breadth of you nation. By this time next year, I will be taking up residence in the desert, where I will prepare for Y-2k.”

There were a lot of these in Oregon at the time. Doomsdayers. Survivalists. My partner-soon-husband had just gotten a job with the city helping them with Y-2k readiness. People thought their microwaves would explode and their computers would melt, and that there would be utter anarchy.

“Why do you need to be in the desert to prepare for Y-2k?” I asked.

“You see, dearest,” he said, “we are entering a new phase of the human experiment. Currency as we know it will cease to exist. And good riddance. Numbers as we understand them will also cease to have meaning. Good riddance to that as well, I say. We are entering a time that we have been destined to enter since we first climbed out of the trees and learned to work together. Kindness will be our currency. Love will be our numbers. And an age of blessed one-ness will descend upon us all like sunshine.”

“Really?” I said.

“Most definitely,” he said.

“And the desert . . .”

“Oh,” he said with a casual wave. “I just like it.”

And then he bought a cup of chamomile tea. He paid for it in cash. And he foisted a fifty dollar bill in my hand as a tip. “Make sure you spend it this year, though,” he said. “It will just be paper soon.”

 

I have never put Horst in a story. But I think about him all the time. And I like to think that he is in the desert somewhere, staying in an old trailer, or a small cottage atop a small rise so he has an unobstructed view. And I like to think that he still has that scarf because the desert gets cold at night. And I like to think that he is paying for things in kindness. Because he is kind. And why not? And I like to think that he is meeting people and talking to people and that they are creating and storing stories of their own. That Horst exists in the narratives of people all over the country. And that he is everywhere. Perhaps in a story that you are writing, right now.

 

 

“My god, Bones. What have I done?”

 

I woke up this morning and discovered there was no tea.

And then I remembered that there wasn’t any tea by ten o’clock yesterday morning and I had intended to go to the store. And I forgot to do it. And not I am standing in the kitchen and my world is like this:

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I had a thing I wanted to blog about, but I can’t remember what it was because I don’t have any tea and oh god, oh god, oh god.

If any of you are able to beam me some caffeine, I would appreciate it.

Love forever,

Kelly Barnhill

BEA, Kids Author Carnival, and other items of note.

The sky outside has been promising rain for over an hour, which means that I have been delaying my run. It still hasn’t rained. It still wants too. And since I’ve already cleaned, I suppose I should actually try to write something. Actually, this is perfect writing weather – the creek flows, swollen and fast, just beyond rim of my yard. And the world between my window and the water is green, green, green, green. You’ve never seen anything so green. The sticky buds of the crabapple tree have finally burst, and the small leaves are shiny and supple and new.

Is there anything more beautiful than Minnesota in spring? I don’t think there is.

Anyway. Items of business. There are many, so I think I shall number them.

  1. IRON HEARTED VIOLET HAS BEEN RELEASED IN PAPERBACK!  51OdR1F9bDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I know. This is old news. But I got out of the habit of blogging, and I managed to not say it here. But I should say it, because, VIOLET! And DEMETRIUS! and THE DRAGON! And NOD and MOTH and AUNTIE and even CASSIAN! I have missed them, I really have. It’s a funny thing, living with characters for months and months and even years. You inhabit their skins, you hold their beating hearts in your hands. You know them by touch, by smell, by taste, by sound. You know them better than you know yourself. And then you put them in a paper boat and launch them into the river and pray they make it safely to the Sea. I loved them. I will never touch them again. That is one of the many tragedies of authorship. (Well, that and all the cigarettes and jazz and liquor and bad dates with Hemingway and the general Loose Living of the Author’s Lifestyle.) (I’m just kidding.)

    (Note: My life is not like this at all. But it is totally what I thought my author's life would be when I was a dreamy eighteen year old.)

    (Note: My life is not like this at all. But it is totally what I thought my author’s life would be when I was a dreamy eighteen year old.)

  2. First Book! On Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll be at Northport Elementary School, as part of First Book. If you don’t know this organization, you really should. They provide books to children in need, and partner with local companies to bring literacy volunteers to read with kids. One of the hard truths about kids in poverty is that their access to books is severely limited. Add to that the fact that they aren’t read to nearly as often as their more monied classmates (which is perfectly understandable when parents are working three or four jobs just to keep the lights on), which means that kids in poverty are often coming into Kindergarten with a language deficit – a 2000-word vocabulary, as opposed to a nearly 7000 word vocabulary for kids in the middle classes. Having better access to books is vitally important, and I am so thrilled to be partnering with this fine organization. I used to teach at a school in which 92% of our kids were over the poverty line, and later was a GED teacher for homeless youth, so this really feels like the different threads of my life are coming together. On Wednesday, I’ll be doing writing workshops with the kids, and talking about the writer’s life (see above), and on Thursday, I’ll be jazzing up the volunteers. Should be fun! br0057cs
  3. BEA! I’m going! I’m terribly excited, of course. I’ve never been, and from what I understand, it is something similar to being called to the Mother Ship. My new book, The Witch’s Boy, was selected as a feature for the “Buzz Forums” at BEA this year.  I had never heard of this, because I live under a rock, but my friends in the know assured me that this was a Big Deal. In any case, I’m super excited to go. And now I have to figure out how to do this thing without making a total fool of myself. If you are planning on being there, you should come and see me. I’ll be signing too, so you can stop by the Algonquin booth and find me there, but seriously, you guys? I could really use a friendly face or two in the crowd at the buzz panel. Stop by if you can!BEA_logo_starburst
  4. THE KIDS AUTHOR CARNIVAL! Seriously, how the heck did I end up on this lineup. This is insane! And wondrous. As an advocate for children’s literature and a reader of children’s literature and a sharer of children’s literature and a writer of children’s literature, I think this is just the greatest thing ever. Saturday, May 31. You’re coming, aren’t you? WELL, AREN’T YOU??? UPDATEDflyer_onesheet
  5. And lastly! My book doesn’t come out for quite a while, but the first blog review has been posted. And she wrote an Ode. AN ODE! It did indeed warm the cockles of my cold, cold, heart. The first professional review goes live on Wednesday (I think), so expect a link. But in the meantime, you can read this one. She sure was nice to my dear Ned and Aine. 

 

And that is it, my dears. It is time for me to dive back into THE SUGAR HOUSE. Beautiful Miss Lacy will get more spidery, and awful Mrs. Otterholt will get more goddessy, and all the while poor, beleaguered Nate will have to figure out how to do right without getting himself into more trouble. What are you working on today?

One More Thing About Teaching . . . the side benefits.

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I’ve been doing fiction workshops in schools for a bunch of years now, and one would think that I would have made it easier on myself by creating a bunch of fairly standardized lesson plans so I wasn’t having to make it up as I went along every dang time. Alas, if one should think such a thing, one would think wrong. I’m not much of a planner as a general rule. When I shoot, I shoot from the hip. Every time I organize a workshop, I re-invent the whole thing. It’s the only thing I know how to do.

This year, I decided to teach the kids about story structure – cause/effect, three-act, non-linear, etc. I had them plan out the stories they had started, starting with fleshing out their main characters, identifying the central problem and mapping out what was going to happen in the beginning section, the middle section and the end.

To demonstrate what I wanted them to do, I pulled out the longhand manuscript of my new WIP, called The Sugar House, and did my own story plan on the white board. So as they were planning out their stories, so I was planning out my own. And talking about my own. And wrestling out loud.

And here’s the thing about spending time with third and fourth graders. They are incredibly encouraging.

“Wait,” one boy said, after I had written the central problem for The Sugar House on the Smartboard and was waiting for the kids to write down their own. “Is that book out?”

“Which book?” I asked.

“That one,” he said, pointing to the notebook in my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “No. As you can see, I’ve just hit the 150 page mark in my notebook, and I’ve run out of space. So now I’m going to start transferring it into my computer, expanding the details, and do fussy little things like work out the ending.”

“Oh,” the boy said.

Later as I wrote out the main events – beginning, middle and end – for The Sugar House as a demonstration, and waited for the kids to write their own, the same boy raised his hand.

“Well,” he said. “It looks like you did it.”

“Did what?” I asked.

“Worked out the end. Right there. ‘Nate and Mrs. Otterholt save the day even though they still hate each other’s guts.’ That’s a GREAT ending.” He smiled encouragingly.

“Well,” I said. “Thank you. I actually haven’t gotten that far yet in the actual narration, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it will end. I’m glad you like it.”

He paused. Raised his hand again.

“So,” he said. “It’s coming out, like, next month maybe?”

“No darling,” I said. “But I’ll let you know when it does.”

“Good,” he said. “Because I can already tell it’s my favorite book.”

 

And that’s what it’s like with these kids. I read them sections from The Witch’s Boy and they tell me it is their new favorite. I read them sections from other books that I love - Winter of the Robots, Breadcrumbs, Goblin SecretsThe Thirteen Clocks - and they tell me those are their favorite books too. They stand up when I walk by to give me a hug. They ask me to autograph random scraps of paper which they shove in their pockets, lose, and then ask again the next day.

I have spent the last year staring at my manuscript in a state of utter fear – writing, erasing, writing, erasing – wondering why I do this job at all, wondering why I scribble words just to pronounce them failures and kill them forever. Wondering how I could ever hope to do right by these characters whom I love so very much.

And then I go to a classroom. And I share my characters with kids. And the kids love them as much as I do. This right here – this is why I teach. I teach to remind myself why I write, and I write to have the opportunity to connect with the kids I teach. The two are connected. And it’s only when I’m in the classroom, that I can feel that connection in my bones.

Time to get back to class. I hope everyone has a wonderful Friday!

This is the Work You Were Born For: some thoughts on teaching kids the practice of Story

 

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Good grief. I haven’t blogged in over a month. What on earth have I been doing?

(actually I know exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ll get into that in another post. right now I have important things to discuss with you. ahem.)

Anyway, once again I am spending a week with some amazing third and fourth grade students at Chanhassen Elementary. I’ve been doing this same residency for a number of years now, through my work with COMPAS, a statewide community arts program, and every year I am stunned by the brains of elementary school kids.

They are philosophers, these kids. They are scholars. They are giant hearts with legs. They are analysts. They are deep thinkers. They are Big-Idea-Types. 

One of the things that I do at the beginning of the residency, and I feel this is vitally important, is I get the kids all jazzed up about writing stories by talking to them a bit about why we tell stories at all. Because they all know stories – of course they do. They read them and listen to them and watch them on television. They act them out. They observe them in photography and sculpture and paintings. They watch high drama unfold every day in the casual gestures of their parents or the overheard side commentaries of their classmates in the hall. These kids are always engaged in Story.

So I tell them stuff about stories. Big stuff. Broad stuff. Big Idea stuff.

“The act of making a story is not the words you write on the page,” I tell them. “When we write the words on the page, we’re just making a pathway for the reader, and a pathway for ourselves, to journey toward the story. The story, you see, is separate. It is a prize waiting at the center of the universe of your brain, and only you can take us to see it.”

Stuff like that. They eat it up, these kids.

“Stories,” I tell them, “are uniquely human. When we write a story or think a story or tell a story or listen to a story, we are connecting ourselves to every other human being who has ever written or thought or told or listened to a story. We are connecting ourselves to the larger human family.”

I tell them this, and they are itchy to start. I can see it in their hands – the way they hold their pencils.

“Human beings,” I tell them, “have told stories even before they had language. At first they told stories through song, through dance, and through rhythm. They made pictures in the mud. They painted on caves. They invented language to be able tell stories more effectively and efficiently.”

This blows their minds, actually. I can see it on their faces. I have to work pretty hard at the beginning of the class to catch all their attention in my little butterfly net and hold them close to me, but at this point, I could stand perfectly still, and each one of my little butterflies would simply cling to my hands and arms and eyes. They don’t fly away. The kids hold their breath. I hold my breath. This is my favorite part, I think.

“Telling stories is your birthright, folks.” This is true, you know. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it. “This idea. This story in your head. These words that are about to pour like water out of your giant-bucket brains and onto the page. You were born to do this work.

And then they do. With gusto.

So far, I have gotten stories of hidden super powers and stories of kidnapped parents and stories of hidden treasure and stories of mad scientists who only wanted to find a way to make their teeth stop hurting. There have been friendly bears, wicked giants, dragon librarians, stealthy spies and a boy who becomes King of Poopland. I’ve gotten stories about a best-friend-zombie and a best-friend-talking-bunny and a best-friend-ogre and a best-friend-robot. I’ve gotten stories about a mall full of people suddenly possessed by ghosts and two sworn frenemies who are the only ones who can fix the situation. I’ve gotten stories about parents who download an app and then their children disappear.

So many stories.

And it’s good for me, even though it wears me out – the driving, the teaching, the geyser of enthusiasm that pours out of me every class period and with every interaction with students. It’s tough on an introvert. Necessary, yes, but tough. My family has been most attentive and sweet when I come home. But still, I love doing it because, even as it depletes me, it fills me up at the same time. Standing in a room full of thirty kids all attacking their pages at once, writing furiously as though chasing their stories down like bison on the plain? Well. As I pour, so am I filled. It’s amazing. And bearing witness to the raw enthusiasm from these kids, their joyful chase of the stories in the bright Universes of their brains, that I, too, am born to do this work – this teaching, this writing, this sharing of stories. And that it matters, you know?

The story matters. The telling matters. The sharing matters. The reading matters. It all matters.

It’s nice to be reminded.

 

I have more to say, of course, and some Very Cool Stuff About Various Books to share with all of you, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. I gotta go get ready for class.

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When Light Balances Dark: on wrong numbers, new life, certain death, and the slumbering spark.

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Happy Equinox, everyone. I have been told that this is the day in which we are magically able to balance the unbalanceable – eggs, specifically. I’ve never been able to, myself. And I’ve tried, believe me. It is also the day when the cosmic and equal forces of light and dark – our inward and outward natures – supposedly come into perfect balance. We see and we are seen, we know and we are known, we give and we are given to. On this day we honor the hidden pulse of life under the shrinking snow, and check for signs of its emergence – knowing that it requires the decay of crystal and glitter. The death of snow. The death of ice. The language of cold, written on the landscape, must loosen, drip, rot, and sink into the ground. Even in the face of life, some things must still pass away.

I had a conversation with my mother yesterday about my beloved sister-in-law, nearly bursting at the seams with twins, who is now two centimeters dilated and 60% effaced. New life is on its way. Later that day, I listened to a message left on my machine in error – a woman named Betty was leaving a message for another woman named Ann that a member of her NA group – a young man named Lamar – had died, two days before his twentieth birthday. I have no idea who these people were, but I sorrowed for them all the same. Lost lambs. We are all lost lambs. The womb that protects us in our early days doesn’t last. And the world is sometimes cruel.

I’m sitting here now at my computer with an egg on my desk. I can’t balance it. I’ve tried. Still, I don’t want to put it back in the fridge. Eggs, besides being delicious, are such noble little things. Fragile and delicate, yet strong in certain situations. In some ways so like the human heart, with a whole world hidden inside – able to withstand incredible pressure when it comes from all around, able to maintain its integrity under incredible global force – and yet, it’s the casual, side-long blow that breaks us. Try and crush me in your fist and I will withstand you. Flick me with your fingernail, and I crack.

An egg is fragile, yes, but an egg is brave. I remember once, when I was a little kid, we went on a field trip to a working, old-timey farm. I have a permanent injury from that day, actually – a wrist that clicks – from an unfortunate incident involving a cow who apparently did not want its head scratched. And I got a bruise on my butt from an ill-tempered goat. But what I remember most was the egg barn. A man handed me an egg, still warm from its incubator, and told me to hold it up to a candle. I had seen eggs before, but I had never held one that was so warm. And what’s more, it was shivering.

“Why is it shivering?” I asked.

“Look and see,” the man said.

I held the egg to the candle, and I nearly dropped it in shock. There, inside the quiet curve of the shell, a tiny chick was moving around.  The work of becoming, the work of transformation, was undertaken in utter solitude. By a creature so small it could fit in my hand.  As far as the chick knew, it it was the only creature in the Universe. There is no one else.

“Can it breathe?” I asked, aghast.

“Yes,” he said.

“Is it scared?” I felt the beginnings of tears prick at my eyes, but I blinked hard to keep them at bay. The last thing I needed was for my classmates to see me cry. I’d never hear the end of it.

“It doesn’t know how to be scared. It doesn’t know anything. All it knows is how to eat and how to grow. It only knows how to be itself, how to become itself. Eventually, it will peck its way out. Or it will die in there. No one can say for sure.”

I stared at him, open mouthed. He shrugged.

“It happens,” he said.

It was pretty much the moment when I knew I would never be a farmer.

But really, my job now is closer to that egg farmer than I would have believed at the time. I had no idea then that I wanted to be a writer. I had no idea what I wanted to be at all, really. I had a vague notion that I would be a nun, and another vague notion that I would be a scientist, and another vague notion that I would be a pirate. I am none of those things (except when I am all of those things).

In truth, what I do is this: I create a nest around the egg of an idea. I keep it warm. I watch as it forms. I hope for the best. I hold it up to a candle and make sure it’s still squirming around in there. I listen for the scritch of its nails against its membraneous world. I pray for the first sounds of pecking.

And I pray that it doesn’t die.

I have a really hard time talking about my books while I’m working on them. People ask me what I’m working on and I change the subject. My normally gregarious, effusive self becomes tight-lipped and taciturn. I fold my hands and tilt my gaze to the ground. I didn’t know why for a long time. But I think I know now. I’m making a nest of words and whispers and kind thoughts. I’m keeping it warm, cocooned and safe from the world. I’m letting it transmogrify  from primordial goo into something else – something with legs and eyes and a keen head. Something with feathers and wings and a very sharp beak. Something that will cuddle close for only a moment, and then fly away. How do you explain that to someone? How to you talk about something that is only just now transforming? I still don’t know to do it. Maybe I never will. And maybe that’s okay.

Happy Equinox, everyone. Happy light and dark. Happy life and death. Happy hellos and happy goodbyes. Happy fiddleheads and happy crocuses. Happy seed-buying. Happy puddle-splashing. Happy last sleds and last skis and last snowballs. Happy hidden, new life – in shell, in womb, and waiting underground. Farewell to the world of ice and crystal and snow. And welcome Green.

Green, and green, and green, and green.

The Anxiety Quilt – and other brilliant innovations

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I was having coffee with a writer friend last Tuesday who is in the process of forcing herself not to write her agent. This can prove difficult. Especially when one is waiting on submitting books. Indeed, I was impressed that she was capable of making sentences – I certainly could not when my book was sitting on the desks of very nice editors.

“He called me yesterday and said that he was so impressed with my sense of calm because he hadn’t heard from me. I didn’t tell him that I have written tons of anxiety-ridden emails that go on for paragraphs and paragraphs, that I just delete and don’t send.”

“It feels good to write it down, doesn’t it,” I said. “Just to get it out and separate from you.”

“It totally does.”

And that got us thinking.

Here’s the thing about this business. It’s worrying. It’s anxiety-provoking. It’s a one-way ticket to cuckoo-bananas-loonyville. I have always been wired for being – how shall we say – a little nuts, but since I’ve been in this work, I am, and I don’t mind you knowing it, super nuts.

Anyway, the thing is? The deleted emails that feel so good to write but you never ever send because god forbid that the people we work with ever get a good glimpse at the depths of crazy that exists in our heads – well, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with it?

I said: “What you need to do is get a printer that will print it all out on bits of fabric and make something with it. Like a worry doll or drapes or a computer cozy. Or a crazy quilt.”

“No,” she said. “Not crazy. An anxiety quilt.”

Unfortunately, I can’t sew worth a damn (or any kind of crafting, really. The only D I ever got in my life was in Home Economics). But I love this idea. That the language of worry transformed into something cool and lovely that can be thrown over the back of a chair or warm the toes on a cold Minnesota winter night. I like the idea of our worries being separate from us. I like the idea that the little knot of anxiety that lives in the gut or the head – all barbed wire and acid and expectations and knives – can transform into something else. A blanket. A doll. Fire in the hearth. A piece of art. A long, thick thread, knotted into a pair of socks. A string of beads fastened around the throat.

Transformations are powerful, after all. If a magician can turn a tin can into a flying dove or an empty hat into a fuzzy rodent – poof! – then really, it should be no trouble at all to transform anything into anything. Your worries could become a flying castle. Or chain-mail coat made entirely of paper clips. Or a dragon so small it could fit in your pocket. Or a post-it note golem. Or a bird made of stars.

When my daughter was little – around five – she struggled with some pretty serious anxiety. One of the parenting tricks the doctor told us was to teach her to have specific times when we talk about our worries. So, when she would start to fall apart, we would say, “I can see this is a really big worry. Let’s put our worries in our pocket for now and then we’ll talk about it at Worry Time.” It was work – you could see it on her face – but she could usually do it. Largely, it was an opportunity for us to teach her how to take her anxiety out of the driver’s seat of her life – to acknowledge it, but to not leave it in charge. At Worry Time, we’d snuggle up with her with a blanket and an ancient, horrible stuffed chick named Bubble, and she would list all the things that she was worried about. Bubble, as it turns out was a wonderful listener.

“It makes me feel better,” she used to say, “just knowing that Bubble knows.”

Bubble became her worry surrogate. Her secret keeper. A transformation from something overwhelming and consuming and amorphous to something with a fat belly, ludicrous orange feet and a flap of felt posing as a beak. Bubble with his glued-on eyes. Bubble with his sour smell from too many nights in a child’s bed. Bubble with his matted feathers that weren’t actually feathers at all.

Maybe it’s the artist’s curse to be naturally wired toward worry, but I don’t think so. I know a lot of writers and many of them are anxiety-prone, but certainly not all of them. Still, I wonder what their anxiety quilts would look like. I wonder about my own.

Here is a patch in the shape of a star with the name of the book that I had to give up on.

Here are sixteen patches in the shape of a heart for the sixteen times my heart was broken. If you press your ear to their soft centers, you can hear them beating.

Here is a patch in the shape of a mouse. That is for a character that I had to obliterate in order to make the novel work.

Here are patches with numbers on them – numbers I like: three, for example. And fifteen. And zero – but only if you say it with a Spanish accent.

Here is the patch for the career setback. Here is the patch for the financial hardships along the way. Here is the patch for the conflict at school. Or the conflict with friends. Or the conflict with other members of my large and complicated family. Here is the patch for the pregnancy that turned scary. Here is the patch for the sleepless nights in school.

Here is my challenge for you, dear readers: embrace transformations. Think about what is worrying you. Think about it transforming to something else – something beautiful, something strange, something with clear eyes and a strong mind, and flying away.

On Valentine’s Day, we must all read Pablo Neruda. I’m pretty sure it’s the law.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my darlings. I hope it is full of love poems and kisses. And, really, more kisses than poems, because even though poems are wonderful and all, kisses are, admittedly, slightly better.

Anyway, there is no one who does love poetry and the language of longing and tenderness and desire like Neruda. So here he is – from me to you. With imaginary kisses.

I Do Not Love You

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Translated by Stephen Tapscott

 

And if you’re in the mood for a good cry, you can watch Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson read “La Muerta” in both English and Spanish in this clip from “Truly, Madly, Deeply”. That movie, man. It destroys me.

 

On Avoidance, Resistance, and Muddling Through

I have violated my New Year’s Resolution. I erased a third of the novel. Irrevocably. I erased it on my computer, from the emailed copy I sent to myself, from Dropbox, from my husband’s email. Everywhere. Or so I thought.

I had a really good reason for doing this – largely, the general sucky, lousy prose – but I am regretting it now. I mean, I was. More on that in a minute.

There is a thing that can happen in the quiet of the office space. By the clicking of the keys or the scritching of the pen on the paper. That little, itchy, insinuating voice that creeps along the neck and down the spine. It’s bad breath tickles the ear. It has sticky fingers and a grubby face and hair like thistledown.

Really? the voice says.

That’s what you wrote?

No one could possibly like this.

Now, let’s be honest. The voice wasn’t wrong. The pages – eighty of them in all – were pretty crappy. However, the promises that the voice insisted were true – that my agent will never want to speak to me again, and that my editor will cancel my current book because good god what was I thinking, and that booksellers and librarians will, en masse, remove my book from the shelves and throw them in the garbage, and that my husband and children will disown me and that I will never write again, and really, why would I – well. Those are probably not true.

So I selected the last third of the book. And I erased it. And I stared at the screen. For a long time.

And then I did what many of us do when we are facing something difficult. I avoided.

I am an expert avoider. I could get an Olympic medal in Avoidance. Wait. Do they have those? I hope so, because that would be awesome.

Now, in my past, this period of avoidance has been prolonged and deep. Less so now. Now, at least I have learned to recognize avoidant behaviors and resistant behaviors. Now I have learned the importance of muddling through.

For me, muddling through means sometimes working on other things. Yesterday, for example, I was writing a scene that was emotionally exhausting and painful. To keep me moving, and keep me sane, I turned on a timer and opened another document. Twenty minutes working on the scene, twenty minutes writing a goofy, sexy, satirical story about Helen of Troy growing up – ugly and lonely – in that tower with her randy mom and her slutty dad. And it was super fun. I probably will never publish it, but that’s okay, because it got me through that scene – and that chapter.

Another thing that helps me muddle through is to be – shall we say – non monogamous - in my work habits. The book I’m working on was originally longhand, but the version on my computer is so utterly divorced from the original draft, that I can’t even use it anymore. Which means I am stuck on the computer – not a happy place for me. So I have another novel – that I might be finishing today, actually. And that’s totally longhand. And it’s completely different from the more serious novel that I’m currently married to. It’s funny and irreverent and biting. It’s a total departure from everything I’ve ever done. And – like most affairs, I’m told – it gives me the shivers just to touch it. Just to hold it close. But working on both projects allows me to keep both stories fresh, whole, and energized. It allows me to be fully present in both, because neither have gotten stale.

Also: I have a stack of notecards in my desk drawer upon which I write scene outlines, lovely sentences, story ideas, or whole paragraphs. I save these for later.

Also: I wrote a novella – something Not For Children. It poured out of me at Christmas time, and waits, quietly, while I decide what to do with it.

Also: I am revising two Broken Novels to see if I can un-break them. Maybe I can. Maybe I can’t. But the work itself is satisfying. It is filled with notes in margins in red pen and handwritten pages on looseleaf stuck into the binder. Binders full of words. It is a beautiful thing.

There is a theme here. Did you notice it?

Resistance happens to all of us. Avoidance happens to all of us. The only cure for writer’s block is writing. The only cure for bad writing is more writing. The only cure for those nasty voices that show up, unbidden, in our brains, is to write our way to the other side. Whatever project. Whatever it takes.

I discovered that the pages I erased weren’t entirely erased at all. Google Drive. I had forgotten I had done it. I was there last weekend looking for something else, and my novel winked back at me – beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t erase it. I decided to leave it there, untouched, and will continue on my way until I reach the end on this side. Then I will compare the two. It’s only fair.

Today, I have another tough scene to tackle. And I will tackle it. Today, I have a composition notebook that will have new pages with jokes and witches and perhaps a kid with a checkered past saving the day. Or maybe the witch will save him. I haven’t decided yet. Today, I will put more words in the short story about memory and I will fuss a bit more on the Lake Erie novel with shape-shifting dog-men.

Today, I will write words. I will not resist. And I will muddle through.

But first, I will turn on Freedom. Because, good god. The internets, man. So shiny. So devious. In the meantime, I am curious about you folks. How do you muddle through? How do you break down your resistance and get work on the page? How do you quell those ugly voices and tell them to shut up and be done with it? I am terribly curious.

 

“Everyone Else Can Suck It” – thoughts on art, work and making things.

LOOK WHAT I MADE!

One of the things I treasure about living here in the Twin Cities is its astonishingly vibrant, well-populated and deeply talented children’s literature community. I have friends who write YA novels and MG novels and picture books. I have friends who are illustrators and graphic novelists and copy editors. And not to mention the editors, publishers, agents and professors of children’s literature. And don’t even get me started on the librarians and curators. It’s ridiculous. And I adore them all.

And what’s more, it’s an incredibly loving, supportive and dynamic community, all deeply committed to children’s literacy, children’s access to books, as well as infusing the art form with the kind of vigor and wonder and love that it demands. I’m lucky to be a part of it.

The other day, I was at a local coffee shop, working at the big table with a bunch of other authors. We had laptops and notebooks and sketch pads interspersed with coffees and scones and salads. We kept one another on track when needed and offered commiseration when needed and told jokes and even, as a group, did some quick research on the names and types of ladies’ underwear. Yanno. Story stuff.

At one point I showed the folks present some of the preliminary sketches for the cover of my new book, The Witch’s Boy (I wish I could show you. But alas. It’s not ready yet), and I enjoyed the collected ooos and ahs, and I shared some of my feelings of anticipation and apprehension and worry. The other writers and artists assembled nodded their heads sagely. We know, their faces said. We super know.

“But,” I said, “fortunately, I have already pre-written my horrible reviews. So that’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Cue the collective sigh.

“Really, Kelly?” they said. “Why do you do this to yourself?”

And it’s a reasonable question. And I do this to myself a lot. The book I wrote. The book I wrote a while ago. The book I’m writing now. It is so easy to see how someone along the way will dismiss it out of hand. Who will turn a small gripe into a condemnation of the book. Who will not see my characters as I see them, and love them as I love them.

And it is silencing, this pre-bad-reviewing. And it is hurtful. And it is mean.

“Well,” my friend Swati said. “What do you think about your book? How do you feel about it?”

And I looked at her, and I allowed myself a rare moment of honesty.

“I love it,” I said. And I meant it too. “I really love it. And I’m proud of it. And I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written in my life.”

She smiled at me. “Well. There you go. You wrote a book that you love and that you’re proud of, and that’s all that matters. And everyone else can suck it.”

And I told her that I was going to make a sign saying that very thing and put it above my desk, which I have done, and am looking at right now, with total love and adoration on my face.

I turned in my copy edits to The Witch’s Boy last week – it was my very last time being able to touch the paper, to make marks or switch things around or affect anything at all. And I took the time to savor it. I closed myself in my office for days, reading the pages out loud. It was, in truth, like the fiftieth time I have done so – I am an out-loud sort of self-editor. And I read each word with gusto, heft and meaning. I felt each sound vibrating in my bones. And I felt as though Ned and Aine and Sister Witch and the motherless wolf and the bandit king and the dead brother and the aging queen and the grieving father and even the insufferable Brin and Ott and Madame Thuane – all of them, you see, were right there with me. Their hands on my hands. Their breath in my ear. Their hearts rattling away inside my rib cage. And I loved them. And I was proud of them. And I slipped them all into a document box and sent them away.

When we make art – and really, when we do any kind of work that we feel born to do – there is this wonderful sense of non-self that comes over us. Hours can vanish, our real life can vanish, even our bodies and histories and futures can vanish. While we work, there is only the work. It’s wonderful, really.  Our work is not us, it is separate from us. And that is important, because we send it into the world, where it can be loved or hated, adored or abused, learned from, built upon, and, ultimately, transformed. The work changes us, it changes the people who touch it, and it changes in return.

There is something wonderful that happens when we make work that we like. We can hold it in our hands; we can turn it around and around; we can run our fingers through the sheets of paper, and listen to it make the sound of ocean waves whispering on an endless shore; we can linger on the scent of ink and paper and fingerprints. But what’s more – we can say to the world, Look. I made this. And you can love it or you can hate it or you can not care either way, but it doesn’t matter. I made this. And it is for you.

I was at South High School the other day, and I said some stuff about making art and being vigorous and demanding and infusing their stories with the fullness of their intelligence and curiosity and perfectionism. But what I should have said was this:

Make art.

Work hard.

There will be people who don’t care for what you do. That’s okay. And that’s their right. Work hard anyway.

Pour your heart and soul and self into whatever you do until you think there is no more you left. (You will be wrong. There is an endless fountain of you-ness. And there is no limit to what you can make.)

Make work that you are proud of. Work that will outlast you. Work that is your gift to the world. Make work that is separate from you.

And everyone else can suck it.

“Seriously, how can you stand it?” – a meditation on my beloved Minnesota

As I write this, it is -5°F. I think the high today is two. The snow squeaks underfoot with each heartbreaking step. The wind insinuates itself through our coats, into our boots and long johns and balaclavas. It whispers through the walls. The snowpiles on the sides of the road have not melted since November. They are now as dense and cruel as concrete. The streets are narrow and slick. Salt has grayed the edges of the world, uglying what once was beautiful.

This winter has been long, man. A long, bitter slog. And even the most dedicated of winter enthusiasts has found themselves looking at real estate listings in exotic-sounding places like Arkansas or Louisiana or Texas. Swampy places. Deserty places. Places where they close the schools if someone heard one time that it might be approaching freezing. Right now, that sounds wonderful.

I’m just kidding, of course. I am never leaving my state. I love its farms and its rivers and its lakes. I love its ancient granite cliffs in the north and its insanely fertile soil in the south. I love its forests and its massive bogs and its high prairie to the west. I love the rush of spring, the loll of summer, the symphony of color in the fall. And I love the winter. I really do. Even now.

I get a lot of people looking at our weather reports – did you know that some people read the weather reports of places where they do not live. They look at the crazy low temps in Embarrass, Minnesota, and they fan their faces – thrilled, swept away, utterly spent. It is weather porn. No one can convince me otherwise.

Wait, what was I saying? Oh, right. People write to me and say, essentially, HOW CAN YOU STAND LIVING THERE? Their words are kind, alarmed, and urgent. They talk to me the way one talks to a spouse in an abusive relationship. Or a long-term kidnapping victim. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY, they plead with me.

The thing is? Even when it’s cold, it’s still pretty awesome. And there’s something that happens to us in the cold – an intense camaraderie, a joined sense of purpose, a collective pact of survival and victory. We are Sam and Frodo in Mordor. We are the Light Brigade, facing certain doom, and going down fighting. We are the 10th Mountain Division, fighting and  dodging Nazis on Nordic skis. Nothing makes you love your neighbor more than to help them build a glowing, multicolored ice castle in the front yard.

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Nothing makes you love the half-crazed kids in the neighborhood – especially after they descended on your home to play Minecraft and subsequently tore it to shreds, than to see them doing this outside:

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One thing my state does incredibly well in the winter making a lot of social things for us to do in the winter. Because, no matter how cold it is – and yes, it gets frakkin cold – we can still get outside. And we should. Getting outside changes our relationship with the cold. It changes our relationship with the seasons. And it makes it love it – and one another. I have been accused before that perhaps the over-cold temperatures make us high. This is possible. After, all, we do organize kite-flying festivals every year. On a frozen lake. It is marvelous.

And cross country skiing festivals:

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At some point, we simply learn that it’s not the weather – it’s the gear. And it’s the relationship, too. When we dress warm enough, we go beyond simple survival. We become part of the outdoors. We explore; we connect; we wonder. We have this incredible opportunity to fully experience the astonishing beauty of winter – ice crystals and wind, deer tracks in the snow, deep drifts, frosted tree trunks, the utter silence of a frozen forest, the swish of a ski on a well-honed track, the cut of branches holding up the sky. The landscape is beautiful. The people are beautiful too.

Yesterday, we went to the art shanties – twenty-two ice houses-turned-artist installations. There was a shanty turning wind into art, there was a shanty that had transformed itself into a giant music box, there was a shanty where you could write and read people’s letters. A shanty full of polar bear art. A shanty made of salt. A shanty with a Totally Legitimate Elevator. And the people drove out to the ex-urbs. And they parked their cars and they walked out onto the frozen lake. And they participated in the art – they made, they wrote, they danced. They climbed inside a giant, multiple-bike-powered polar bear puppet, and drove it around. And they smiled in spite of the cold, through the cold, because of the cold. And it was good.

Seriously, how can I stand living here?

Seriously, how can I live anywhere else?

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In Which Voldemort Gets the Cheese Touch.

This is the expression on my face most days. Especially the eyes.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog the fact that I, most days, haul a carpool to school filled with delightful elementary school boys. I use the word “delightful” here in its broadest sense, in order to include yelling, cat-calling, fake-swearing, bodily eruptions, poop jokes, gun jokes, penis jokes, fart jokes, farting penis jokes, something about boobies and light-saber-sound-effects. To rescue my thin grip on sanity, I decided a while ago to forgo any crunchy-mama prohibitions I may have had ever in my life regarding screen time and throw a movie into the ole minivan VCR.

(It is, I do believe, a certifiable miracle that the thing still works, as both minivan and VCR are about ten years old. And that thing gets hammered – hot in the summer, absolute zero in the winter, sticky drinks, stray kicks, and, once, projectile vomit. The thing keeps ticking. If it is a miracle, does that qualify my minivan for sainthood? If so, someone should alert the Vatican.)

Anyway, the kids watch movies on their way to school in ten minute increments, and I listen to said movies as I drive. E.T, Apollo 13, Star Wars, Newsies, Cats and Dogs, Galaxy Quest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Dark Crystal, George of the Jungle, and basically whatever else I’m able to pick up at Savers for a quarter. I have become a connosieur of kid-movie sound construction and voice inflection. E.T., for example, is a thing of beauty – communicating more through silence than most films can do in hours of scene-building. The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, while bad to watch, is torture to listen to, and whoever is responsible should be in prison.

Today, they watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or the end of it, anyway. They tumbled out of the car last Friday just as Professor Quirrell was about to remove the turban from his head. They climbed back into the car today shouting turn it on turn it on, despite the fact that they have all read the book and watched the movie approximately nine million times. They were beside themselves with anticipation. I pushed play, rolled into the road, and headed toward school. Here is a transcription of the conversation that ensued in the back seat.

“Shhhh!”

You shhh!”

“We’re missing it.”

You’re missing it.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Wait. What movie is this again?”

“Harry looks like he has to fart.”

“HE DOES NOT.”

“Cheese touch.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“Look.”

At that very moment, Voldemort, stuck on the back of the doomed professor’s head, instructs Quirrell to take the Sorcerer’s stone from Harry. But when he touches Harry, his hand burns up, thus showing that Voldmort cannot be touched by the boy wizard.

“Harry Potter has the cheese touch.”

The boys nearly peed themselves laughing.

“Now Voldemort has the cheese touch. Lookit him! Cheese toucher.”

“DON’T TOUCH VOLDEMORT HE TOUCHED THE CHEESE.”

“Voldemort smells like a fart. Like cheesy farts.”

“Cheese farts are not as bad as sausage farts. Sausage farts are THE WORST.”

“I’m kinda hungry.”

“Don’t let Voldemort get the Sausager’s Stone.”

“It’s the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“No. It’s the Sausager’s Stone. IT HAS THE POWER TO TURN MERE METAL INTO SAUSAGE.”

“Quit saying stuff like that. I have to pee.”

“Harry Pee-ter and the Sausager’s Stone.”

“I MEAN IT.”

“If it could make me defeat Voldemort I would totally touch the cheese.”

“You already touched the cheese.”

“I AM VOLDMORT. I AM THE CHEESE. AND THE TOUCH. I AM THE CHEESE TOUCH.”

By the time we reached school, I was weak with laughing. And hunger too, as I had forgotten to have breakfast before I left in the morning. When I got back to the house, I went straight to the fridge to grab something quick before getting to work. A nice, square slice of cheese.

Cheese touch.

Why I Love Fourth Graders: A List.

Author’s note: I think more children would love school if they were allowed to be barefoot.

Today I visited the fourth graders of Highland Park Elementary School in Saint Paul. I was feeling crummy beforehand – sniffles, headache, tummy-yuck, etc. – and was probably not in the best headspace to perform at optimum awesomeness. That didn’t matter. The fourth graders had Awesome to spare. They had Awesome pouring out of their eyes, ears, mouths and noses. They left little trails of Awesome on the ground like awesome slugs. They emitted little pollen particles of Awesome like awesome daisies. They rang like bells and surged like oceans and glittered like stars. I think I have mentioned here before on my blog how very very very much love I have in my heart for fourth graders. And while I always know that, intrinsically within myself, it is still completely surprising to me whenever I step into a fourth grade classroom. All the love I thought I had for fourth graders, the moment they congregate in their desks, is amplified ONE SKILLION FOLD.

They are wondrous, these children. Completely wondrous.

To give you a sense of why I love these kids so much, and why they delight me so, and why they – more than any other age group – propel me again and again to the page, I composed this list.

WHY I LOVE FOURTH GRADERS. By Kelly Barnhill

1. Because they ask me if I’ve ever met L. Frank Baum. It doesn’t even occur to them that he has been dead for a long, long time. For them, writers are as alive as their books. And books never die.

2. Because they assume that I’m best friends with J. K. Rowling.

3. Because they want to tell me, RIGHT NOW, that this sweatshirt is new.

4. Because they see me in the hall and say I KNOW YOU, YOU’RE THE WRITER. And they are shiny and happy and proud. They have this funny quality of being both star-struck and familiar. They are reading your book. They are astonished you are real. You are both an object in a museum AND a beloved teddy-bear, clutched under the covers every night. At the same time. They have no problem with that incongruity. For them, the world is an incongruous place.

5. Because they are on the fence as to whether magic exists. Could go either way. They are open to wonder.

6. Because the sit with their hand outstretched to the heavens, bouncing and wiggling and saying “Oh, oh, oh!” and can do so for an entire class period if need be. And when you call on them, they say, “Okay. I have thirty-two questions.”

7. Because they crowd together on their carpet square, jostling for spots near some grownup that they have never met, a close-knit, multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual mob, all unified by one story, read to them by a beloved teacher.

8. Because they want to know where stories come from.

9. Because they believe that stories come from somewhere - a sea of stories somewhere on this green and blue earth, where writers go with their boats and their tackle and their nets. Where we cast and gather and pull and haul. Where we heap stories into our carts and wheel them into the marketplace to be shared for all.

Stories are slippery fish.

10. Because they want my autograph on a random scrap of paper that they will lose within the hour, but that doesn’t matter. It was the asking that mattered. And me bending over, pencil to paper, letting them know that, in this moment, they matter to me.

11. Because they want to matter.

12. Because, deep inside, they are both infant and adult. They want to be cuddled and adored. They want to save the world. They want to be shielded. They want to understand. They want to be connected. They want to be alone. They want to be heroes. They want to be saved. They want all these things at once.

13. Because they love stories. And so do I.

If you haven’t watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on feminism, you should watch it now.

Seriously. I love this woman. I love her books, I love her articles, I love her presence in the world. I want her to narrate my brain. I love her clarity, her analysis, her compassion, her fire, her precision, her poise. If you have thirty minutes, give this a listen. I did so yesterday, while doing Very Womanly Tasks, like cleaning my oven and making soup and running after children and folding laundry. You know what makes folding laundry WAY more interesting? Listening to TED talks. On feminism, for example.

Specifically, as a mother of both girls and a boy, and a loving grown-up in relationship with lots and lots of boys, I particularly resonated with this: “Gender as it exists today is a grave injustice….I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world, a fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way – masculinity becomes this hard, small cage, and we put boys inside that cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, weakness and vulnerability.  We teach boys to mask themselves. . . We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”

Seriously, it’s great. And worth the time out of your day.

It is still very cold in Minnesota, and I had the kids home for two days after the Governor closed down the schools due to extreme windchills. We are stir crazy. Cabin feverish. If you are living in a warm place, please tell me a warm story so that my bones may thaw and my eyeballs may un-crystallize and my soul may creep out of the freezer and bloom again.

Can gnomes steal a person’s handwriting? I think maybe they can.

02-Favoite Gnome

So, I’m cleaning my office (I know, right? Shocking), and I come across a notecard with the beginning of a story. One that I have no recollection whatsoever of actually writing. Like, at all. It’s my handwriting, for sure. My handwriting, by the way, is terrible. It’s beyond terrible. It looks like it is the ripped from the final gasp of last Will and Testament of a dying raven, written in its last minutes, in dust and tears and its own red blood. I’m stunned that anyone can read it. Hell, I’m stunned that I can read it.

Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right. The story.

There’s not much to it, just the beginning of a story that I can’t remember writing at all. I can’t even remember coming up with the idea. When did I do this? And why is it on a giant note card? Where was I when I wrote it? A bus? A coffeeshop? The dentist’s office? On hold with the health insurance company? No idea.

Anyway, here it is, transcribed, for your reading pleasure. Don’t know if I’ll ever do something with it, but it’s always a possibility.

Arthur stood on the chest of the now-cold body of the giant and pulled his father’s sword from the monster’s heart.

“One down,” he thought. “Nine to go.”

“Is it dead?” a voice came from a small pile of stones nearby.

“It is,” Arthur said, wiping the green blood of the giant off the gleam of his sword. “No thanks to you.” He checked the bright edges for nicks before returning it to the safety of its sheath.

“Are you sure?”

“That it’s dead, or that you didn’t help?” His shoulder ached, the wound on his left hip oozed and legs were giving out. He needed a doctor. And a bed. And a year of sleep.

“Killing giants wasn’t in our agreement,” the pile of stones said. “I was very clear what I wanted you to do. Don’t expect a bonus payment. In fact, maybe we should put this down as a deduction for pain and suffering.”

The pile was silent for a minute. “My pain and suffering,” it added, just to be clear.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He slid carefully down the curve of the giant’s ribcage and landed squarely on his feet, wincing as he did so. The pile of stones shivered and shuddered and quaked. It clattered to one side and then the other, assembling and disassembling, reorganizing itself over and over until a boy about Arthur’s age climbed out of its center, patting the dust and dirt and debris out of his smart tweed suit and beating his cap clean.

The stones were gone. There was only the boy.

“I hate transforming,” the smart-dressed boy said. “So dusty.”

Maybe I wrote this while camping. Or after a long day of cleaning my dusty, dusty house. Or maybe I didn’t write it at all, and my office is infested with story-writing, pen-stealing, idea-surfing gnomes. Maybe the gnomes have been creeping in the walls, burrowing in the ceiling and harvesting our dreams. Maybe gnomes eat stories. Which, honestly, would make sense, now that I think about it.

Has this ever happened to any of you people? Have you ever found work that you must have done but you have no memory of ever writing it? Maybe this does happen to everyone.

Or maybe I’m just nuts.

On resolutions, intentions, and the lack thereof.

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I don’t like New Year’s resolutions. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I recently don’t like New Year’s resolutions. This is partially due to the fact that I typically don’t actually keep resolutions, which in turn is due to the fact that my resolutions are often wildly optimistic. (I have not, for example, won a Nobel Prize, nor have I summited any mountains, nor have I learned any new instruments, nor have I become Suddenly Good at Math.)

I prefer the term intentions. Resolutions are grim, static, imposing. They are good at guilt trips. They glower. They wag fingers. They reek of disappointments. Intentions, however, are different. They are the whisper in the ear, the nudge at the side. Intentions are rooted in a place of kindness. They are forgiving. They are prayerful.

Making a list of intentions for the coming year requires a person to reflect on the year prior – what worked, what didn’t. What fed the soul. What depleted the heart. With these intentions, I would like to find ways to offer myself to the world. To make the people around me happy. To make strangers happy. To make me happy too. But to really get at what I intend for the year to come, it’s important to also identify what I do not intend to do. My Non-Intentions. For example:

  • I do not intend to run a marathon. Yes, I just turned forty, and yes, it does seem like it’s the sort of thing that people do when they reach a milestone birthday, in a “Hey, look at me, I am still young and strong and can OUTRUN DEATH if I feel like it” sort of way. Here’s the thing: I’m a runner. I love running. I do my best writing while I’m running. I like running around lakes and along rivers and down wooded trails and endlessly on lonely, prairie roads that connect my feet to the edge of the sky. But a marathon? Nawp. I don’t even like to drive twenty-six miles. An eight mile run does me just fine.
  • I do not intend to keep my house perfectly clean at all times. There was a time, a few years ago, when we had a bit more extra cash sitting around to allow me to have a little help with the housework. That time, alas, has passed, and our spare pennies are going to boring things like college savings accounts and orthodontics. I put a lot of pressure on myself to keep the house dust-free and dog-hair-free and clutter-free. I do not intend to do so this year. We will not live in squalor – I couldn’t abide it if we did – but I do not intend to give myself guilt trips about it. So there.
  • I do not intend to abide by strict word counts. There have been times when I have done this. Two thousand words a day or four thousand words a day or ten thousand words a day, or you are a TERRIBLE PERSON. This is crazy-making. And not helpful, because as one who is a serial/obsessive eraser, it meant that I was killing myself just to go backward. I write two thousand words, I erase another two and a half thousand. I write four thousand words, I erase five. I have been known to erase sixty thousand words in one sitting. And yes, there is a rip-the-bandaid-off-in-one-go sort of feeling to it, I can’t recommend it as a long-term strategy. This year, I have felt like I was turning my wheels. And I’m ready for a new strategy.
  • I do not intend to finish every book I start. This is a big one. Maybe it’s the teacher-pleaser that never really left my psyche, and maybe it’s the Puritans whose ghosts walk the varied byways of this country and remind us that if it’s unpleasant IT MUST BE GOOD FOR US, or maybe it’s the fact that, as a writer myself, I know how very hard it is to haul a book from idea to word to page to publication. Still. I find that by forcing myself to slog through books I hate in a Sir-Edmund-Hillary-BECAUSE-IT’S-THERE mentality, it damages my relationship with reading and my relationship with books. From now on, Books? I give you a hundred pages. And then I walk.

So. Those are my non-intentions. Here, instead, are my Intentions for this year.

  • I intend to rethink my relationship with social media. I’ve done this before, of course. And it was useful. Social media is, unfortunately, a necessary utility for writers. I say “unfortunately” not because there is anything inherently wrong with it. There isn’t. And, in fact, I take a great deal of pleasure from my deeply felt interactions with people online. I love the conversations, I love the connections, I love the humor, I love the abundance of knowledge and learning, I love the cocktail-hour feel to it. I love it a lot. And there is an incredible amount of joy in the crafting of a well-turned sentence, or a bi-tonal tweet, or a Facebook update that hits those notes of humor and rage, for example, or pathos and silliness, or analysis and rumination. But that’s just the problem. Because writers need to be doing all those things in the quiet of their desks, separate from the world, and utterly alone. Which, of course, is lonely. So it makes sense that writers would, perhaps, be more prone to addictive and obsessive behaviors online. Because it makes us feel wonderful. And the manuscript that we labor over in secret can never give us the kind of instant feedback and thumbs-up validation that we get from a tweet that gets re-tweeted a hundred times in a day. It’s like the Meth version of writing – awesome for a while, but it can up-end one’s life. I spend far too much time on social media, and it eats away at my writing time. So I’m going on a two month break, and will likely keep doing so. I want to experience the fullness of the conversation without the conversation driving the rest of my work. Family comes first, work comes second, and the conversation needs to be way down on the list. It’s just the way it is. So, I closed down my Facebook account, and blocked Twitter from my computer. I’ll still tweet occasionally, but only from my phone, or the automatic posts that WordPress makes every time I post something. In any case, it can no longer interfere with the tools of my trade, as it were. Because I need those tools.
  • Short Fiction. I made a resolution last year to write one short story per month. This, alas, was wildly optimistic. I only wrote three. Four if you count the unpublishable novella, now standing at 30k. Uff. What was I thinking? Still, short fiction feels really good, and it allows me to explore territory that I likely won’t explore in my longer-form fiction. It is a much darker place. Edgier. With sharp teeth. I enjoy the work, and would like to plan for a reasonable increase in volume. So. Five. I intend to write five short stories this year. We’ll see if I can do it.
  • I intend to stop erasing this year. I had a bit of a Coming-To-Jesus moment this year, when I realized that I erased more words than I had in any form in my manuscripts. Like, by many, many, many times. I write; I erase; I re-write; I re-erase; over and over and over. And it’s not useful. And it’s indicative of something else, too – a fear of finishing, a lack of honor in my work, a gap in kindness toward myself. So, step one. No more erasing. If I don’t like something, I make a new document. This is the new rule.
  • I intend to do yoga every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. This has been awesome so far, actually. Because it really has only been ten minutes every day, and even that has huge benefits for me. I have a tendency to live within the confines of my brain (I know I’m not alone in this) and it’s not always the best place for me to be. Not only that, it is not an honest way of assessing how we typically live, you know? Our bodies are the interface through which we experience everything that is wonderful about being alive. One of the things I love about yoga is its insistence that mindfulness is not just the brain. Our skin is mindful. Our spine is mindful. Our intestines and lungs and shoulders and ankles and toes are mindful too. When I can fill my entire body with good, pleasurable feelings, when I can quiet my mind and slow my heart, when I can turn my focus away from the whirling dervish of my brain and focus instead on the flow of air in and out and in and out, it makes my work on the page far more fluid and easy and real. It’s remarkable, actually.
  • I intend to cuddle my kids and my husband and my dog every single day and tell them how much I love them. Actually, I already do this. Every single day. But it is nice to say it out loud. And write it on my blog for posterity.
An important question.

This is a typical moment in BarnhillLand. But with kids instead of cats.

How about you? What are your intentions? And what are your hopes for 2014?